Sometimes the most universal truths can be found in the smallest slices of life. That’s what makes independent documentaries so powerful, engaging, and entertaining. Not only do they show you little worlds to which you’ve never had access, but they oftentimes also tell the larger story of what it means to be human. Armed with this intellectual conceit, a bag of Funyuns, and a couple of Miller beers, Daniel Elkin curls up in front of the TV and delves deep into the bowels of Netflix Streaming Documentaries to find out a little bit more about all of us.
Today he and his friends Jason Sacks and Eric Hoffman found 2014's Diagram for Delinquents directed by Robert A. Emmons, Jr.
Jason Sacks: When I was growing up, I was omnivorous in my consumption of books about comic book history. I read everything I could get my hands on that chronicled the history of this art form, from Maurice Horn's encyclopedia to Frank Jacobs's The Mad World of William M. Gaines.
Jacobs's book, and many of the other books that I read during that time portrayed a clear hero and villain in comics history. The hero was brave, steadfast William M. Gaines, Publisher of E.C. Comics, who produced some of the best and most auteur-driven content in comics history in his short-lived line. If only E.C. had continued, the narrative said, comics would be dramatically different today.
The villain of these narratives was a man named Fredric Wertham, a rabid anti-comics crusader who drove Gaines and many other smart and influential publishers out of business through his infamous rant Seduction of the Innocent. SOTI, so the narrative said, was a poorly written polemic that put its absurd conclusions in front of innocent readers and somehow convinced them that the brilliant comics by Gaines and his staff needed to be destroyed like the pornography that he asserted it was.
Since those books came out, there's been a lot of research into the subject of Wertham and his studies. It should be of no surprise to anybody that the common wisdom on this topic was both right and wrong: both Wertham and Gaines were far more complex than the common wisdom made them out to be.
The film Diagram for Delinquents, released through the Sequart Foundation and a successful Kickstarter campaign, aims to give a more nuanced view of the comics industry in the 1940s and '50s as well as the life and times of Fredric Wertham. The film explodes the old common wisdom in many ways and gives a smart reader much to consider. With commentary by expert comics and pop culture historians like Bart Beaty, Amy Nyberg, Bradford Wright, Carol Tilley and others, viewers get an extremely nuanced view of the comics industry of the time and gain a new perspective on the industry.
I was surprised how fascinated I was by Wertham in particular. I read Bart Beaty's book on Wertham late last year and found, as I said then, "Whaddya know? At least in some ways, Wertham was right." Daniel and Eric, maybe this is a good time for you to share your feelings of how this film changed your perceptions of the life and times of Fredric Wertham.
Daniel Elkin: Dr. Wertham ends Seduction of the Innocent with an anecdote where he talks with a mother about her son's troubled history:
“Doctor, I’m sorry to take your time, but please, tell me again.”
I looked at her questioningly.
“Tell me again,” she said slowly and hesitantly. “Tell me again that it isn’t my fault.”
And I did.
Here, encapsulated in a moment, is the crux of everything that is absolutely right and absolutely wrong about Wertham and other members of his ilk who cast about looking for causation while missing the larger picture. When things wonk or get weird, nobody wants to shoulder the responsibility. Everyone wants to find the boogeyman who has corrupted, the dark force who has undermined, the other who has shattered the mirror of our own understanding.
Certainly nobody wants to blame themselves. Pointing the finger in our own faces takes twenty-two times the power of pointing it at others, and it is the rare beast who has that kind of strength.
What most of us crave is relief.
And so, throughout the history of our species we have seen the gremlin in the grass, biting its hands in celebration of our destruction. It has brought forth religion and myths, science and technology – great strides and world views have erupted from our need to be blameless. When terrible things happen, always, and always, there must be a cause outside of ourselves.
But it's the easy way out. It leads to further corruption, missed opportunities, and, above all else, censorship of voices. It's like the discussion we had with Nick Boisson in an earlier Convenient Truths column about the documentary Playing Columbine, Sacks, in which you ranted wildly about the pigheadedness of “self-imposed morality zealots.”
And yet, a wrong as Wertham was in his single-minded approach to a restoration of a moral structure through the silencing of entertainment, there was a part of him that was right in his assertion that “it isn't my fault.” The rise of the type of entertainment provided by William Gaines and EC comics had an audience because, as Diagram for Delinquents peripherally points out, not only had the horrors of World War II and concentration camps and atom bombs wrecked their “psychic havoc” (as Norman Mailer so beautifully writes in his 1957 essay, “The White Negro”), but also people had learned, suddenly, that they were bored.
As we moved from an agrarian based economy to an industrialized one, we gained chunks of time needed to be filled with distractions. When you are no longer focusing all of your attention on survival and work, to what do you turn?
Popular entertainment has always been filled with our baser nature. Escapism is escapism because we escape from the confines of codes and expectations. In the post World War II world of the Eisenhower smile and The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, leisure time grew exponentially and it also gave rise to the concept of the teenager. Young men and women were recast into this liminal state between childhood and being considered an adult, and were given little to do. The combination of wild youthful passion and free time is nothing if not a recipe for trouble. And so, “it's not my fault” speaks to a larger truth as well.
But how do you blame an entire system as the cause? You can't, so you don't, and instead, like Wertham, you blame the symptom – especially if it is marginalized or weird.
Diagram for Delinquents spends the time necessary for us to understand all of this. As a documentary about Fredric Wertham, it succeeds by providing context for the man. As a documentary about the history of comics, it succeeds by examining its relation to the times.
Hoffman: Daniel’s description of the film’s thesis, the substance with which I gather he most definitely agrees, is eloquently stated and exact, and concisely summarizes my immediate reaction to the film: it is excellent, and does a very good job at capturing the complexity of the cultural moment in which Wertham did battle against comic books. I think all of us can agree that the popular perception of Wertham as simply a moral zealot – in part due to his efforts to censor comic books – is unfair. Yes, Wertham was a complex individual, and the film succeeds in creating a more accurate and fair presentation of him as a man; and yes, comic book publishers at that time were publishing some questionable material that probably to which children should not have been exposed.
However, I caution against too much revisionism concerning Wertham. His intentions may have been paved with good intentions, yet the fact remains they were a road to hell. Put simply, Wertham’s actions contributed to the near-collapse of the comic book as an art form, from which it has in fact never recovered, blockbuster superhero movies or no. In the 1950s, comic books had struggled for decades to achieve some form of cultural legitimacy, and the work of the EC artists –unlike the funny animal and super-hero comics of the time – were comprised of complex, resonant, socially and politically daring material. These comics had the guts to question the dominant consensus culture of the 1950s, and to expose the dark core of the American psyche, unflinchingly approaching such heady topics as existentialism, civil rights, the Cold War, among numerous other controversial themes. There was considerably more going on here than merely salacious exploitation (though arguably the salaciousness sold the copies). Therefore, I think it is important that we not lose sight of Wertham’s intellectual simplicity, especially how this simplicity appealed to the equally dim-witted government committees that – responding to a hysterical outcry on behalf of religious organizations, parents and teachers, and encouraged by rampant media attention – in their typically reactionary approach sought to ban such material outright.
The United States, despite its many freedoms, has a long and embarrassing record of banning works of art on the basis that they are of no value to society, that they are merely pornographic, or contain nothing edifying or enriching. Clearly, comic books did overreach to a certain degree in their publication of inappropriate (for children) material. Yet this was an era where it was not uncommon for adults to also read and enjoy comic books in much the same way that they enjoyed their ladies’ magazines and pulp fiction, other media that, notably, featured just as salacious material as found in comic books (often accompanied by similarly violent or sexual imagery), sometimes moreso. In fact, the government was primarily concerned with what they considered gratuitous visual depictions of violence in a form of media primarily marketed to children. It is notable that following the adoption of the Comics Code Authority, Gaines simply transferred the same social satire and anti-establishment consciousness of his horror and science fiction comics to Mad Magazine. By virtue of its toned down sexual content (although that’s arguable), and lack of violent content, Mad was able to fly under the radar of moral watchdogs and attract virtually zero controversy.
Had the establishment’s view of comic books been more subtle – beginning with an acknowledging that there a readership of comic books over the age of twelve – a system of distinguishing those comics might have been implemented. This might have been similar to the ratings systems (“mature readers only,” etc.) implemented during the 1980s, the next major period of increased sophistication in the medium, following the advent of underground comix, ground-level publishing, the direct market, and the increasing number of adult comic book readers. The association of comic books with children and adolescents – and comics publishers’ (mainly EC’s main competitors) eagerness, in implementing the CCA, to abolish anything remotely “adult” – stigmatized the medium as sophomoric, unsophisticated … you know, for kids. It took over twenty years – and the aforementioned undergrounds and direct market – for the medium to begin catching up. There was an abundance of excellent material published in the meantime – the entire Silver Age, in fact – yet much of this material was hampered by self-censorship.
For the US government, eager to gain attention (and win votes) by addressing a panic-stricken populace, itself eager to place the blame for the complex (and arguably non-existent) onset of so-called “juvenile delinquency,” Frederic Wertham – however good his intentions – arrived at just the right time. The educated (and importantly liberal) Wertham, offered a reasoned, carefully argued psychiatric prosecution of comic book publishers as a pack of morally bankrupt, greedy charlatans who would stop at nothing to make a quick buck. To parents, teachers, police, government officials, and psychiatrists – essentially the entirety of the consensus establishment – comic book publishers were no better than pornographers were. With or without Wertham, the result would have probably been the same. Wertham only helped to legitimize what amounted to a cultural witch-hunt and its resultant self-censorship.
Yet I would argue that Wertham’s most unforgivable error is professional, namely his simplistic understanding of the root causes of anti-social behavior on the part of juveniles. It was, and is, far more likely that children and adolescents commit crimes for many of the same reasons as do adults: mental or emotional instability (when not due to a chemical imbalance just as often caused by an adult, peer or sibling) or as a reaction against perceived wrongs on the part of those in positions of authority. These causes were at the time of Wertham’s critique of comics well understood by a number of credible social scientists. The same individuals that were arguably causing juvenile delinquency in the 1950s were looking at comic books, and other forms of media, as the cause of anti-social behavior. (Those under eighteen apparently do not commit crimes for the same reasons as those over eighteen; they do not have problems or emotions, they simply act out what they read in a comic book or see in a movie.) No adult wants to take the blame; it is far easier for them to point fingers. It is human nature, and it has been that way since time immemorial, and will continue to be that way as long as authority figures and those subjugated by that authority exist. Each generation considers its successors to represent a decline in moral decency. As Daniel points out, how does one blame a system? You cannot, so you blame the symptom.
The witch-hunt leveled against comic books is a cultural tragedy. A medium’s progression and refinement was derailed by reactionary shortsightedness and intellectual pedestrianism. Wondering what the medium might have been like had these impassioned yet unenlightened moral crusaders not interfered in the artist’s career trajectories is perhaps a fruitless conjecture. The medium may have advanced further, or not at all, or perhaps even regressed. Maybe nothing much would have changed. Television, video games, and now the Internet, would have likely drawn away comic books’ core audience of children, leaving behind a top-heavy edifice of aging readers eager to relive their childhoods. Yet I still lament what was lost to comics history because of this unforgivable meddling on behalf of the hopelessly obtuse: all the excellent work those artists may have created. The nation was indeed changing, and with the benefit of hindsight, we now see that these comics were on the forefront of this massive social transformation. Mad Magazine influenced an entire generation of humorists and social satirists. How the comics that may have existed might have reflected that change, or contributed to it. How different our world might now be.