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David Hines [userpic]

Wertham, comic books, and... Brown v. Bd of Ed?

November 23rd, 2005 (01:35 pm)

Quiet time intermission:

d_benway has an excerpt up from Wertham’s SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT. Fredric Wertham, for those who don’t recall, was the guy who argued that comics had a psychologically corrupting effect on children, and whose book created the environment that led to the Comics Code Authority. Among other things, he argued that Batman and Robin encouraged homosexual children to pursue their leanings, and that Wonder Woman encouraged perversion and lesbianism. Check it out.

Benway’s excerpt marks the first time I’ve actually read Wertham, which struck me as interesting. My bet is that Wertham is far more read *about* than actually read. Which is a little weird, considering the book’s historical importance to the comic community. There might be some money for some enterprising publisher in reprinting it, with good, rounded biographical notes on Wertham, as well as commentaries from psychologists, comics professionals, and historians. I know I’d like to have a copy for my bookshelf.

(If somebody listens to me: Gail Simone should be a contributor. So should Dave Sim – c’mon, don’t you want to see how a guy who actually uses the term "homosexualist" will reinterpret Wertham? And Harlan Ellison – he’ll probably contribute his boilerplate Wertham rant, but Harlan does give good rant when he’s on.)

Minor historical note: although we think of Wertham as a stodgy conservative by today’s standards, in his day he was a liberal of the “save the children” school, and his work was cited by the NAACP in Brown vs. Board of Education. I’ve read bits of the relevant documentation, and was shocked at how bad the science was; I didn’t know who designed the study at the time, and when I learned Wertham was involved with the case I wasn’t surprised.

(As I recall, a group of kids (small numbers, no control) were given the choice to play with white or black dolls; both black and white kids tended to choose white dolls, so the researchers concluded that segregation led both races to unconsciously see blacks as inferior and unworthy of attention. The problem, of course, is that there isn’t a single result that could falsify the hypothesis. If kids of both races play with black dolls, one can argue they’re subjugating and controlling black people in play. If white kids play with white dolls and black kids with black, then they’re showing that they’ve subconsciously assimilated segregation, which dictates they only play with their own kind, even symbolically... and so on. The study results were pure speculation, and did nothing to address the real psychological effects of segregation. Which is consistent with the way Wertham seemed to work, even if in this case he was on the side of the angels. The study was just horrible, horrible social science, and it’s miraculous that its inclusion didn’t do substantial damage to the NAACP’s case.)

Comments

Posted by: mystavash (mystavash)
Posted at: November 23rd, 2005 11:38 am (UTC)

I think I vaguely remember that study.

I also think I vaguely remember your bookshelves. There isn't space for anymore.

This morning (evening?) I woke up with a vague desire to write a paper about how the burgeoning popularity of anime has driven small by fan for fan companies to change their business models and successfully compete with latecomer big name companies.

Maybe it was something I ate.

Posted by: cmar_wingnut (cmar_wingnut)
Posted at: November 23rd, 2005 01:01 pm (UTC)
Silver Dollar

As a young teenager I read 'Seduction' - borrowed from the public library, no less - and I'm not sure if I was shocked exactly or just confused at that time. I do have a copy now on my bookshelf. It's an interesting read.

I read a comment somewhere (can't remember from whom, to give credit) that presumably Wertham would have preferred Bruce and Dick to live in a dump, have a butler named Joe, sit around in their underwear watching football, and not give a crap about each other's injuries or illnesses.

Anyway, that image aside... My slash-dar is as strong as (almost) anyone's and I have to say there is only one Batman story among the hundreds I've read from that time that had any real overtones of more than a father-son relationship.

However my main objection is his assumption that gayness = sick and evil, that there's something inherently wrong with gay kids finding a role model in Batman and Robin. (With the caveat that Dick was still a child then, so - yeah. Squick.) This was the fifties, but still, he was a psychiatrist and should have known better.

On the other hand, Wertham had a major point about early Wonder Woman, although he misinterpreted what was going on as lesbianism. (One wonders why he seems so fixated on homosexuality.) Don't know if you've read stories from her first several years, but - they're full of whips, chains, imprisonment, bondage, and discipline; and frequently state the idea that 'loving submission' (quote) to women is the natural and ideal condition for men. (Wondy was created by another psychiatrist. Hmmm.)

As a note - bizarrely enough, in the seventies Wertham published a book praising comic book fanzines as a healthy communication among young people. There's a fascinating article here about Wertham's history and his interaction with fanzines.

Posted by: serena kitt (no_absolutes)
Posted at: November 23rd, 2005 03:47 pm (UTC)
ghost

that fanzine thing is cool, thanks.

Posted by: Betty (brown_betty)
Posted at: November 23rd, 2005 04:48 pm (UTC)
red and green

The other interesting thing about Wertham is that he seems to object mainly to Dick adoring Bruce, without really suggesting that Bruce reciprocates. Seriously, kids should be allowed to have inappropriate crushes.

Posted by: Vvalkyri (vvalkyri)
Posted at: November 23rd, 2005 03:06 pm (UTC)

He exists!

Thanks... this was interesting.

Posted by: serena kitt (no_absolutes)
Posted at: November 23rd, 2005 03:46 pm (UTC)
dick & jason: lyrics=placebo album

hey, rock on! i just did a presentation on this in grad school. serious business, ahem. but yeah, Wertham thought that crime comics so often portrayed people of color as villains or ignorant (ignorami?) that they had an effect on kids similar to the doll study.
i wish his book were back in print. it's awful, but it means a lot. there's a new book out about him, Fredric Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture.

Posted by: captain heteroknowledgeable (notpoetry)
Posted at: November 24th, 2005 03:37 am (UTC)

I've memoried this post to refer to later -- I'm actually in the middle of a metric buttload of Wertham-related research for a full-length play I'm writing, and this is fantastic info.

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