Thursday, February 21, 2013

Seduction Of The Innocent In Australia



Recently some very interesting research into Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent has come to light regarding his techniques.  The research, conducted by Dr Carol Tilley of the University of Illinois have shown that Wertham’s findings were based on both flawed and outright fraudulent research and studies.  While it’s true that Wertham’s tome had a very real impact upon comic books in America for several decades, in Australia attitudes toward it varied greatly.  Recently released documents shows that, by the early 1970s, the Australian Federal Government didn’t afford it the same courtesy as their American counterparts.  Indeed the book itself, its methodology and findings, went towards the changing attitudes towards comic books and censorship, but not in the way that Wertham had intended.

Wertham’s research into juvenile delinquency began to gain notice in Australia in 1948, when his first screeds against comic books began to appear in magazines such as The Saturday Review of Literature.  At the same time, in late October 1948, a story appeared in the newspapers regarding a 14 year old Melbourne boy who reportedly hung himself after reading several, un-named, comic books, which depicted different methods of hanging.  This led to a series of letters to the then Minister of Trades & Customs in the Chifley Government, Benjamin Courtice, from various groups decrying the impact of comic books upon the youth of the day. One such letter, sent to Courtice in late November 1948 by a Mrs. Mary Knuckey, representing The Progress Association of Western Australia, a group that represented the community, made reference to both the child’s death and Wertham’s comments on cruelty and violence.  The comments attributed to Wertham were lifted directly from his Saturday Review article, thus the first line between Wertham and comic books was drawn in Australia.

Daily News (Perth) pg 01, 20th October, 1948
Australian newspapers took an interest in the Senate Hearings into Comic Books in 1954, and part of this interest was focused upon Wertham.  Wertham was good for a quote, as the newspapers discovered, and as such his comments about learning how to murder, mug, rob, shoplift, poison, burgle and rape from comic books made for good copy.  In November, 1954, various newspapers across the country ran a half page article on Wertham and his views, complete with illustrations and his linking comic books directly to crime, violence and illiteracy and the need for censorship.  At the time the Comptroller General was keeping busy banning virtually every American comic book coming into the country, and moves were afoot to censor locally made product.  Wertham and his views were strongly associated with these censorship moves.  Indeed the Literature Censorship Board was taking Wertham very seriously as late as 1958 when a letter was sent to a member of the public strongly urging that the book be read and studied.  The official Government line of the day referred to the book as such;
This is the most shocking book of recent years.  And it should be the most influential.

SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT is the complete detailed report of the findings of the famous psychiatrist, Fredric Wertham, on the pernicious influence of comic books in the youth of today.  No parent can afford to ignore it.

You think your child is immune? Don’t forget – 90,000,000 comic books are read every month.  You think they are mostly about floppy-eared bunnies, attractive little mice and chipmunks?  Take a look.

On the basis of wide experience and many years research, Dr Wertham flatly states that comic books:
Are an invitation to illiteracy.
Create an atmosphere of cruelty and deceit.
Stimulate unwholesome fantasies.
Suggest criminal or sexually abnormal ideas.
Create a readiness for temptation.
Suggest forms a delinquent impulse may take and supply details of technique.
These are only some of the points raised – and documented.

Dr. Wertham also discusses many other deeply disturbing questions.  He has found that comic books harm the development of reading from the lowest level of the most elementary hygiene to the highest level of the appreciation of good literature.

He has found an appalling lack of scientific method on the part of professionals who have for years paid no attention to comic books, although they practically are the only reading to many children.  He believes that comic-book reading helps children to get rid not of their aggressions, as many ‘experts’ state, but of their inhibitions.

It is important to remember that all Dr. Wertham’s findings are based on a study of comic books, not newspaper comic strips which are required to observe the same standards of good taste as the newspapers in which they are published.

“The most subtle and pervading effect of crime comics on children,” Dr. Wertham writes, “can be summarized in a single phase: general disarmament.  It consists chiefly in a blunting of the finer feelings of conscience, of mercy, of sympathy for other people’s suffering and of respect for women as women and not merely sex objects to be bandied about or as luxury prizes to be fought over.  They affect children’s taste for the finer influences of education, for art, for literature, and for the decent and constructive relationships between human beings and especially between the sexes.”

Dr. Wertham’s suggested remedy, a public-health approach to legislation on the subject, must be seriously considered by all who claim to take the slightest interest in the mental health of our children.

The letter that first mentioned Fredric Wertham to the Government in Australia in relation to comic books. This letter was written very shortly after Wertham's article appeared in the Saturday Review of Literature
Damming material. If all of that sounds strangely familiar it’s because it is.  The Australian Government merely extracted the press release that accompanied the release of Seduction of the Innocent in 1954 and adopted it as the official party line, and that’s the way it stayed until the beginning of the 1970s.

The Advertiser pg 4, 22nd April, 1954
Tastes were changing radically by the time 1971 came around, and those tastes were reflected in the standard and content of comic books available to the general public.  Reflecting this change in society was the change in how comic books were to be assessed.  No longer were the lines as clear cut as they once were, underground comic books were beginning to make an impact and magazines such as Creepy and Eerie were circumventing the usual policies on comic books as they didn’t fit into the normal formats.  It also helped that such magazines generally carried warnings stating that their content wasn’t suitable for younger readers.  Faced with these changes in late 1971 the official departmental policy was examined in the light of a review of the banning of the Warren magazines and a two page summary of conclusions was presented.

The report stated that there were few recent studies on the effects of comic books on youth and the seminal study, that being Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent, was deeply flawed. What follows is the detail of the report relating to Wertham's book:

The report concluded that a better source of reference could be found in P.M. Pickford’s 1961 book, I Could a Tale Unfold, a largely ignored volume that detailed the results of a survey of 382 English school children and their views, including comic books.  Sadly this meant that the bans on importing Creepy and Eerie were upheld, which led to Australian reprints of the material a few years later after both a change in Government and also attitudes, but at least Wertham’s research was being seen for what it was - flawed. 

Page 1 of the 16th November, 1971, review of Departmental Policy on horror comics
The Sydney Morning Herald page 6, 13th November, 1954

NEXT: THE LETTER THAT CHANGED THE APPROACH TO COMIC BOOK CENSORSHIP IN AUSTRALIA

1 comment:

Kid said...

I think it's always been recognised (at least by some) that Wertham over-egged the pudding, but I still think there was a kernel of truth in the idea that impressionable children are susceptible to outside influences, whether it be comics, books, TV, movies, etc.

And he was spot on about their senses being 'blunted' to 'finer feelings'. Nowadays kids watch video games with realistic images of decapitation, dismemberment, torture and the like, without turning a hair. Of course, that doesn't necessarily mean they'll re-enact such acts, but the fact that they find such spectacles entertaining is hardly a desirable state of affairs to my way of thinking.

In the case of the Gorbals Vampire, hundreds of kids roamed a Glasgow cemetery for three nights, armed with knives, stakes and sticks, hunting a vampire who was supposed to have eaten two children. Had they found some poor 'down-and-out' living rough in the graveyard, who knows what tragedy could have occured?

No proven link to comics in that instance, but the kids were obviously influenced by something, proving that they're highly suggestible at a certain age. So, in theory at least, depending on content, comics could be one of the many factors responsible for the shaping of young minds.

So, I think Wertham and others were right to be concerned - in principle - but they took matters to extreme by including such comics as Superman and Batman. I don't believe for a second that any kid reading about Batman and Robin would ever for a second see a homosexual subtext in the stories. However, some of the images in some horror comics, although tame by today's standards, probably were quite shocking in the context of the time. Certainly to parents anyway, and they surely have the right to be concerned?

I'm sure the debate will continue.