Friday, June 01, 2007

Fredric Wertham, Take Two

So, it's been a long time since I have blogged. There is no sufficient excuse, and I will simply get back to business...

During my absence from the blogosphere, I have developed a list of things to discuss, and it will be my pleasure during the near future to let you all in on these things.

At the very top of the list of stuff I wanna talk about is a recent book by Bart Beaty, entitled
Fredric Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture. It's a pretty decent book, and it goes like this: For years, Fredric Wertham has been reviled as the psychiatrist whose expert opinion (expressed in his famous book, 1954's Seduction of the Innocent) concerning comic books and their effects on youth directly or indirectly resulted in the comic book industry's creation of the Comic Book Code, which was for years one of the most stringent censorship regimes imposed on the popular media in the U.S. The drama basically goes like this:
A) In the 1930s, comic books are invented/developed. They quickly prove popular (even during the Great Depression), attracting a large audience of moppet-like children to the adventures of Superman, Batman, and others.
B) Very quickly, a concern about the aesthetic standing of comic books prompts numerous commentators to express indignation that our youth so excitedly consume such drivel as the comic books. It should be noted that the 1940s witnessed a particular growth in the 'crime comic' genre, and genres dedicated to horror, lampoon, and war were not far behind. Significantly, the comics occasionally involved themes of graphic violence and sexuality.
C) Fredric Wertham, an established psychiatrist famous for his work as an expert psychiatric witness in criminal trials, for popular books and articles concerning psychiatric roots of crime, and for his saintly concern for the psychiatric well-being of the poor, enters the debate, supposedly blaming juvenile delinquency on comics.
D) The link between juvenile delinquency and comics is taken up by a Congressional subcommittee, headed by Robert Hendrickson, but more closely associated with Estes Kefauver, a U.S. Senator from Tennessee closely associated with investigations of organized crime, and with the wearing of coonskin caps. Wertham testifies at this subcommittee, as do numerous other figures of interest.
E) This Kefauver subcommittee ultimately recommends no legislation, but successfully prompts the comic book industry to engage in self-regulation, which took the form of the Comic Book Code.
F) Every comic book fan for years blames Fredric Wertham for the Comic Book Code, and the damage it did to creative comic book artistry.

Okay. So that's the received history. What does Beaty do with this? Quite a lot, really. Mostly, Beaty concerns himself with showing the reader how Wertham was never the kind of censorious fool he has been made out to be. To a great extent, Beaty does a great job. His weapon? That great tool of the historian: context. Beaty spends the first few chapters here showing the intellectual backdrop of Wertham's world, and emphasizing how Wertham differed from the New York Intellectuals of the mid-20th century. I think Beaty is at his best here, showing how the New York Intellectuals in many ways missed out on some of the important issues that Wertham pioneered. In particular, Wertham's concern for race and justice in the U.S. places him in stark relief against the relative ignorance (or worse) of the New York Intellectuals. Beaty's analysis here is fresh and well-supported. It's also consistent with his goal of rehabilitating the legend of Fredric Wertham.

I may as well focus on a point of disagreement between myself and Beaty. In his efforts to demonstrate the intellectual refinement and broad-mindedness of Wertham, I think Beaty goes a bit too far. For instance, Beaty observes that Wertham "never argued" that there was a causal link between comic books and juvenil
e delinquency. Beaty is correct to point out that Wertham hedged his bets quite a bit concerning this link. But the assertion was still quite clear in Wertham's writing. At the Kefauver hearings, Wertham stated that "if it were my teach children delinquency...I would have to enlist the crime comic books industry." In Seduction of the Innocent, he claimed that "our researchers have proved that there is a significant correlation between crime-comics reading and the more serious forms of juvenile delinquency." Certainly Wertham emphasized the whole environment of the child, and Beaty is right to link this to the 'social psychiatry' that Wertham practiced. Certainly Wertham's goals were not censorious, and his values were admirable. But I still don't think this gets Wertham off the hook. As an expert who testified to Congress about the link between comic books and juvenile delinquency, he was naive to think that he could dictate (or even suggest) policy. He simply didn't realize his place in the drama that was unfolding, and he (I think foolishly) presumed that his expert opinion would be treated with more respect. For failing to understand the stakes in the game, I think Wertham deserves a small bit of criticism. His idealism remains an inspiration, but his understanding of the role of the expert in such a debate makes him deserve at least some small share of the blame for the Comic Book Code.

That said, I still think Beaty's book is quite excellent.
Go buy it now.

I will take up another one of Beaty's theses regarding Wertham--the idea that Wertham's ideas and methods have been sandbagged out of the field of communication--sometime in the near future. It just feels good to be blogging again.



Blogger Educator-To-Be said...

Fascinating post. Thanks. amy

5:46 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home