Santa Maria Sun / Commentary
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 14, Issue 8
Biff! Bang! Pow!Celebrate your right to read comics by taking one--and not paying for it!
BY RYAN MILLER
It’s hard, at first, to tell exactly what’s on the wallpaper in the photo. Maybe it’s swallows, swooping in repeated patterns? Are they airplanes? Retro space ships?
Shapes resolve slowly, and then the theme becomes clear. Nothing is flying at all. Those are saddles floating amid clouds of horseshoes, gloves, riding crops, and other, more unrecognizable, horse paraphernalia. The overall effect is both whimsical and dated, revealing a children’s playroom from a bygone era, when Westerns still sent heroes in white hats galloping across 10-inch screens.
Also, in the foreground, two kids are stabbing a boy in the arm with a fountain pen. A girl is pinning one of the victim’s wrists to the floor while a boy is grasping the other and plunging the writing tool down, leaving a scribbled-looking patch of black ink on their target’s skin.
Don’t worry: They’re professional models, a caption explains, and they’re re-enacting a scene—in full color!—described by one Dr. Fredric Wertham in this 1948 edition of Collier’s Magazine. The psychiatrist said two kids jabbed another in the arm with a pen “like a hypodermic.”
The accompanying article, “Horror in the Nursery,” is an examination of juvenile delinquency, violence, and crime.
And comic books.
The good doctor explains to Collier’s readers that he didn’t set out to study comic books with an intent to discover what harm they do; rather, he wanted to take a clinical, objective look. He interviewed children at his clinic in a church basement—yeah—and worked with other doctors for two years to conclude: “So far we have determined that the effect is definitely and completely harmful.”
A bold-emphasized paragraph at the top of the article notes that some comic books “make life better by making it merrier” and that others show—“even to the dullest mind”—how crime doesn’t pay. Thus, the sources in this story are focusing their ire on titles that make violence and crime attractive.
Still, a later quote from Wertham reads: “We do not maintain that comic books automatically cause delinquency in every child reader. But we found that comic-book reading was a distinct influencing factor in the case of every single delinquent or disturbed child we studied. And that factor must be curbed as it steadily increases.”
He considers comic books to be the birthplace of then-modern violent actions, including an outbreak of boys burning girls with cigarettes, violating them, and using them for sadistic sexual experiments. He reveals a series of murders—children killing children—and robberies, opining that judges may say these are the most brutal crimes they’ve ever seen in the courtrooms, but they’re nothing compared to what’s printed in comic books intended for adults, but gobbled up by innocent child victims. Wertham cites the exact number of corpses (37!) and pools of blood (15!) you’ll see in merely the first story of one edition.
Another investigator adds: “There is also plenty of kicking and punching, and wonderfully chesty girls.”
But remember that note at the beginning about there being some positive comics out there? Dr. Wertham dismisses this later in the article: “The number of ‘good’ comics is not worth discussing.”
Even the Bible-based comics that sat on shelves at the time? Surely no moral, god-fearing U.S. citizen could object to those? Ah, but even these titles revealed scandalous images, such as David beheading Goliath.
“The story of the slingshot slaying is apparently too tame for 20th century children,” the article’s author, Judith Crist, writes, apparently forgetting that Italian painters were depicting the same scene in the 1500s and 1600s. And that the post-slingshot decapitation is from the Bible itself: 1 Samuel 17:51.
But a full-color image certainly sticks more in the mind than does a thee- and thou-laden line from a thick, gilt-edge book with no pictures. That’s why comics inspired the fear they did when they arrived on the scene. They were a new medium, a way of pairing words with illustrations to present narratives in startling ways.
Yes, they were demonized—Wertham’s studies and writing, including a book titled Seduction of the Innocent, helped prompt a congressional inquiry into comic books and the scope of their influence on American youth—and yes, admittedly, there were titles that were filled with gory, graphic, senseless, excessive material.
But there were also stories of triumph and heroics, of history and fantasy, of teamwork and individual resource. As the medium grew and developed, it attracted creators who used the brightly colored pages to cloak explorations of identity and society in tights and capes. You can find similarities to Martin Luther King and Malcolm X in Professor X and Magneto. Examinations of the media’s role in an informed society in Superman.
There is good, and there is bad. There is violence and grace, just like in the world. Since Cain first slew Abel (a story Neil Gaiman borrowed for his Sandman series, by the way), this has been a bloody place to live. But the clubs to the head—or the pens to the arm—aren’t the ends of the stories. If people choose to focus on tragedy, tragedy is what they will see.
Because there’s hope, too. And forgiveness. And an ongoing effort to make this world better despite the violence and chaos that surrounds us each day. No, it isn’t limited to the panels that fill comic books, nor did it spring from between their covers.
I write this essay this week in honor of Free Comic Book Day, which invites longtime comic fans and neophytes alike to stop in at a local shop on May 4 and pick up a title or two. For free. I’ve seen some of what’s available this year, and it ranges from The Walking Dead’s zombie storyline—not intended for children, so maybe not a good example considering the early sections of this commentary—to tales of Tinkerbelle, Archie, and other decidedly youth-friendly characters.
We’ve come a long way since the days of Dr. Wertham. TV shows, movies, video games, mass media itself, and social networking have all taken their turn in the hot seat when it comes to fearful parents seeking to blame someone for society’s ills. But it really comes down to being aware of what you read and take in, of what your children read and take in, and choosing to focus on the stories you feel will best help to tell the story of this world and the people who are in it.
And then talk about them.
Executive Editor Ryan Miller reads comics. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.