Funny Business


Pow!!! Once again, the innocent citizens of Gotham City have been rescued from the clutches of modern art by their mild-mannered mayor, Rudy Giuliani. The latest menace to civilization? A reworking of the Last Supper, shown by the mayor’s archnemesis, the Brooklyn Museum. Entitled Yo Mama’s Last Supper , the offending picture features a naked black woman—the artist—in the place of Jesus.

Holy, uh, blasphemy! After the fiendish image was zapped by Mr. Giuliani as “anti-Catholic,” the mayor launched a renewed campaign against pornography and called for the creation of a “commission on decency standards” to police any cultural institution that receives public funding.

What has engaged Gothamites much more is Giuliani’s campaign to move stores that sell pornographic materials out of most neighborhoods. After all, to move through almost any section of our culture today is to be bombarded with images of sex and violence that most Americans might consider fine for consenting adults but not for their children.

Our debate over just what is or is not suitable for children has gone on for more than half a century now. It began with a battle over what might have seemed the most innocuous of subjects: the comic book.

Comic books did not even really come into being until 1933. Yet by 1941, one study estimated that some 180 million of them were sold each year, and that children aged 9 to 14 spent 75 percent of their free time reading them. Objections from parents and educators proliferated almost as quickly. Most of these were about the comics’ thin stories and simple pictures. There were even fears, as Amy Kiste Nyberg traces in her fascinating account, Seal of Approval: The History of the Comics Code , that the poor quality of comics printing would “spoil a child’s natural sense of color.”

But the idea of comic books as a national threat burst upon the public consciousness in March 1948. That was the month a 53-year-old German-immigrant psychiatrist named Fredric Wertham convened a psychiatric symposium at which he charged that heavy comic-book reading had contributed to the delinquency of every troubled child he had ever studied.

Dr. Wertham was no stereotypical bluestockinged censor. During a distinguished career at some of the nation’s leading hospitals, he fought tirelessly to bring the first psychiatric clinic to Harlem, one that served its patients free of charge. He had become friends with Clarence Darrow when he proved himself one of the few psychiatrists anywhere willing to testify for indigent black defendants, and his research and testimony would play a crucial role in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case that ended segregation in public schools. For his time, Dr. Wertham was a broadminded, tolerant, and idealistic advocate for poor and troubled children—and it was from his idealism that his worst excesses would follow.

The charges leveled by Wertham struck a chord. America was undergoing a fresh bout of moral anxiety, worried that the war years had produced a nation of “juvenile delinquents” — a phrase that was just then coming into its own. Wertham would state repeatedly that comic books were not the sole or even the primary factor in producing delinquents. Yet he would pursue the publications almost obsessively over the next decade, producing a host of articles and interviews and finally his famous—and infamous—book, Seduction of the Innocent .

It is impossible to deny much of Wertham’s indictment of the medium. Many comics had begun to feature horror stories, with Grand Guignol depictions of severed heads and limbs and graphic shootings and stabbings. The violence was heavily flavored with sex, and nonwhites were depicted as semi-human. Some comics contained detailed plans for committing crimes.

Yet Dr. Wertham was less successful in linking such images to the behavior of urban juvenile offenders. Social scientists have since picked apart much of his methodology, and even to a layman, many of his stories strain credibility. One passage in Seduction of the Innocent , for instance, relates the deleterious effects of comic books on “Annie, aged ten, [who] engaged in sex play with men for which she received money,” and who is quoted as saying, “I meet the men on the docks.” A ten-year-old who trawls the docks looking for tricks? Could it be that comic books are not the real problem here?

Was life copying art, or art life? It was in answering this question that Wertham showed himself at both his most visionary—and his most frightening. Preoccupied with the effect of mass culture on society as a whole, he let his good intentions run away with him. “People like to be nonviolent,” he maintained. ”... There is no proof that hostility and violence are an ineradicable part of human nature.” It did not matter to Dr. Wertham if comic stories showed that crime didn’t pay or that evildoers would be punished. Even the adventures of Superman were a threat—”phantasies of sadistic joy in seeing other people punished again and again.” And “the Batman stories are psychologically homosexual,” Batman’s relationship with Robin “a wish dream of two homosexuals living together” that must corrupt children. Wonder Woman was “the lesbian counterpart of Batman.”