A HANDBOOK OF HORRORS

My Funny Book Books: Book Report I

~SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT by Dr. Fredric Wertham~

(the 1st in an occasional series reporting on books about funny books)

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in search of seduction

As a teen-ager in the ’70s, I became increasingly interested in the history behind my favourite funnies. I heard about a book called SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT by Dr. Fredric Wertham, so one day I went with my sister to our local public library in search of a copy.

Our local library wasn’t so local. It took about an hour of walking with my sister to get there and an hour back. We could have taken the bus, but that wouldn’t have saved much time, as the bus had a circuitous route, although it might have saved some shoe leather. But this was a nice walk through our neighbourhood and out toward Kingsway and I don’t think I ever minded the trouble. It was something of an adventure.

At the library, I found an edition of SOTI (as collectors call this title), although some of the pages of artwork at the middle of the book had been ripped out and others defaced.

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SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT (1954): two pages from the 16 pages of artwork at the middle of the book.

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the grand-daddy of funny book books

When it comes to books written about funny books, in many of its aspects except one, SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT sets the tone for what will follow in the coming decades.

Published in 1954, it might not seem apparent that SOTI is like those other books, because the one aspect that sets it apart is that Dr. Wertham comes to bury comics not to praise them.

Virtually every other book–and I’ll get around to a few of them in future book reports (I hope)–every other text has something about comic books that it wants to praise.

Nevertheless, most comic book books, including SOTI,

  • are written by collectors–Dr. Wertham lets us know that he has a vast collection of comics that he has read through
  • indulge in retelling key stories from comic books–Dr. Wertham does that
  • feature some art from the funny books themselves–the bunch of pages in the middle of SOTI show such panels and covers, though lacking proper citation
  • reveal some inside info on the creators–Dr. Wertham doesn’t name names but does reveal confidences from a few comic book insiders
  • take on a significant period of comics history and development–and unlike most other books, the period the doctor takes on is happening even as he writes about it
  • have some theme the writer or writers want to chip away at–and Dr. Wertham’s theme is a big one

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SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT (1954): two more pages from the 16 pages of artwork at the middle of the book.

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beyond good and evil

It’s not for me to judge SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT or the validity of the good doctor’s research–many others have done a good job of critiquing Fredric Wertham’s research. In fact, most books about the funnies are not valuable for their facts. These are books written by opinionated people, so you’re always seeing the world from their own skewed view of reality. If you want cold hard information on comics, you’re better off to go to the Grand Comics Database.

But SOTI does plop the reader in the middle of a time period and it gives one a chance to look at this world through the eyes of someone who lived in that time. The one thing you soon realize is that comics were overwhelmingly popular back then. Dr. Wertham is looking at comic books at a time when their publishers were making fortunes from selling them. And it is a time that the comic book industry has never been able to emulate since.

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Cover Gallery, Robert M. Overstreet’s THE COMIC BOOK PRICE GUIDE No. 9 (1979 – 1980); special note is made of the SOTI comics.

Another thing the reader will realize the further one goes into the book is that, while Fredric Wertham’s main endeavour is to condemn crime comic books for whatever influence they may have on children, the doctor’s definition of a crime comic book is much more open-ended than one would guess. Western, war, romance, super-hero, horror, science fiction–they are all crime comics. Even adaptations from classic literature–because they pick out the most violent and dramatic bits–are deemed crime books.

About the only kind of comic book that doesn’t fit Dr. Wertham’s large category of crime is what he calls animal comic books–what’s usually called funny animal by collectors. But even there, Fredric Wertham has a low opinion of these comics books and could lump them in with everything else.

He has a higher opinion of the comic strips appearing in newspapers and Dr. Wertham is careful to distinguiish between the comics–i.e. the strips–and those comic books that publish new material. However, once comic strips are collected in a comic book, this shift in context also seems to focus in on the violence with graphic cover art and seductive advertising–according to the doctor.

So when Dr. Wertham uses the term crime comic book, he could mean just about any comic book for sale at that time. And there were millions of those being sold every month.

there oughta be a law

Nor does Dr. Fredric Wertham always identify what he means by a child. Sometimes he means someone in their early to late teens. Sometimes he means four year olds.

His main object in writing the book is to lobby for a law to be passed that would prohibit the sale of crime comic books in the United States to anyone under age fifteen. But by his own admission this would restrict the under fifteens to reading a very narrow range of comics–some funny animal and some educational comics.

Yet, as Dr. Wertham believes all comic books damage the reading skills of children and prevent them from developing interests in better literature, he really doesn’t have much faith in any child-friendly comics

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SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT (1954): another two more pages from the 16 pages of artwork at the middle of the book.

His is a quixotic quest and one wonders if Fredric Wertham ever considered the impossiblity of accomplishing such a goal. The comics industry may not have started out with children as its main market, but the publishers must’ve soon realized that young readers bought more comics than any other demographic. Therefore, publishing comics exclusively for readers over fifteen would never have been as profitable as publishing comics for those under fifteen. And it’s unlikely those under fifteen would have been satisfied with non-violent funny animals and dry primers alone.

If put into force, Wertham’s law would have destroyed the American comic book industry completely.

SOTI comes out for sale in 1954 and most of the comic book publishers get together and formulate a new Comics Code. There had been other codes before this one, but the 1954 Code seems to do the job in forestalling government legislation that might have favoured Dr. Wertham’s ends.

It’s a Pyrrhic victory for both the comic book industry and Fredric Wertham.

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it’s not your fault

SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT was probably never meant to be a serious scholarly work. It doesn’t meet the standard for scholarship, for while Dr. Fredric Wertham refers to case studies he doesn’t lay out his research with facts and figures in a way that could be peer reviewed and held to some standard of academic research in his field.

His book is really a pop psychology and pop culture volume. The reader trusts that Dr.Wertham is an expert in his field–and while he doesn’t give tangible proof of that, his anecdotal evidence suggests that he must know his stuff. The book is really intended for those who want to have certain beliefs confirmed and other doubts dispelled. The doctor is here to tell the concerned mother that she is not guilty and all the guilt belongs with the comic book publishers.

A consumer at the time of SOTI’s first publication would appreciate the book for the relief of guilt. It might not be advisable to give away the ending of a book, but I’ll make an exception in this case as the very end of SOTI indicates what it was all for.

Dr. Wertham relates an anecdote about a mother whose son has got in trouble for delinquency and his own efforts on her behalf.

She seemed to come out from under a cloud. She thanked me and got up to go. When she was halfway through the doorway she turned slowly. “Doctor,” she said in a low voice. “I’m sorry to take your time. But please–tell me again.”

I looked at her questioningly.

“Tell me again,” she said slowly and hesitantly, “Tell me again that it isn’t my fault.”

And I did.

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the most shocking book of 1954

SOTI also offers lurid tales of the most graphic and perverse variety–but unlike the comic books, there’s nothing wrong with Fredric Wertham indulging in these tales because it’s all in the interest of science and saving children.

The title–SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT–cleary is sensationalistic, promising nasty transgressions between its covers.

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PUBLISHERS’ WEEKLY (March ?, 1954) promotes SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT.

More background on the events leading up to Dr. Wertham’s book and the reaction from the public to SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT can be found on THE COMICS JOURNAL (February 6. 2013) feature: Warren Bernard’s Citations and Fredric Wertham Documents.

One imagines that consumers were enthralled by such depravity and yet could feel self-satisfied that they had the best intentions in reading about such smut. No irony here.

the ironic age

While comic book collectors love to deplore Dr. Wertham’s text, SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT has been well-thumbed by comics fans. Identifying the comics referenced in SOTI is an established preoccupation among funny book fandom.

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Robert M. Overstreet’s THE COMIC BOOK PRICE GUIDE No. 6 (1976 – 1977); a note that PHANTOM LADY No. 17 is used in SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT–valued at $50.00 in Mint.

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THE OVERSTREET COMIC BOOK PRICE GUIDE No. 40 (2010 – 2011); possible use in SOTI for CRIME DOES NOT PAY No. 64–valued at $225.00 in NM; used in SOTI for PHANTOM LADY No. 17–valued at $12,500.00 in NM.

In Robert M. Overstreet’s THE COMIC BOOK PRICE GUIDE No. 9 (1979 – 1980), there’s a useful article by Carl Macek, For Those Who Know How to Look (pp A-35 – A-42), where he discusses SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT and the effort to track down all comic books that it references. [Note: This is a few years before Carl would become reknowned in the animation field–in particular for ROBOTECH.]

Carl Macek justifies his detective work as not simply curiosity, although there is that, but a genuine need to hold Fredric Wertham to account.

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For Those Who Know How to Look by Carl Macek, in Robert M. Overstreet’s THE COMIC BOOK PRICE GUIDE No. 9 (1979 – 1980).

No doubt a researcher and historian like Macek has the noblest of reasons for doing this kind of investigation. But not everyone has the same goal. In labelling so many comics with the SOTI identifier, Overstreet and others singled them out for speculators.

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For Those Who Know How to Look by Carl Macek, in Robert M. Overstreet’s THE COMIC BOOK PRICE GUIDE No. 9 (1979 – 1980).

sotiopg9.macek3So in a roundabout way Dr. Fredric Wertham succeeded in attaching greater value to those comic books he was indicting, simply by obliquely referencing them in his book. The doctor’s handbook of horrors became a guidebook of values for the perceptive collector.
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For Those Who Know How to Look by Carl Macek, in Robert M. Overstreet’s THE COMIC BOOK PRICE GUIDE No. 9 (1979 – 1980).

LostSOTI.org is a good place to look for up to date information on comics referenced in SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT.

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Coming Soon in

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THE FIRST DAYS OF

THE ACTION ACE

ad extra feature

NOT THE MOST SHOCKING ADS YOU WILL EVER SEE!

[NOT APPROVED BY THE COMICS CODE AUTHORITY]

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jif19coverThe back cover ad for the horror anthology JOURNEY INTO FEAR No. 19 (May ’54) is hardly horrific–unless you plan to use the drill for surgery on a living victim.

Dr. Fredric Wertham devotes many pages in SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT to talking about advertising copy in the comic books. Even when a funny book is otherwise relatively inoffensive, it’s doomed by the ads which promote everything from guns to home beauty products.

However, pre-Code ads in the horror comics from Superior Comics were rather tame. Maybe this is because Superior was in Canada, although they shipped their comics to the United States.

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Carpentry could give me the creeps–and when I did use my father’s hammer, one time, I got a spanking. Dancing lessons–okay dancing in school always made me nervous. But if my father had never taken dancing lessons, he would never have had the courage to dance with my mother when he met her at the White Rose Ballroom–and she was a jitterbugging genius. And if they had never danced . . .

The June 22, 2010 blog for OUT OF THIS WORLD takes a look at some such ads in Body Image Psychology and Romance Comic Ads: Wertham Revisited.

For more about Superior and their horror comics, see WEIRD AND STRANGE, as well as Mad Hate of Doctor Zart.

All characters, logos, and images are owned and © 2015 by current copyright holders. They are used here for educational and review purposes.

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