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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Tuesday, July 8, 2008


In addition to maligning the defenders of Golden Age comics, Beaty also takes issue with many of the media-effects czars who failed to give W. his due. Beaty invalidates media-effects scholars Lowery and deFleur because they complained that W. failed to supply "systematic evidence" in SOTI, with which estimation I agree. Beaty objects that "these comments failed to acknowledge the fact that SOTI was in no way presented as a volume that adhered to generally accepted scientific reporting methods" (pp. 195-96). Yet on page 199 Beaty slams comics-fan critics of Wertham by saying that their criticisms were "not on the level of rigorous scientific rebuttal." The question then becomes: If W. crafted a layman's work on the topic of science, but included no documentation of his procedures and findings because of the work's popularizing nature, how could comics-fans critique it scientifically? How could anyone critique scientific findings that are not there? "You fans will just have to take my word for it: my patients done told me all this jazz."

(Side-note: given how vocal the good doctor was with respect to his distaste for "crime comic books," one has to wonder how many of his psychiatric charges might have been astute enough to guess the doctor's feelings on the subject, and might have tailored their conversations accordingly. I recollect no incidents in the entirety of SOTI where any child gives a positive testimony on comic books, except in instances where Doc W. could twist the testimony into something sinister.)

I might not dismiss W.'s clinical method out of hand as Beaty claims many scholars did, but clearly, any such analysis would have to satisfy two demands necessary to scientific investigation: (1) the results of one researcher must be reproducible by other researchers, and (2) the results should be arrived at without intrusive preconceptions.

Clearly no other researcher can duplicate W.'s findings given the lack of hard data as to how he arrived at said findings. Indeed, whatever one thinks of the "confidentiality" defense, it provides no excuse for the egregious lack of data regarding the comics themselves, such as issue numbers and dates of publication. For instance, Wertham refers to a comic entitled "Jungle Girl," which he condemns with his usual overkill. But if he had not happened to mention the name of the protagonist in a quoted line of dialogue, one could not have been certain that he was referring to an issue of Fawcett's NYOKA THE JUNGLE GIRL. And this is just one example among dozens where Wertham, whom Beaty extolls for having at least considered comics important enough to write about, couldn't be bothered to name dates or titles so that others might check his data.

As for preconceptions, Beaty may not agree that a scientist should not have them given his defenses of W. on the basis of the doctor's liberal passions. But ironically some of Beaty's attempts to prove W.'s insight may prove to be the most valuable aspect of the book. Intentionally or otherwise, Beaty shows readers how utterly intransigent W. was on the matter of exposing children to any level of violence, be it the outrageously-gross scenes of the EC horror books or the far milder conflicts of Superman and Nyoka.

Beaty, of course, means a statement like the following as complimentary: "For Wertham, good literature and art obviously did not need to contain violence, and when it did contain violence, it should be circumspect." However, none of FW's quotes from Wertham go toward proving that this distaste for shown violence is anything more than a personal preference, as is seen by some of the clearly-artistic works that made W.'s shit-list: films like THE DEVILS and THE AMERICANIZATION OF EMILY, the poetry of Rilke and the philosophy of Nietzsche (which last I doubt W. understood in the least). What Beaty ends up doing with such citations is proving that W. was not only intransigent but unwilling or unable to see his personal tastes as less than objective in nature. This is demonstrated whenever Beaty quotes Wertham as having compared violent fictional scenes and their effects to the influence of tuberculosis bacilli. For W., the effects of fictive violence were as objectively real as those of the germs, which is nonsense just by virtue of the fact that the debate over media effects still goes on today, while no one seriously questions the facts that tuberculosis bacilli cause tuberculosis.

Amusingly, Beaty also undermines his own case when he attacks comics-fans who have attacked Wertham for "killing comics," pointing out how they have oversimplified all the factors leading to the medium's downslide in that period. Beaty is marginally right to take fans to task for seeing W. as the only cause. Yet Beaty tells us again and again that Wertham never said that comic books were the only causes of juvenile delinquency; just that they were a particularly pernicious cause that could be remedied. By that same logic, comics fans would be entirely correct to see Wertham as but one of several pernicious agents that aversely affected the medium of comic books, at least temporarily.

And though W. did not "kill" comics in reality, Beaty quotes a chilling prescription by the good doctor that I feel would have resulted in the extinction of the medium:

"...Wertham repeated his call to isolate the single factor of comic books with national legislation based on the public health ideal that would prohibit the circulation and display of comic books to children under the age of fifteen. Wertham suggested that this type of law would bypass claims of censorship because publishers would remain free to produce material with violent or objectionable content for adult audiences..." (p. 157)

I suppose this sort of statement, this end-run around the First Amendment, allows some people to assert that Fredric Wertham did not want censorship as such. Once again, this is at best a half-truth, for a health bureau that shared W.'s opinions about the harmful effects of even the mildest media violence (Superman again) could have been even more extreme than any governmental agency. Certainly the comics-medium in the 1950s-- which as Beaty notes was heavily directed at the young consumer-- would have died on the vine under the doctor's "health ideal," for the publishers would have been able to offer the buying public only the most ultra-sanitized children's fare, there being no market for adult comics in that period. (The failure of the 1950 "graphic novel" IT RHYMES WITH LUST demonstrates this obvious truth.) It may not be coincidence that W. picked the age of fifteen, since most mass-media comics-readers of the 20th century have traditionally given comics up in the general vicinity of that age, when dating (as well as earning money for the purpose of dating) takes on greater importance for the teen. So if Wertham is not really the man who killed comics, he is still the man who really, really wanted to kill them.

A fuller argument of all the reason why W. was completely, even naively, wrong about the effects of media-violence would require separate discussion, as would a more extensive look at what happened to comics as a result of the anti-comics hysteria of the 40s and 50s. But if there are limits that should be put on mass-media to shield children from adult subject matter-- and most would agree that such limits do exist-- one would have to search a long time to find a worse candidate to determine those limits than Frederic Wertham.

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