I am re-reading Seduction of the Innocent cover to cover. In the past, I’ve read it piecemeal. It’s quite fun, especially after reading Beaty’s Fredric Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture.
1. The Injury-to-the-Eye Motif
The book’s fourth chapter is called “The Wrong Twist: The Effects of Comic Books on Children.”
It begins with, as all the chapters do, an epigraph.
A man who gives a wrong twist to your mind, meddles with you just as truly as if he hit you in the eye; the mark may be less painful, but it’s more lasting.
It’s a detailed chapter that quite explicitly expresses exactly what Wertham subtitles the section.
Since the very first time I read Seduction of the Innocent, I was drawn to what Wertham describes as “the injury-to-the-eye motif.” I think my interest comes from my personal eye obsession. When I was a sophomore in high school, I suffered a traumatic eye injury that blinded me for some days and put me in the hospital for quite a while longer. I remember talking with the doctor early on and needing all my strength to not vomit as he delivered the following speech:
Now son, we’re going to try all we can to fix your eye up, get your vision back, and make you all better. You see [ironic, huh] what’s happened is, in a way when you were hit in the eye, it kind of exploded inside, and now your eye has filled up with blood. [That was the freakiest part. When I looked in the mirror, my iris and pupil were flooded with blood, while the white part was fine. Here is the vomit inducing part.] We’re going to do all we can to get the pressure in your eye down and get that blood out. We’re going to try some medicine first and see if that works. However, if it doesn’t, we’ll have to stick a needle in your eye and drain that blood out. [Cold sweat, numb fingers, internal praying for medicine to work. And of course, the childhood rhyme repeated itself over and over again in my head: "Cross my heart, hope to die, stick a needle in my eye." You can bet I don't use that one anymore.]
I think you can now better see my fascination with eyes and their delicate nature.
In the chapter, Wertham writes:
The injury to the eye motif is an outstanding example of the brutal attitude cultivated in comic books — the threat or actual infliction of injury to the eyes of a victim, male or female. This detail, occurring in uncounted instances, shows perhaps the true color of crime comics better than anything else. It has no counterpart in any other literature of the world, for children or for adults.
According to our case material the brutalizing effect of this injury-to-the-eye motif is twofold. In the first place, it causes a blunting of the general sensibility. Children feel in a vague subconscious way that if this kind of thing is permitted then other acts are so much less serious that it cannot be so wrong to indulge in them either.
An eight-year-old girl said to her mother, “Let’s play a game. Someone is coming to see us. I’ll stamp on him, knock his eyes out and cut him up.”
But it has also a direct effect. Children have done deliberate harm to the eyes of other children, an occurrence which before the advent of crime comics I had never encountered among the thousands of children I examined. On a number of occasions I have asked juveniles who used homemade zip guns what harm they could do with so little power. I received prompt reply: “You shoot in the eye. Then it works.”
The children of the early forties pointed out the injury-to-the-eye to us as something horrible. The children of 1954 take it for granted. A generation is being desensitized by these literal horror images. One comic shows a man slashing another man across the eye balls with a sword. The victim: “MY EYES! I cannot see!”
In a run-of-the-mill crime comic a man with brass knuckles hits another man (held fast by a third man) in the eyes, one after the other. Dialogue: “Now his other glimmer, Pete! Only sort of twist the knuckles this time!”
In a Western comic book the “Gouger” is threatening the hero’s eye with his thumb, which has a very long and pointed nail. This is called the “killer’s manicure.” He says: “YORE EYES ARE GONNA POP LIKE GRAPES WHEN OL’ GOUGER GETS HIS HANDS ON YOU!… HERE GO THE PEEPERS!”
In one comic book a gangster gains control over another man’s racket and tapes his eyes “with gauze that has been smeared with an infectious substance!” He says: “When I get through with ya, ya’ll never look at another case of beer again!”
When a policeman is blinded, the criminal says: “Well, he don’t have to worry about them eyes no more!”
Girls are frequent victims of the eye motif, as in the typical: “My eyes! My eyes! Don’t! PLEASE! I’ll tell you anything you want to know, only don’t blind me! PLEASE!’”
Tracing the origin of an interest is like some kind of archeology. It’s a dig. To illustrate the above injury-to-the-eye motif, Wertham includes a comic panel in the book’s illustrations section (in the bottom-right of this image) that was particularly horrifying to me.
One of the problems with Seduction of the Innocent is its highly anecdotal delivery. One major argument against the book is its lack of scientific evidence. It wasn’t systematic; it wasn’t empirical. Wertham unabashedly states that the book is built on the clinical method, which is based upon interviewing, studying the patient fully and in context. He wasn’t interested in the scientific method used by his peers at the time. He had branded his own method: Social Psychiatry. It was indeed a holistic method of studying patients.
As Wertham builds his argument and cites evidence, it feels like a second-hand story, like hearsay. Along this line, when Wertham discussed parts of comic books, he rarely cites what comic book it came from. In his illustration section, almost none of the images are credited or cited.
(Thank you Stephen O’Day for a correction on the issue cover. Stephen is the webmaster of Seductionoftheinnocent.org, an amazing resource for tracing the comics used in Seduction of the Innocent. Stephen has graciously agreed to appear in the film when we met at the archives.)
In Wertham’s archives, I found two instances of the panel used above from True Crime #2.
The first is a blown-up copy used in an experiment to see how a young boy reacts and comments on the content of the image.
There’s no denying that Wertham was a man of bold ideas and opinions. He was also a man that did all he could to get his message out there. Though many don’t know who he is today, he was very much a public figure in the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s. Of course he wrote for scientific and academic journals, but he was most profilic in the public sphere. Many of his articles were written for magazines read by middle America. Most of his books were published for that audience as well.
Wertham was interviewed in numerous magazines. He appeared on radio and, of course, in the burgeoning medium of television.
I found a few curious photographs in his archives that chronicled some of his television appearances. The most interesting of them are photos of televisions as Wertham appeared on TV. Can we assume he or his wife took the pictures? I absolutely love the idea of a picture of a picture. It’s charming… as a way to capture his appearance in a time before VCRs or DVRs.
Wertham on The Mike Douglas Show. The ’60s flower background is quite amusing:
And finally, without a segue way, here’s him standing on a horse’s back! And this man said comic books were dangerous!
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