Happy May Day!
by BK Munn
I’m having a bit of a worker’s holiday today. I was working on a double review, comparing the politics of Otto Soglow and The Little King to Ernie Bushmiller and Nancy and Sluggo, but as deadline loomed and my eyelids started to droop, I said fuck it, I’m taking the day off instead. A sort of Sequential strike in solidarity with all the folks working in comics under the work-for-hire system, I guess, not to mention the various Occupy actions going on today. (Check out Occupy Indie Comics here, Susie Cagle here and here, and Occuprint posters here.)
Herewith, a few quotes and notes from Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent, tangentially related to my theme.
Wertham on Bushmiller on comic books:
E. Bushmiller (“Nancy”) told the San Diego County Women’s Clubs, “I wish you would differentiate between the newspaper comics and the comic books. Most newspaper comics are wholesome, but a large percentage of the comic books are cheap junk and just turned out for a quick sale.”
Wertham on child labour: how Sluggo survives
The history of medicine records a controversy about whether young children who have to do industrial work at night need sunlight for their health. It is not yet a hundred years since a physician had to defend in detail that sunlight is good for the immature organism, and that at least part of the day children should have sunlight in order to remain healthy. He was in just such direct contradiction to the employers who made these children work long hours at night as I am to the comic-book publishers. Similar arguments took place on the question of whether children need regular meals, sleep, how old they should be for heavy work and how many hours they should work. Nowadays the intellectuals are just as anxious to guard the freedom of children to read crime comics. In those days, as Lord Elton writes, they were eager to preserve the liberty of children of six to work eleven hours in the mines.” Then they used to quote Bentham; now they quote Freud.
Wertham on stunted growth and delinquency: reading Seduction, it becomes fairly obvious Sluggo must read tons of crime comics.
One is apt to forget that besides delinquent and emotionally disturbed children there are many children who are just plain unhappy. That is particularly true of adolescents. If you gain their confidence and give them a chance to talk to you under suitable circumstances you will find that one of their most frequent and serious worries has to do with the growth of their bodies […] No better method could be evolved to cause such worries or to aggravate them than the advertising in childrens’ comic books. I understand that there are advertising associations or advertising councils interested in keeping products advertised, as well as the manner of their advertising, on an ethical level. If that is true,they must have looked the other way with regard to the stupendous amount of advertising in comic books. Inany case, they “raised no cry.” Advertising is, or could be – quite apart from its selling aspect – a wholesome educational influence. That in comic books is not only anti-educational, but has done untold harm to children from the point of view of public health and mental hygiene, not to speak of common human decency.
Wertham on child homosexual prostitution: I’m sure this doesn’t apply to Sluggo since Sluggo rarely goes to school.
Homosexual childhood prostitution, especially in boys, is often associated with stealing and with violence.For all these activities children are softened up by comic books. Their super-ego formation with regard to sex is interfered with in a subtle way: everything is permitted to men in comic books and there is constant sex stimulation. Charles was studied at the Quaker Emergency Service Readjustment Center. At the age of twelve he engaged in regular prostitution. He did not play hookey, but followed this occupation after school hours. He said, “I meet the men in office places or places of business. They give me a dollar or fifty cents. I wondered how they’d be so generous. Some men are about thirty-five.” The outstanding feature in this boy’s examination was his moral confusion. Comic books contributed to this. “I usually read comic books, Gangbusters or True Comics, about ten or fifteen a week, about two a day. I trade them.”
Wertham on comics criticism: I want to say that the situation has remained unchanged, but really,comics (and my life!) has been enriched by some great criticism over the past two decades, including Bart Beaty’s critical biography of Wertham.
Every medium of artistic and literary expression has developed professional critics: painting, sculpture,drama, the novel, the detective story, the seven lively arts, musical recordings, television, children’s books.The fact that comic books have grown to some ninety millions a month without developing such critics is one more indication that this industry functions in a cultural vacuum. Literary critics evidently thought that these accumulations of bad pictures and bad drawing were beneath critical notice. I have convinced myself often that they were ignorant of the material itself unless it was brought home to them in their own families.One literary critic had been very permissive about comic books and had not included them in his other excellent critiques of life and literature. He changed his mind one evening when after reprimanding hischildren, aged seven and five, he overheard the older saying to the younger: “Don’t worry. In the morning Ikill both of them!”There have been other excellent critics, but they came later. Marya Mannes has expressed her opiniontersely: “Comic books kill dreams.” She discerned the monopoly position comic books had obtained amongthe educationally less privileged: “In one out of three American homes, comic books are virtually the onlyreading matter.” John Mason Brown had this to say: “The comic books as they are now perpetually on tapseem to me to be not only trash but the lowest, most despicable and most harmful and unethical form of trash.” When heckled by a comic-book publisher about what his own children think of his opinion, he made the classical reply: “They have been so corrupted by you that they love them.”The closest critics of the poison tree should be the parents. Gilbert Seldes has correctly seen as a key problem of comic books “the paralysis of the parents.” In his recent book The Great Audience he says: “. . unlike the other mass media, comics have almost no esthetic interest.” (I would question his “almost.”) After quoting testimony that connects comic books with delinquency and evidence of their brutality and unwholesomeness he goes on: “Most of these outcries represent the attitudes of parents searching for a way to cope with a powerful business enterprise which they consider positively evil. . . . The liberal-minded citizen dislikes coercive action, tries to escape from corruption privately, and discovers that his neighbor, his community, are affected. . . . Year after year Dr. Fredric Wertham brings forth panels showing new ugliness and sadistic atrocities; year after year his testimony is brushed aside as extravagant and out-of-date. The paralysis of the parent is almost complete.”What causes this paralysis of parents? I do not think it is a real paralysis; it is helplessness. The vast majority of mothers have been outraged when they read the crime comic books their children read.