Thursday, May 29, 2008

Ten-Cents to Fifty Dollars - Won't someone think of the children

For my birthday, M.I.L. gave me a copy of David Hadju's recent book "The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How it Changed America". It's a brisk read at under 400 pages, and Hadju's pacing is to be commended. Much more than that, however, is Hadju's ability to seemingly depart the freeway to explore the nearby neighborhoods, only to make you realize that without an understanding of the neighborhoods you've passed through, the destination wouldn't make much sense at all.

The book does not center entirely on Dr. Fredric Wertham and his book "Seduction of the Innocent", but its importance to the story is undeniable. As are the why's-and-wherefore's of the early comic industry. In fact, first reading "Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book" is highly recommended before plummeting headfirst into Hadju's account.

From their inception, comics were considered unfit for reading for impressionable minds, from children to the lower class immigrants of New York who read Barney Google and Little Nemo. Culture was not to be considered democratic, but controlled and appreciated entirely by the moneyed and those of breeding and taste.

Comics were... something else altogether.

This is nothing new. Prior to the comic books, penny-dreadfuls and pockets books were considered a danger to children at and before the turn of the century (read up on Varney the Vampire and its ilk sometime). Then pulps. Then gangster pictures. Later, Rock'n'Roll, television, and leading up to today's questions whether watching The Matrix then playing five hours of Halo will lead to a psychic meltdown which ends in murder.

"The Ten-Cent Plague" tracks the development of comics in parallel with the post WWII and Cold War paranoia and topic-of-the-moment, Juvenile Delinquency. Comics, being something kids consumed as readily as, say, Grand Theft Auto or Halo in today's market, were a mass media for the children of the mid-20th century. In part due to the rise of public concern over "Juvenile Delinquency" (see: Rebel Without a Cause), Wertham (and many others) saw a direct causal link between the consumption of comics and Juvenile Delinquency drawn seemingly from the fact that his patients would verify that they had read comics.

To clarify, comics of the era were not all superhero comics, but covered many areas from Romance, to Westerns, to GI combat, and especially crime, with no small amount of horror thrown in by EC and others. The modern equivalent might be to ask that all video games be taken off the shelf because a psychologist found his criminally psychotic patients had played X-Box.

Wertham (and many others) took up the crusade against comics, and found politicians happy to play along. Whether politicians were sincere or cynically vote-grubbing is unknown as they beat the drum to save the hearts and minds of the nation's children by putting comics out of business.

The book has a certain tragic, march to doom feel about the proceedings, especially when you're aware of how things will pan out for the industry.

I honestly thought Hadju could have done a little less to villify the antagonists. Sometimes it seems Hadju simply cannot withhold his contempt, and his criticisms seem a bit on the nitpicky side, even when he's correct.

What Hadju does do well is remind the reader that it was only 60 years ago that the outrage was such over comics (including Superman, Batman, and others...) that children were incited to collect comics and burn them in public displays. In addition, these same organizations would pressure shopkeeps to quit carrying comics or face a boycott in small towns where the children (and their parents) kept the stores afloat. Ironically, even as foes of comics decried the content within and held burnings, they denounced censorship as a tool of commies and fascists. And I might point out, this book burning was going on just five years or so after the conclusion of WWII and America's horror at the book burnings of Hitler's Germany.

The metatext of the story, really, is that the issue is as current today as it was when EC Comics folded. Politicians looking for an easy, bullet proof cause by targeting a non-issue which supposedly effects "families". Pop psychology playing into a national fervor about a largely imaginary concern played up by the media. The adults convinced that children must live in a state of eden-like innocence until they're 18 and ready to put on a military uniform, and that any naughty words will warp their fragile little minds. Inane rhetoric questioning "who is patriotic?".

In short, parents were told to fear comics by the press, government and someone trying to sell a book. And it led to the hamstringing of an entire medium in the US, garnering it a reputation for children and the dull-witted, which continues to this day.

Fundamentally, I agree with Hadju's point-of-view. I find any attempt at censorship to be highly suspect, so I'm sort of the choir to whom he's preaching. And I find the sorts of "won't anyone think of the children?" pleas unconvincing when the goal is so broad and undefined.

But I don't have children, and most likely never will. I will never stop to wonder whether the video games, movies and internet content that Clark, Diana or Little Bruce were viewing would melt their brain and turn them into little sociopaths capable of MURDER.

However, I think at this point we don't NEED research to know that people, society, etc... are far more complicated than to believe that Cause A will have Effect B (and that is more or less what Wertham claimed during official hearings). But somehow the opposite is generally "common wisdom". And once the press smells a story and fans the flames of a "controversy", it can begin to border on an hysteria.

Perhaps because there's always a new generation of parents who never gave the matter of media and childhood development much thought until faced with the challange of parenting... Or perhaps because they found their kids either watching some god-awful movie which will warp their fragile little mind, or they look for someone/ something to explain why junior was caught selling bags of the dope... blaming the ills of society on purveyors of entertainment is a never-ending issue in the press.

And, yes, there's always somebody whose got a screw loose and decides to re-enact Taxi Driver, and (with all due respect to the tragic deaths in question) that tends to cast a disproportionate level of concern versus the millions of other consumers who did not go Travis Bickle.

It seems the difference between the era in which Wertham and the modern era is the litigiousness of the modern era versus the public shaming by committee of the HUAC-era. As such, lawsuits are filed all the time these days against, well, mostly Rockstar Entertainment. The suits blame the game maker for deaths "inspired" by Grand Theft Auto. Just as Wertham and Co. pinned violence among children to comics, as well as a host of other crimes, so too, do today's attorneys and the parents that retain those attorneys.

Its worth noting that at the same time that the above linked lawsuit was going into place against Rockstar, congress passed a bill keeping citizens from suing the actual gun manufacturers, effectively stating that a gun manufacturer is in no way culpable, but pixels on a screen are still up for debate. The next year, a Tennessee congressman put a bill into consideration (in the State Senate) banning the sale or rental of violent video games to anyone. And if you want to feel your brain begin to melt, Google something like "bill to ban video game".

And so it goes on and on. But don't think comic shops are off the radar. Read up on Gordon Lee. Despite the age of comic readership having a mean of something like 23, many folks still believe comics are created for and aimed at small children. And that leaves today's comic creators in a precarious position when it comes to community standards, etc...

Like penny dreadfuls, comic strips, comic books, Jazz, Rock'n'Roll, horror movies, and whatever else that came before... Video Games will enjoy the slings and arrows of the generation which did not spawn it. But I do understand that video games are not passive entertainment. The user CHOOSES to partake in the action of the story, and increasingly so in games as complex as GTA. But the rules seem largely the same.

To be clear, I DO believe in ratings systems, and that stores would do well to self-monitor ratings for both comics and games. After all, parents should have some sort of guide to assist them in making an informed decision. They can't possibly pre-consume every game, book, movie, etc... that their children will wish to view. Without these kinds of tools, we run the risk of living in the world which has to be sanitized entirely for the youngest audiences, or government dictates for censorship and the can of worms that opens up.


J.S. said...

Your comment noting that the manufacturers of actual firearms are receiving liability protection while videogame makers may still be found culpable for "inspired" deaths helps to illustrate the absurdity of the situation. Videogames are a constantly-evolving medium which tend to involve a generation gap (current parents grew up with video games, but Asteroids was far different than the interactive experiences provided by today's games), and therefore a certain degree of ignorance. Ignorance breeds paranoia, and paranoia results in scapegoating.

JAL said...

Preemptive strikes! They always work!

But seriously, those monkeys with robot arms, ban that and pronto!

How sad that human nature seems hell-bent on knowing what's best for the person next to you and then trying to do something about it.

What ever happened to punishing the guilty instead of the potentially guilty?

The League said...

I think that everything sounds in good in theory to most folks, but as long as people believe they're protecting children or doing something in the name of decency, the niceties of the intention of the law goes out the window.