August 5th, 2009

The Seduction Of The Innocent

If you love comics you'll know- and spit upon the memory of- Dr Frederic Wertham's book The Seduction of the Innocent.  If you don't love comics I probably need to explain. Wertham was an American psychiatrist. His book came out in 1954. It's thesis- broadly stated- is that the youth of America were having their tender minds frazzled by the images of sex and violence in comic books. The book was a minor best seller which led (a) to a Congressional Enquiry and (b) to the publishers adopting a code of self-censorship that took a lot of the juice out of their product.

Judy has been reading The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay- which has its fictional characters get embroiled with the Wertham episode- and we've been talking about it. She assumed that- as an Englishman of a certain age- I wouldn't have heard of Wertham, but actually- and oddly- an encounter with Wertham's thesis was one of the formative incidents of my childhood. I didn't read comic books- they were hard to come by over here- but we did get the Reader's Digest- and of all the things I must have read in that useful, informative, bourgeois publication the one I particularly remember is an article in support of Wertham.This was probably the first time I was ever exposed to a current affairs story that shocked me. According to the Digest, suburban children my age were running amok and murdering people- and all because they were reading something other than Enid Blyton.  The hook was a lurid story about how some child had fired an air-rifle (purchased by mail from a comic book advert) out of his bedroom window at random and managed to kill a spectator in a local sports stadium. I was horrified. And haunted. What must it feel like to be only eight and have blood on your hands?  I also remember the picture that went with the article. It showed a young boy lying on his stomach with a comic book in front of him and a look on his face that suggested he was dreaming up evil mischief. It's entirely possible he was also toying with a switchblade.

My early exposure to Wertham had two consequences. One- short term-  was I never developed a taste for comics. The second- long term-  is I've learned to treat  folk panics about youth culture with scepticism and contempt.  So computer games are rotting the minds of our children? Yeah, sure;   that's exactly what stupid people were saying about comic books back in the 50s.