Saturday, February 25, 2012

Seduction of the Innocent

Psychiatrist Fredric Wertham was scared for America’s children. They were tying bath towels around their necks and running around playing Superman, jumping off of the roofs of their houses and breaking their legs and arms. There was rich man Bruce Wayne, who by night was the criminal’s scourge, Batman, and his young, ahem, “ward,” the teenaged Dick Grayson, the barelegged, masked Robin the Boy Wonder. When he wasn’t endangering the under-aged lad, exposing him to riff-raff like the Joker and the guns and knives of his henchmen, they were lazing about Wayne manor in the mornings, each in a smoking jacket and ascot. Holy gay undercurrent Dark Knight!

What were the disturbing fantasies the scantily clad Phantom Lady, her well-endowed bosom fairly falling out of her plunging V-top as she was bound, barely, by ropes fueling in pubescent boys? Indeed a look over to the right of the infamous cover Wertham cited, Phantom Lady No. 17 from 1948 one might agree with ol’ Freddy – interestingly too, the cover was drawn by Matt Baker, one of the few African Americans working in comics in those days. And what sort of message were youths receiving what with hanging bodies, their eye bulging out or a decapitated woman’s head on the covers of horror comic books?

Relating the aforementioned and much more, like kids setting themselves on fire imitating the Human Torch, Wertham published his study and conclusions as a book, Seduction of the Innocent in 1954. Parents and educators were alarmed and in the resulting furor, which included a Senate sub-committee hearing on juvenile delinquency, with an emphasis on these subversive comics and the gentlemen of Eastern European heritage who published them, The Comics Code of America was born. It was an industry-funded self-censorship body that among its edicts stated:

“Crimes shall never be presented in such a way as to create sympathy for the criminal…Policeman, judges, government officials, and respected institutions shall never be presented in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority…Scenes dealing with, or instruments associated with walking dead, torture, vampires and vampirism, ghouls, cannibalism and werewolfism are prohibited.”

Some might argue Wertham seduced a ‘50s-era nation stuck between the old ways and anxious about the oncoming of the Atomic Age, bringing with it stuff like creeping communism and Negroes making noises down south. Or that if there is no sentry, a guardian against our base desires, we will forever give in to that which tempts and seduces us – comic books then, video games now. But I am seduced with the idea that counter to the Code, the ghost of Fredric Wertham returns to be a consultant on moral decency. Bad good girl Phantom Lady gets wind of this and returning from limbo, must do battle against Wertahm’s ghoulish acolytes to protect our freedoms. I’ll be right there with her, carrying some safety pins in case, you know, her costume comes undone.



Michael Wiley said...

A great post, Gary. When I was a kid, I didn't read comic books (except for Mad Magazine, if that kind of counts). I'm more and more aware of all I missed.

Gary Phillips said...

Thanks, Michael...yeah, comic books corrupted me early.