If you know who Frederic Werthram is already then you will have a smile on your face as you read the New York Times article: “Scholar Finds Flaws in Work by Archenemy of Comics.” It is a wonderful indictment of a man, much like others who have stirred up useless panics in the past, who lied on his research on comic books and their effects on youth. Is “fraud” too strong of a word? I don’t think so considering Frederic Werthram’s book Seduction of the Innocent set the art of comic books back by about thirty or forty years until mainstream comic books were being written for adults again. Comic books still have to overcome ignorant notions that they are only for kids and that violent comics will destroy young minds.
Back in the fifties, Werthram used his position as a psychiatrist to convince the American people that comic books were corrupting young people: drugs, sex, violence, bad language–you name it. One of the big targets was E.C. Comics which gave us the wonderful Tales From the Crypt and a slew of horror and crime series which we still enjoy. The good doctor used test examples to prove his point and that’s where he has been recently reexamined. Carol L. Tilley, from Illinois’s Graduate School of Library and Information Science, went through Werthrams papers. She found what she referred to as manipulations and fabricated evidence.
Werthram claimed to have a thousand test subjects, Tilley says it was more likely in the hundreds. Their ages were not stated correctly and they appeared to all be talking as one voice. He excised vital information on these individuals which would explain their abusive behavior in order to place blame on reading comics. It’s not surprising that these disturbed youths came from broken homes, domestic abuse and drugs being used by the parents.
Even worse, Werthram tried to insinuate that comic books turn you gay. (Gasp!). In one study he cited the pairing of Batman and Robin as a homosexual fantasy even though his notes actually record a young homosexual couple that may have preferred Tarzan and the Sub Mariner–another odd manipulation of the truth. Apparently, Werthram thought the public knew more about the dynamic duo than the prince of the sea and the lord of the jungle.
The sad part about realizing what Werthram did as a dishonest psychiatrist and author is that the public still buys into these scares. We blamed porn in the seventies. We blamed horror movies and heavy metal in the eighties. We blamed video games and Marilyn Manson in the nineties and recently we have been blaming all guns. While there may be a need for a ratings system or even regulations on the distribution of guns, the politicians, parent committees and religious leaders who endorse these panics never answer the simple question of: If a million or more people are engaging in this activity, why are only a few individuals causing the problem?
In other words, why doesn’t every person who watches a porno turn into a rapist? Why doesn’t every kid who plays a violent video game shoot up their school? Why doesn’t every gun owner resolve their disputes with bloodshed? As a society, we seem to be prone to bad conclusions for incidents that have much deeper and more complicated explanations than just one thing. If we could limit our scapegoating and work on real change we would see these problems disappear.
SIDENOTE: I know some may object to including the “gun panic” in here, but I believe it fits as another panic. You can’t compare a real gun to the pretend gun violence found in video games, but you can ask why we do not have more gun violence with all the guns out there? Is it the guns that are the problem or are there other underlying issues we need to address such as psychiatric disorders, poverty and social injustice? Certainly, we can consider regulating who gets a gun (sorry, but if you have to have a driver’s license for a car, a license for a deadly weapon is not unreasonable) and we can regulate the sale of guns, but Newtown was about a disturbed kid who slipped through the system and lashed out. I don’t know what the answer is, I’m just skeptical that all this talk about gun control is going to prevent shootings like this.
SIDENOTE 2: The irony of the gun control proposals is that it has boosted gun sales and gun owners are hoarding their firearms for fear of them being taken away. One panic causes another irrational panic.