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Let’s You and Him Fight: Fredric Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture Day Five
posted December 16, 2005

imageThe following is a the fifth and final day in a week-long exchange of e-mail about issues raised in and around the new book Fredric Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture Day One (University Press of Mississippi, $20, paperback, 1578068193) by its author Bart Beaty and a colleague of Beaty's in comics academia, Craig Fischer.

Dr. Beaty is a member of the faculty of Communication and Culture at the University of Calgary. He is the author of the "Euro-Comics For Beginners" column at The Comics Journal and the "Conversational Euro-Comics" column here at The Comics Reporter.

Dr. Craig Fischer teaches in the English Department at Appalachian State University. He is a member of the Executive Committee of the International Comic Arts Festival, and his articles have appeared in The Comics Journal and The International Journal of Comic Art. He is currently working on a book titled Worlds Within Worlds: Storytelling in Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's Fantastic Four.

CR is pleased to host their conversation this week and hope it is a model for many more discussions in the future. For more information on the book, click through the above cover image.


Day Five

Craig Fischer to Bart Beaty

Dear Bart,
Here it is, our final day of the Wertham "debate," and I still have too much to say. I'll begin by responding to Charles Hatfield's letter, and in the process I hope to clarify some of the issues we've been bandying around this week.
Charles quite rightly challenges the analogy I made during my discussion of Janet Staiger's notion of "reading strategies" between how spectators respond to
Raiders of the Lost Ark and how readers respond to Crumb. Charles observes:
"Part of the aesthetic and emotional heft of Crumb, at least for many readers, myself among them, is the taboo and provoking nature of what he does. No? To make a case for Crumb value involves wrestling with the confessional, autobiographical, satirical, polemical, and boundary-prodding nature of his work […] The Raiders example fails because Raiders offers nothing on par with Crumb's vision and doesn't go anywhere nearly as risky, or as revelatory, as Crumb's work."

I couldn't agree with Charles more. My analogy was designed to introduce Staiger's concept with a specific example, and not to argue that Spielberg and Crumb are equally transgressive artists. For comics readers of the same generation as Bart, Charles and myself (in our late 30s-early 40s), there may be no greater taboo-buster than Crumb. I first saw his work at the age of 13, when the clerk at a local Buffalo, NY head shop sold me a copy of
Homegrown Funnies, and when I saw Whiteman force Yeti's legs apart, I thought, "That's it. The game's up. I'm going to Hell." Yet the next time I went to confession, I didn't mention Homegrown Funnies to the priest, partially because (as Charles mentions, invoking Martin Barker) I experienced both excruciating guilt and a kind of secret, illicit pleasure over "reading such sick, sick shit."

There's a great
Motorbooty interview where Guy Maddin declared that he was "pro-repression," because hiding a secret desire and feeling guilty about it makes the desire that much sweeter and kinkier. I agree with Charles that some children and adolescents hunger for culture that is "very dark and skeptical"--like the high school Goths carrying around copies of Naked Lunch or Choke-- and this way of reading can be intellectually stimulating as any other. Wertham, however, wasn't worried about those Goths; his concern was for the readers who were unprepared for disturbing material but came in contact it anyway, like the 8-year-olds who couldn't read the captions in a crime comic but loved to look at the pictures.

And what about those pictures and captions? I wrote, "My aesthetic love for Crumb's crosshatching wrestles with my ideological aversion to images like Flakey Foont fondling the breasts of a headless Devil Girl." Charles responded: "The 'aesthetic' dimension in Crumb (as in, say, EC comics) is not simply reducible to crosshatching or other such matters of technique, is it?" Charles further argued that the aesthetic and ideological aspects of a comic (or any cultural product) are not as easily separable as I seem to imply in my Devil Girl example, and again, we're in harmony. I was looking for a quick comic book example of clashing reading strategies, and that sound-byte reading of Crumb was the first example that came to me. There's volumes more to say about Crumb and EC.

Maybe the best way to explore the issues Charles brings up is to look at a specific text. Bart, we've talked a lot of theory this week, but it might be useful to apply some of that theory to a comic that Wertham himself discusses in
Seduction of the Innocent. One obvious candidate is "Murder, Morphine and Me," a Jack Cole crime story that was recently reprinted in Art Spiegelman and Chip Kidd's Forms Stretched to their Limits: Jack Cole and Plastic Man (2001). In Forms, Spiegelman gives the skinny on "Murder, Morphine and Me" and Wertham:
"In 1947, Cole hired Alex Kotzky to help him package
True Crime Comics, a new publisher's short-lived attempt to cash in on the crime comics then dominating the field; a story in the second issue, 'Murder, Morphine and Me,' has become notorious as one of the most intense and delirious examples that the lurid genre had to offer. One small panel--so charged that it has tremor lines around it and tilts, almost tumbling off the page--was enshrined as Exhibit A in Dr. Fredric Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent, the book that triggered the Senate hearings and thereby toppled the industry; it shows a close-up of Mary Kennedy, the dope-dealing protagonist, being stabbed in the eye by a junkie with a hypodermic needle.

I concede that this isn't Mother Goose, but I find the panel (part of a dream sequence, incidentally) emblematic of the comic book's visceral power to pass the analytical defenses and pierce the brain. Dr. Wertham, on the other hand, focused on the depraved image as an example of 'the injury-to-the-eye motif…[that] shows perhaps the true color of crime comics better than anything else.' I suspect that Dr. Wertham never saw Luis Buňuel and Salvador Dali's
Un Chien Andalou (the 1929 film shocker that featured a close-up of a woman's eye getting slashed by a razor), but that it had made a strong impression on Cole." (Forms Stretched 91-92).

There's two things to say about the above Spiegelman quote: (a.) despite his affection for Cole as an artist, Spiegelman acknowledges that "Murder, Morphine and Me" is "intense," "delirious," and "depraved"; and (b.) he tries to "legitimize" the story by comparing it to the high art surrealism of
Un Chien Andalou. But Staiger argues that not all reading strategies enjoy the same popularity, that some are more or less popular depending on ideological shifts and redefinitions. (When Charles requests that we historicize the "idea of childhood 'innocence' or the political mobilization of that idea," he's asking us to see the concept of "innocence" as a reading strategy.) I think we'd all agree that the Hookey Club--the gang of delinquents Wertham profiles in Seduction -- would be apt to read Cole's "injury to the eye" panel as wild and sick, and completely miss any evocation of Un Chien Andalou. (For some bizarre associative reason, I've always imagined the Hookey Club as Jack Kirby's Newsboy Legion: "Hey, Flippa Dippa, that dame's gonna get a needle to da eye!")

Let's turn to "Murder, Morphine and Me" itself. Depraved it is, but Spiegelman's précis ignores a strong wail of moralism and misery in the story. The story begins, after a lurid splash page, with Mary Kennedy, the protagonist, musing about the effects drug addiction has on a person's appearance: "The horrible, gaunt mask of yellow... eyes sunk deep in the skull holes, suckin' the skin into wrinkled whirlpools of agony!" The structure of the story -- a flashback where Mary tells us about her days in a dope-dealing gang -- steadily juxtaposes broken-down Mary with images of her much prettier younger self. Mary's steady decline in appearance connects to a larger theme in the story too. Her first job for the gang is to dance with "tired business men" who secretly purchase morphine on the dance floor. Every single one of these "business men" is drawn as a lurid, almost excessively funny caricature: a famous panel at the top of page six shows the heads all these hideous men spinning around (like "one mad misery-go-round") Mary's still attractive face. One reading of the story, then, is cautionary: if you want to know the real effects of drug use, suggests Cole, just look at the faces.

The story's bookends also convey a moralistic warning. It begins with the dream sequence Spiegelman mentions, as Mary dreams about a visit from a threatening junkie who goes for her eye with the needle. Her landlords wake her up out of this dream -- Mary is screaming and heading out the window when they stop her -- and Mary tells her tale to Mrs. Johnston, her sympathetic Swedish landlady. In the last three panels of "Murder, Morphine and Me," Mrs. Johnston suggests that if Mary publicly tells her story, she might "help keep other foolish girls from making the same mistake." Cole's story supposedly serves the same purpose.

But does it? For me, this moralism bumps up against Cole's tendency to illustrate every scene, and not just the ones with gunshots and punches, as a fever-pitch climax. When she first meets the gang boss Tony, Mary's heart (in Spiegelman's words) bangs "against her chest like a five-hundred pound canary trying to break out of its cage" (93). On page 11, when a character called the Professor speaks to Mary, she madly whirls around in a swivel chair; on page 13, when Mary is driven to a safe house run by federal agents, a panel shows her yanked from the car by a hand extended from a blackened doorway. Nobody walks slowly or sits quietly in Cole's world of hopped-up drug fiends. The overwhelming effect is instead a relentless exhilaration that Spiegelman calls Cole's "signature velocity" (92).

This uneasy mix of moral instruction and breathless excitement isn't new to the gangster genre. As you know, in the early 1930s, audiences loved gangster films, but reformers loathed them, partially because they saw the films as hypocritical. Even when a gangster film ends with a "crime doesn't pay" message -- Cagney muttering "I ain't so tough" before crumpling into the gutter--the 90+ minutes of violence (usually perpetrated by a tough yet somewhat sympathetic thug) that the film presents before the conclusion dilutes the moralism and stimulates the audience in unhealthy ways. And I feel like the same is true of "Murder, Morphine and Me": Mary's story is pathetic and disturbing, but when it's drawn with the bounce of a
Plastic Man story, it's also exciting, fast and stimulating. Bart, on the topic of "linear dyslexia," you wrote:
"I know for a fact that people read comics in different ways, because I know that as a comic reader myself, I often skip enormous chunks of material (much of the typeset material in Cerebus, for example, I simply gloss over). I have little doubt that everyone who reads comics reads them differently (take in the whole page first/don't take in the whole page first; read the captions then the dialogue/read the dialogue then the captions; read the text then look at the art/look at the art then read the text; etc. etc.), and Wertham's discussions with his patients bore this out."

But odd things happen to "Murder, Morphine and Me" depending how you read it. The shock revelation at the end of the story -- that the one person who Mary trusted is actually the "big boss" of the gang -- is revealed in a word balloon. What if a reader skims the words and misses it? Can we speak of Cole's story as telling two stories, as in Nyberg's analysis of "The Whipping"? What about the 8-year-olds who can't read the captions in a crime comic but love to look at the pictures? "Murder, Morphine and Me" is a wildly polysemic (that buzzword again!) text that invites different and multiple readings, and Wertham's fear was that material about such mature subject matter could have a negative effect on children susceptible to the "bacillus" of violence. Makes sense to me...

Bart (and Charles), this is my longest entry yet, and we still have so much to talk about. (The debate about media effects has been around since Plato's banning of the poets from the Republic vs. Aristotle's notion of catharsis, so it may take us one more round to figure it out.) I'm sure the conversation will continue as more people read
Fredric Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture, and I'm grateful to Tom for the opportunity to chat publicly about these important issues.

Now I'm off to watch
Meet the Fockers. Happy holidays to all...



Bart Beaty to Craig Fischer

Hi Craig,

The case study is a great way to end the discussion particularly since it's something that I considered adding to my book and then never did. When I was writing my dissertation at McGill University (which forms the basis for this book, although the book is substantially re-written) I thought maybe I should do a case study to see if Wertham might be "right". But then I realized that my project wasn't to determine whether he is "right" or not, but to explicate the development of his thinking and to situate it in regard to other major thinkers of this era, which is why there are chapters on psychiatry, art and politics before it even gets to a mention of the mass media. In the end, the fundamental questions raised by Wertham (and as you note, by the ancient Greeks) may not be answerable, so my work seeks to examine the importance of the debate, rather than resolving the debate itself. To this end, I felt a case study would only be a distraction.

Nonetheless, I do address the competing discussions of "The Whipping" in the work of Bradford Wright, Martin Barker, and Amy Kiste-Nyberg without really offering on of my own. I think that your choice of "Murder, Morphine and Me", a story whose panels were excerpted in Seduction, is an interesting one. Of course, I don't have the over-designed Cole book as I read the essay in the New Yorker, and I have the story (in 3D no less!) in 3-D True Crime, an early-1990s cheap-o version that also includes Cole's "Boston's Bloody Gang War", which was also excerpted in Seduction. Nothing says "Jack Cole is a fine artist" so much as reproducing his work in 3D!

I'd like to start with a few comments on the Spiegelman quote that you've included here, and which, in fact, I quoted in passing in the conclusion of my book. First, I think that Spiegelman is being reductive here by saying that that Seduction "triggered" the Senate hearings, as it did no such thing. Seduction of the Innocent was released on 19 April 1954, two days before the Senate hearings began and three days before its originally scheduled release date, which was moved up to take advantage of the Hearings. Perhaps I'll be accused of nitpicking here, but I think that it's important to note that A did not lead to B, but rather A and B occurred virtually simultaneously and reinforced each other. Second, I'm not sure what Spiegelman's parenthetical "part of a dream sequence" means in this instance. Does the fact that the panel is of a different order mitigate its iconic power in some way? The comment really puzzles me, with the "incidentally" seeming to suggest that it is not that important to the overall structure, and that it shouldn't be taken seriously since the violence isn't actually happening. Indeed, none of it is "actually" happening - they're all drawings after all. Finally, the reference to Buñuel and Dali seems strangely out of place if one seriously considers Wertham's argument. Un Chien Andalou isn't a children's film, and it still has a tremendous power to shock adults (I've taught the film several times to university students in film classes - they still scream and some still walk out). This is part of the slippage that happens when we're dealing with comics. By equating Cole's work to a masterpiece of high cinematic modernism, Spiegelman suggests that the two should be accorded the same respect and seriousness. But Un Chien Andalou circulated in theatres clearly designated as adult spaces, while Cole's work was made available to children as its primary market (as is evidenced by its price). Wertham's argument would be that neither of these things were appropriate for children, and, in his efforts to elevate Cole for a New Yorker audience, Spiegelman seems to imply the same.

What Spiegelman likes best in the story is Cole's art, which is not surprising since it really is the only thing that there is to recommend here. The writing in "Murder, Morphine and Me" is, frankly, atrocious. The pacing is labored, the dialogue is painful to the ear. Every panel includes too much dialogue, almost all of it horribly bad. Without the lively drawings, there would be nothing here, and I'm not surprised that Spiegelman finds nothing to say about the text. But if a reader as sophisticated as Art Spiegelman ignores the text, what did children in 1947 do? Unfortunately, we have no time machine to go ask them, only notes taken by psychiatrists like Fredric Wertham, who was asking them at the time. I don't know if he ever did talk to a patient about this particular story, so we're into suppositions. What can we suppose? Let me put it this way: When I re-read the story this morning, I started skipping the dialogue. At fourteen pages, its simply too long and too dull, and I found myself just sort of skimming along, looking at the Cole art (in 3D!). Do I think that kids in 1947 had more tolerance for bad dialogue than I do? Maybe. Do I think that they pored over this dialogue to get the moral message, or just looked at the cool gruesome pictures? Do I really need to answer that?

The fact is, as you allude to with the reference to 1930s gangster films, the moral ribbon tied around these stories was always illusory. Check out a cover for Crime Does Not Pay. Fully 1/3 of the cover is taken up by the word CRIME and the "does not pay" is written in the smallest imaginable font. Now stack that comic behind another on a newsstand, so only the top peeks out and ask yourself what they were selling. "Murder, Morphine and Me" (from True Crime Comics) is one lurid scene after another with Mary then copping to her regrets in the final tier. We have shootings, stabbings, the "isle of the dead", punching, drug-dealing tips and techniques, and all presented with just enough veneer to remove the heat. Crime does not pay, except that it does for thirteen and two-thirds pages, and then, oops, suddenly they're caught. Oh well. I don't think that even they thought that they were fooling anyone with this stuff. (And, as an aside, it was this sort of comic that was discussed at the 1948 symposium not, as Rodrigo Baeza points out, EC, which had yet to push the boundaries to the same degree. Rodrigo's catch of my slip is a good reminder of the reason that books are subject to multiple revisions, while these posts are being turned around almost as fast as the two of us can type!)

Spiegelman brings the eye of the connoisseur to this material and finds in Coles' graphics something worth redeeming. I'm a little less convinced, because I can't shake the awfulness of the plot and dialogue (as you know, Craig, I have the same reaction to Kirby comics - we'll get to that when your own book is published), but I can see his point. My problem is that I think Spiegelman offers a very selective reading of the work in order to rebut a reading that he finds too selective, and what is interesting is that they both come down to the same thing: If you just look at the art, you'll see that this story is a) beautifully constructed or b) possibly dangerous for readers who lack the visual sophistication of an Art Spiegelman.

For a lot of readers the issue is going to come down to this: If Wertham cannnot provide absolute clear-cut definitive proof that "Murder, Morphine and Me" turned children into delinquents then it should be made available to all young children. For a lot of other readers, that argument is going to seem absurd. What the first group of readers fails to take into account is that their own style of reading and comprehension is very different from that of children, which is why not all culture is made available to children by responsible publishers. Wertham called on publishers to be responsible in the 1950s, to act as the underground publishers acted in the 1960s by labeling their work as "for adults only". Opponents of that practice argue essentially that all comic books should be made appropriate for children, and it is that belief that retarded the growth of the medium for so many decades

Craig, thanks for taking the time this week to discuss this book. It has meant a great deal to me to find such an engaged reader, and one who asks such probing and insightful questions. I know that some people who have read this far won't be moved by our discussion to find out more about Fredric Wertham, preferring to remain in their intellectual bubbles and recite the received mythology. There's no convincing those people, as "Fredric Wertham was an evil censor" is to comics as "Iraq is linked to Al-Qaeda" is to the Bush White House. All I can do is try to demonstrate the reality behind Wertham's thinking. Perhaps my reading of his work is unconvincing, but I think it at least has the merits of being a reading of his work, not a reading of the fantasy that comics fans have built up around him. (For instance, in quickly checking for something on the web just now, a search brought up an article about EC from the libertarian magazine Reason which says about the Senate Hearings: "The only representative of the comics industry to testify was Gaines." Well, except for ACMP President Henry Shultz, Helen Meyer of Dell Comics, Milton Caniff, Walt Kelly, and experts hired by the comics industry, including Lauretta Bender and Gunnar Dybwad, to name but a few. The persistence of these fantasy histories, despite the fact that the testimony in the hearings is readily available to the public, seems almost deliberate sometimes, not merely sloppy.)

I hope that this discussion has been as interesting for our readers as it has been for me, and I hope some will take the time to find out something about Fredric Wertham, because I think they'll be surprised.