Posts Tagged ‘Frederic Wertham’

Tokyo Bans Sale of Comics ‘Subversive of the Social Order’ to Children

August 28, 2021

It seems to me that there’s a real war going on in ostensibly democratic countries against freedom of speech and conscience. I don’t think this is confined to either the left or right either. In Britain we have had a successions of governments that have been determined to limit the right to public protest from David Cameron to Johnson with his wretched Criminal Justice Bill. And before then there was Tony Blair and his attempts to control what was being said about him and his coterie on state broadcasting, just as Berlusconi was doing to the Italian state media. John Kampfner wrote a rather good book about it, Freedom for Sale, a few years ago, arguing that governments from Blair to Putin were trying to bargain with their peoples. They got material prosperity in return for severe infringements on their ability to protest against their governments. Well, Blair was wretched, but he did at least tackle poverty with no little success. Cameron, Tweezer and Johnson are simply increasing it.

On the other side of the political aisle, the right are complaining about the imposition of curbs on free speech as part of the campaign against hate crime and the ‘cancel culture’. Some of this is exaggerated. Zelo Street demolished some of the claims Toby Young, Douglas Murray and the rest were making about right-wingers being prevented from speaking at universities by giving the precise statistics. These showed that, while it had happened, the percentage of speakers cancelled was minute. But I do think they have a point. For example, it should be accepted that trans people should not despised, persecuted or suffer discrimination. But I think there are legitimate issues and questions voiced by gender critical feminists about trans activism and that there are spaces that should only be reserved for ‘cis’ women. But to some people, simply voicing what to many people are reasonable questions and criticisms constitute hate speech. There are similar problems regarding the reporting and discussion of racial issues. Nobody should want to empower real bigots and Fascists, but it does seem that legislation put in place to protect minorities from real hate has now expanded into Orwellian thoughtcrime.

And these attempts to limit freedom of speech have got into what is permissible in comics. One of the astonishing snippets I found while flicking through Paul Gravett’s Comics Art yesterday, was that in 2011 Tokyo municipality expanded its ban on the sale of certain comics (manga) and animated movies (anime) to children under 18 by including materials ‘excessively disruptive of the social order’. (Page 72). I realise that Japan is a very conservative society. The right-wing Liberal Democratic party were in power for fifty years or so after the end of World War II. The country is very Confucian in that one respects one’s elders and superiors. Gender roles are very traditional, as are conceptions of nationality. I don’t know if it’s still the case now, but under Japanese law at one time a person could only be a Japanese citizen if both their parents were ethnic Japanese. I gather that there are ways you can become a naturalised citizen, but it’s extremely difficult. It’s also supposed to be a very conformist society, in which children are taught at school that ‘the nail that stands up must be hammered down’. But this attack on comics is extreme.

Such attacks on the four-colour funnies and related media haven’t been restricted by Japan by any means. In the 1950s there was a moral panic in America and the United States against comics, one of the major figures in which was the Austrian psychiatrist, Dr Frederic Wertham. Wertham was one of a number of left-wing, emigre intellectuals who believed that popular culture had assisted the Nazis into power. He believed that American youth was being corrupted into crime and sexual deviancy by comics. He accused Superman of being a Nazi, despite the fact that the character’s only similarity to Nietzsche’s superman is the name, and that the Man of Steel’s creators were American Jews. Batman and Robin were an idealised homosexual couple, an accusation that has continued to plague attempts to reintroduce Robin in the strips. Oh yes, and Wonder Woman was a sado-masochist feminist lesbian. I doubt any of these accusations would have been recognised by the kids who actually bought and read the strips. But Wertham’s denunciations were taken up by a variety of groups, from the religious right to the Communist party and led to the passing of laws across America banning or restricting the sale of comics to children. The ban led to the collapse of particular comic genres, specifically the horror and true crime comics, which were particular targets of the legislators’ ire. It also affected the SF comics, because some of them strayed into politically dubious areas. The superhero comics survived, not because they were the most popular, but because they were the type of comics least affected by the new regulations.

One of the SF comics singled out for censorship was a story in which an astronaut from Earth travels to a world populated entirely by robots. His face hidden in his spacesuit, he tells the robots that they’re being considered as candidates for joining a galactic federation. Shades of Star Trek’s United Federation of Planets by a slightly different name here. However, the robots are divided into two types, blue and orange, and there is hatred and conflict between them. At the end of the story, the astronaut informs them that they have been rejected because of these divisions. It was only when the people of Earth rejected their differences and united, that real progress was made, he states at the end of the story. In the last panel he removes his helmet, and reveals that he’s Black.

Shock horror! An anti-racist message! This was too much for one New York judge, who wanted the strip banned on religious grounds. He believed that God had only given speech to humanity, and hated the idea of talking robots. But the underlying issue is obviously its attack on racism at a time when Jim Crow was still very much in force. Eventually the judge had to back down, and the issue degenerated into a fight between the publisher, EC, and the authorities over how many beads of sweat they could show on the Earthman.

Well, at least there were comics creators in America prepared to deal with the issue. Pat Mills, the creator of zarjaz British comic 2000 AD, says in his book about British comics and his career in them, Be Pure! Be Vigilant! Behave! that even in the late 1960s, the policeman heroes in British comics were making quite racist comments about Blacks. Part of what made 2000 AD’s predecessor, Action, so controversial was that Mills and the other creators there had been determined to make it as relevant as possible to contemporary British youth culture and deal with the issues and stories affecting and demanded by the young readership of the time. It was originally going to be called ‘Boots’, after Dr Martens’ distinctively rebellious footwear, followed by the years. So ‘Boots 1977′, Boots 1978’ and so on. But this was too much for the publishers, and the name Action settled on instead. In the end, the comic only lasted a couple of years because it was so controversial, with the major criticism that it was far too violent. 2000 AD was its successor, but here, unlike Action, the violence would be done in support of the law. This led to Judge Dredd, who was deliberately designed as a Fascist cop. The strip’s founding artist, Carlos Ezquerra, was Spanish, and so incorporated into Dredd’s uniform the style of the Fascists then making life a misery in Franco’s Spain, the helmet, the shoulder pads and the eagle badge. And I don’t think it’s an accident that the light reflected in Dredd’s visor looks like ‘SS’. Dredd was thus partly a comment by Mills and Wagner on some of the authoritarian trends in contemporary policing. Other strips tackled issues of racism and religious bigotry – Strontium Dog and Nemesis the Warlock, for example, and sexism, like The Ballad of Halo Jones. There was also a strong anti-war message in the ABC Warriors. Mainstream American comics had been tackling some of these issues for a decade or so previously. There were issues of Spiderman, for example, that tackled racism, and the Blaxploitation craze of the 1970s led to the appearance of Black superheroes like Powerman, Brother Voodoo and the Black Panther. Since then, and particularly since the collapse of the Comics Code Authority in the 1990s, comics have become an accepted and critically respected medium for the discussion of political and social issues. This has reached the point where Conservative and more traditional fans and comics creators believe that the medium and related forms of popular culture, such as SF and Fantasy film and television has become too politicised. In their opinion, contemporary comics writers and artists are too concerned with pushing overt messages about racism, sexism and gay rights at the expense of creating good, likeable characters and engaging plots and stories.

Martin Barker describes how comics have always been the subject of suspicion by the left and the right, going back to the Bloods and Penny Dreadfuls of Victorian Britain, and the cheap, popular novels being read by ‘the democracy’ in his Comics, Ideology and Power. Girls’ comics seem to me to have come in for a particular bashing. They were attacked by conservatives for being too radical and challenging traditional female roles. The left attacked them for being too conservative and not teaching girls their proper, traditional place. Barker shows how these attacks were way off, tearing to pieces specific criticisms of various strips. He argues that children actually subtly negotiate the content of the comics they read. They accept only those elements of the strips which appeal to them and ignore the rest. They do not simply accept everything they read. Barker’s final chapter is a passionate attack on those, who were trying to censor comics at the time he was writing. This included Thatcher and the Tories, but he was also angry at his own camp, the left. Brent and Lambeth councils were also leading an attack on popular literature through their zeal to purge their municipal libraries of anything they considered racist.

And they attack on popular literature has carried on. I remember the furore at the beginning of this century against the Harry Potter books. American Evangelical Christians accused J.K. Rowling of leading children into Satanism and the occult. Well, I admit I’ve only seen the films, not read the books, but I must have missed that one. It’s always seemed to me that the Harry Potter books actually were part of a long tradition of supernatural fantasy in children’s literature going right back to E. Nesbitt and beyond, and including The Worst Witch and Gobbelino the Witch’s Cat. Their attacks on Potter contrast with the Pope’s, who praised them and J.K. Rowling for encouraging children’s imaginations. There was also a rabbi, who wrote a piece praising Potter as a kind of model for Jews.

I’m not a free speech absolutist. I believe the promotion of certain opinions should be outlawed. Obvious examples include anything that encourages the sexual abuse of children or real hatred and violence towards minorities. I have no problem with the law banning the incitement to racial hatred. This was introduced in the 1920s or ’30s with the aim of combating the rise of real Fascism in the form of Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, Arnold Leese’s The Britons and other violent, deeply racist and anti-Semitic outfits. I also believe that parents have every right to exercise concern and control about what their children read or listen to, or are taught at school regarding certain highly controversial issues.

But I am afraid that the rules against certain types of hate are being used to silence perfectly reasonable criticism. One of the quotes that my accusers have cited to show that I am an evil anti-Semite is a statement where I say that every state and ideology should be open to discussion and criticism, even Israel and Zionism. There is absolutely nothing anti-Semitic in that. Even the wretched I.H.R.A. definition of anti-Semitism states that criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic only if it is applied solely to Israel. But that sentence makes it very clear that I don’t single out Israel and Zionism for especial criticism. I simply state that they should not be above it. But to the anti-Semitism hunters, this is obviously too much.

I am very much afraid that freedom of speech, discussion and conscience and true liberty of the press is under attack. The Conservatives want to close down any view that isn’t their own, all while arguing they’re simply standing up for free speech against the censorious ‘woke’ left. And there are forces on the left trying to close down reasonable debate and criticism under the guise of protecting people from hate.

We have to be careful, and defending freedom of speech and publication from attacks, whether by left-wing councils like Brent and Lambeth in the 1980s, or right-wing local authorities like Tokyo and its law of 2011.

This should not be a partisan issue, but should stretch across the political spectrum. But my fear is that it won’t. And as both sides struggle to establish the kind of censorship they want, real freedom of expression will die.

The Smearing of the Innocent: The 1950s Anti-Comics Scare and the Anti-Semitism Smears against Labour

May 5, 2018

Frederic Wertham is a figure, who casts a very long shadow over the history of the American comics industry. Born Friedrich Wertheimer, he had emigrated to America from Germany in 1920. A psychiatrist with left-wing political views, he had moved to England to study medicine at King’s College and been influenced by the Fabians before finally moving to America. He was an expert in the study of the brain, and the neurological causes of behaviour, working under the leading expert in the organic causes of madness, Emil Kraepelin.

The carnage of the First World War made him concerned to understand the causes of violence, and the outbreak of the Second World War made him into an activist determined to combat it. In so doing, he became one of the leaders of a moral crusade against comics. The funny papers were supposed to contain all manner of subversive attitudes and doctrines, and were spreading criminality and sexual perversion amongst their young readers.

In some ways, he was an admirable figure. He was particularly concerned with the problem of children and violence, working with kids living in some of the most violent and exploitative environments of America. He gave the results of his studies into the mental health of children in racially segregated schools over to Thurgood Marshal, where it became part of the evidence civil rights activists used in the court cases that ended segregated schooling. With the support of prominent civil rights leaders, he opened a free psychiatric clinic for the poor in Harlem.

He became concerned about the influence of comics through his work with youngsters at the clinic. He noticed that all of them read comics. This should have been no surprise, as 90 per cent of all American children read comics. Those who didn’t were generally the children of the rich, who were kept away from such cheap literature. He was also strongly influenced by his fellow √©migr√© from Germany, Theodor Adorno, who blamed the rise of the Nazis on the mass culture created by capitalism.

He began his attack on comics in 1948 when Collier’s ran an interview with him, entitled ‘Horror in the Nursery’, and which ended with him declaring that ‘the time has come to legislate these books off the newsstands and out of the candy stores’. As a result, churches organised the boycott of retailers selling comics and citizens’ groups wrote to their politicians demanding action. More than 50 cities passed laws restricting the sale of comics. Comic books were also burned in a weird parallel to the book burnings in Nazi Germany. These began in Binghampton, New York. Volunteers went from house to house, asking if there were any comics. They’d then try to persuade the householder of their dangerous nature, encouraging them to surrender the offending literature, which would be taken to the local schoolyard to be burnt.
The comics industry managed to survive by passing voluntary codes of conduct. This managed to allay fears for a few years, until 1952-4 when Estes Kefauver, running for the Democratic presidential nomination, began his campaign against juvenile delinquency. Kefauver discussed the issue with Wertham, who had just written his book, The Seduction of the Innocent. This has become rightly notorious for its wild claims against comics. In 1953 Wertham became psychiatric adviser to the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency. In May the following year, the Subcommittee came to New York to examine the influence of the funny papers. It was this hearing that led to the near annihilation of the comics industry and the passage of legislation outlawing the crime and horror comics.

Among the allegations Wertham made were that Wonder Woman was a lesbian and Batman and Robin were a gay couple. Crime comics encouraged children to emulate the crimes contained in the stories. He also accused comics of spreading racism and Fascism, including Superman. He said of the Man of Steel that ‘superman has long been recognised as a symbol of violent racial superiority’. It’s rubbish, of course. Superman has never been remotely Nazi. The two creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, were both Jewish, as were most of the creators of the American comics industry. In 1946 the Superman radio show had broadcast a story, which had been partly created with the assistance of the Anti-Defamation League. In this, the Man of Steel fought against a KKK-style organise intent on destroying an interfaith organisation run by a rabbi and a Christian priest. The show was praised by organisations like the National Conference of Christians and Jews and the Negro Press Association for its work combatting racial and religious prejudice and promoting respect.

Superman wasn’t the only comic Wertham and the others smeared as racist, but comics generally. Wertham often went against the explicit content and moral of the stories, and twisted them to suit his own prejudices. One example was a horror novel, in which a father organises the lynching of his daughter’s boyfriend because he’s Latino. The thugs he gets to the job instead kill his daughter. It’s a nasty tale, but clearly not an endorsement of racism by any means. But because the strip included a racist term for Hispanics, Wertham and the rest seized on it as an example of the racism in comics.

This reminds me of the anti-Semitism used by the Tories, the Israel Lobby and the Blairites in the Labour party today against Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters. This has led to decent, anti-racist people being smeared and libelled as racists and Holocaust-deniers. This includes Jews, many of whom are anti-racist activists, who themselves or their families have suffered anti-Semitic abuse and assault. The parallels become even closer as Comics were also suspected of spreading Communism. in 1948, the police commissioner of Detroit declared that comics were full of ‘communist teachings, sex and racial discrimination.’ Which is similar to today’s smears that Corbyn’s supporters and Momentum are really hard-left Trotskyites and Communists, rather than real, middle of the road socialists wanting a return to the Social Democratic consensus and a proper welfare state.

The people making these smears against the Labour left go through their posts on-line, and then, like Wertham, take things out of context, twist their meaning and omit anything that shows that their victims are not the racist monsters they wish to paint them. And they are utterly despicable. And it’s a nasty, politically motivated campaign to prevent Labour coming to power, at least under Jeremy Corbyn.

Now some comics at the time of wertham’s campaign were very definitely unsuitable for children. But not all, and certainly not Superman and the rest of the DC favourites. But as Martin Barker shows in his book, Comics, Ideology and Power, it was another incident in a long history in which the upper classes have been suspicious of popular literature, and have attempted to censor and control what the hoi polloi read. Just as the upper classes and the media are now attempting to use smears again to stop people voting for and joining Corbyn’s Labour party.