The Influence of Comic Books on Today's Youth

"90,000,000 comic books are read each month.
You think they are mostly about floppy-eared bunnies,
attractive little mice and chipmunks? Go take a look."

Believe it or not, there was a time when comic books weren't all about superheroes. But even after Superman and Batman were first introduced to the comic-buying public of the late 1930s and early 1940, comic books were widely available covering other genres. Westerns. Romance. Horror. Gangsters and "true crime" were very popular, especially during the mid- to late 1940s, and superhero adventures were actually on the decline.

It's hard to imagine things getting very hardcore in the 1940s, but comics were a multi-million dollar industry at the time, and publishers were pushing limits as far as they could. These weren't just Dick Tracy-type cop adventures, these were books with titles like Crimes by Women and Murder Incorporated ("For Adults Only"). No pornography or graphic violence, but plenty of women being tied up, women wearing skimpy or torn clothing, people being beaten, and murderers explaining how to get it done and get away. It was more than the majority of post-war America was willing to accept.

This is the comic book industry which Dr. Fredric Wertham, M.D. was looking at: to his eyes, comic books were nothing but pulp fiction with illustrations, targetted at children and using bright colors and low prices to reach them. Of course this wasn't a uniform view of the comic books produced in those days -- Disney Comics had little to object to, for instance -- but they were far from a minority sample, if you went by popularity.

As early as 1940 Dr. Wertham's editorials against comic books were appearing in major newspapers, and prompting the industry to self-regulate in response. In 1948 he was directly blaming them for the decline in children's morals. National magazines were publishing his opinions and adults across the United States were starting to agree. Residents of Birmingham, New York actually held a public mass burning of comic books.

Over the next several years, Dr. Wertham continued to investigate comic books' effect on children as they came into his clinic. His four-hundred-page book Seduction of the Innocent was the result of seven years of research and amassed evidence for his unshakable position: comic books were a direct cause of juvenile delinquency, not to mention homosexual thinking, misplaced ideas about women's place in society, and a skewed understanding of the physical world (thanks to Superman and the like). The chapter titles were as follows, giving a general idea of the direction his arguments took:

  1. Such Trivia as Comic Books
  2. You Always Have to Slug 'Em
  3. The Road to the Child
  4. The Wrong Twist
  5. Retooling For Literacy
  6. Design for Delinquency
  7. I Want to be a Sex Maniac!
  8. Bumps and Bulges
  9. The Experts of the Defense
  10. The Upas Tree
  11. Murder in Dawson Creek
  12. The Devil's Allies
  13. Homicide at Home
  14. The Triumph of Dr. Payn

He fortified his positions with illustrations taken directly from the comic books of the day. The argument was overwhelming to his readers.

Among those readers were the Senate and their constituents, of course, and Seduction of the Innocent directly led to the 1954 Senate investigation which produced the Comics Code Authority. Dr. Wertham testified extensively, and had previous experience in doing so, making his position all the more effective. His studies were not actually endorsed by the Senate due to their unscientific nature -- his case studies were juvenile delinquents, rather than a uniform sample of comic-reading children, and all his evidence was basically guilt by association. But they were good enough for the Senate to give the comic book industry a direct warning that their self-policing had better become more effective. (If you think the recent arguments regarding video game violence are radical, you probably weren't around when this was going on.)

Crime comics continued, but they were visibly toned down once the stamp of the Comics Code Authority was placed on the cover. Necklines stopped plunging. Hand-to-hand violence was replaced by less-aggressive handgun shootings. Horror comics that refused to add the CCA stamp were rejected by newsstands, and either converted to magazines or went out of business. Dr. Wertham wasn't pleased that self-policing was good enough, or that it had gone far enough, but the compromise had been made.

Thanks to Dr. Wertham's book, the comic book industry had been permanently changed, and not just by degrees of violence. The demise of graphic crime and horror comic books led to the resurrection of Golden Age superheroes in the late 1950s. The Silver Age began, and the general perception of American comic books was one exclusively of superhero adventures. Not until the late 1980s, as video games slowly replaced comic books in popularity, did the Comics Code Authority lose its influence and non-superhero comics return to popularity. If it hadn't been for Dr. Wertham, comic books in America might instead have gone where manga in Japan is today.

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