One of the foundational discussions of our film is violence and its effects on children. This is what set Dr. Wertham in motion, it’s one of the major discussions led in the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency of 1954, and it’s been an ongoing discussion in America for about 70 years. I want to spend some time with this and look at some of the issues that will arise in our film.
1. Media Violence and Children
The big question: What impact does media violence have on children?
I just finished re-reading the Seduction of the Innocent chapter “The Wrong Twist: The Effects of Comic Books on Children.” I paralled this reading with contemporary investigations of the effects of comic books on children. I particularly read works by child psychologist Steven J. Kirsh. After these readings, I contacted Dr. Kirsh, and he has agreed to appear in the film. (Excellent news!)
Before we move on to Dr. Kirsh, I’m going to start with something a little outside of the main topic of this entry, but I have to put it out there. Early in the chapter Wertham writes:
I have found the effect of comic books to be first of all anti-educational. They interfere with education in the larger sense. For a child, education is not merely a question of learning, but is a part of mental health. They do not “learn” only in school; they learn also during play, from entertainment and in social life with adults and with other children. To take large chunks of time out of a child’s life – time during which he is not positively, that is, educationally, occupied – means to interfere with his healthful mental growth. To make a sharp distinction between entertainment and learning is poor pedagogy, and even worse psychology. A great deal of learning comes in the form of entertainment, and a great deal of entertainment painlessly teaches important things. By no stretch of critical standards can the text in crime comics qualify as literature, or their drawings as art. Considering the enormous amount of time spent by children on crime comic books, their gain is nil. They do not learn how to read a serious book or magazine. They do not gain a true picture of the West from the “Westerns.” They do not learn about any normal aspects of sex, love or life. I have known many adults who have treasured throughout their lives some of the books they read as children. I have never come across any adult nor adolescent who had outgrown comic-book reading who would ever dream of keeping any of these “books” for any sentimental or other reason. In other words, children spend a large amount of their time and money on these publications and have nothing positive to show for it. And since almost all good children’s reading has some educational value, crime comics by their very nature are not only non-educational; they are anti-educational. They fail to teach anything that might be useful to a child; they do suggest many things that are harmful.” (page 88-89)
I think Wertham is definitely on the mark about environment, social activity, play, and education.
But he begins by calling comics “anti-educational.” Of course, this is influenced by the comics he was focusing on: crime, horror, and other types that he deemed worthless. A part of me wishes he could be here today and see the diverse range of comics being published at levels of sophistication that match any high literature or art. (I suppose this is another area of debate for some!) Comics can educate. When I had my recent “Graphic Novel as Social History” seminar read Persepolis, Stitches, and Fun Home. The students were impacted. These books caused real emotional reactions. They showed, they taught. Yes, they entertained, but more than that they provided those students with a unique perspective into places and ideas they may or may not have had experience with before. These books caused discussion and debate. They stimulated thought. I wish he could have been there to see this and participate in the discussion.
Also, in the above passage Wertham writes,
I have known many adults who have treasured throughout their lives some of the books they read as children. I have never come across any adult nor adolescent who had outgrown comic-book reading who would ever dream of keeping any of these “books” for any sentimental or other reason.
Au contraire, mon frère. Need I even respond to this? (At right, Excalibur #1, 1988. I still have the issue. It’s protected and stored away with every other issue in the series. I remember the day I read it. I look back on it with great fondness and sentiment. I treasure it and I can’t wait to pass it on someday.)
Ok. Back to media violence and children.
As I’ve stated previously, Wertham was trying to do “good work” here. How much can we despise a man who is trying to prevent inappropriate material from getting into the hands of children? The problem is in the execution and the results.
For example, read this quite lucid and convincing argument Wertham makes:
Since comic books may have such diverse effects on children, from distortion of human values to nightmares and violent games, one must make clear to oneself what psychological mechanisms are involved. The influence consists in a continuation or repetition of the contents of the stories in life, either in thought or in action. The simplest mechanism is just plain imitation.
Of course. Makes sense. I’ve seen this. I’m sure you’ve seen or heard this. Jane is watching television and sees Jerry bop Tom on the head with a hammer, so she bops the family cat on the head as well. The results are not the same… most of the time.
Wertham’s example goes like this:
In California a very handsome six-year-old boy on his way home from school one day trudged to the top of a steep cliff. An ardent comic-book reader, he had translated his reading into practice and made for himself a flying cape or magic cloak. Taking a brisk run he jumped off the cliff to fly as his comic book heroes did. Seriously injured, he told his mother, “Mama, I almost did fly!” A few days later he died from the injuries he had received.
That’s it. No knowledge of the child’s background, mental health status, family life… nothing. No citation on where this story was obtained. It plays out like pure hyperbole. It’s almost too perfect for the argument. That line: “Mama, I almost did fly!” Am I suggesting that Wertham fabricated or embellished the example? I’m trying not too, but if I am to take his argument seriously, I need to see the actual evidence.
Now on to the statement that I find most compelling by Wertham. The reason for this is because at its base it is about many of the same things that interest me, specifically social responsibility. Ethics. Wertham writes about the mind’s awareness of the body, the mental picture of the “body image.” He believes that there is also a mental self-knowledge in the form an “ethical image.” It’s eloquent. Powerful. I believe in that. Wetham expresses this concept in the face of the unpopularity of the discussion of ethics in psychiatric and psychoanalytical literature. It is brave of him. He writes it, because he believes it. He calls the crime comics problem a “moral disarmament.”
It is an influence on character, on attitude, on the higher functions of social responsibility, on super ego formation and on the intuitive feeling for right and wrong. To put it more concretely, it consists chiefly in a blunting of the finer feelings of conscience, of mercy, of sympathy for other people’s suffering…. (91)
I really feel where he is going with this. I’m in line with this. One can understand what the repeated exposure of inappropriate and harmful material can do to the mind. Would we argue with the existence of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder? Environmental factors influence us.
In the modern arena of studying the effects of media violence on children, the antiquated use of juvenile delinquency is dropped for the more appropriate study of aggression in youth. This works. There are levels of aggression. There are various stages, signs, and outcomes. It can be internal and external. Physical and emotional. It covers the complexity the study demands.
I had a moment of enlightenment while reading Dr. Steven Kirsh. He reiterates a fundamental of comics that is pure “language of comics 101.” It wasn’t until he placed this fundamental in context with media violence and it effects on children that I realized how important it could be in the role of understanding comics, violence, and children.
Kirsh paraphrases what comics scholar and creator Scott McCloud eloquently demonstrates in his ground-breaking book Understanding Comics. McCloud elucidates one of the fundamentals of how comics are read. A fundamental function of the reader in comics is to “fill in the blanks” as it were. McCloud explains in his special way:
Kirsh summarizes McCloud’s observation nicely:
Thus, when reading a comic book, children and adolescents are required to engage their imagination and visualize the elements in the story that were not graphically portrayed. Moreover, when reading a comic book, youth can self-regulate the intake of information. As such, children and adolescents can spend as much time as they like reading dialogue and viewing graphic images, thus affording youth a detailed encoding of violent material. (Media and Youth, Steven J. Kirsh, 196)
This encoding will be made up of experience and imagination. As you are already assuming, I’m sure, this can be good and bad, depending on the experiences of the individual.
After studying Wertham’s research, Kirsh reports:
Wertham’s “findings” are reported as narrative anecdotes or data-less correlations… In fact, when looked at closely, Wertham’s research does not meet the criteria for scientific research. (143)
The implication is what can we do with this material if it does not meet the criteria for scientific research.
Kirsh follows Wertham’s research by surveying the modern scientific research conducted on the effects of violent comic books on children. There isn’t much, and what exists is far from definitive. In the end, he is left to summarize that,
As the previous review of the literature revealed, there is little evidence to support the contention that reading violent comic books influences aggressive behavior or feelings. However, there is evidence that violent comic books influence social information processing. (149)
Kirsh defines social information processing as,
the processing of information (e.g., attention to, memory for) related to social relationships (e.g., peer relationships, parent-child relationships). For instance, determining whether or not an act of transgression, such as being pushed into a wall, was done on purpose or not requires that cues to the cause be detected and processed and that a judgment be made. (146-147)
So we still seem to be left with the question: Do comic books affect aggressive behavior in youth?
Wertham ends this chapter with a definitive list of the bad effects of crime comics on children:
1) The comic-book format is an invitation to illiteracy.
2) Crime comic books create an atmosphere of cruelty and deceit.
3) They create a readiness for temptation.
4) They stimulate unwholesome fantasies.
5) They suggest criminal or sexually abnormal ideas.
6) They furnish the rationalization for them, which may be ethically even more harmful than the impulse.
7) They suggest the forms a delinquent impulse may take and supply details of technique.
8) They may tip the scales toward maladjustment or delinquency.
Crime comics are an agent with harmful potentialities. They bring about a mass conditioning of children, with different effects in the individual case. A child is not a simple unit which exists outside of its living social ties. Comic books themselves may be the virus, or the cause of a lack of resistance to the social virus of a harmful environment. (118)
It’s a big debate. The stakes are high, so it’s worth our time and attention. This is what I could never fault Wertham on. The two sides of this argument have been long presenting “evidence” to support their claims of comics effects on children, either positive or negative. Many of the comics publishers in Wertham’s day would parade experts and the like before readers and officials to testify on behalf of the positive aspects of comics.
Below is an excellent example from the Marvel Comics publication Crime Fighters. This issue appeared in March of 1949 and it contains a letter from the Editors of the Marvel Comic Group.
The letter begins with a mention of “a Dr. Wertham.” They have no idea the world of hurt he is about to lay on them! The next paragraph begins with a staggering statistic: “93% of all young people (from 8 to 16 years of age) read comics. The veracity of this statement is debatable, but its inclusion is important for their argument is about majority. And they believe the majority of comic book readers are dandy and well-adjusted. And to prove it they quote a letter from a 14 year old comics reader. Here, check it out for yourself:
The answer might not be apparent yet, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a call for some preventative medicine… right?
Finally, I have to share this hilarious bit that Wertham throws out to his readers.
During a segment on how comics can cause nightmares, Wertham relates the following anecdote:
“You know,” the boy said, “what I really like is the Blue Beetle (a figure in a very violent crime comic book). I read that many times. That’s what I dreamed about. I don’t have it at home; I get it at another boy’s house.”
“Who is the Blue Beetle?”
“He is like Superman. He is a beetle, but he changes into Superman and afterwards he changes into a beetle again. When he’s Superman he knocks them out. Superman knocks them out with his fist. They fall down on the floor.”
“If you say it is like Superman, how do you know it is?”
“I read the Superman stories. He catches them. Superman knocks the guys out.”
It is not difficult to understand that a child stimulated to fantasies about violent and sadistic adventures and about a man who changes into an insect gets frightened. Kafka for the kiddies! (106)
Now that’s rich! Only a psychiatrist could drop a “Metamorphosis” reference in a book about comics and juvenile delinquency. I mean, how many of the readers picked up on this? Classic.
2. It Came From the Archives!!!
Today I have for you a special letter that illustrates the beginning of Dr. Wertham’s connection with Estes Kefauver and the soon to be Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency.
What is so fascinating about this is the roots of the investigation. Kefauver explains to Wertham that the problem of juvenile delinquency has been made aware to them through their current investigation of organized crime. It’s the Committee’s concern that crime comics may be leading children to criminal activity.
3. Be a Part of Getting Diagram for Delinquents Made
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