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"
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.