A must read and a must-read for masochists top our linkage today, both returning to topics that were much on the minds of anyone in comics about 30 years ago — oldies but goodies.
First and most importantly, library professor Carol Tilley has been going through Dr. Fredric Wertham’s notes and found out that he was, to use a technical term, full of hooey.
Wertham’s personal archives, however, show that the doctor revised children’s ages, distorted their quotes, omitted other causal factors and in general “played fast and loose with the data he gathered on comics,” according to an article by Carol Tilley, published in a recent issue of Information and Culture: A Journal of History. “Lots of people have suspected for years that Wertham fudged his so-called clinical evidence in arguing against comics, but there’s been no proof,” Tilley said. “My research is the first definitive indication that he misrepresented and altered children’s own words about comics.”
In case you are a newcomer, Wertham is the 50’s era psychologist whose book Seduction of the Innocent posited that crime comics were driving the huge surge in juvenile delinquency in the US, and his research drove the Kefauver hearings which pretty much decimated the American comic book industry for a decade, and ushered in the Comics Code.
Wertham remained the primary villain for the comics industry up until about 10 years ago—a Joker-like figure who could emerge at any time and get comics thrown back in the clink of highly censored pablum. Fears of “A new Wertham” were a motivating force for at least one comic book publisher for most of his career. But in the last decade, the proliferation of manga—with topics that would have made Estes Kefauver curl into a ball and cry “Oh mother, please help me!”—without significant blowback seems to have put the fear of a single crusader killing the medium to rest for a while. Which isn’t to say the CBLDF mustn’t remain vigilant, just that a Wertham style witch-hunt is unlikely.
So, finding out that Wertham’s influential research wasn’t all that well conducted—not exactly a shock, since comic books DIDN’T cause juvenile delinquency—is a nice little middle finger flip for comics to Wertham in his grave.
Tilley’s article also cites the case of Dorothy, a 13-year-old whose chronic truancy Wertham ascribed to her admiration for the comic book heroine Sheena and “crime comics,” omitting any mention of other factors listed in her case notes, such as her low intelligence, her reading disability, her gang membership, her sexual activity and her status as a runaway. Wertham also didn’t reveal that he never personally met or observed Dorothy; she was the patient of his associate, Dr. Hilde Mosse.
What makes this story such a must-read isn’t just the Wertham stuff, though. Tilley has written a paper called “Comics: A Once-Missed Opportunity”—however the working title when she delivered it at the ALA was “How Libraries Screwed Up.” She’s also unearthed a lot of VERY interesting research which shows that the comics medium pre-Wertham was actually achieving many of the multimedia educational purposes it’s now being lauded for:
“For a couple of years, 1950 and ’51, the state of Louisiana put out its annual report as a comic book,” Tilley said. “People recognized that comics were powerful. It wasn’t just kids reading them; grown-ups were reading them too. There was something to be said for that combination of text and image that could be a powerful communication tool.”
It’s this kind of “empowering” news for comics that was long lost for the era that though everything began with AMAZING FANTASY #15. I look forward to reading Tilley’s paper when it is published.
Now, onto another battle of the past. A few days ago I referenced Eddie Campbell’s essay “The Literaries”, a defense of EC comics on the basis of a picture being worth a 1000 words. A riposte to this has been delivered by critic Ng Suat Tong at the Hooded Utilitarian in a timid piece called The Comics Journal and Eddie Campbell: In Defense of Shit and Poor Logic.
Now before I go any further I must note that Ng is one of a trinity of critics who used to be found most frequently at the old Comics Journal message board who didn’t like anything. The other two are Domingos Isabelinho and Matthias Wivel. I wish I could link to some of the flame wars but a) it would be boring and b) my memory is just not that good. Suffice to say that an innocent comment about how you liked “The Death of Speedy” might be met by stinging repudiation on its banality and Jaime’s decorative facility masking cliche and so on and page after page of what Tom Spurgeon calls Nerd Court.
I’ve met Wivel and he’s actually a nice fellow (and the least terrifying of the trio); Ng and Isabelinho make early Comics Journal critics look like kittens with soft fluffy yarn balls. They definitely like some very interesting stuff, though and every medium needs demanding critics who ask questions and push back against established wisdom.
Anyway, since it was Ng’s original reappraisal of the EC oeuvre that kicked off the current reappraisal of the reappraisal, it’s only fitting that he take on Campbell:
Once upon a time, there was a bastion of comics criticism which, it has been opined, stood against the hordes of barbarians trumpeting the works of John Byrne, Todd McFarlane and assorted other idolaters of caped beings. But time withers all, and like Saint Gregory of Rome, the rulers of that holy organ negotiated a separate peace with the hordes—the “empire” surviving but now a rotten shambles and a mockery of what it once stood for. It has been said that the purported ideals of that magazine never existed in the first place. That past is debatable, the present less so. What was once a hotbed of disagreement and debate has now become one of affirmation and boot licking acceptance. The rallying cry heard last week was a sermon to the converted, an affirmation of the god-like status of various revered cartoonists— that their comics remain untarnished by dint of an indefinable comic-ness Like many rallying cries, Campbell’s piece is long on rhetoric but short on substance. His primary example as to the brilliance of the EC War line is the cover to Two-Fisted Tales #27.
And it’s off from there. As usual, the comments quickly devolve although Campbell shows up at the end with a new defense, but the goat carcass being batted around by this particular buzkashi game is the old question of “ARE COMICS LITERATURE? ARE THEY ART?” which, once again, we settled that in the 80s, people, when Bob Burden published FLAMING CARROT #5 and Steve Lafler put out DOG BOY #3. This time WWI poetry, Birth of a Nation, the lyrics of the Rolling Stones , Bo Diddley and God knows what else are dragged around in order to prove that…people know things other than comics.
The Hooded Utilitarian is the most annoying comics website on the net because it has some of the best, smartest writers about comics, but they don’t seem to be interested in putting further arguments…instead they just like to argue in the comments. (I wish I had a nickel for every time the insult “Straw man!” is thrown around.) Isabelinho shows up with his own aphorism:
The problem is that a work of art is a work of art is a work of art (and I’m including literature here). Comics exceptionalism makes no sense.
Except that I don’t think anyone is saying comics are exceptional. Comics are Comics. Opera is opera. Etchings are etchings. Is Fun Home better than Boris Godunov? Is Jack Kirby better than The Cremaster Cycle? Can’t we just have a world FULL of things that are in some way amazing, beautiful, touching and mind boggling, and not just five or six Sistine Chapels?
I’m not even a big Kurtzman fan, but I get esthetic pleasure from looking at the cover to Two-Fisted Tales #27. It is about the same amount of pleasure that I get from listening to a song by Adele. It is not as great as the pleasure I get from listening to a song by James Brown, though, but looking at the page of Jack Kirby that Campbell alluded to, that is probably better than everything by Brown but maybe not Funky President or Sex Machine.
All of which proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that I can also reference things that aren’t comics! I win, internet! Suck it!
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.