Posts Tagged ‘Martin Barker ‘Comics Ideology and Power’’

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.

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