Seduction of the Innocent
First edition cover
|Publisher||Rinehart & Company|
|April 19, 1954|
Seduction of the Innocent is a book by American psychiatrist Fredric Wertham, published in 1954, that warned that comic books were a negative form of popular literature and a serious cause of juvenile delinquency. The book was taken seriously at the time in the United States, and was a minor bestseller that created alarm in American parents and galvanized them to campaign for censorship. At the same time, a U.S. Congressional inquiry was launched into the comic book industry. Subsequent to the publication of Seduction of the Innocent, the Comics Code Authority was voluntarily established by publishers to self-censor their titles. In the decades since the book's publication, Wertham's research has been disputed by scholars.
Overview and arguments
Seduction of the Innocent cited overt or covert depictions of violence, sex, drug use, and other adult fare within "crime comics" – a term Wertham used to describe not only the popular gangster/murder-oriented titles of the time, but superhero and horror comics as well. The book asserted that reading this material encouraged similar behavior in children.
Comics, especially the crime/horror titles pioneered by EC, were not lacking in gruesome images; Wertham reproduced these extensively, pointing out what he saw as recurring morbid themes such as "injury to the eye". Many of his other conjectures, particularly about hidden sexual themes (e.g. images of female nudity concealed in drawings or Batman and Robin as gay partners), met with derision within the comics industry. Wertham's claim that Wonder Woman had a bondage subtext was somewhat better documented, as her creator William Moulton Marston had admitted as much; however, Wertham also claimed Wonder Woman's strength and independence made her a lesbian. At this time homosexuality was still viewed as a mental disorder by society; it was even still officially classified as such by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Wertham also claimed that Superman was both un-American and fascistic.
Wertham critiqued the commercial environment of comic book publishing and retailing, objecting to air rifles and knives advertised alongside violent stories. Wertham sympathized with retailers who did not want to sell horror comics, yet were compelled to by their distributors' table d'hôte product line policies.
Seduction of the Innocent was illustrated with comic-book panels offered as evidence, each accompanied by a line of Wertham's commentary. The first printing contained a bibliography listing the comic book publishers cited, but fears of lawsuits compelled the publisher to tear the bibliography page from any copies available, so copies with an intact bibliography are rare. Early complete editions of Seduction of the Innocent often sell for high figures among book and comic book collectors.
Beginning in 1948, Wertham wrote and spoke widely, arguing about the detrimental effects that comics reading had on young people. Consequently, Seduction of the Innocent serves as a culminating expression of his sentiments about comics and presents augmented examples and arguments, rather than wholly new material. Wertham's concerns were not limited to comics' impact on boys: He also expressed a concern for the effect of impossibly proportioned female characters on girl readers. A. David Lewis writes that Wertham's anxiety over the perceived homosexual subtext of Batman and Robin was aimed at the welfare of a child introduced to that sort of family unit, not on some inherent immorality of homosexuality. Will Brooker also points out in Batman Unmasked: Analyzing a Cultural Icon that Wertham's notorious reading of Batman and Robin as a homosexual couple was not of his own invention, but was suggested to him by homosexual males whom he interviewed.
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Seduction of the Innocent caught the attention of Senator Estes Kefauver. Kefauver had a reputation as a mob hunter, and it was a known fact that the mob had strong connections with the distribution of comics and magazines. He saw Wertham's agenda as a tool he could use against the organized crime within the industry. As a platform from where he could spread his message more efficiently, Wertham appeared before the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency. In testimony before the committee, he made claims like how the comic-book industry was more dangerous for children than even Hitler ever was. The hearing was also broadcast on television, which was quickly becoming a new mass medium, and made other media join in. It made headlines on the New York Times' front page. Even if the government didn't act beyond the hearing, and Kefauver lost interest in comics after he was selected as a presidential candidate, the public damage was already done. The hearing was in April, and the same summer 15 publishers went out of business. At EC Comics, Mad magazine was the only surviving title.
The committee's questioning of their next witness, EC publisher William Gaines, focused on violent scenes of the type Wertham had described. Although the committee's final report did not blame comics for crime, it recommended that the comics industry tone down its content voluntarily. Publishers then developed the self-censorship body the Comics Code Authority.
According to a 2012 study by Carol L. Tilley, Wertham "manipulated, overstated, compromised, and fabricated evidence" in support of the contentions expressed in Seduction of the Innocent. He misprojected both the sample size and substance of his research, making it out to be more objective and less anecdotal than it truly was. He generally did not adhere to standards worthy of scientific research, instead using questionable evidence for his argument that comics were a cultural failure.
Wertham used New York City adolescents from troubled backgrounds with previous evidence of behavior disorders as his primary sample population. For instance, he used children at the Lafargue Clinic to argue that comics disturbed young people, but according to a staff member's calculation seventy percent of children under the age of sixteen at the clinic had diagnoses of behavior problems. He also used children with more severe psychiatric disorders which required hospitalization at Bellevue Hospital Center, Kings County Hospital Center, or Queens General Hospital.
Statements from Wertham's subjects were sometimes altered, combined, or excerpted so as to be misleading. Relevant personal experience was sometimes left unmentioned. For instance, in arguing that the Batman comics condoned homosexuality because of the relationship between Batman and his sidekick Robin, there is evidence Wertham combined two subjects' statements into one, and did not mention the two subjects had been in a homosexual relationship for years prior. He failed to inform readers that a subject had been recently sodomized. Despite subjects specifically noting a preference for or the superior relevance of other comics, he gave greater weight to their reading Batman. Wertham also presented as firsthand stories that he could have only heard through colleagues.
His descriptions of comic content were sometimes misleading, either by exaggeration or elision. He mentions a "headless man" in an issue of Captain Marvel while the comic only shows Captain Marvel's face splashed with an invisibility potion, not a decapitated figure. He exaggerated a 13-year-old girl's report of stealing in a comic from "sometimes" to "often". He compared the Blue Beetle to a Kafkaesque nightmare, failing to mention that the Blue Beetle is a man and not an insect.
In other countries
While it had been the US comic industry itself that imposed self-censorship in the form of the Comics Code Authority, France had already passed the Loi du 16 juillet 1949 sur les publications destinées à la jeunesse (Law of July 16, 1949 on Publications Aimed at Youth) in response to the post-liberation influx of American comics. As late as 1969, the law was invoked to prohibit the comic magazine Fantask —which featured translated versions of Marvel Comics stories — after seven issues. The government agency charged with upholding the law, particularly in the 1950s and the first half of the 1960s, was called the Commission de surveillance et de contrôle des publications destinées à l'enfance et à l'adolescence (Committee in Charge of Surveillance and Control over Publications Aimed at Children and Adolescents). After the May 1968 social upheaval in France, key comics artists, including Jean Giraud, staged a revolt in the editorial offices of the comic magazine Pilote, demanding and ultimately receiving more creative freedom from editor-in-chief René Goscinny.
West Germany from 1954 had the Bundesprüfstelle für jugendgefährdende Medien (Federal Department for Media Harmful to Young Persons), a government agency intended to weed out publications, including comics, considered unhealthy for German youth. This agency came about because of the "Gesetz über die Verbreitung jugendgefährdender Schriften" law passed on June 9, 1953, itself resulting from the "provisions for the protection of young persons" clause in Article 5 of the German constitution, regulating freedom of expression. The German comics industry in 1955 instituted the Freiwillige Selbstkontrolle für Serienbilder (Voluntary Self-Control for Comics).
Dutch Minister of Education Theo Rutten of the Catholic People's Party published a letter in the October 25, 1948, issue of the newspaper Het Parool directly addressing educational institutions and local government bodies, advocating the prohibition of comics. He stated, "These booklets, which contain a series of illustrations with accompanying text, are generally sensational in character, without any other value. It is not possible to act against the printers, publishers or distributors of these novels, nor can anything be achieved by not making paper available to them, as the necessary paper is available on the free market". Exceptions were made for a small number of "healthy" comic productions from the Toonder studio, which included the literary comic strip Tom Poes.
- as seen in Jack Cole's "Murder, Morphine and Me" in True Crime Comics #2 (May 1947)
- Wertham, Fredric (1954). Seduction of the Innocent. Rinehart & Company. pp. 192, 234–235.
- From Chapter 2:
The Superman type of comic books tends to force and super-force. Dr. Paul A. Witty, professor of education at Northwestern University, has well described these comics when he said that they "present our world in a kind of Fascist setting of violence and hate and destruction. I think it is bad for children," he goes on, "to get that kind of recurring diet ... [they] place too much emphasis on a Fascist society. Therefore the democratic ideals that we should seek are likely to be overlooked."
Actually, Superman (with the big S on his uniform — we should, I suppose, be thankful that it is not an SS) needs an endless stream of ever new submen, criminals and "foreign-looking" people not only to justify his existence but even to make it possible.
- Tilley, Carol L. (2012). "Seducing the Innocent: Fredric Wertham and the Falsifications that Helped Condemn Comics". Information & Culture: A Journal of History. 47 (4): 383–413. doi:10.1353/lac.2012.0024. (subscription required)
- Lewis, A. David (January 2003). "Seduction of the Insolent". SequentialTart.com. Archived from the original on June 18, 2017. Retrieved May 27, 2017. Additional May 27, 2017.
- Brooker, Will (2000) Batman Unmasked: Analyzing a Cultural Icon, Continuum Publishing Group, p. 125
- The insane history of how American paranoia ruined and censored comic books - Vox
- Heer, Jeet (April 4, 2008). "The Caped Crusader: Frederic Wertham and the Campaign Against Comic Books". Slate. Archived from the original on May 27, 2017. Retrieved March 6, 2013.
Still, Hajdu is right to point out that Wertham's ideas of proof were extremely primitive, more forensic than scientific. (Wertham had often testified in court cases, which skewed his sense of evidence.) Wertham thought he could prove his point by stringing together many anecdotes collected from his clinical research, making his claims virtually unverifiable.
- Tilley, pp. 403–405.
- Tilley, p. 392.
- Tilley, pp. 393–395.
- Tilley, p. 396.
- Tilley, p. 397.
- Morales, Thomas (February 22, 2015). "La BD fait sa révolution / Comics make their revolution". Causeur.fr (in French). France. Archived from the original on May 9, 2017. Retrieved May 27, 2017.
- Bundesprüfstelle für jugendgefährdende Medien (official site) (in German). Retrieved on May 27, 2017. Archived from the original on February 8, 2017.
- "Zensur: Im Visier der Moralwächter (Teil 1) / Censorship : In the Sight of the Moral Guardians (Part 1)" (in German). Germany: Xoomic.de. 2002. Archived from the original on August 28, 2016. Retrieved May 27, 2017.
- Welsink, Dick (2012). "'Als u mij wilt verschonen' / 'If you will excuse me': Marten Toonder (1912-2005)". Nieuw Letterkundig Magazijn / New Literary Magazine (in Dutch). Netherlands. p. 38. Archived from the original on June 30, 2016. Retrieved May 27, 2017.
‘Deze boekjes, die een samenhangende reeks tekeningen met een begeleidende tekst bevatten, zijn over het algemeen van sensationeel karakter zonder enige andere waarde. Het is niet mogelijk tegen de drukkers, uitgevers of verspreiders van deze romans strafrechtelijk op te treden, terwijl evenmin iets kan worden bereikt door geen papier beschikbaar te stellen aangezien het voor deze uitgaven benodigde papier op de vrije markt verkrijgbaar is.
- "Dutch Comics After World War II". Lambiek Comiclopedia. Archived from the original on September 15, 2016. Retrieved May 27, 2017.
- Beaty, Bart (2005). Fredric Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture. University Press of Mississippi, ISBN 1-57806-819-3.
- Nyberg, Ami Kiste (1998). Seal of Approval: The History of the Comics Code, University Press of Mississippi, ISBN 0-87805-975-X.
- Warshow, Robert S. Commentary (June 1954). "The Study of Man: Paul, the Horror Comics, and Dr. Wertham"
- Wright, Bradford W. (2001). Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America, Johns Hopkins University Press, ISBN 0-8018-7450-5.
- Text of Seduction of the Innocent online, but with different images
- The bibliography from Seduction of the Innocent