Saturday, May 10, 2008

By the way; Fredric Wertham is still Wrong

Author David Hajdu has just written a book about Fredric Wertham’s comicbook boogieman tome, The Seduction of the Innocent. Hajdu book The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America examines this era of censorship in America’s comicbook history. I haven’t read the book, but — as a reader since 1961 or thereabouts of comics, I have something of an opinion on both Wertham, and his attack on my beloved industry.

Recently the CAG-Yahoo group (login required) has been having a running thread about Hajdu’s book, and the relative merits of Wertham’s (so called) research and social actions outside of comics. Well, I really don’t know much of Wertham outside of his impact on comics, and — quite frankly — I don’t care. His research was faulty, his theory was flawed, and his conclusions were both pre-determined and shoddy. I recently made this point in an editorial in Psychosis! #2. While I would urge you all to log onto Midtown Comics and purchase a copy, I will reprint that editorial here:

Fredric Wertham Was Wrong!

Wertham, as anyone in this industry can tell you — was the great boogieman who very nearly buried the industry before many of you who are reading this were born. It was his 1954 book, Seduction of the Innocent, which linked comicbooks as a casual effect of juvenile delinquency. (As an unavoidable aside, the term “juvenile delinquent” itself, is not only contrived, but something of a misnomer, for if a juvenile is a youngster who is — by virtue of their age — devoid of adult duties and responsibilities, how can they then be delinquent in fulfilling those non-extant responsibilities?)

However, I — as they say — digress.

We were talking about Wertham. Let me state here an dnow that his theory was flawed, his logic was suspect, his so-called research was haphazard at best, and his conclusions were, well, flat out wrong. Wertham saw what he felt was (legitimately) a problem — the aforementioned issue of delinquent youths. He found what he thought was a commonality in their behavior patterns (that they all apparently read comicbooks). He then determined that this coincidence of commonality was the cause (rather than merely incidental to the problem itself). For whatever reason, he felt that comics could hold a greater sway over these children than say, their socioeconomic status, parenting, peer pressure, or any one of a hundred other outside, real-world influences. Finally, he set out to prove his point by using completely circumstantial, entirely peripheral, and totally anecdotal information.

To the point, antisocial youths of the day had a tendency to read comics, hence it was obvious (to Wertham) that it was the comics themselves that were causing the antisocial behavior. Sort of like saying that since people who have illicit sexual relations tend to utilize hotels and motels as their preferred meeting place; and since all hotels and motels have a copy of Gideon’s Bible in the nightstand, it is thus a direct line of thinking that all illicit affairs are caused by the presence of a Bible.

Seriously, Wertham could have just as easily fixated on baseball, the fact that many kids of the day combed their hair into DAs or wore chinos, as his anti-social catalyst, but no, he chose comicbooks. Over the intervening years this same bad behavior has been blamed on TV, Rock and Roll, videogames, pornography, and, of course, the Internet — among other things. This could just be me, but I’m inclined to believe that since the behavior has essentially remained the same, but the “cause” keeps changing, perhaps there is a wholly different cause. One that has been there all along and all the rest of these items are merely Pop Culture incidentals rather than the evil catalysts they are made out to be by those looking to cast balme.

Let’s set the record straight. Comicbooks simply don’t cause violent behavior; how do I know? Well, I’ve been reading them since 1961 and have always considered myself a pacifist, preferring to talk, rather than fight, my way out of confrontational situations — probably why I became a writer and have never really liked full contact sports. Also, when was the last time you heard of a gang of funnybook geeks leaving their favorite comicbook shop on a Wednesday when comics are delivered, all hyped up on the new X-Men or Teen Titans then go out, slip a cheerleader a roofie, and gang rape her? Alternatively, consider a group of fans leaving a comicbook convention and then wilding in the streets, torching storefronts and overturning cars.

Hell, when was the first time you heard either of those incidents occurring? No, those types of episodes are more the purview of sport, not comicbook fans, but still we’re the ones who get the bad rap.

In April of 2007, a student on the campus of Virginia Tech shot 32 people to death, and wounded many others. When news of this horrendous incident broke, my story, Ghost Writer, was already written and in the process of being drawn for Psychosis! #2. As news of the tragedy riptide its way through the news media I contacted GWP Creative Director, Mark Mazz, to discuss how, if at all, we were going to react to the shooting. After some discussion we decided to allow the story to see print because not only were we so not trying to play off that incident, but we felt there was something else going on in the story that made it viable as a stand-alone work of art. (Mark also reminded me that a few years back, after a parallel tragedy DC Comics pulled a similarly themed story from print).

As stated at the top of this piece, we don’t believe that reading comics causes violence. We also don’t believe that by publishing this (or other) violent-themed stories we are being either controversial, or provocative. We feel that we are simply telling stories. More to the point, Ghost Writer is essentially a stripped-down and retooled version of a short story that I originally wrote in High School (circa 1970-ish). Further, this version was conceived and penned in 2006 — well before the VT shootings.

On a personal note; while I tried (and believe, succeeded) in keeping my own views out of the story, I couldn’t help but to notice something interesting. In the wake of the tragedy the conservative Right was quick to condemn the Left for attempting to leverage the shootings into a discussion about gun control (a discussion that is way past overdue in this country) all the while attempting to use it themselves to advance their own agenda. Then, of course there were the TV pundits who were attempting to “blame” everything on videogames. (Which the shooter’s roommate quickly pointed out that he never played) or hang it all on the violent stories that the shooter had written. (Incidentally, if this second theory held any water it would absolutely make Stephen King the most violent mass serial killer the world has ever seen).

So — once again — it is not necessarily the mere playing of violent-themed videogames, or the reading or writing of violent stories that makes one violent, as much as it is that people with the propensity for violent type behavior tend to gravitate towards those forms of entertainment. (Sort of like people with outdoorsy personalities tend to gravitate to lifestyles that bring them into contact with the outdoors, and similar forms of entertainment.)

We are not rabble-rousers attempting to incite an angry crowd to riot. Nor are we gun manufacturers who develop hi-tech weapons of increasingly deadly destruction who then disassociate ourselves from the consequences of the products we manufacture. We are storytellers, plain and simple. We are here — first and foremost — to feed our own muse. If, along the way, we manage to entertain you, all the better. Still, in a world where we are told to put the needs of others first; this one thing (and perhaps, only, this one thing) is truly all about us.

Oh yeah, in case I forgot to mention it, Fredric Wertham was (and still is) wrong. Completely and totally wrong. Violent people will be violent no matter what they read, and if we were truly honest with ourselves, we would acknowledge that the Bible, is probably one of the most violent books ever written.

The above article is © 2008 Freelance Ink, it was originally printed in Psychosis! #2, Guild Works Productions, October, 2007.


Diane said...

Please check your facts. 2 VT students were murdered at 0700. Another 57 Hokies were trapped & gunned down 3 hours later, 30 of who were slain. 32 were murdered & 27 injured, many critically.

VT had the time (2+ hours) & technology to notify, but chose not to. Pres $teger was fretting over the upcoming party for the $1 Billion fund-raiser. Obviously, big money trumps campus safety. Go Hokies.

Tommy said...

Something I've noticed with the groups that target certain games is that they go for the mainstream ones.

As it were, there are games where you team up with demons, fight fallen angels, the grim reaper, chuck cross boomerangs as a sub-weapon, and so forth.

And some are pretty expensive to get too, as that they are more catered to hardcore gamers, usually coming with some nifty extras like music cds.

I love these games, but going by what some groups target, well...heh.

You can read about one of the series at this link (if curious):

and the other one is called Castlevania, which isn't quite as niche in the marketplace, but it revolves around fighting Dracula over the course of history.

Robert J. Sodaro said...

Diane, thanks for correcting me on the number of students killed (I inadvertently transposed the numbers). I’ve made the proper correction in the body of my article.