left biblioblography: Sexuality In The Comics: A Brief History, And Some WTFs?

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Sexuality In The Comics: A Brief History, And Some WTFs?

Pursuant to a brief scuffle at GiFs about a Batman picture altered to look like Bats and the Boy Wonder swapping spit. Being a huge fan of the Dark Knight, I threw a few pennies in about it. I realized that the (in)famous Ambiguously Gay Duo from SNL was loosely based on the Dynamic Duo, so I went to look it up. I plagiarized the picture of Northstar from this link – not only a Canadian superhero, but a gay one as well.

Now, I’d been reading this a few days before:

When most non-fanboys think comics, they think of two things; superheroes and Archie Andrews. There was one point in time, however, when comics meant horror and war stories along with sharp satire. Those comics came from one publisher in particular; EC Comics. EC, and its publisher, Bill Gaines, reveled in the fact that they were the "other side" of comics. Some folks, however, took issue with that, namely Dr. Frederic Wertham. Wertham had published two articles in "family magazines," and it led to the creation of a self governing body that ultimately failed. Shortly after, Wertham's infamous Seduction of the Innocent was published and this time, no comic company would escape unscathed.
Ultimately, the US Congress would hold hearings to determine the causes of juvenile delinquency and put Gaines on the stand. Gaines, unfortunately, was not the most eloquent witness to defend the medium. As a result, EC had to drop any title with the words "terror" or "horror" in it, as well as change many things to conform to the new Comics Code Authority. The only title that would survive (and survive to this day) would be Mad, which would change format from comic book to magazine (due to the less strict content censorship). Gaines died in 1992, but not before seeing a resurgence in interest in his old comics. Revenge, like a severed head, is a dish best served cold.

Seduction Of The Innocent was the title of the book written by Dr. Frederic Wertham, in 1954. In it, he ‘laid’ many claims of inappropriate content, as follows:

Seduction of the Innocent cited overt or covert depictions of violence, sex, drug use, and other adult fare within "crime comics"—a term Wertham used to describe not only the popular gangster/murder-oriented titles of the time, but superhero and horror comics as well. The book asserted, largely based on undocumented anecdotes, that reading this material encouraged similar behavior in children.

I’ve mentioned this before, but I’ll say it again: if your kid’s mimicking stupid crap s/he read in a book, comic or otherwise, you may want to spend more quality time with said kid, and maybe teach them a little sense.

Comics, especially the crime/horror titles pioneered by EC, were not lacking in gruesome images; Wertham reproduced these extensively, pointing out what he saw as recurring morbid themes such as "injury to the eye". Many of his other conjectures, particularly about hidden sexual themes (e.g. images of female nudity concealed in drawings of muscles and tree bark, or Batman and Robin as gay partners), met with derision within the comics industry. (Wertham's claim that Wonder Woman had a bondage subtext was somewhat better documented, as her creator William Moulton Marston had admitted as much; however, Wertham also claimed Wonder Woman's strength and independence made her a lesbian.)

Wait: what the FUCK? Female nudity concealed in drawings of muscles and tree bark? Are you kidding me? Was the good ‘doctor’ getting any at all, is my question. Obvious he had some weird hang-up on pederasty, because if you read the 50’s comic strip of Batman ‘N Robin, the only homosexual undertones you’ll find are the ones you hope to find. And WW as a lesbian? Why? Because she wasn’t a stereotypical woman, barefoot in the kitchen and popping out offspring?

Wertham critiqued the commercial environment of comic book publishing and retailing, objecting to air rifles and knives advertised alongside violent stories. Wertham sympathized with retailers who didn't want to sell horror comics, yet were compelled to by their distributors' table d'hôte product line policies.

Hey, boo-fucking-hoo, I say. You don’t like the content in the magazines you sell? Don’t stock them. Simple.

The fame of Seduction of the Innocent added to Wertham's previous celebrity as an expert witness and made him an obvious choice to appear before the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency led by anti-crime crusader Estes Kefauver. In extensive testimony before the committee, Wertham restated arguments from his book and pointed to comics as a major cause of juvenile crime. The committee's questioning of their next witness, EC publisher William Gaines, focused on violent scenes of the type Wertham had decried. Though the committee's final report did not blame comics for crime, it recommended that the comics industry tone down its content voluntarily. Possibly taking this as a veiled threat of potential censorship, publishers developed the Comics Code Authority to censor their own content. The new code not only banned violent images, but entire words and concepts (e.g. "terror" and "zombies"), and dictated that criminals must always be punished. This destroyed most EC-style titles, leaving a sanitized subset of superhero comics as the chief remaining genre. Wertham nevertheless considered the Comics Code inadequate to protect youth.

Thanks a bunch to Queen Victoria and her dumbfounding sense of ethics. Do note that the final report was compiled by individuals who weren’t completely obsessed with finding allegorical implications of sexuality. Amazingly enough, however, if you find this book completely intact, it’s worth some serious bank:

Seduction of the Innocent was illustrated with comic-book panels offered as evidence, each accompanied by a line of Wertham's sardonic commentary. The first printing contained a bibliography listing the comic book publishers cited, but fears of lawsuits compelled the publisher to tear the bibliography page from any copies available, so copies with an intact bibliography are rare. Early complete editions of Seduction of the Innocent often sell for high figures among book and comic book collectors.

Among comic-book collectors any comic book with a story or panel referred to in Seduction of the Innocent is known as a "Seduction issue", and is usually more valued than other issues in the same run of a title. Seduction of the Innocent is one of the few non-illustrative works to be listed in the Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide as a collectible in its own right.

Let’s be frank: Wertham (a Freudian, no surprise there) based his entire theory of Seduction of the Innocent as follows (from the link):

Wertham's first book, The Brain as an Organ (1934), was a scientific study of the brain, which demonstrated his rich training in medicine. His wife provided illustrations of cross sections of the brain which accompanied the book. Wertham completed this book while working at Bellevue Hospital. But Wertham's work with troubled youth, and a clinical interest in popular culture, soon turned his focus to the negative influences of mass media. His 1941 book Dark Legend, later adapted into a play, was based on the true story of a 17-year-old murderer who, according to Wertham, had a dark fantasy life based on movies, radio plays, and comic books. Comics were extremely popular among all youth at the time, so it was not surprising that young criminals also consumed them in large quantities, but Wertham increasingly saw a sinister connection.

There’s also a website dedicated to this work, however, it’s mostly in fun. In the FAQ, it states:

Q: How could Dr. Wertham, who had a pretty impressive scientific background, have been so wrong?
A: Everybody makes mistakes. How could millions of people have bought a Milli Vanilli CD? Nobody's been able to explain it yet, but it happened.

If you do a search on Amazon, there’s a boatload of books he wrote, no reviews, and no synopses. Interesting.

The times, they are a-changing.  Movies, TV, now comic books. Acceptance as a way of life. Sweet. No more saccharine sanitized Ozzie and Harriet nonsense, just good new-fashioned lives, which are messy, but hey, that’s life for ya.

And of course, the religious are running scared.

That was my nickel’s worth. I call heads..

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