Monday, February 7, 2011

Diagram for Delinquents Update #3: Fredric Wertham, Daredevil (Yipee Ki-Yay!)

1. Diagram for Delinquents News
I am, for the first time, reading Seduction of the Innocent (SOTI) from cover to cover. In the past it's been very piecemeal. In fact, there are some sections I have never read. It's quite fun, especially after reading Beaty's Fredric Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture.

The book's fourth chapter is called "The Wrong Twist: The Effects of Comic Books on Children."

It begins with, as all the chapters do, an epigraph.

Chapter IV's epigraph comes from Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana (pictured left. click image to enlarge.) and reads:

"A man who gives a wrong twist to your mind, meddles with you just as truly as if he hit you in the eye; the mark may be less painful, but it's more lasting."

It is a detailed chapter that quite explicitly expresses exactly what Wertham subtitles the section.

What I have been enjoying particularly is seeing the provenance of parts of SOTI. In fact, I think that will also be the focus of next week's blog entry! But returning to this week's... Since the very first time I read it, I was drawn to what Wertham describes as "the injury-to-the-eye motif." I think my interest comes from my personal eye obsession. When I was a sophomore in high-school I suffered a traumatic eye injury that blinded me for some days and put me in the hospital for quite a while longer. I remember talking with the doctor early on and needing all my strength to not vomit as he delivered the following speech:

"Now son, we're going to try all we can to fix your eye up, get your vision back, and make you all better. You see (ironic, huh) what's happened is, in a way when you were hit in the eye, it kind of exploded inside, and now your eye has filled up with blood (That was the freakiest part. When I looked in the mirror, my iris and pupil were flooded with blood, while the white part was fine.) (Here is the vomit inducing part.) We're going to do all we can to get the pressure in your eye down and get that blood out. We're going to try some medicine first and see if that works. However, if it doesn't, we'll have to stick a needle in your eye and drain that blood out. (Cold sweat, numb fingers, internal praying for medicine to work. And, of course, the childhood rhyme repeated itself over and over again in my head: 'Cross my heart, hope to die, stick a needle in my eye'. You can bet I don't use that one anymore.)"

I think you can now better see my fascination with eyes and their delicate nature.

In the chapter, Wertham writes:

"The injury to the eye motif is an outstanding example of the brutal attitude cultivated in comic books - the threat or actual infliction of injury to the eyes of a victim, male or female. This detail, occurring in uncounted instances, shows perhaps the true color of crime comics better than anything else. It has no counterpart in any other literature of the world, for children or for adults.

According to our case material the brutalizing effect of this injury-to-the-eye motif is twofold. In the first place, it causes a blunting of the general sensibility. Children feel in a vague subconscious way that if this kind of thing is permitted then other acts are so much less serious that it cannot be so wrong to indulge in them either.

An eight-year-old girl said to her mother, 'Let's play a game. Someone is coming to see us. I'll stamp on him, knock his eyes out and cut him up.'

But it has also a direct effect. Children have done deliberate harm to the eyes of other children, an occurrence which before the advent of crime comics I had never encountered among the thousands of children I examined. On a number of occasions I have asked juveniles who used homemade zip guns what harm they could do with so little power. I received prompt reply: 'You shoot in the eye. Then it works.'

The children of the early forties pointed out the injury-to-the-eye to us as something horrible. The children of 1954 take it for granted. A generation is being desensitized by these literal horror images.

One comic shows a man slashing another man across the eye balls with a sword. The victim: 'MY EYES! I cannot see!'

In a run-of-the-mill crime comic a man with brass knuckles hits another man (held fast by a third man) in the eyes, one after the other. Dialogue: 'Now his other glimmer, Pete! Only sort of twist the knuckles this time!'

In a Western comic book the "Gouger" is threatening the hero's eye with his thumb, which has a very long and pointed nail. This is called the "killer's manicure." He says: 'YORE EYES ARE GONNA POP LIKE GRAPES WHEN OL' GOUGER GETS HIS HANDS ON YOU!... HERE GO THE PEEPERS!'

In one comic book a gangster gains control over another man's racket and tapes his eyes 'with gauze that has been smeared with an infectious substance!' He says: 'When I get through with ya, ya'll never look at another case of beer again!

When a policeman is blinded, the criminal says: 'Well, he don't have to worry about them eyes no more!'

Girls are frequent victims of the eye motif, as in the typical: "My eyes! My eyes! Don't! PLEASE! I'll tell you anything you want to know, only don't blind me! PLEASE!'"

So, if you recall, the news this week was about provenance. Tracing the origin of an interest is like some kind of archeology. It's a dig. To illustrate the above injury-to-the-eye motif, Wertham includes a comic panel in the book's illustrations section that was particularly horrifying to me (Emmons with book illustration pictured right. click image to enlarge.)

One of the problems with SOTI is its highly anecdotal delivery (See SOTI quote above). One major argument against the book is its lack of scientific evidence. It wasn't systematic; it wasn't empirical. Wertham unabashedly states that the book is built on the clinical method, which is based upon interviewing, studying the patient fully and in context. He wasn't interested in the scientific method used by his peers at the time. He had branded his own method: Social Psychiatry. It was indeed a holistic method to studying patients.

As Wertham builds his argument and cites evidence it feels like a second hand story, hearsay. Along this line, when Wertham discussed parts of comic books, he rarely cites what comic book it came from. In his illustration section, almost none of the images are credited or cited.

The comic panel in the book image above is from True Crime V.1 #2. (click image below to enlarge)

In Wertham's archives I found two instances of the panel used above from True Crime V.1 #2.

[NOTE: Thank you Stephen O'Day for the correction on the issue appearance of the above illustration panel. Stephen is the webmaster of Seductionoftheinnocent.org. The site is an amazing resource for tracing the comics used in Seduction of the Innocent (I was silly not to confirm the source to begin with, with him!). Stephen has graciously agreed to appear in the film when we met at the archives. We are excited to talk with him and pluck all the knowledge and goodies he has!]

The first is a blown-up copy used in an experiment to see how a young boy reacts and comments on the content of the image. (click image below to enlarge)

The second is what appears to be the pre-press copy of the image with instructions on the final size of the sample. What a treat to actually touch this object. Talk about living history! (click image below to enlarge)

Finding these was like stringing together the pieces of a time-puzzle. I was watching the past create a chronology to my present. I was holding history.

2. It Came From the Archives!!!
There's no denying that Wertham was a man of bold ideas and opinions. He was also a man that did all he could to get his message out there. Though many don't know who he is today, he was very much a public figure in the 40's, 50's, and 60's. Of course he wrote for scientific and academic journals, but he was most profilic in the public sphere. Many of his articles were written for magazines read by middle 
America. Most of his books were published for that audience as well.

Wertham was interviewed in numerous magazines (another future blog entry). He appeared on radio and, of course, in the burgeoning medium of television.

I found a few curious photographs in his archives that chronicled some of his television appearances. The most interesting of them are photos of televisions as Wertham appeared on the t.v. Can we assume he or his wife took the pictures? I absolutely love the idea of a picture of a picture. It's charming... as a way to capture his appearance in a time before VCR's, DVD-R's, or DVR's.

Here's a sampling.

Wertham on the Mike Douglas Show. The 60's flower background is quite amusing:

Wertham on The Mike Wallace Interview (as photographed on t.v.):

And finally, Wertham on Firing Line (pre-show):

As a special treat for you, dear reader, I now give you a slice of Dr. Wertham in color, and in motion. Here is a short excerpt of him from the above 1967 interview on Firing Line. It's a great clip. The contrast between William F. Buckley Jr.'s intensely serious and "performed" appearance and Wertham's relaxed and passionate testimony is quite stunning. Also, correct me if I'm wrong, but the doctor seems to have a slight twinkle in his eye, right?

Speaking of a twinkle... there's also this. Yes. That's him STANDING ON A HORSES BACK! (click images to enlarge) And this man said comic books were dangerous!

3. Be a Part of Getting Diagram for Delinquents Made

Getting a film produced is difficult and requires the aid of many. Fortunately, using new and creative fund-raising ventures, the internet has made the process all the more achievable.

If you've found the glimpse above intriguing, than help us bring you the rest of the story by visiting our Kickstarter site (See Kickstarter widget and the promotional video below). There, you can pledge a donation to the film and pre-order your own copy today! There are many exciting incentives to donate at various levels. Looking forward to hearing from you!

Until next week,


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. There's so many conflicting angles with this guy. He denounced social hysteria, yet he essentially tried to shut down comic books. He broke away from Freud by emphasizing the important of society in the psyche of the individual, yet deemphasized the mass culture critiques of his argument to get conservative groups on his side. What I don't think anyone can write off was his concern about the influence of media in influence and manipulation of thought. The fact he used case studies of children- and no empirical evidence- is a common critique, but that's also traditional practice for a psychiatrist or psychoanalyst- frankly, experimental psychology often produces dubious results and isn't necessarily more valid just because it has numbers.

    What I think can be questioned is this: if socioeconomic injustices can predict mental illness- a claim he supported- how can he chalk up comic books as being such a primary antagonist in kids' lives? Or does he mean that comic books- like the media- is quite deliberately used to pollute the minds of the masses?

    What interests me is that, even though he delineated from Freudian thought, in principle he still seems to subscribe to the same idea: that the unconscious mind is full of savage urges that are brought to life in fantasies, and in his case evoked in comics. But art is just a reflection of an artist's mind, that can be interpreted in many ways. Don't these interpretations- vile or not vile- depend on the state of the reader's mind beforehand? In other words, does a kid walk into school and commit an atrocity because he listened to Judas Priest, or were other problems at work long beforehand?

    I am fascinated at how much a product of the time this guy was. I can see mental hygiene being in one of those classroom reels.

    Jung preached for society to have social accountability; that is, for individuals to make sure they weren't ignorant of mass manipulation making use of their unknowing self. In essence, Wertham is preaching the same thing. And his theory that the mass American culture was- and is- mindlessly swayed by the media has a lot of chilling resonance. I just don't think comics are a fair example. Because for every kid who perceives Superman as evidence of Aryan superiority, there's probably fifty more who view Superman as the dorky little boy overcoming his fears and at last gaining respect. Dorks living out fantasies of triumph. Isn't that what comics really are about deep down?

    Jung would argue that violence is real; struggle is real; to ignore it- especially in artistic expression- is just as manipulative.