Sunday, July 31, 2005

My hunt (and why I hunt)

For years I have been testing adults' lack of knowledge of crime comics in many ways, including interviews with people who sell comic books in big and little newsstands in cities and towns, in big drugstores and little candy stores, in general stores and ice-cream parlors. My studies include several states and I have not overlooked even the smallest villages in the country. I have found crime comic books shown in display cases side by side with—and mingled with—comic books not featuring crime, intended for the very youngest children. And in many non-crime comic books I have found alluring advertisements drawing the child's attention to crime comics. The wording of advertisements for toys in many of the worst crime comics make it apparent that the books carrying these advertisements are intended for children, and some of the most irresponsible crime comic books have approving letters from child readers.

Saturday, July 30, 2005

Know it alls are know nothings

Many adults think that they know all about crime comic books because they know mystery and detective novels, comic strips in newspapers and have cast an occasional glance at a comic book at a newsstand or in a child's hands. But the Lafargue group of researchers has often convinced itself that most adults have really no idea of the details and content of the majority of crime comic books. I have heard public discussions where only the publishers and their representatives knew what was being talked about; the parents, teachers and doctors who asked discussion questions spoke of comic books as if they were fairy tales or stories of folklore. Children, however, do know what comic books are. The whole crime-comic-book trade is designed for them and is dependant on them, even though there are adults, too, who read such comics.


As always, thank you again, Gershon, for the contribution yesterday. I'm very happy to know you.

Friday, July 29, 2005

I had just finished dinner, a nice roasted duck dish with potatoes and peas, and was thinking about desert when the phone rang. It was Gershon Legman.

Delighted, (desert can certainly wait!) I placed a single sheet of paper in the Selectric and began typing ...

Yes, hello Dr. Wertham! How are you tonight? I have to apologize for how long I went on last we chatted. Didn't even give you room for a comment there, did !? Well I was in a mood, and I'm sure you know how that can go.

Anyway, I'll be briefer tonight. I'd still like to discuss the murder-mystery, though. Is that agreeable to you? Wonderful. Well, as I was trimming my orange tree it struck me that ... (there's a long pause)

(The sound of the phone being placed down on a table, I hear Gershon cough as he walks back, now yelling into the phone from what sounds like about four or five feet distance)


ONE! UNDERSTANDS! that the murder-mystery is a sort of intellectual puzzle, 'mental exercise' for the mentalities too dim or too jaded for the symbolic combats of cross-word puzzles and chess. But why, then, this persistant, pathological paddling in guts & blood? Why this intense, invariable, I-am-the-man insistance upon personal vengeance in a culture where revenge is disgraceful, the taking of the law into one's own hands a crime? Why must it be murder, murder, murder, MURDER?

(still yelling from some distance away from the phone)

Are there no other mental exercises than the contemplation fo death? Not for the mystery-reader. In 1926, the year that the 'detective' mystery mushroomed into prominence in America, E.M. Wrong, its first serious apologist, found it neccessary to record that:

Time has ... exalted murder, which used to be only one of the several offenses, to a position of natural supremacy.

There are good reasons for this. What we want in our detective fiction is not a semblance of real life, where murder is infrequent and petty larceny common ... Hatred that is strong enough to bring murder is familiar enough to be intelligible to nearly everyone, yet far enough from our normal experience to let us watch as detached observers [!] for we do not feel that is our own crimes that are unmasked. So for many reasons murder is advisable, though not neccessary. The author, if he withholds its appeal, must give us compensation in some other way. (endquote)

(Gershon picks up the phone now, and begins to whisper)

The Oxford University Press, that publishes Mr. Wrong's little anthology of murder — in its 'World Classics' series — simultaneously offers for sale an expurgated Herrick and a bowdlerized Shakespeare. What is the 'compensation in some other way' that readers of Oxford's desexualized Herrick and Shakespeare are supposed to seek?

These are the thoughts and questions I leave you with tonight, Wertham. And good night.

(phone hangs up, end of transcript)

Thursday, July 28, 2005


"Every boy has his idol! He may be a star athlete, a two-fisted Hollywood Western actor or a famous general. But some boys veer away from such heroes, and admire the bad men."

This is the beginning of a comic-book story in which a "hood" teaches two little boys: "If you kids wanna learn to be like me, you gotta be tough! Never give the other guys an even break!"

He shows them a well-dressed young boy. They proceed to threaten this boy and he hands over his money to them. But that does not satisfy the tough teacher. He bangs their heads together and exclaims: "You always have to slug 'em! Remember that!" This is the elementary lesson of crime comics.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

2 - "You Always Have to Slug 'em"

What are Crime Comic Books?

"And children grow up where the shadows falling
From wall and window have the lights exiled,
And know not that without the flowers are calling
Unto a day of distance, wind and wild."

—Rainer Maria Rilke

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Name calling

The opposition to my research has taken various forms:

I have been called a Billy Sunday.

Later that has been changed to Savonarola.

Millions of comic books in the hands of children have had whole pages defending comic books against "one Dr. Wertham."

A comic strip sequence syndicated in newspapers was devoted to a story of the famous child psychologist Dr. Fredrick Muttontop who speaks against crime comic books, but on returning to his old home town for a lecture on "Comic books, the menace to American childhood" is told that when he was a boy he used to read much worse things himself.

And the cover of a crime comic book has shown a caricature of me as a psychiatrist tied to a chair in his office with mouth tightly closed and sealed with many strips of adhesive tape.

This no doubt was wishful thinking on the part of the comic-book publishers.

But as my studies continue, it seems to many that Virgilia Peterson, author and critic, states the core of the question when she says: "The most controversial thing about Dr. Wertham's statements about comic books is the fact that anyone finds them controversial." Still, there are counterarguments and counteractions. These are all taken very seriously, read and followed carefully, and as a matter of fact incorporated into the social part of my research into the comic-book problem.

Little did I think when I started it that this study would continue for as long as it has. A specialist in child psychology referring to my correlation of crime comic books with violent forms of juvenile delinquency wrote disdainfully that no responsibility should be placed on "such trivia as comic books." I thought that once, too. But the more children I study, the more comic books I read, and the more I analyze the arguments of comic book defenders, the more I learn that what may appear as "trivia" to adults is not trivia in the lives of many children.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Filthy men, women, lovers, girls, ducks, and mice

As my work continues, I have established the basic ingredients of the most numerous and widely read comic books:
1) violence
sadism and cruelty
- and -
the superman philosophy, an offshoot of Nietzsche's superman who said, "When you go to women, don't forget the whip."
I have also found that what seemed at first a problem in child psychology has much wider implications. Why does our civilization give to the child not its best but its worst, in paper, in language, in art, in ideas? What is the social meaning of these supermen, superwomen, super-lovers, super-boys, supergirls, super-ducks, super-mice, super-magicians, super-safecrackers? How did Nietzsche get into the nursery?

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Sunday "mills" rebuttal

Some of my psychiatric friends regard my comics research as a Don Quixotic enterprise. But I have gradually learned that the number of comic books is so enormous that the pulp paper industry is vitally interested in their mass production. If anything, I am fighting not wind mills, but paper mills. Moreover, a most important part of my research consists in the reading and analysis of hundreds of comic books. This task is not Quixotic but Herculean—reminiscent, in fact, of the job of trying to clean up the Aegean stables.

Take that.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Newspapers and the benefit of censorship

Newspaper comic strips function under a sever censorship exercised by some 1,500 newspaper editors of the country who sometimes reject details or even whole sequences of comic strips. For comic books there exists no such censorship by an outside agency which has the authority to reject. When comic strips are reprinted as comic books, the censorship that existed before, when they were intended for adults, disappears and the publisher enjoys complete license. He can (and sometimes does) add a semipornographic story for the children, for example, and a gory cover—things from which censorship protects the adult comic strip reader.


Thank you again, Gershon.

Friday, July 22, 2005

The phone rings at 4am, It's Gershon Legman. I run to grab a pen and quickly begin to write it all down:

...Yes, Wertham! Are you listening? Two! TWO!!

TWO MASKS serve to cover our transvaluation of censored sexuality into sadism and literary lynch — the murder-mystery and the 'spirited' heroine. (More violent than either, the comic-book is reserved as yet for children.) The murder-mystery is still the more popular, and for that reason perhaps the more dangerous, but the two are not different in any integral respect. The 'spirited' heroine merely enacts openly the sadistic pursuit and ultimate flagellation and destruction that the murder-mystery generally expresses only in symbols: in an appeal that passes through the censorship of the conscious mind disguised as justice, disguised as an exercise in mental agility, disguised as light, 'relaxing' entertainment.

Keep writing this down, Wertham. I have a lot to get off my chest tonight.

Now where was I? Wertham, can you read that last bit back to me?

"... mental agility, disguised as light, 'relaxing' entertainment."

Oh Yes, that's right. Yes, for the real victim in the murder-mystery of our much consumption — as George Jean Nathan has pointed out — is not the murderee but the murderer. The mudered individual is seldom pictured as an object of sympathy. More likely he (or she) is described as 'swine' who should have been killled off years before, and whose murderer should really be given the Nobel prize. This is done partly to pose a large number of enemies — in the jargon, 'suspects' — but due to a greater degree in order not to excite any impulses of sympathy or tenderness in the reader, even for the victim; since the entire purpose of the murder book is to excite and satisfy quite different impulses.

By casting one living individual into the character of a murderer, he is thrown automatically outside the pale of humanity, and neither justice nor mercy need be shown him. He can be tracked down callously and with superhuman intelligence by the much-mannered detective with whom the reader is clearly expected to identify himself — except, perhaps, in the first few chapters, where he savors the details of the kill in the character of the killer. The inane mannerisms and exotic eruditions — more recently the mock-virile 'toughness' — of the detective-superman are solely intended (if their easing the writer's task be omitted from the consideration) to pose a high degree of superior individuality for him, and thus to increase the gratification and certainty with which the reader will project himself into the detective personality. Naturally, this projectability-coefficient is the measure of the length and financial success of the series in the which the particular detective appears.

The reader is, then, the detective — the supra-legal avenger. The police, who might snatch his prey from his private vengeance to public justice, are endlessly depicted as flat-footed bunglers, utterly incapable of bringing a routine murder to solution. And merely through committing this single murder — seldom more, unless forced into them to cover his tracks — the detective's prey (that is to say, the reader's prey) is degraded from the right of mercy, and is hounded without a qualm to his public humiliation before the assembled characters in the last chapter and to his eventual and inevitable suicide on the last page. This final humiliation and/or life-for-a-life suicide has, of course, become standard in murder-mysteries as being easier to write, less anti-climactic, and more titillatingly violent than courtroom justice — such as it might be — might be.

This pattern degradation of the murderer-victim from the right to mercy, to justice, due process of law, or even a lousy cot in the county jail is the hallmark and, in fact, the definition of lynching — whether armchair or hilltop. It works on the important but seldom stated principle by which, for instance, we arrange to have lambs slaughtered for food: They are very pretty little animals, and their bleating is quite piteous, but they simply are not human and they simply do not count.

In the same way Germans were given to understand that Jews are not human and, as such, can properly be gassed, electrocuted, and incinerated wholesale. In precisely the same way we are thrilled by a newsreel of the burning to death of a Japanese before our eyes. It is merely necessary to propagandize us first into an acceptance of the non-human status of the Japanese. This done, our previously conditioned sympathy with the underdog or with the inhumanly treated human can be shoved beneath the surface, and we are then properly able to enjoy photographs of a Japanese lynched with a flammenwerfer of his skull denuded of flesh, fitted with a brass top, and used as a tobacco humidor. Naturally, similar photographs of the body of an American burned to death or so desecrated by a Japanese would still strike as beastial and inhuman.

Though ignorance of the principle here involved, Northerners tend to assume a very superior attitude of deploring when confronted with the fact of lynching of Negroes in the South. They tend to think of Southerners as a gang of barbarians and murderers, of their well-publicized gallantry as a mere archaic pose. Yet there are thousands — perhaps millions — of Southerners who, for the pain protection of their economic interest, prefer to think of the Negro as non-human, and of his lynching as no more culpable, really, than the squashing of a cockroach in the sink; and who would feel no more outrage to their gallant impulses in castrating, branding, or a killing a Negro than a friendly Westerner feels in castrating, branding, or killing a bull.

We Northerners, in precisely the same way can accept with vapid equanimity the instantaneous obliteration of a hundred thousand Japanese, Germans, Russians, Martians, or any other group designated as enemy non-humans (reserving, of course, the right to execute enemy generals for slapping or underfeeding our prisoners of war), Englishmen deal in precisely the same way with Hindus and Jews, and — to revert — the reading public deals in precisely the same fashion with the synthetic murderer in its murder-fantasies. There is no difference, unless it be that all but the murder-mystery reader have some excuse. He alone lynches in cold blood.

Observe the specific requirements, his calmness, tabulated by Mr. Stephen Leacock in the Saturday Review of Literature for July 8th, 1939. The world is only a matter of months from the total conflagration of war, the Canadian humorist placidly congratulates himself thus:
I am one of those who like each night, after the fret and worry of the day, to enjoy about twenty cents' worth of murder before turning off the light and going to sleep. Twenty cents a night is about the cost of this, for first class murder by our best writers. Ten-cent murder is apt to be either stale or too suggestive of crime.
Did you say 'relaxing'? Soporific! Murder-lullabies for grown-ups like the Gebrüder Grimm's blood-thirsty folk tales, their sex watered down and their blood-thirstiness jazzed up from Giambattista Basile's originals. Mr. Leacock's concluding bit of advice is also worthy of any compleat lyncher's consideration:
Don't be afraid to hang the criminal at the end; better lay the story, if you can, in a jurisdiction where they hang them, because to us, the reader, the electric chair sounds too uncomfortable. But hanging is old and respectable ... I mean we want him hanged [Mr. Leacock's italics]; don't let him fall into the sea out of his aeroplane. It's not good enough. Hold him tight by the pants till you get him in the gallows.
Mr. Leacock is presumably kidding, but his bare-naked, unexpurgated accents of bloodlust would be printable even if — as one may suspect — he was entirely serious. The murder-mystery reader feels no shame, cannot see himself for the super-murderer that he patently is. His murderer-victim kills just once. He, the reader, kills three hundred times a year — daily except Sunday — generally just before going to sleep. 'First class murder by our best writers.'

... And with that, I too welcome sleep. Did you get all that? Thank you. Good night, Dr. Wertham. I'll speak with you again in a week.

(phone hangs up, end of transcript)

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Two Haikus


The comic BOOKS are
mostly read by children. The
comic STRIPS, by adults.

There is, of course,


an overlap, but the
distinction is a valid
and important one.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

I remember back when all of this was new to me and my fellow researchers ...

Back then, we began to study the effects of comic-book reading more consistantly and systematically. In our time, we saw many kinds of children: normal ones; troubled ones; delinquents; those from well-to-do families and from the lowest rung of the economic ladder; children from different parts of the city; children referred by different public and private agencies; the physically well and the physically ill and handicapped; children with normal, subnormal and superior intelligence.

Our research involved not only the examination, treatment and follow-up study of children, but also discussions with parents, relatives, social workers, psychologists, probation officers, writers of children's books, camp counsellors, physicians—especially pediatricians—and clergymen. We made the interesting observation that those nearest to actual work with children regarded comic books as a powerful influence, disapproved of them and considered them harmful. On the other hand, those with the most highly specialized professional training knew little or nothing about comic books and assumed them to be insignificant.

Our study concerned itself with the comic books and not with the newspaper comic strips. There are fundamental differences between the two, which the comic-book industry does its best to becloud. Comic strips appear mainly in newspapers and Sunday supplements of newspapers. Comic books are separate entities, always with colored pictures, and a glaring cover. They are called "books" by children, "pamphlets" by the printing trade and "magazines" by the Post Office which accords them second class mailing privileges.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

I can't get her out of my mind. (and I can't stop thinking about children)

After the conversation with this woman, I felt that not only did I have to be a kind of detective to trace some of the roots of the modern mass delinquency, but that I ought to be some kind of defense counsel for the children who were condemned and punished by the very adults who permitted them to be tempted and seduced. As far as children are concerned, the punishment does not fit the crime. I have noticed that a thousand times. Not only is it cruel to take a child away from his family, but what goes on in many reformatories hurts children and does them lasting harm. Cruelty to children is not only what a drunken father does to his son, but what those in high estate, in courts and welfare agencies, do to straying youth.

The female civic leader was only one of many who had given me a good idea of what I was up against, but I took courage from the fact that societies for the prevention of cruelty to children were formed many years after societies for the prevention of cruelty to animals.

Monday, July 18, 2005

After we'd talked I found myself thinking

There was no doubt that this was an intelligent and well-meaning woman, and yet the unfairness of it all had not occurred to her. Children of eleven do not read only animal comics—whether the parents know it or not. They see all the crime, horror, superman and jungle comics elsewhere if they are not allowed at home. There is a whole machinery to protect adults from seeing anything that is obscene or too rough in the theater, in the movies, in books and even in night clubs. The children are left entirely unprotected. They are shown crime, delinquency and sexual abnormality, but the punishment they get if they succumb to the suggestions is far more severe than what an adult gets if he strays from the path of virtue.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

More of my conversation with this woman

"I have a daughter of eleven," she said. "She reads comic books. Of course only the animal comics. I have heard that there are some others, but I have never seen them. Of course I would never let them come into my home and she would never read them. As for what you said about crime comics, Doctor, they are only read by adults. Even so, these crime comics probably aren't any worse than what children have read all along. You know, dime novels and all that." She looked at me then with a satisfied look, pleased that there was one subject she could really enlighten me about.

I asked her, "In the group that I am to speak to, do you think some of the children of these women have gotten into trouble with stealing or any other delinquency?"

She moved forward confidentially. "You've guessed it," she said. "That's really why we want these lectures. You'd be astonished at what these children from these good middle-class homes do nowadays. You know, you won't believe it, but they break into apartments, and a group of young boys molested several small girls right in our neighborhood! Not to speak of the mugging that goes on after dark."

"What happens to these boys?" I asked her.

"You know how it is," she said. "One has to hush these things up as much as possible, but when it got too bad, of course, they were put away."

Saturday, July 16, 2005

A female's opinion

Some time after I had become aware of the effects of comic books, a woman visited me. She was a civic leader in the community and invited me to give some lectures on child guidance, education and delinquency. We had a very pleasant conversation. It happened that on that very morning I had been over-ruled by the Children's Court. I had examined a boy who had threatened a woman teacher with a switchblade knife. Ten years before, that would have been a most unusual case, but now I had seen quite a number of similar ones. This particular boy seemed to me a very good subject for treatment. He was not really a "bad boy," and I do not believe in the philosophy that children have instinctive aggressive urges to commit such acts. In going over his life, I had asked him about his reading. He was enthusiastic about comic books. I looked over some of those he liked the best. They were filled with alluring tales of shooting, knifing, hitting and strangling. He was so intelligent, frank and open that I considered him not an inferior child, but a superior one. I know that many people glibly call such a child maladjusted; but in reality he was a child well adjusted to what we had offered him to adjust to. In other words, I felt this was a seduced child. But the Court decided otherwise. They felt that society had to be protected from this menace. So they sent him to a reformatory.

In outlining to the civic leader what I would talk about, I mentioned comic books. The expression of her face was most disappointed. Here she thought she had come to a real psychiatrist. She liked all the other subjects I had mentioned; but about comic books she knew everything herself.


Thank you again, Gershon.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Our Friday phonecall with Mr. Gershon Legman

Hello Dr. Wertham. Are you recording? Good. Thank you.

Now where was I? Oh, yes. It is no accident that the end of Restoration bawdry coincided precisely with the fullest flowering of literary sadism in England. The Elizabethans had wrung blood in plenty out of sex — in Romeo & Juliet, a 'love'-play, seven of the characters are carted off dead — but there was no dearth of lust. Times change. The elegant eighteenth-century littérateurs, Johnson and Pope, are famous equally for the sexual purity of their writing, the sadistic cruelty of their speech. Sex being forbidden, violence took its place.

First had come the martyrologies and revenger-dramas, more a century before, then the pirate almanacs and highwaymen lives; but these gave way quickly to the more refined brutality of Richardson's Pamela and Walpole's 'Gothic' novel. The whipped, stripped, and humiliated heroine-victim died a thousand deaths before the public grew bored with her writhings, applauded her lampooning in Northanger Abbey and the Ingoldsby Legends. While in France the Marquis de Sade added sex to the Gothic pattern — and gained thereby a century of mixed obloquy and praise for the British 'sadism' he had merely borrowed — the Anglo-American pubic, still eschewing sex, turned to fiercer pleasures in the murder-mystery, adapted by Edgar Allen Poe from the pirate & highwaymen memoirs.

Examine the journalistic detail of the first murder-mystery, pubished in Philadelphia, 1841, in Graham's Lady's & Gentleman's Magazine:
On a chair lay a razor, besmeared with blood. On the hearth were two or three long and thick tresses of grey human hair, also dabbled in blood, and seeming to have been pulled out by the roots ...

Of Madame L'Espanaye no traces here were seen; but an unusual quantity of soot being observed in the fire-place, a search was made in the chimney, and (horrible to relate!) the corpse of the daughter, head downward, was dragged therefrom, it having been thus forced up the narrow aperture for a considerable distance [... Dr. Freud, please note]. The body was quite warm. Upon examining it, many excoriations were perceived, no doubt occasioned by the violence with which it had been thrust up and disengaged. Upon the faces were many severe scratches, and upon the throat dark bruises, and deep indentations of finger nails, as if the deceased had been throttled to death.

After a thorough investigation of every portion of the house, without further discovery, the party made its way into a small paved yard in the rear of the building, where lay the corpse of the old lady, with her throat so entirely cut that, upon an attempt to raise her, the head fell off, and rolled some distance. The body, as well as the head, was fearfully mutilated — the former so much so as scarcely to retain any semblance of humanity.

To this horrible mystery there is not as yet, we believe, the slightest clew. [sic.]
This is legal. This is printable. This is classic. But would it be legal, would it be printable, would it be classic if, instead of the details of murder and death, Poe had substituted with equal artistic precision the details of that act out of which life emerges? Apparently not. His second murder-mystery involved a girl (pardon the expression) no better than she should be; but Gaboriau, Wilkie Collins, Dickens, and Doyle cleaned all that out. By the time the murder-mystery was reimported to America, about thirty years ago, it was entirely sexless. Only sadism and pleasure in death had stood the crossing.

Poe's great contribution had been the enheroing of the avenger instead of the criminal, and with this one significant sop to moral pose, literary murder became respectable. The reading public went on a century-long debauch of printed sadism to replace sex notoriously absent in Victorian literature. (For weaker stomachs, with a religious turn, the ghost story simultaneously served up masochistic terrors.)

This is not the place to study the nineteenth century's love of death: the delight in funeral pomp, the clerical and poetical gloatings over the death of little children — nothing to compare with our own daily newsphotos of dying babies and squashed dogs — the special Christmas numbers of household magazines, specially chock full of murder; the reprint after expurgated reprint (in eight volumes each) of Foxe's Book of Martyrs, the endless purified editions of the State Trials in twenty-guinea sets and penny chapbooks, with now & again a poetic procés-verbal, as in the twelve-fold necrophily of Browning's laundered 'masterpiece,' The Ring and the Book: 'telling the story of a hideous murder twelve times over,' the Encyclopaedia Britannica marvels, '...insisting upon every detail with the minuteness of a law report.'

Nowhere, so much as in contemporary fiction, has this movement to substitute sadism for sex progressed so far and become so blatant. Yet so pervasive and so disguised is this perversion — in the exact sense of the word — that, when attacked at all, literature is attacked today not as sadism and sex-hatred but as overstressed normality: as 'obscenity.'

Goodbye for now, It's always a pleasure, I'll talk with you again in a week.

(phone hangs up, end of transcript)

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Circulation numbers

No one had any idea of the enormous number of comic books. The industry had not given out any figures, nor had a magazine or newspaper published any. When I made public the result of my own estimates and computations, namely that there were (then) some sixty million comic books a month, my statement was met with absolute incredulity. Some people thought that was a misprint, and that sixty million must be a yearly figure. But shortly afterwards authoritative magazines and newspapers (such as Business Week) repeated my figure as an authentic one.

Nor was I believed at first when I stated that children spend an inordinate amount of time with comic books, many of them two or three hours a day. I asked those working with groups of children, "How can you get the 'total picture' of a child when you leave out entirely what occupies him two or three hours a day?" Again and again it happened that when they made inquiries they told me of finding out to their surprise how many comic books children read, how bad these books are and what an enormous amount of time children spend with them.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Dishonest children and appropriate diagnosis

At no time, up to the present, has a single child ever told me as an excuse for a delinquency or for misbehavior that comic books were to blame. Nor do I nor my associates ever question a child in such a way as to suggest that to him. If I find a child with fever I do not ask him, "What is the cause of your fever? Do you have measles?" I examine him and make my own diagnosis. It is our clinical judgment, in all kinds of behavior disorders and personality difficulties of children, that comic books do play a part. Of course they are not in the textbooks. But once alerted to the possibility, we unexpectedly found, in case after case, that comic books were a contributing factor not to be neglected. I asked psychiatric colleagues, child psychologists and social workers. They knew nothing about comic books. They knew that there were such little books; they might even have had them in their waiting rooms. And they knew about funny animal stories that children liked to read. Comic books, they assumed, were just reprints of comic strips from newspapers or Sunday supplements—"like 'BRINGING UP FATHER,' you know"—or other such humorous sequences. Why, they felt, should any physician take a serious interest in them?

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

That's it, I've made up my mind

Slowly, and at first reluctantly, I have come to the conclusion that this chronic stimulation, temptation and seduction by comic books, both their content and their alluring advertisements of knives and guns, are contributing factors to many children's maladjustment.

All comic books with their words and expletives in balloons are bad for reading, but not every comic book is bad for children's minds and emotions. The trouble is that the "good" comic books are snowed under by those which glorify violence, crime and sadism.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Treatment, disregard, and factors

When the Lafargue staff conferred about Willie's case, as we had about so many similar others, we asked ourselves: How does one treat such a boy? How does one help him to emotional balance while emotional excitement is instilled in him in an unceasing stream by these comic books? Can one be satisfied with the explanation that he comes from a broken family and lives in an underpriviledged neighborhood? Can one scientifically disregard what occupied this boy's mind for hours every day? Can we say that this kind of literary and pictorial influence had no effect at all, disregarding our clinical experience in many similar cases? Or can we get anywhere by saying that he must have been disordered in the first place or he would not have been so fascinated by comic books?

That would have meant ignoring the countless other children equally fascinated whom we had seen. Evidently in Willie's case there was a constellation of many factors. Which was finally the operative one? What in the last analysis tipped the scales?

Sunday, July 10, 2005

More dialogue, crime, and gunplay

Here, too, is the customary close-up of the surprised and frightened-looking policeman with his hands half-raised saying:
as he is threatened by a huge fist holding a gun to his face. This is followed by mild disapproval ("You've gone too far! This is murder!") as the uniformed man lies dead on the ground. This comic book is endorsed by child specialists who are connected with important institutions. No wonder Willie's aunt did not trust her own judgement sufficiently.
The stories have a lot of crime and gunplay and, in addition, alluring advertisements of guns, some of them full-page and in bright colors, with four guns of various sizes and descriptions on a page:
Get a sweet-shootin' -------- [gun] and get in on the fun!
Here is the repetition of violence and sexiness which no Freud, Krafft-Ebing or Havelock Ellis ever dreamed would be offered to children, and in such profusion. Here is one man mugging another, and graphic pictures of the white man shooting colored natives as though they were animals: "You sure must have treated these beggars rough in that last trip through here!" And so on. This is the sort of thing that Willie's aunt wanted to keep him from reading.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Willie pt. 3

The Lafargue Clinic has some of Willie's comic books. They are before me as I am writing this, smudgingly printed and well thumbed, just as he used to pore over them with his weak eyes. Here is the lecherous-looking bandit overpowering the attractive girl who is dressed (if that is the word) for very hot weather ("She could come in handy, then! Pretty little spitfire, eh!") in the typical pre-rape position. Later he threatens to kill her:
"Yeah, it's us, you monkeys, and we got an old friend of your here . . . Now unless you want to see somp'n FATAL happen to her, u're gonna kiss that gold goodbye and lam out of here!"
Here is violence galore, violence in the beginning, in the middle, at the end:
(This is an actual sequence of six pictures illustrating brutal fighting, until in the seventh picture: "He's out cold!")


As expected, yesterday was very nice, Gershon. Thank you. We look very forward to next Friday's contribution.

Friday, July 08, 2005

One again our Friday guest columnist: Mr. Gershon Legman

I am happy to present another Friday column by Mr. Gershon Legman.

Mr. Legman comes to us from an undetermined location and does not have a computer, therefore I am transcribing his statements via telephone and publishing them, as a direct transcript, as he speaks to me. We have agreed to do this every Friday.

And so without further delay, Mr. Legman ...

Thank you once again for having me, Dr. Wertham.

h-hrghmm. (cough)

What is the 'elsewhere' of sex? Religion suggests prayer. Psychiatry proposes sublimation. The man & woman in the street are interested in neither. Transvaluation requires a fully equivalent satisfaction substituted for that suppressed. A sanctity that would equivalue a lifetime of sex, in depth and intensity, is beyond reach of all but saints. Sublimation to this same degree is impossible in our culture to all save an enfranchised élite: the bridge-builders, war-makers, movie-actresses. A thousand men must die to write one general's name in history, ten thousand women be damned to neurosis to pay one actress' wage; a million lives sink in the mud of the Nile to build one pyramid, found one concert series, immortalize one ironmonger's name in philanthropy. Sublimation is not for the million — unless through a self-sacrifice — seldom for the few.

Professional moral elements, busying themselves with censorship, prefer to believe that sex can be replaced by physical and emotional exertions measurably less violent than itself, such as calisthenics, cold baths, and bingo. The sinister absurdity of this pious hope is everywhere obvious. The one thing, and the only thing short of total sublimation, that can replace sex has become increasingly familiar decade by decade since the general introduction of Puritan censorship about 1740, and has reached so gargantuan a stage of formal development all around us that reflection upon the possible next step is plainly terrifying.

There is no mundane substitute for sex except sadism. You may search the indexes to Krafft-Ebing, Hirschfeld, Guyon, or any dozen sex scientists, but you will find no other human activity that can replace sex completely — spurlos versenkt. Narcissism, homosexuality, zoöphily: these are clearly misdirections of ordinary sexual acts towards biologically unsuitable recipients. Fetichisms in all their number seldom supersede sexuality, generally do no more than to excite to it by a deviant concentration upon one attractive feature — breast, hair, foot, buttock, or whatever — an interest usually spread over all. But sadism does not substitute. It is complete in itself. It can dispense with all earthly relations to sex — can dispense even with orgasm — thus allowing its adherents publicly to preen themselves on the 'purity' of the ruthless delights.

Geoffrey Gorer, the foremost student of the Marquis de Sade, makes a literary connection very plain in his Bali & Angkor, 1936:

In English literature we can trace a series of secular mythologies or accepted beliefs . . . to-day in the ecstacies of sexual love and violence, or (to use a single word for both manifestations) in thrills. The various uses of this word in current speech are sufficiently indicative. People talk of the thrill of love, the aesthetic thrill, the religious thrill, the thrill of danger, the thrill of murder, of robbery, and sudden death. Unfortunately we believe in our mythologies instead of using them, a disastrous and most dangerous situation . . . especially as the law does everything possible to prevent people enjoying the heaven which is in their art so endlessly preached at them, so that most people are in a chronic state of unsatisfied sexual desire . . . What is particularly dangerous is that despite all the prohibitions of convention and law people do acquire sexual experience, and for the greater part, find out that they have been stuffed with lies, that though pleasant, it is no such lasting ecstasy and final solution as art would leave us to suppose; and then they are ready for the other half of our myth, violence.



(long pause)


. . . That's all for today.

(phone hangs up, end of transcript)

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Willie's interests

Willie was always a rabid comic-book reader. He "doted" on them. He spent a large part of the money he earned to buy them. Seeing all their pictures of brutality and shooting and their endless glamorous advertisements for guns and knives, his aunt had become alarmed—years before the Polo Grounds shooting—and did not permit them into the house. She also forbade him to read them. But of course such direct action on the part of a parent has no chance of succeeding in an environment where comic books are all over the place in enormous quantities. She encountered a further obstacle, too. Workers at a public child-guidance agency connected with the schools made her distrust her natural good sense and told her she should let Willie read all the comic books he wanted. She told one of the Lafargue social workers, "I didn't like for him to read these comic books, but I figured they knew better than I did."

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

But I knew this negro boy Willie long before he killed a man

Yes, it happened that I had known Willie for some time before all this. He had been referred to the Lafargue Clinic—a free psychiatric clinic in Harlem—by the Reverend Shelton Hale Bishop as a school problem. He was treated at the Clinic. We had studied his earliest development. We knew when he sat up, when he got his first tooth, when he began to talk and walk, how long he was bottle fed, when he was toilet trained. Psychiatrists and social workers had conferences about him.

Willie had been taken care of by his great-aunt since he was nineteen months old. His parents had separated shortly before. This aunt, an intelligent, warm, hard-working woman, had done all she could to give Willie a good upbringing. She worked long hours at domestic work and with her savings sent him (at the age of two) to a private nursery school, where he stayed until he was eight. Then she became ill, could not work so hard and so could not afford his tuition there. He was transferred to a public school where he did not adjust so well, missing the attention he had received in the private school. At that time his aunt took him to the Lafargue Clinic. He had difficulty with his eyes and had to wear glasses which needed changing. According to his aunt he had occasionally suffered from sleepwalking which started when he was six or seven. Once when his great-aunt waked him up from a somnambulistic state he said, half-awake, that he was "going to look for his mother." He was most affectionate with his aunt, and she had the same affection for him. She helped him to get afternoon jobs at neighborhood grocery stores, delivering packages.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005


In the apartment where this boy Willie lived with great-aunt, and on the roof of the building, the police found "two .22-caliber rifles, a high-powered .22-caliber target pistol, ammunition for all three guns, and a quantity of ammunition for a Luger pistol." This served as sufficient reason to arrest and hold the boy's great-aunt on a Sullivan Law charge (for possession of a gun). She was not released until the boy, who was held in custody all during this time, had signed a confession stating that he had owned and fired a .45-caliber pistol—which, incidentally, was never found. In court the judge stated, "We cannot find you guilty, but I believe you to be guilty." With this statement he sentenced Willie to an indeterminate sentence in the state reformatory.

For the public the case was closed. The authorities had looked for the cause of the extraordinary event, which might have affected anyone in the crowd, in one little boy and took it out on him, along with a public slap at his aunt. They ignored the fact that other random shooting by juveniles has been going on in this as in other sections of the city. Only a few days after the Polo Grounds shooting, a passenger on a Third Avenue elevated train was wounded by a shot that came through the window. But with Willie under lock and key, the community felt that its conscience was clear.

Monday, July 04, 2005

It ended up being a negro

In such a spectacular case the police go in for what the headlines call a dragnet. This had to be a pretty big one. In the crowded section of the city overlooking the Polo Grounds there were hundreds of apartment buildings in a neighborhood of more than thirty blocks, and from the roof of any of them someone could have fired such a shot. As a matter of fact, at the very beginning of the search detectives confiscated six rifles from six persons. Newspapers and magazines played up the case as the "MYSTERY DEATH," the "BALL PARK DEATH" and "THE RANDOM BULLET."

Soon the headlines changed to "HOLD NEGRO YOUTH IN SHOOTING" and the stories told of the "gun-happy fourteen-year-old Negro Boy" who was being held by the authorities. Editorials reproached his aunt for being "irresponsible in the care and training of a youngster" and for "being on the delinquent side of the adult ledger."

Happy fourth of July.

Sunday, July 03, 2005


In the beginning of July, 1950, a middle-aged man was sitting near the bleachers at the Polo Grounds, watching a baseball game. He had invited the thirteen-year-old son of a friend, who sat with him excited and radiating enthusiasm. Suddenly the people sitting nearby heard a sharp sound. The middle-aged man, scorecard in hand, slumped over and his young friend turned and was startled to see him looking like a typical comic book illustration. Blood was pouring from his head and ears. He died soon afterwards and was carried away. Spectators rushed to get the vacant seats, not realizing what had happened.

Saturday, July 02, 2005

Predelinquent, pre-insecure, or prefearful?

As Hal Ellson has shown again recently in his book TOMBOY, children who commit serious delinquencies often suffer from "insecurity and fearfulness." And children who are insecure and fearful are certainly in danger of committing a delinquent act. Just as there is such a thing as being predelinquent, so there are conditions where a child is pre-insecure, or prefearful. Would it not be better, for purposes of prevention, instead of making an illogical contrast between a social category like delinquency and a psychological category like fearfulness, to think of children in trouble—in trouble with society, in trouble with their families or in trouble with themselves? And is it not likely that "too much exposure to horror stories and to violence" is bad for all of them when they get into trouble, and before they get into trouble?

That was very nice

Thank you for those comments yesterday, Gershon. We look forward to your future contributions.

Friday, July 01, 2005

Introducing our Friday guest columnist: Mr. Gershon Legman

I am happy to announce that business arrangements have been finalized, and I am now allowed to introduce, with some permanance, our new Friday columnist, Mr. Gershon Legman.

Mr. Legman comes to us from an undetermined location and does not have a computer, therefore I will be transcribing his statements via telephone and publishing them under my authorized blogger account.

Please give a warm reception to Mr. Legman. So, it is without further ado ...

Hello Dr. Wertham, thank you for having me.



Art fell on its knees. Pressure was put on the publishers . . . English fiction became pure . . . But at this point human nature intervened; poor human nature! when you pinch it in one place it bulges out in another, after the fashion of a lady's figure.
— George Moore
Confessions of a Young Man

THE CENSOR'S unequivocal 'You must not!' is seldom answered with an equally uncompromising 'I will!' Ashamed to oppose the censor's morality, and afraid to contravene his authority, the writer's first reaction is to evade the censorship, to see what can be sneaked through, what can be gotten away with, what can be disguised just enough to pass the censor but not so much as to escape the audience.

Hypocrisy, equivoque, misdirection: these are the subterfuges to which censors are blind, upon which audiences smile. The bawdy word, the rebel thought, the concept still taboo: these the author backs in upon the stage, masked and muffled, with arrows tangled in their hair pointing all in fraudulent directions. Words, thoughts, ideas — all are punned upon, hinted at, symbolized, turned upside-down,and acrosticked, acted out in idiotic mummery, and finally, for the benefit of the dullest, are lettered out in kindergarten style. Thus Shakespeare's 'Her very C's, her U's, 'n' her T's' (Twelfth Night, II.v.88), the meaning of which puzzles professors so much, audiences so little. When genius must stoop to the nursery subterfuge of spelling its tabooed word out, nothing is to be expected of lesser craftsmen in resisting the censorship of sex.

The author pauses before truth, one eye furtively upon the censor, the other leering at his audience. He gibbers, he capers, he thumbs his nose and fires off popguns, but the truth is not in him. Now, as in Isaiah's time, truth is fallen in the street, dragged back & forth in mud lest the censor see it. His integrity forfeit — pawned, gone ———— forgotten — the author juggles nonsense before the censor's face, the sense of nonsense behind his back. He tips his audience the broad wink of the elliptical dash —— batters them clownishly on the head with a bladderful of asterix, pokes them in the ribs with a knowing blank to represent coitus inconsummatus; takes up his castrated tale again with 'Later . . . .'

He is a writer. He is Prometheus. His is the guardianship of light. But fear infects him. And from leader — light bearer — he has fallen away to jester and dishonorable jape. Truth is falsified, falseness made more false, darkness dissipated not at all by his flameless fire.

What can be said for men of letters whose vindication of the basic human right to freedom of speech can rise no higher than piddling and surreptitious naughtiness, cocked snooks when the censor's back is turned? Only that this sort of humor is not undertaken by grown men strictly as humor, but rather as their resistance to an oppressive censorship, for the sheer éclat of twitting and out-witting it. That, as resistance, it is ineffective, is due primarily to its being scaled so very small. For pranks and paraphrase and token resistance have their limits, and these are quickly reached. Having buffooned it to the end of the censorship tether—and it is short—the only recourse for both artist and audience in transvaluation, displacement, the siphoning off of the suppressible urge for expression elsewhere.

(phone hangs up, end of transcript)