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Seduction of the Innocent

Seduction of the Innocent

In 1948, Dr. Fredric Wertham, a respected New York psychiatrist, began a campaign against comic books. Wertham, the author of two books on the causes of violence, argued in Collier's and the Saturday Review of Literature that comic books, particularly crime comics, corrupted young minds and contributed to juvenile delinquency. His conclusions were based on his work with juvenile delinquents, who reported that comics showed them how to commit crimes, and on his examination of the violence and sex depicted in comics. Wertham's work on the subject culminated in his 1954 book, Seduction of the Innocent. The campaign he spearheaded led to the formation of many committees against comics—mass burnings of comics, Senate hearings, and the formation of the Comics Code Authority (CCA). Wertham and his book would remain for decades after notorious among comic-book fans and professionals, and the word "Werthamite" would come to mean "censor."

In the 1940s, comic books were a popular form of entertainment for both children and adults. The adult readership was particularly important after World War II since many men took up reading comics in the service, largely because the slim magazines could be read quickly and carried easily rolled-up in a pocket. Perhaps to appeal to these older readers, comic-book publishers introduced dozens of crime and horror titles after the war, which often depicted gruesome acts of cruelty.

In Seduction of the Innocent, Wertham wrote, "the most subtle and pervading effect of crime comics on children can be summarized in a single phrase: moral disarmament." In crime comics, he argued, the reader is often asked to identify with a criminal on the run from the law. Even though the criminal is usually captured or killed at the story's end, the stories romanticize a violent and immoral life outside the law. The outlaw protagonist "lives like a hero until the very end, and even then he often dies like a hero, in a burst of gun fire and violence."

Wertham did not find the "good guys" of comic books to be any more wholesome. Superman, for example, seemed to embody the fascist idea of a master race that got its way by force: "The superman conceit gives boys and girls the feeling that ruthless go-getting based on physical strength or the power of weapons or machines is the desirable way to behave." Batman and Wonder Woman, Wertham argued, promoted homosexuality because they had child sidekicks of the same gender. He described the home-life of Batman and Robin as "a wish dream of two homosexuals living together." Wonder Woman represented "the cruel, 'phallic' woman," a poor role model for girls because she emphasized power and independence rather than nuturance. Wertham also discovered sadomasochism and other variant sexualities in crime and adventure comics. He titled one of his chapters after a young patient's exclamation, "I want to be a sex maniac!"

Stirred by the outcry against comics that Wertham's charges created, the U. S. Senate put the comics industry on trial. In 1950, a Senate subcommittee chaired by Estes Kefauver found no evidence that linked crime comics to juvenile delinquency. Undaunted, Wertham and others continued to agitate for further government inquiry. In 1954 the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency investigated comics again. The committee's verdict was that comics needed to be cleaned up and that the comic-book industry should police itself. Publishers were already moving in that direction. Fearing government censorship, many of the leading comic-book publishers formed the Association of Comics Magazine Publishers in 1948 to establish standards of decency for their publications. Because their efforts at self-censorship were ineffective and failed to convince their critics, these publishers created the Comics Code Authority, an independent board, to evaluate every story before publication. For decades after, most comic books sold in the United States bore a CCA stamp of approval on their covers.

One lasting effect of this era is that by the end of the twentieth century comics were still considered by most Americans to be children's entertainment and to be incapable of conveying substantial artistic content. While countries such as Italy, France, and Japan have developed sophisticated varieties of comics for adult readers, American comics have remained marginalized. The attitude that comics are "bad for you," the intellectual equivalent of junk food, has continued to linger.

—Christian L. Pyle

Further Reading:

Barker, Martin. A Haunt of Fears: The Strange History of the British Horror Comics Campaign. London, Pluto Press, 1984.

Benton, Mike. Crime Comics: The Illustrated History. Dallas, Taylor Publishing, 1993.

Gilbert, James. A Cycle of Outrage: America's Reaction to the Juvenile Delinquent in the 1950s. New York, Oxford University Press, 1986.

Wertham, Fredric. Seduction of the Innocent. New York, Rinehart, 1954.

West, Mark I. Children, Culture, and Controversy. Hamden, Connecticut, Archon Books, 1988.

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