Seduction of the Innocent
First edition cover
|Publisher||Rinehart & Company|
Seduction of the Innocent is a book by German-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, and was a minor bestseller that created alarm in 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.
Content and themes
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. Wertham also claimed that Superman was both un-American and a fascist.
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 sardonic 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 Batman's and Robin's perceived homosexual subtexts 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.
The fame of Seduction of the Innocent added to Wertham's previous celebrity as an expert witness and made him an obvious choice to appear before the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency led by anti-crime crusader Estes Kefauver. In extensive testimony before the committee, Wertham restated arguments from his book and pointed to comics as a major cause of juvenile crime. The committee's questioning of their next witness, EC publisher William Gaines, focused on violent scenes of the type Wertham had decried. Though the committee's final report did not blame comics for crime, it recommended that the comics industry tone down its content voluntarily. Possibly taking this as a veiled threat of potential censorship, publishers developed the Comics Code Authority to censor their own content. The new code not only banned violent images, but entire words and concepts (e.g. "terror" and "zombies"), and dictated that criminals must always be punished. This destroyed most EC-style titles, leaving a sanitized subset of superhero comics as the chief remaining genre. Wertham nevertheless considered the Comics Code inadequate to protect youth.
Among comic-book collectors any comic book with a story or panel referred to in Seduction of the Innocent is known as a "Seduction issue", and is usually more valued than other issues in the same run of a title. Seduction of the Innocent is one of the few non-illustrative works to be listed in the Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide as a collectible in its own right.
Falsified information and criticism
Wertham "manipulated, overstated, compromised, and fabricated evidence" in support of the contentions expressed in Seduction of the Innocent. He intentionally mis-projected 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 as rhetorical ammunition 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. Conclusions drawn from flawed sample populations cannot be extrapolated to society at large, leading to sampling error.
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 that Wertham misrepresented the testimony of young men. He combined two subjects' statements into one, and 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 chose to give greater weight to the readership of Batman. Wertham also presented as first-hand stories that he could have only heard through colleagues.
His descriptions of comic content were frequently misleading, either by exaggeration or elision. He mentions a "headless man" in Captain Marvel while the comic only shows Captain Marvel's face splashed with an invisibility potion, not a decapitated figure. He exaggerated a thirteen-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.
Adherence to Wertham's views 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 passed the "fr:Loi du 16 juillet 1949 sur les publications destinées à la jeunesse" ("Law of July 16th 1949 on the publications aimed at the youth"). As late as 1969, the law was invoked to prohibit the comic magazine fr:Fantask, which feature 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 "fr:Commission de surveillance et de contrôle des publications destinées à l'enfance et à l'adolescence", translated as, "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 onward 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, which states that "provisions for the protection of young persons" should be taken. The agency caused a reaction in Germany not unlike that of Wertham's book in the US. The German comics industry instituted in 1955 the "Freiwillige Selbstkontrolle für Serienbilder" ("Voluntary Self-control for Comics").
Dutch Minister of Education Theo Rutten published a latter 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 proceed in a legal manner against printers, publishers or distributors of these novels, nor can anything be achieved by not making paper available to them, since this for those publications necessary paper, is available on the free market," further implying that it became the civil duty of parents, teachers and civil servants, including policemen, to confiscate and destroy comic books wherever they found them. Less than a month later, a 16-year old girl was murdered in a bizarre manner on November 19 in the small town of Enkhuizen by her 15-year old boyfriend, who had tied her down to railroad tracks where she was killed by a passing train. The police subsequently uncovered that both had been readers of comic books of the kind that were in concordance with Rutten's definition. Comic-book burnings ensued around the country, nearly destroying the comic phenomenon in the Netherlands, which had only just begun recovering from the war years. All comic publications were suspended and public libraries removing and destroying any comic books they might have had in their collections. Exceptions were made for a small number of comic productions from the Toonder studio, which included the literary comic strip Tom Poes.
- as notably seen in Jack Cole's "Murder, Morphine and Me" which appeared in True Crime Comics Vol.1 #2 in May 1947.
- Wertham, Fredric (1954) Seduction of the Innocent., pp. 192, 234–235, Rinehart & Company, Inc.
- Carol L. Tilley. (2012). Seducing the Innocent: Fredric Wertham and the Falsifications that Helped Condemn Comics. Information & Culture: A Journal of History. 47 (4), 383–413.
- Seduction of the Insolent by A. David Lewis
- Brooker, Will (2000) Batman Unmasked: Analyzing a Cultural Icon, Continuum Publishing Group, p. 125
- Heer, Jeet. "The caped crusader: Frederic Wertham and the campaign against comic books". Slate. Retrieved 6 March 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 2012, pp. 403–5.
- Tilley 2012, p. 392.
- Tilley 2012, pp. 393–5.
- Tilley 2012, p. 396.
- Tilley 2012, p. 397.
- 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.
- Carol L. Tilley. (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
- 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