Armagideon Time

Myopia and moral panics

February 12th, 2013

So it turns out that Freddie Wertham doctored the data he used to suggest a causal link between funnybooks and juvenile delinquency. It’s a historically fascinating relevation which further confirms what anyone who has ever tried to struggle through Seduction of the Innocent has already sussed out — namely, malady that Wertham’s entire methodology was piss-poor in the extreme.

Are you kind of fucked up (by the prevailing social standards of the early 1950s) and do you read comics (in an era where funnybooks were a integral part of every kid’s life)? Then comics are clearly the cause of your fuck-up-ed-ness! Wertham did try to pay lip service to the notion of social and economic factors, but he also knew that his audience of anxious Americans preferred their bogeymen to be simple, direct, and free of messy nuance.

I do not question Wertham’s impact on the evolutionary history of the comics industry, both in terms of content and the social stigma it has continued to carry over the decades. I am less comfortable with treating his legacy as a singular factor in itself — “the killjoy who single-handedly killed a booming industry.”

Wertham did not exist independently of history. His rise to momentary prominience came about because of a larger set of circumstances. If he hadn’t risen to the occasion, then his role would have been filled by some other alarmed fingerwagger with a public platform. The comics industry’s time in the spotlight of social approbation was destined to happen in one way or another.

Take a look at this cover of Black Cat #50.

Where else in 1954′s realm of mass media would a graphic image of a rotting face appear in plain view? Not in films. Not on TV. Not even on the peek-a-boob trade dress of pulps or men’s mags. Popular magazines of the day may have indulged in gory, B&W images of real-life necroporn, but they had the advantage of “journalistic respectability” to fall back upon. Comics, on the other hand, had the misfortune of hitting a peak of prominent luridity — while still being seen as kiddie fare — at the very moment a wider moral panic was unfolding.

The myopia of fandom has tended to treat Seduction of the Innocent as a standalone occurance, when it was actually a relatively small sideshow to broader anxieties about what “the kids” had been getting up to while the grown-ups were distracted by saving the world for democracy. “Juvenile deliquency” was the bigger issue, and comics were merely one potential (and low-hanging) cause of the phenomenon. (LIFE‘s extensive coverage of the Kefauver hearings barely touched on funnybooks, and only then as part of a wider array of areas for concern.)

Even as an obvious (and oblivious) scapegoat, comics managed to skate by official sanction by cobbling together a self-regulatory agency that effectively killed the booming crime and horror comics genres. This edict also happened to prevent EC (which had originally pushed for self-regulation) from distributing its most popular offerings, which I’m sure was just a big coincidence…as was the continued publication of Wertham-condemned characters such as Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman by CCA member National Periodical Publications.

The mythological fol de rol surrounding Wertham’s role has been paralleled whenever some article of niche culture brushes up against a prevailing panic and needs an nemesis to hang its (unrelated) troubles upon. Disco died because of Steve Dahl and homophobia, not because of market oversaturation and diminishing returns! Dungeons and Dragons was pushed back into the margins by religious zealots, not because it was a fad that happened to experience a short, exaggerated spike in popularity!

And comic sales were totally not on a downward trend following World War 2, which has only grown more pronounced as profit margins per unit shrink while a host of other entertainment options offer more perceived value per dollar.

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10 Responses to “Myopia and moral panics”

  1. sterg

    Articles like this are why you are the man.
    I slogged my way through SotI while I was working on my dissertation and boy did it seem shoddily premised to me even then. The pointed cherry-picking and convenient ignorance of facts is not surprising to me at all. Blaming comic books for juvenile delinquency then would almost be like blaming oxygen for the ruination of today’s kids. He totally caught the crest of that wave, and sadly when he changed course about the benefits of fandom and his fame was gone, no one really noticed.

    Aw well, at least the book had an insert with a bunch of the “good stuff” he was railing against…

  2. Wriphe

    I read SEDUCTION recreationally a few years ago when my mother gave it to me as a Christmas present. (She wasn’t trying to make a point. I had asked for it.) I was quite surprised that the book’s central argument — made by an “expert” — seemed to be based mostly on anecdotal and haphazardly documented evidence.

    The book makes some great points about the excessively graphic gore and violence in comics of the same era that saw footage of the very real WWII casualties withheld from the masses. However, I think it weakens its own argument with a reliance on an emotional appeal that was essentially “won’t somebody please think of the children!” I blamed the incongruity on Wertham’s desire to spread his message to laypeople, but maybe he was just a lousy scientist.

  3. damanoid

    Well, this certainly explains the folly of Wertham’s absurd fear that comics’ influence would warp kids into emotionally stunted, sexually maladapted adults. Good thing that never happened.

  4. bitterandrew

    I’ve thought that was more a symptom than a cause. Y’know, like Atlas Shrugged fans.

  5. Tony Goins

    I hate to say it, but I sometimes find myself falling into SOTI territory when I see Joker with his face cut off, doing an extended homoerotic “Se7en” riff with Batman. Batman’s in kids’ cartoons, man. He’s on Underoos.

  6. Dave White

    I’ve always thought that comics need to get over Wertham, but then again this is such a backward-looking culture that an era of profligate hackwork is thought of as “the Golden Age.”

  7. Snark Shark

    Jack Davis cover art? :D

  8. Nick

    Where else could you see such an image? The cover of Vanguard Science Fiction #1 from June 1958. An astronaut doing a space walk is caught by the rocket blast, turning every part of him above his hips into a red spray. It’s a good thing that the morals police weren’t watching science fiction.

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