Wednesday, August 31, 2005


While the white people in jungle books are blonde and athletic and shapely, the idea conveyed about the natives is that there are fleeting transitions between apes and humans. I have repeatedly found in my studies that this characterization of colored people as subhuman, in conjunction with depiction of forceful heroes as blond Nordic supermen, has made a deep—and I believe lasting—impression on young children. And amidst all the violence between slaves, apes and humans in these books are big pictures of lush girls, as nude as the Post Office permits. Even on an adult, the impression of sex plus violence is definite.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Unhealthy diet

Jungle, horror and interplanetary comics are also crime comics of a special kind. Jungle comics specialize in torture, bloodshed and lust in an exotic setting. Daggers, claws, guns, wild animals, well- or over-developed girls in brassieres and as little else as possible, dark "natives," fires, stakes, posts, chains, ropes, big-chested and heavily muscled Nordic he-men dominate the stage. They contain such details as one girl squirting fiery "radium dust" on the protruding breasts of another girl ("I think I've discovered your Achilles' heel, chum!"); white men banging natives around; a close-up view of the branded breast of a girl; a girl about to be blinded.

Whenever I see a book like this in the hands of a little seven-year-old boy, his eyes glued to the printed page, I feel like a fool to have to prove that this kind of thing is not good mental nourishment for children! What is wrong with the prevailing ethics of educators and psychologists that they have silently permitted this kind of thing year after year, and that after I had drawn attention to it some of them still continued to defend it as helping children learn about life and "get rid of their pent-up aggressions"? However obvious it might seem, when I saw children getting into trouble and getting sent wholesale to reformatories, I felt that I had to go on with this tedious work.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Not that I take this personally, but ...

Between the gory pages of the comic that I described yesterday is a whole page devoted to an attack on "A Dr. Wertham [who] discussed the problem of juvenile delinquency in America today and pinned the blame for some of these cases on comic magazines." This page ends, as if to be contrary and mock, by drawing attention to "Dr ————'s [a psychiatrist] endorsement on the first page of every one of our magazines."


Sunday, August 28, 2005

A criminal in a cowboy hat is still a criminal, crime still kills the cows

The problem of the effect of crime comic books is like a combined clinical and laboratory problem in infectious diseases. You not only have to study the possibly affected individuals; you have to investigate the potentially injurious agents themselves, their varieties, their lives, their habitat. There is a considerable distance from the pure culture of the bacillus to the clinical case.

What about the "wholesome" adventure stories, the "Westerns," for example? The vast majority, if not all Western comic books are crime comic books. They describe all kinds of crime and brutality. For example, one marked on the cover as "YOUR FAVORITE WESTERN STAR" has an "arsenal advertisement" on the inside cover with the endorsement of ———— M.D., psychiatrist, on the page facing it. On the back cover is a full-page gun advertisement with a gun pictured across the whole page. This book is especially badly printed, and shows, among other things, the close-up of a dying man with blood streaming from his mouth.

In another Western, one man has gold dust thrown in his eyes (an example of what I call the injury-to-the-eye motif, this being a very frequent feature in comic books).

Another comic book expresses the whole philosophy: "Since when do we worry about killin' people?"

Saturday, August 27, 2005

More statistics

The number of comic-book titles is a particularly elusive figure. As Advertising Age put it, "Statistics in the comic book field are somewhat misleading. A certain amount of duplication and consequent distortion . . ." are present. A number of times when I cited a specific comic book it disappeared—to reappear promptly under a different name. Other titles just disappear, and new ones crop up constantly. So do names of "new" publishing firms. That is why I have called crime comic books "hit and run publications." Often the public does not even know which firm publishes which crime comic book, because the names of the firms publishing crime comic books are almost as elusive as the titles. They change, and quite a number of concerns function under different names for different comic books. To count the number of crime-comic titles at any given moment is therefore just as futile as to publish the names of objectionable comic books.

Crime comic books represented about one tenth of the total of all comic books in 1946-1947. In 1948-1949 they increased to one third of the total. By 1949 comic books featuring crime, violence and sadism made up over one half of the industry. By 1954 they form the vast majority of all comic books.

Friday, August 26, 2005


At the time when the industry began to promulgate new codes—the first general one announced after my first public criticism of crime comics—the number of crime comic books began to increase tremendously, both absolutely and in relation to non-crime comics. From 1937 to 1947 only nineteen crime comic titles existed, sixteen of them obvious crime comics, three of them so-called Western comic books that actually featured crimes. But during 1948, 107 new titles of crime comic books appeared, 53 straight crime comics, 54 "Westerns" featuring crime.

It seems that the comic-book industry was in considerable conflict. On the one hand, they were not anxious for the public to know that the comic-book business and its influence was so enormous—though one publisher said in a revealing public statement, "When you get that big you just can't escape public attention!" On the other hand, since a sizable amount of advertising is carried in comic books, they like to use figures as large as possible. So while one could still find figures lower than my estimates, one could also find figures as high as 75 million a month (Advertising Age) or 80 million a month (Association of Comics Magazine Publishers)

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Harming sells better than the nonharming

Owing to the conditioning of children by the industry, crime comic books are more widely read than harmless comics. As the editor of one publishing house stated, "The sports line of comic books is the cleanest type of comic book in America. We are going to drop it." (It was not "lucrative.")

One crime comic books announces on its cover that it is read by six million readers. It is interesting that this is one of the worst comic books, a veritable primer for teaching Junior juvenile delinquency. The Minister of Justice of the Dominion of Canada called this particular book, "a shocking instance of abuse of freedom of the press."

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

The Racket

The difficulty in arriving at accurate figures about comic books is considerable. One must distinguish between comic books printed, published, sold and, of course, read. The last item, the pass-on circulation, is most important, for many comic books after having been sold once for ten cents are not only traded for others, but are also sold repeatedly at lower prices: eight cents, six cents, two cents and even one cent. Even in such sales large sums are involved because the total numbers are so staggering. There are clandestine and half-clandestine stores, and backrooms of stores, about which adults know very little, which do business in these cut-rate transactions. On the whole crime comic books are monthly publications rather than bi-monthly like some of the harmless ones like Super Duck or Terrytoon Comics. They tend to have the largest editions and they are the ones most widely traded.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

They promised they'd remove their obscene material

So we carefully followed developments. In a crime comic that came out after the code had been in existence for some time, a representative specimen of this group shows: killing a policeman knocked out with the usual smart contemptuous wisecrack: "I can't stick around to explain, copper!"; a man shot in the stomach; a woman mugged and then killed with a hammer to get her pocketbook; blood; the up-to-date ending of one murder story: "Archer Frize didn't die in the electric chair! The state psychiatrists found him to be insane!"; detailed instructions about how to hold up a big grocery store; and a brutal murder story with the murderer not caught by the law, but dying by accident. (In the story murder is called a "mistake": "I knew it! They all make mistakes!")

Monday, August 22, 2005

Within the pages of a smut mag

Two stories are characterized on their first pages as "true F.B.I. cases," two as "true police cases." In one story, the first, out of fifty-one pictures no less than forty-five are scenes of violence and brutality. This, according to the seal on the cover, is an authorized percentage conforming to the comics code. I wonder how high the percentage must run before a comic book is considered as not conforming to the code? In no book for adults, including detective and mystery stories, in no movie, is such a proportion even approached.

The comic book I have just mentioned belonged to the early period of the much-publicized comics code. One might expect that at that time the Association of Comics Magazine Publishers would have wanted to do it particularly right, to show that the seal had a meaning. On the other hand, they may not have been able to mend their ways so quickly, and the improvements might come about gradually.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Avoiding grief, throwing myself back into my work

... When ... adolescent drug addiction had ... finally come to public attention, it ... led to the publication of lurid new comic books devoted entirely to the subject, like the one with the title, Teenage Dope Slaves. This is nothing but another variety of crime comic for a particularly deplorable character.

A further adornment of crime comics may be a seal on the cover indicating that the book is "Authorized A.C.M.P." (Association of Comics Magazine Publishers) and "Conforms to the comics code." This association, which is not listed in the telephone book, was formed following one of my most outspoken statements about what parents don't know about comic books. A representative sample of a comic book bearing this endorsement shows the customary unrelieved succession of crimes and violence. And among the weapons advertised in this comic book are guns, knives and whips—with thirty-seven illustrations of guns altogether, one of them a high-powered air pistol for $19.95. A District Attorney in New York City has definitely linked such arsenal advertisements to the actual arsenals confiscated from juveniles by the police.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Appreciation and farewell

Thank you Gershon. I'll miss you. I have nothing else to say today.

Friday, August 19, 2005

My eyes have not dried yet. I'm still crying as I replay this voice message from Gershon Legman again and again and again, over and over...

Wertham ... I apologize for this, but I'm intentionally leaving you this phone message on your answering machine at a time when I know you're not home, and are out at the Clinic. My reasons for this are complicated, but the short statement is I need to leave for a while. This will be the last you hear from me for sometime, and I'm sorry. But keep on with your own work and one day, I'll hope to return. I like you. Know that. And I'm sorry.

I want to close saying that with the exception of C.Day-Lewis ('Nicholas Blake') and Donat O'Donnell, who know what a murder-mystery is — and why — Mr. Howard Haycraft and his assembled experts in The Art of the Mystery Story (1946) — likewise Miss Barbara Howes and hers, in Chimera, Summer 1947 — confess themselves frankly puzzled as to why, except for the money in it, they write about murder, and why anybody wants to read about it. Their provisional solution, and apology, seems to be that human beings naturally lust after blood, and that the murder-writer is a sort of literary pimp, who serves the socially useful purpose of giving vicarious satisfaction on paper to this natural urge, thus keeping it from finding expression in lethal fact.

That 'mystery' writers are murder-pimps would be hard to gainsay. But the presumption that we, all of us, have some 'natural' component of bloodlust is presumption indeed. We have nothing of the sort. No animal kills for pleasure alone. But — we do have our frustrations. We do have our fears. We all have our inadequacies; sexual, economic, and personal. And it is for these that the prize-fight, the fox hunt, the sports page, tabloid, comic-book, and murder-mystery supply a safe, cheap, socially water-tight solution: institutionalized amok.

Are you impotent, frigid? Does your wife insult you in bed, your husband dominate you? Why get a divorce? Divorce is expensive — for Catholics, impossible. A murder-book is only ten cents to borrow, twenty-five cents to own — free, gratis & for nothing to write. Strangle your spouse nightly on paper. (The murder-mystery is the foundation of the family: it prevents divorce.) Does your boss tyranize and exploit you? Don't shoot him — you'll hang for it. Kill him nightly on paper — you the detective, he the hounded-down murderer. (The murder-mystery is the mainstay of usury: it prevents revolution.) Are you weak, stupid, namby-pamby, ineffective? Don't improve yourself. Don't turn against your constricting, recalcitrant environment. Dissipate the aggression you feel, siphon off your endocrine resources, be a killer, nightly — three hundred nights a year — for a dollar a week. Absurdly simple, cheaper than a hunting license, and you hunt human beings. (The murder-mystery is the backbone of civilization: it dispenses utterly with intelligence.)

Human blood in the gladiatorial arena kept Roman slave hordes satisfied with their dole of bread. Panem et circenses. Not by bread alone does man live. He needs blood spilled before his eyes, too, or he may want butter on that bread. Next after fire, the murder-mystery in society's most valuable servant. Without it, there might be some changes made.

Optimistically, perhaps, the Right Reverend Monsignor Ronald Knox finds the murder-mystery 'in danger of getting played out.' (The Tablet, London, Xmas 1946, vol. 188: page 355.) And modestly, as becomes the author of The Viaduct Murder, The Body in the Silo, &c. &c. — and, between murders, Bible translator and domestic prelate to His Holiness the Pope — Monsignor Knox adds:
Nobody can have failed to notice that while the public demand remains unshaken ... the means of writing [a 'detective mystery'] with any symptom of originality about it, becomes rarer with each succeeding year. The game is getting played out ... the stories get cleverer and cleverer, but the readers are getting cleverer ... too.
Perhaps. But Monsignor Knox is misled. The literary quality of the murder-mystery has nothing to do with its sales. The murder-reading public is not hungry for style; it is thirsty for blood. The puzzle element, the cleverness of writers or audience, the word 'mystery' itself — all are simply frauds: pretty lamb-chop panties of paper with which genteelly to grab ahold the raw meet of sadism. The problem, however, is not one of wilful pathology. The literate population of Great Britain and America is not largely composed of fantasy-sadists out of malice prepense. The cannot help themselves.

Nor are they comfortable in their uncontrollable letch for death. A gnawing guilt disturbs them. And they must dither and blather, refer nervously to 'the search for certainty in an uncertain world,' to 'puzzles,' to 'pattern,' and plain 'addiction.' They must write yearly defenses — with no attack ever yet published. They must point with anxious pride to kings and lesser fry (the frustrated do-gooders: Lincoln, Wilson, Roosevelt) sharing their lethal 'relaxation,' to an arbiter homicidarum hustling a murder-library into the White House, to a Catholic priest with five murder-mysteries 'to his credit' and a Marxist critic ('Caudwell'-Sprigg) with six, to the titubating comedy of a titled English philosopher carving up a Christmas pudden of self-congratulation for himself and the other 'mystery'-fanciers of Great Britain with the nincumpoop suggestion that reading about murder will 'realise ... the unification of mankind' and 'abolish war.' (Lord Bertrand Russell, in The Listener, Xmas 1948, vol. 40: page 1010.)

Least innocent, because they are most aware, are the amateurs of murder—the writers especially—the feuilletonist clergymen, the pansy intellectuals, the homicidal housewives and pseudonymous college professors, all swilling happily through paper straws at their hot cathartic toddy of blood. Least guilty, because stupidest, are the professionals — the word-mongers: publishers and their hacks — hip-deep in murder strictly for the dollar, the merest puppets of their Zeitgeist. And they will tell you that only the public is responsible, on the reader-mass is culpable. And yet, are even these to blame?

The frustration implicit in the twentieth-century life, that make neccessary our diet of murder, have not been resolved and cannot be resolved within the framework of our profit-economy and anti-sexual morality. Love being unwholesome, and revolution unhealthy, only one petcock of release is left us: we may dream of violence, of death; watch it in arenas, quiver over it on paper, run amok in fantasy, identifying ourselves always with the killers, the killers of killers — the superman. Our need is acute. The demand is paramount. And blood and death and violence will therefore continue to be supplied.

(COUGH) Excuse me.

As I was saying - Like the Talmudic pig, holding up its cloven forefeet from the dungwallow where it lies, grunting 'Clean! I'm clean!' murder-writers and readers are anxious to demonstrate that at least their feet are kosher: there is no sex anywhere to be seen. (The exceptions, and what they actually prove, will be considered later.) Absorbed in their obedience to the Sixth Commandment — the one against killing — reminding themselves nightly of its sinfulness, they would view with consternation the proposal that, simultaneously and by similar means (let us say three hundred juicily-titled pornographic novels yearly, all ending with horribly punishment in the venereal ward), society might show its reverence for the Seventh. No. This goose and this gander require different sauces. Literary murder is respectable, 'relaxing,' anything you please. Literary sex — it doesn't even have to be adultery — is 'obscene.'

Mr. Rex Stout, who opines (in Howard Haycraft's cynically-titled centenary, Murder for Pleasure: The Life & Times of the Detective Story, 1941, page vii) that 'people who don't like mystery stories are anarchists,' warily announces over the radio that if 'by romance ... you mean love ... I'm out of it. I'm a writer of murder-mysteries and I'm not supposed to know anything about it.' (The Author Meets the Critics, December 5th, 1946.) Naturally, Mr. Stout, naturally. When 'our best writers' are profitably peddling murder, and our best critic, Edmund Wilson, is barely escaping jail for 'obscenity,' who wants to bother with love?

In the midst of death, love is no part of our dream. Our imaginations stuffed with murder, we are too moral for sex. Drugged on blood and death, murder upon murder, two abreast, three hundred deep, year after bloody year; killing for the pure lust of killing — for the lack of courage to rebel; usurping, in the name of justice, the prerogatives of all justice, human & divine; our multi-millions of 'mystery' readers prefer their transvalued pattern — empty of sex, reeking with sadism — within the boundaries of which, as it would seem, no one dares to attack them.

So, you see, Wertham, this is why I have to leave for a while.

Goodby Wertham. I like you. ... Know that.

[sound of room hum, possibly from within a motel cabin, nothing more but this hum for twenty seconds, slightly increasing in volume and hum the longer the silence goes on]

(phone hangs up)

(end of transcript)

Thursday, August 18, 2005

New Yorkers

In the light of the facts that crime and comics are connected to childhood delinquency it is indicative of the general misconception about crime comics, and a matter of regret, that a public agency like New York City's Youth Board lends its name to a "public service page" in crime comic books. This page, supposed to fight drug addiction among juveniles, shows the progress of a boy addict and bears the legend: "The Comics Magazine Industry pledges itself to aid youngsters in their fight against the enemies of youth—the dope peddlers." Are the children supposed to fight the adult drug-racketeers? That should be the concern of the adults. This page is in reality just an advertisement for "The Comics Magazine Industry" and is highly misleading to parents and children alike. A typical comic book with this page is one of the worst crime comics. Is this the proper setting for honest or effective advice to youth?

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

The continuing irrefutable connection between drugs, crime, pictures, and words

All child drug addicts, and all children drawn into the narcotics traffic as messengers, with whom we have had contact, are inveterate comic-book readers. In the lives of some of these children who are overwhelmed by temptation the pattern is one of stealing, gangs, addiction, comic books and violence. The parallel with crime comic stories is striking. When one knows the social milieu of some of these children one realizes that the spirit that permits crime comic books to exist and flourish is what permits the possibility of childhood drug addiction. And whatever factors come into play in the cases that we have studied, the conclusion is inescapable that crime comics do their part in the education of these children, in softening them up for the temptation of taking drugs and letting themselves be drawn into participation in the illegal drug traffic.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005


The facts are that there are heroin addicts who are only twelve years old, that peddlers have been giving school children free samples, that fourteen-year-old boys have been selling heroin on the street, that eight-year-old children have been used by adults as messengers in the drug racket, that a seventeen-year-old girl earned $1,000 a week through the sale of narcotics, and that many children under thirteen have been introduced to heroin. It was found that in certain sections almost two thirds of the high school seniors had been offered narcotics.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Ignorance and Ingenuity

When I criticized the morphine and heroin comics stories for children I came up against the objection that in reality children have nothing to do with drug addiction, so this meant nothing to them. That was several years before newspapers and news magazines had headlines like "New York Wakes Up to Find 1500 Teen-Age Dope Addicts."

We had known about childhood drug addiction for some time. It was one of the Lafargue child-guidance counsellors who brought the first child drug addict to official attention. This boy of fourteen had come and asked for help.

"I am a mainliner," he said. "I want to get rid of the habit. I have been popping myself. I have been hitting the mainline."

He rolled up his sleeves and showed the sores on his arm. He had a needle with a plain eyedropper attached with which he had given himself injections. A regular hypodermic needle was too expensive for him. He had been stealing to buy the narcotics.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Connect the quotes

The comic-book stories about drug addiction are an instructive angle. The lead story of one crime comic, for instance, deals with narcotics. It is clear from the wording of the advertisements that the book is intended for children: "Dad and Mom will want it too." Traffic in narcotics is described and the high profits alluringly pointed out. Another crime comic describes the wonderful effects of morphine: "One needleful of joy-juice and you get so satisfied with the world you forget your obligations!"

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Comics make candy consumers into candy thieves

Many adults think that the crimes described in comic books are so far removed from the child's life that for children they are merely something imaginative or fantastic. But we have found this to be a great error. Comic books and life are connected. A bank robbery is easily translated into the rifling of a candy store. Delinquencies formerly restricted to adults are increasingly committed by young people and children.


Thank you again for your thoughts yesterday, Gershon.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Gershon Legman speaks and I transcribe — from a somewhat dangerous phone conversation during light rainfall directly following a loud thunderstorm

Gershon Legman:

There is a sort of Gresham's Law by which bad art drives out good. Murder having replaced sex in the popular arts, the glorification of one requires the degredation of the other. Death calls down anathema on love. Pronouncing judgement on March 29th, 1948, in the Winters case, the Supreme Court of the United States of America all but declared, as its studied decison — re-argued three times in as many years — tht so far as art and literature are concerned, sex is worse than murder.

This stupefying pronoucement is now the law of the land, and will remain so probably for decades. For all practical purposes it has always been the law. The New York Penal Law para 1141 (2) — now struck down by the Supreme Court — which made literary 'bloodshed' at least as bad as sex, has been a dead letter for over half a century, nullified and ignored ever since it was passed in 1884 in New York and in twenty-three other states since.

Meanwhile, the anti-obscenity subsection (I) of the same law is still very much alive. Thousands of persons have been prosecuted, and most of them fined or imprisoned, under this subsection and the Postal Law similar — which triples the penalty for obscenity, but neglects to mention 'bloodshed' at all. But it would be difficult to find more than three solitary cases in these last sixty-five years — Strohm, 160 Illinois 582; McKee, 73 Connecticut 18; and now Winters, 294 N.Y. 545 — prosecuted anywhere in the country for the publication of 'pictures, or stories of deeds of bloodshed, lust or crime.' In the face of disinterest such as this, the Supreme Court's decision is merely the catching up of the law with the national temper.

The error in the inferior court, that brought the Winters case to the Supreme Court in the first place, had been the gratuitous interpretation of the law as requiring the stories or pictures of bloodshed &c. to be 'so massed as to become vehicles for inciting' to crime — the purpose being to ban murder-magazines without banning books. Nevertheless, so great (according to the Supreme Court) are the legislative powers of the judiciary, that this mere statement by an inferior court 'puts these words in the statute as definitely as if it had been so amended by the legislature.' And, on the principle ground that the New York Penal Law para. 1141(2) had been thus 'amended' into ambiguity, the original laws of twenty-three other states were declared unconstitutional, Fiat justicia.

This retroactive hanky-panky is not, however, half so significant as the fact that, and the illogic with which, simultaneously, the prohibition against obscenity was affirmed:
The impossibility [says the Supreme Court] of defining the precise line between permissable uncertainty in statutes, caused by describing crimes by words well understood though long use in the criminal law — obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, indecent or disgusting — and the unconstitutional vagueness that leaves a person uncertain as to the kind of prohibited conduct — massing stories to incite crime — has resulted in three arguments of this case in this court (333 U.S. 518.)
This is, of course, clear warning — twice repeated — that the Supreme Court majority fully intends to find the obscenity law (1) constitutional when it comes finally to be argued before it, though it has found the 'bloodshed' law (2) unconstitutional. It does not matter. The prejudice clearly apparent behind the foreground technicalities of the Winters decision is, after all, the national opinion as well: that sex in literature is worse than murder. In life, however, the situation is reverse. So that we are faced in our culture by the insurmountable schizophrenic contradiction that sex, which is legal in fact, is a crime on paper, while murder — a crime in fact — is, on paper, the best seller of all time.

It therefore does not matter in the least what the Supreme Court decides concerning sex. It is not law that keeps the censorship going. The Comstocks, the Sumners, the virgin sex-experts of the Catholic Church (and the postal inspectors they control) — even the liberal lawyers who expurgate books beforehand for our pusillanimous publishers — these are not the censor. The American censorship of sex is internalized. The men & women in the street carry it around them in their heads. They are the censor, and to the degree that the law mirrors their wonted relationship, the law can be enforced and will be obeyed. Where the law diverges from the mores of the times — in our time, the substitution of an allowable sadism for a censored sexuality — the law is worthless and unenforceable.

The proof of this will be in the sequel to the Hecate County fiasco, in which — the first obscenity case since the Winters' to reach the Supreme Court (October 25th, 1948) — the law was silently upheld in a tie vote. No one imagines that if sex should be exonerated by the Supreme Court, in a moment of headlong consistency, obscenity would for a moment become legal. No one is so foolish as to think that if the obscenity laws of the states, Post Office, Federal Communications Commission, and Customs combines should be declared unconstitutional, pornography could be openly published in the United States, as bloodshed, bloodlust, and crime are published.

Hardly. New laws would be passed overnight, avoiding whatever technical errors might cause the present obscenity laws to fall. The legislative courage might even be found to abandon the multiple and 'permissable' uncertainty of meaningless adjectives like 'obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, indecent or disgusting' — saying nothing, in their overlapping terror, but that they are afraid — and to set up frank and objective criteria of guilt: that (with, of course, the usual exceptions for technical treatises, 'detective stories ... reports of battle carnage, &c.' — verbum sat sapienti) the description of sexual relations of any kind, or of the genital organs of either sex, in text or in pictures, is a crime; or—if safety is still to be sought in subjectivity—that any passage of text, or any picture, that gives seven of twelve good men & true an erection is, by that test, criminal.

On the other hand, let new laws against the exploitation of literary bloodshed now be passed — even under the subterfuge of protecting children, and in all the wordings and with all the preambles that Justice Felix Frankfurter's minority opinion carefully indicates such laws must have if they are not to fall before the Supreme Court as para. 1141(2) has fallen — and what, precisely, will be achieved? A new dead letter, a new unenforced and unenforceable law, will have been written on the books of half, or perhaps this time all the states. The Postal Law, which punishes obscenity as a crime where the states find it only a misdemeanor, might even see its way clear to banning literary bloodshed too — something it has never yet thought to do. Three cases might possibly be prosecuted in the next sixty-five years, during which prosecutions the professional liberals of the American Civil Liberties Union and the Authors' League can be expected to pop up, amicus curiae, to assail this unbearable restraint of free speech. Meanwhile, the staggering amount of sadism in all our pulp & pocket literature will rise from its present thousands of tons yearly to millions, from its present fifty percent or more to the intended saturation point of one hundred and one — Aldus' incunabular dream of popular classics come true as a nightmare.

That's all for today, Wertham, I'll talk to you again in a week. Hope you stay dry during all this rain.

(phone hangs up, end of transcript)

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Adults ignore illustrations of dope and bosoms in favor of written paragraphs about dope and bosoms

As far as literate adults are concerned, comic books have gotten into mass circulation unnoticed. A best seller for adults which is distributed in 10,000 copies or so is discussed in learned book reviews for its art, its technique, its plot, its social significance. A crime comic book is printed in from 250,000 to 500,000 or more copies, and most copies are read by several children, and exchanged, sold, retraded. However, these books are not reviewed or taken notice of.

It has been said by experts of the industry that children have to learn about the life around them, and that for this comic books are a big help. Do children really have to learn this sort of thing, and in the way? Here is a comic book whose cover bears the slogan: "Every word true!" Inside is an orgy of brutality, crime, aforementioned "dope selling," men tortured, girls with half-bared aforementioned bosoms, pictures of men stabbed in the stomach, shot, their arms twisted and, of course, an advertisement with a half-page picture of a gun.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

"OH-H-H-H-H-H-H . . ."

Take a comic books with a characteristic crime title, a lurid cover with a picture of one gangster about to be murdered by some other gangsters, and an inconspicuous circle with a purple passage of ethical make-believe: "This magazine is dedicated to the prevention of crime. We hope that within its pages the youth of America will learn to know crime for what it really is: a sad, black, dead end road of fools and tears." Compare with this sentiment some of the highlights inside this cover:
1) A criminal terrorized a family on a farm, makes advances to the farmer's young wife and beats the farmer when he objects.
2) He takes the little boy into the woods as a hostage.
3) The little boy, after a while, says: "I can't go any faster an' I don't care! You're gonna kill me anyhow!"—to which the criminal replies: "Ya wise little rat! I'll kill ya! But before I do I'll knock yer teeth out!!"
4) The little boy, as he is being beaten, "OH-H-H-H-H-H-H . . ."
5) In the end, the criminal, who of course committs many other crimes in the course of the story, is not punished by the law, but like a hero refuses to give himself up, and shoots himself.
This story has ninety-seven pictures of where the criminal is winning and one for the apotheosis of his suicide. Of course there is a gun advertisement, too. If the child who read the purple passage on the cover—if he did read it—reads the book this far, he knows that this passage has nothing whatsoever to do with the contents of the comic book.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

More bullshit the comics pull on us

Other features in the structure of a crime comic book are the first page of or before each individual story, the content of the stories, the type of language used, recurring details of plot or drawing as opposed to the professed ideology, the advertisements and the endorsements in the form of names of endorsers and the prominent institutions with which they are connected.

Endorsements came into fashion after Sterling North, the literary critic, early in the forties, published a number of critical articles based on his reading of comic books. As one boy told me when I asked him what these endorsements by psychiatrists and educators meant to him, "Oh, the more endorsements they need, the more they have." The claim that crime comic books might instill in any adolescent or pre-adolescent of average intelligence the idea or sentiment that prevention of crime or of antisocial activity is their goal, is so farfetched that mere reading of the comic books in question will answer it.

Monday, August 08, 2005

I'm looking at something, staring actually

The educational page, skipped by many children, pointed with pride by the publishers and approved (but not sufficiently scrutinized) by parents and teachers, could conceivably contain a counterstimulant to the violence of the stories, but often it just gives some historical rationalization for it. For instance, in a jungle comic book what does the educational page show? This one is entitled "The First Americans." A young girl in modern evening dress, her wrists chained to a tall upholstered structure so that she lean backward in a recumbant position revealing the full length of her legs, with a definite erotic suggestion, is being menaced with a big knife held by a gruesome masked figure: "At harvest and planting time they would cut out the hearts of a living victim." In other words, the education to sadism permeating this whole book is here fortified in the guise of history.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Even Shakespeare is disgusting

Another important feature of a crime comic book is the first page of the first story, which often gives the child the clue to the thrill of violence that is to be its chief attraction. This is a psychological fact that all sorts of children have pointed out to me. Macbeth in comic book form is an example. On the first page the statement is made: "Amazing as the tale may seem, the author gathered it from true accounts"—the typical crime comic book formula, of course. The first balloon has the words spoken by a young woman (Lady Macbeth): "Smear the sleeping servants with BLOOD!"

To the child who looks at the first page "to see what's in it," this gives the strongest suggestion. And it gives the whole comic book the appeal of a crime comic book. As for the content of this Macbeth, John Mason Brown, the well-known critic, expressed it in the Saturday Review of Literature: "To rob a supreme dramatist of the form at which he excelled is mayhem plus murder in the first degree . . . although the tale is murderous and gory, it never rises beyond cheap horror. . . . What is left is not a tragedy. It is trashcan stuff." It is interesting that what adult critics deduce from the whole book, children sense from the first balloon. They know a crime comic when they see one, whatever the disguise.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

What the comic book covers say

The covers often have little encircled messages. Conspicuous ones may indicate that the stories are based on true police cases or F.B.I. files. Inconspicuous ones may bear heartwarming words to the effect that the law will prevail eventually. Other messages on the cover are like seals. They may indicate that the comic book conforms or professes to conform to some special code, or very similar signs may indicate just the firm or the publisher.

A typical sample has inconspicuously above its crime title, "A force for good in the community!" and underneath that in a small circle, "Crime does not pay," and then in a square, "TRUE criminal case histories!" and, in smaller type, hard to read, the words "Dedicated to the eradication of crime!" Average, normal boys have often told me that if they read such signs at all they know of course that they are only "eyewash" intended to influence parents and teachers who have no time to read the whole comic book.

The cover of this sample depicts a corpse with blood on his mouth, with the killer who has just beaten him to death beside him.


Thank you for the message yesterday, Gershon. I'll try to be around the next time you call, I promise.

Friday, August 05, 2005

I came home after an evening walk to a beeping light on my answering machine. I clicked the play button. It was Gershon Legman. He had left a message.

(tape whirrs, clicks)

(at first inaudible, then we can hear the following) ... Twenty years ago — despite Mr. Wrong's manifesto — the 'mental exercise' whitewash might still have held some drops of water. Today the Who-Stole-the-Necklace-or-The-Mystery-of-the-Butler's-Past sort of milk & mush is a drug on the market, and even the most apologetic of the British enthusiasts do not absorb it in any number. The international Cumulative Book Index tries to distinguish only between 'detective' murders and murders merely mysterious, attempting no category for mysteries based on crimes other than murder. For that matter, murder is generally less gruesome than the 'compensation' in matter, murder is generally less gruesome than the 'compensation in some other way' — impending death, plague, or unspecified doom threatening all of humanity or even London — that writers of the non-lethal mystery see fit to bring in. It is, in any case, a vanishing form, and any possible bona fide in the 'mental exercise' defense has vanished with it.

Even fifteen years ago, when Harry Stephen Keeler (and 'Ellery Queen') created murders with the solution sealed, announcing that all the clues had been given and that the reader should be able to logic out the murderer's identity, no one wanted to bother and this feature was quickly dropped. That readers commonly abort the whole 'mental exercise' angle, and sneak a glimpse at the solution beforehand, is so well known that writers are hard put to it to think up tricks to forfend them — like making the narrator the murderer, and having the denouncement narrated by someone else. The reader-pack yelps. "Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?" They care. They want to know who they are hunting down. Though the murder-mystery is ostensibly a glorification of law & order ('Crime does not pay' and so forth) the reader wants to cheat while reading it. How no, mental exercise?

MAKE NO MISTAKE ABOUT IT: THE MURDER-MYSTERY READER IS A LYNCHER. A solid citizen by day, by night he rides hooded to watch human beings die. He may, certainly does, think of himself as a mere, harmless literary escapist. He may actually believe that his nightly passion to murder the murderer of his own creating adds up to nothing more than pleasant, law-abiding, purely, meaningless recreation — light entertainment, and all that. He may imagine that the mental torture, the anxiety, the pounding heart and terror (jargonicé, 'suspense'), the desperate twistings & turnings, and the final, ingeniously contrived humiliation and death of the murderer — three hundred violent and excited pages of it — all these, he may imagine, are no part of his interest.

Yet remove from the murder-mystery this element of sadism — of manhunt and lynch — and what is left? A flabby mouth of greed, mistaken identity, or vernacular chit-chat. Wholly without attraction for nine in every ten readers, the non-lethal mystery does not sell well, is not read, and is now therefor seldom encountered. The 'mystery' is the murder-mystery. And the murder-mystery reader wants blood, death, and lynching. But not the blood of the 'victim,' whose unwept death — presumably the whole justification for the protracted lynch that follows — is lackadaisically presented on page one as a fait accompli, an utterly routine knock-down-&-drag-out bit of ritual. The murder-mystery reader wants the murderer's blood.

And again, where is the difference? The murderer may have killed from the noblest of motives. His 'victim' may have been a blackmailer, a drug-peddler (of anything but alcohol), a sadist (sic), a human ghoul. It may all even have been a mistake. But what are the reader's motives? He has none. He is quite calm. His interest in law & order is infinitesimal — so much so, that he enthroned the murder-book as our prime literary fare (one third of all fiction printed) in the midst of the illegal, nation-wide whiskey-jag of the 1920's. The murders that he avenges are written to order for him. Wholly synthetic, they would not exist at all but for his endless thirst for blood. He picks up his nightly 'mystery,' prepared to lynch down whatever miserable murderer his author chooses to present. He is unprejudiced. He has no personal grudge. He will kill anybody. He kills for pleasure.

-----[phone message machine interrupts: ONEMINUTELEFT,BEEP]-----

(Gerhon's voice quickens up and rises slightly in volume, as he continues)

... It may be pointed out that!, in this!, murder-mystery aficionados differ in no way from the readers of newspaper accounts! — voyeurism at second hand! — of courtroom trials and executions! This is certainly true! William Bolitho's definition of the murder trial (in Murder for Profit, 1926, page 3!) might with equal propriety be applied to the murder-mystery, for both, equally, are, and I'm quoting!

It may even be pointed out that the human sacrifice of!, and to! the murderer in book! — three hundred of them a year!, every year! (not! counting! reprints!) with an audience of millions — appeals to the same socially accepted BLOODLUST as that thought desirable at prize & BULLFIGHTS --

-----[phone message machine interrupts: YOUHAVETENSECONDS, BEEP]-----

-- This is also true! It must be questioned! However, whether the lulling along of the death-pleasure emotionalisms through symbolic satisfaction in books and arenas does more than to keep them ever-fresh in the race, waiting only for the stress of economic struggle, religious factionalism, and war to FREE THEM FROM THE LIMITATIONS OF SYMBOLISM AND SCAPEGOATRY, AND ALLOW THEM BRUTAL! AND DELIGHTED! PLAY!

(message BEEPS, tape clicks off, end of transcript)

Thursday, August 04, 2005


In my clinical research on crime comic books I have come to the conclusion that crime comic books are comic books that depict crime, whether the setting is urban, Western, science-fiction, jungle, adventure or the realm of supermen, "horror" or super-natural beings. I have found that to study the effects of comic books on children it is necessary to study the comic books themselves, too. To read them like an adult is not enough. One must read them in the light of how children read them. The comic book as a whole has a number of features which children single out habitually and which reinforce each other.

First of all there is the cover. It is always printed on much better paper than the rest of the book, and of course has much larger print and the colors stand out more glaringly and forcefully. The title also counts for a lot. The scene depicted on the cover is usually violent. It is intended to catch the child's attention and whet his appetite.

For example, in a comic-book reprint of a newspaper comic strip—the cover shows a scene which does not occur at all in the strip. In transforming this comic strip, intended chiefly for adults, to a comic book for children, this scene is added: A young woman with prominent breasts and nude legs is lying on a cot. Her lips are rouged, her hair falls loosely in masses over her bare shoulders and her face has a coquettish expression. This is supposed to be the scene of a surgical operation! There are two white-gowned and white-capped men beside her, one about to put a chloroform mask over her face, the other holding scissors in his right hand and in his left a knife whose sharp blade is surrounded with a yellow zigzag halo (used in comic books as a rule to designate the effects of cutting or shooting). The whole scene has nothing to do with medicine and is unmistakably sadistic.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

What are crime comic books?

When Mr. E. D. Fulton, member of the Canadian House of Commons, introduced his anti-crime-comic-book bill before that House, he characterized them as "the kind of magazine, forty or fifty pages of which portray nothing but scenes illustrating the commission of crimes of violence with every kind of horror that the mind of man can conceive."

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

I couldn't keep myself together to list an eighth example, I had to logoff

The great attraction of crime comic books for children is alleged to be continuous fast action. There may be some. But when the stories come to details of a delinquency or depiction of brutality, the action slows noticeably. A typical example, vintage autumn, 1950: In one story there are thirty-seven pictures, of which twelve (this is, one in three) show brutal near-rape scenes. The story begins like this:
Forthwith it does, for example:
1) The girl walking along with a dark figure, his arms stretched out toward her, lurking behind.

2) The girl falling over, her breast prominent, her skirt thrown up to reveal black net panties, the "attacker" a black, shadowed figure leaning over her.

3) He "drags her into the gloom," holding his hand over her mouth and tearing off her coat.

4) He has her on the ground behind some bushes.

5) A girl, murdered and presumably raped, is shown on the ground with her clothes disordered and torn.

6) Another girl being choked from behind. Screams: "AI-EEEK!!"

7) "The Strangler" locks her in a warehouse, saying: "I'll kill you just like I did the others—Then I'll crawl down the trap door and get away under the dock—HA! HA!"

... ... ...

[Dr. Fredric Wertham, M.D., has successfully logged off]

Monday, August 01, 2005


Of course there are people who still fall for the contention of the comic-book industry that their products deal not with crime, but with the punishment of crime. Is not the very title of some of these books, Crime Does Not Pay? Here, too, adults are more readily deceived than children. Children know that in quite a number of crime comic books there is in the title some reference to punishment. But they also know that just as that very reference is in small letters and inconspicuous color, the parts of the title that really count are in huge, eye-catching type and clear sharp colors: CRIME, CRIMINALS, MURDER, LAW BREAKERS, GUNS; etc. The result of this is, of course, that when comic books are on display on the crime and not the punishment is visible. Often the type of the second part of the title is so arranged that in the display case it does not show at all, concealed as it is behind the tops of other comic books. These are a few examples:

There Is No Escape For PUBLIC ENEMIES
The West Thunders with the Roar of GUNS
CRIME Can't Win
Western OUTLAWS and Sheriffs
CRIMINALS on the Run