Monday, March 31, 2008

Frederic Wertham Revised: Happy Marxist Flower Cookies

As mentioned in a prior post, I’m particularly uninterested in the media’s new discovery of the whole comics censorship brouhaha that sunk EC and led to the Comics Code Authority, all dusted again as the result of David Hajdu’s shockingly well-publicized and oft-reviewed new book The Ten-Cent Plague. Like anyone else even tangentially interested in comics for the past few decades I’ve heard this story plenty of times before, even if I didn’t remember many of the specifics. But an article by Louis Menand in the latest issue of The New Yorker at least brings some new (and interesting) light to the whole thing, by not merely discussing Hajdu’s book yet again, but by digging a little deeper to discover Bart Beaty’s Fredric Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture ($22, University Press of Mississippi). I had some vague remembrance that the villain cast in this story Fredric Wertham (a name that probably still causes aging EC fans to recoil in SHOCK! HORROR!! SUSPENSE!!!) wasn’t really the censorious extremist that he’s often been considered as in the comics press. But the New Yorker’s excerpts from Beaty’s book in fact makes Wertham sound like the underdog protagonist vilified by history after the only after some righteous recommendations that both Congress and the corporate comics industry took too far. To wit:
Shortly after the hearings, in June 1954, Robert Warshow, whose essays on popular culture were unusual for the period for their nuance and appreciation, wrote a famous essay for Commentary, on horror comics (it’s odd Hajdu doesn’t mention it), in which he worries about their effect on his eleven-year-old son, Paul, a member of the EC Fan-Addict Club. Warshow did not much admire Wertham’s book, but he accepted his book. “I myself would not like to live surrounded by the kind of culture Dr. Wertham could thoroughly approve of,” he wrote, “and what I would not like for myself I would hardly desire for Paul. The children must take their chances like the rest of us. But when Dr.. Wertham is dealing with the worst of the comic books, he is on strong ground; some kind of regulation seems necessary.”

And all Wertham wanted was regulation, he wasn’t a proponent of the code. He wanted a ratings system that is no different that that implemented by the film or video gaming industries. He didn’t want kids to buy excessively violent or explicit comics without a parent present.

The article continues:
As Beaty points out, Wertham was not a philistine; he was a progressive intellectual. His Harlem clinic was named for Paul Lafargue, Marx’s son-in-law. He collected modern art, helped produce an anthology of modernist writers, and opposed censorship.

Beaty’s book points out that racist stereotypes of Africans and Asians were routine in almost all crime and horror comics. This is something that Ng Suat Tong, another Comics Journal critic (like Beaty) pointed out as well in an essay for that magazine essentially flaying the reverence given most of EC’s war comics which had previously been untouchable. The article also points out that there’s a genuinely shocking proliferation of violence directed at women, always “depicted in highly sexualized forms.” And that if it’s true that negative depictions of black people is harmful, then why would the same not apply to such pervasive depictions of women.

Beaty is unimpressed by the claim that the horror comics were somehow part of a popular culture avant garde, and he thinks Gaines’s attempt to portray himself and his company as subversive artists oppressed by the establishment has fooled many people.

“Ultimately, he writes, “Fredric Wertham aligned himself with the most defenseless portion of the postwar American society, children. His critics have aligned themselves with an industry that targeted racist, sexist, and imperialist propaganda at minors. He was one man, operating out a free clinic in Harlem facing a multimillion dollar per year industry organization that hired private detectives to tail him and intimidate his staff.”

Which is the most sympathetic portrayal I’ve read regarding Wertham and perhaps cast new light on the whole situation. The article goes on to rightly point out that the proliferation of television (from a mere four millions sets in 1950 to 25-million by 1953) was not only the more likely cause of comics sales sliding from peak into precipice, but also an entirely new and probably more corrosive tool of seduction of the innocent.

Anyway, kudos to The New Yorker. By delving into Beaty’s book as a result of considering Hajdu’s Ten-Cent Plague they at least made an old topic seem more interesting…if only slightly.

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