Seduction of the Innocent

After seven years of research on children and adolescents diagnosed as "juvenile delinquents," psychiatrist Wertham concluded that crime comic books (mysteries, thrillers, horror, and police stories) are a harmful influence on young minds. In fourteen chapters, rife with the logic of comparison from the adult world, he analyzed the problem literature, its artwork, its advertising, and the so-called "educational messages" it contained.

Against the evidence of various "experts" and the champions of civil liberties, numerous anecdotes demonstrate how comic books glorify violent crime, link sexual love with physical abuse, permit illiteracy, and invite imitation. A series of vignettes demonstrates that violent child crime is on the rise and that actual crimes--even murder--have been connected to the reading of comics.

Wertham also provided statistics on comic book publishing, finances, and influence. A penultimate chapter is devoted to television. Emphasizing the public initiatives and legislative controls brought against American comics in other countries, such as Canada, Britain, Italy, Mexico, and Sweden, he demands action before yet another generation of youth is ruined.

A fascinating and readable diatribe against comic books, deliberately cast as an attempt to bring a preventative "public health approach" to the problems of mental illness and social violence (p. 333). Wertham's critique attracted the attention of Time and Harper's magazines and he appeared to enjoy the industry's efforts to refute his vocal criticisms by demonizing him as a deranged doctor in the very products that he deplored.

Writing in a relaxed style with a heavy dose of sarcasm directed especially at civil liberties "lawyers" and "scientific experts," Wertham often resorted to logical comparisons to retaliate against his detractors: e.g., "If these war comics are too 'gory' for sailors in an actual war, why is it permitted to sell them to boys and girls of six and seven?" (p. 393). His research comforted distraught parents whom he can (and does) console by laying blame for the wayward actions of their children on the 'bad" comics and the American political institutions that refuse to control them (pp. 395-7).

Wertham is clearly troubled by the stark portrayal of violence and of prominent breasts and bulging genitalia and is at pains to indicate how disgusting and "tedious" he finds the study of comics: "you have to wade through all the mushiness, the false sentiment, the social hypocrisy, the titillation, the cheapness" (p. 38). Compelling and epidemiologically prescient though his book may be, it contains a number of value judgments and assumptions that reflect the era in which it was written: for example, homosexuality is a disease and healthy girls expect to become "normal housewives." The only difference between "surreptitious pornographic literature for adults and children's comic book is this: in one it is a question of attracting perverts, in the other of making them." (p. 183)

On television, Wertham expresses the cautiously optimistic view that the new medium will be "good" if crime comic books can be prevented from corrupting young viewers. Ironically, his work bears striking resemblance to laments expressed about the damaging influences on children of portrayals of violence and sex in television, film, and the Internet.