A real, live, honest-to-goodness comic that Seduced the Innocent – Justice Traps the Guilty #58
I have known many adults who have treasured throughout their lives some of the books they read as children. I have never come across any adult or adolescent who had outgrown comic-book reading who would ever dream of keeping any of these “books” for any sentimental or other reason. — Fredric Wertham, Seduction of the Innocent
There aren’t all that many comic books in existence that have incited the fiery wrath of the excitable among us. Yet, in the middle of the last century, the dreaded threat of comic books was seen as sufficiently dire to warrant congressional hearings. As if Godless communists in Hollywood weren’t enough to keep the legislative branch occupied, Estes Kefauver (D-TN) made comics the partial subject of the Senate’s Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency, and it was Dr. Fredric Wertham’s book, The Seduction of the Innocent, which really got the whole thing whipped into a frenzy. Wertham was the McCarthy of this minor witch hunt, and the book was his list of State Department commies. (In fairness to Wertham, his comics actually existed.) Reading through those alarmist pages with a buffer of more than half a century, his concerns about the corrupting influence of folded and stapled newsprint storytelling seem foolish at worst and laughable at best. Wertham’s shoolmarmish tome, which led to the Comics Code Authority (which in turn left harmless comics out in the cold), conjures a mental image of the man who’s the personification of “ninny.” And indeed, looking up pictures of him online, he looks like the sort of guy who’d get his knickers in a twist. He has that Woodrow Wilson knuckle-rapping elan.
Wertham didn’t just write up a broad indictment of the industry, either. He named names — comic names. Specific comics were metaphorically held up for public ridicule, clamped in the stocks, and were exhibited as hellish exemplars of all that was wrong in the filth which polluted the next generation(s). Wertham got specific with some, in a point by point semiotic dissection of the evils lurking within. They were eviscerated (somewhat clumsily) and their entrails cast to augur degeneracy.
And others, like the comic in today’s post, he tarred with a broad stroke and moved on.
Issue #58 of Justice Traps the Guilty was Illustration no. 14 in Seduction, with the somewhat vague condemnation of “Treating Police Contemptuously.” That’s it. That’s all that Wertham could muster. Which leads one to wonder: What could have been so bad? What kind of contempt could lead to this book being lumped into a “THIS SHALL NOT STAND” movement, a storming of gates that threatened the viability of an entire medium?
It’s worth a look.
Three of the multiple stories within (none have the cover’s Mounties — our loss) feature law officers. The first centers around Phil and Doc, two cons who get out of prison and start up a lucrative Ponzi scheme. This panel is typical of the interaction between the crooks and the constabulary:
Pretty tame, no?
The second story has two city hoods hiding out in the West, during the days when prospecting fever was still running high. They kill a prospector’s son, but the sheriff can’t touch them because he has no proof of what they did. And when the crooks get wind that the very same prospector has struck it rich, they do him in and thumb their noses at the local lawman — cigarettes dangling insouciantly from their lips all the while:
Though the disrespect is a bit more oily in this case (in the proud tradition of Edward G. Robinson in Key Largo), was there really any risk that kids would want to emulate the man with the monkey face?
In the last tale, the killing of a crook on the very first page leads to the crook’s brother taking up a life of crime in spite towards the police that killed him. Yet, even as the surviving brother is thumbing his nose at the cops, he never really rises above the tenor of these opening panels, which depict the instigating death:
And that’s it. That’s what got Wertham so riled up. Which begs the question: How are criminals supposed to act? THEY’RE CRIMINALS. CROOKS. HOODLUMS. NE’ER DO WELLS. This isn’t the realm of please and thank you, of yes sir and no sir. This is crime. And it should be noted that all the crooks die, sometimes in painful ways, and sometimes at the hands of the state in Old Sparky. These are criminals that get punished for their vile deeds. There’s comeuppance, and ultimate comeuppance at that. What kid would follow in these footsteps? Where’s the glory in frying in the electric chair? What kid dreams of getting zapped like a bug?
Wertham actually might have been on to something if he had focused on the cavalier violence within. The bad guys kill flippantly, with no compunction or remorse, and glib fictional murder seems to be something that it’s okay to raise an eyebrow at. Enough to justify outright censorship? Probably not, but there’s more meat on that bone. But no. Contempt was the charge leveled. Maybe Wertham mixed things up in his haste to fling his diatribe out to the public. Whatever the case, it doesn’t speak well for the rest of the basis for the much-maligned Seduction — not that it really needs any more death blows.
Can we get a long-delayed pardon for Justice Traps the Guilty #58? Scrub this indictment from the books? FREE #58.