When We Waged War on Comic Books

Adam West as Batman, with Burt WardThere is currently a great deal of fuss over the degree to which video games and the internet are damaging the minds of young people with images of sex and violence. In the 1970s, it was television that was widely feared to be warping our children’s psychological development. And before that, in the 1950s, comic books were thought to be the nefarious culprits. The pressure eventually became so great that comic book publishers took to censoring themselves (lest the government take to censoring or even banning them, as a number of states did).

The origin of the hysteria (to use the term of the day) was a book entitled Seduction of the Innocent by a psychoanalytic psychiatrist named Fredric Wertham. Wertham argued that the images and story lines typical of comics featured sexual and violent themes that were turning American kids into juvenile delinquents. In one poll at the time, 3/4 of Americans agreed, and a moral panic ensued. Soon there were Senate hearings into the putatively pathological effects of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and worst of all, horror comics.

Now, all these decades later, Louis Menand (best known to historians of psychology for his book, The Metaphysical Club) has written an article about the affair in New Yorker magazine. Describing Wertham’s testimony at the hearings led by Senator Robert Hendrickson (Rep., NJ), Menand writes:

“It is my opinion,” Wertham told the senators and the cameras, “without any reasonable doubt and without any reservation, that comic books are an important contributing factor in many cases of juvenile delinquency.” The child most likely to be influenced by comic books, he said, is the normal child; morbid children are less affected, “because they are wrapped up in their own fantasies.” Comic books taught children racism and sadism—“Hitler was a beginner compared to the comic book industry,” he said. In his book, he said that “Batman” comics were homoerotic and that “Wonder Woman” was about sadomasochism. He was even critical of “Superman” comics: “They arouse in children fantasies of sadistic joy in seeing other people punished over and over again while you yourself remain immune,” he testified. “We have called it the Superman complex.”

Of course, as it always does, the censorship that was initiated by a barely reasonable fear quickly took it upon itself to rule on matters that had never really been part of the original discussion. As Menand notes:

Even Betty and Veronica were ordered to wear less tight-fitting blouses, in accordance with the requirement that “females shall be drawn realistically without exaggeration of any physical qualities.”

And later,

[William] Gaines [the owner of EC Comics] had a fight with the censorship board over the inclusion of a black character (an astronaut) in one of the stories.

It is easy for us to be to be smug about this backward episode, but Menand warns of us of the dangers of indulging too fully in “winner’s history”:

Other people’s culture wars always look ridiculous. That’s partly because we frame cultural controversies as battles between the old and the new, and, given that the old is someone else’s status quo and we have no stake in it, we naturally favor the new. So one way to look at the comic-book inquisition is to see it as an effort to repress an edgy, provocative, satirical popular form and to dictate to people what books they should and should not read. In this view, a big, powerful, established social entity (consisting of psychiatrists and government officials) is squashing a bunch of little, powerless entities (consisting of individual comic-book artists and readers). But the psychiatrists and the officials almost certainly perceived things the other way around. For youth culture is commercial culture. If an industry is moving a hundred million units a week, then someone is making money. At the time of the Hendrickson hearings, comic books were a hundred-million-dollar-a-year business.

True enough, though it seems to me we shouldn’t be smug not so much for erudite historiographic reasons such as these, but because we continue to make exactly the same mistakes with respect to youth culture today. Only the technology has changed.

Tip o’ the hat to Mindhacks, which alerted me to this item.

About Christopher Green

Professor of Psychology at York University (Toronto). Former editor of the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences. Creator of the "Classics in the History of Psychology" website and of the "This Week in the History of Psychology" podcast series.

2 thoughts on “When We Waged War on Comic Books

  1. Huh thats a good point of view I guess. Personaly I like comic books because there is always a problem they have to solve. It just depends on how that prolem relates to the problems your going throw in real life. For examble somebody that lost his father could relate to Peter Parker/ Spider man.

    Nice job on the post I hope I see more.

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