WHAT ABOUT THE COMICS?
Are comics good or bad for your children? Don’t give a snap verdict—even the experts are unable to agree
LAST summer Punch, the famous British magazine of humor, sent a roving reporter over to this continent to observe the customs and habits of North Americans.
In due time the correspondent (Hod, by name) got around to reporting on the degenerate reading habits of young Americans. Every spare moment, he noted, they spent with their noses buried in a particularly objectionable form of primitive literature known as comic books.
His outspoken remarks brought a deluge of heated letters from angry American citizens who insisted, among other things, that comic books were educational.
Hod wholeheartedly agreed that they were. As a case in point, he recalled the trio of American youngsters who bragged that they had learned to fly the plane they had stolen “by studying comics.” “But who could have taught them to swipe planes?” he innocently asked.
Hod had unwittingly stumbled into what is probably the most rough-and-tumble controversy now raging in Canada and the United States namely, are comic books good for children or bad for children?
Procomic-book psychologists, teachers, judges a n d pa ren ts a rg ue :
“Comic books provide a healthy outlet for the youngster’s pent-up emotions.”
“Comic books play no part in turning an innocent child into a juvenile delinquent.”
“Comic books improve your child’s vocabulary, expand his field of knowledge and create a desire for reading good books.”
Authorities lined up on the opposite side condemn these views as so much dangerous twaddle. They predict that the child of today, nourished on comics, will become the moron of tomorrow, unable to spell out any word more complicated than “wham” or “zovvie.” He will believe in violence preferably supernatural violence as the solution to every problem. He will have a perverted attitude toward life in general and sex in particular.
Author and critic John Mason Brown puts it this way: “Comic books are the marijuana of the
nursery, the bane of the bassinet, the horror of the home, the curse of the kids and a threat to the future.”
To understand the uneasiness about comic books shared by many parents one has only to go down
to the corner drugstore or newsstand. There you will find titles like Startling Comics, Exciting Comics, Captain Midnight, Crime Does Not Pay and The Black Terror. Hardly a page is unmarred by the flow of blood or unlittered by mutilated corpses.
One statistician recently observed, “Every city child who was six years old in 1938 has by now absorbed an absolute minimum of 18,000 pictorial beatings, shootings, stranglings, blood puddles and torturings to death from comic books alone.”
Back in 1936, there w'as not a single modern-type comic book in existence. Today, according to the Market Research Co. of America, there are 246 comic books which sell a total of 40 million copies a month in North America. (Other estimates run as high as 50 millions.) This does not include funnies in the daily and week-end papers which are read by 70 million people. They are less frequently attacked.
Relatively few children escape this gaudy, gory deluge. In the six to 11 years of age group, 95' , of the boys and 91%
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of the girls read comics regularly, according to research agencies studying comics. Of adolescents 12 to 17, 87% of the boys and 81% of the girls are regular readers. To classify as “a regular reader” you have to go through some 13 books every month, cover to cover. It is estimated that comic books are a familiar item in three out of four homes, and that in one out of three homes they are practically the only type of reading matter.
Some of their critics see a direct parallel between the circulation of comic books and the frequency with which children commit heinous crimes. In one Ontario town, for example, three boys, the oldest 12, bound a little girl to a raft with rope and floated her out on a river with every intention of drowning her. This is old—and comparatively tame—stuff for comic-book fans. In another community, a 10year-old staged a vicious robbery on an eight-year-old who was sent to the corner store on an errand. He used all the lingo and technique of an experienced criminal to net himself $1.50.
“It’s plain to see that the kid has been reading too many gangster comics,” was the comment of the sergeant detective who made the arrest.
Cause of Delinquency?
Near Los Angeles, Calif., a 14-yearold boy poisoned a 50-year-old woman with the explanation, “I was trying out a recipe for poison I learned in the comics.”
From all this, one might be naturally led to conclude that comic books are makers of criminals, perverters of our youth. Such an unqualified and readymade explanation, however, is rejected by a large number of criminologists, psychiatrists, judges of juvenile courts and social workers who are in contact with children year in and year out. Their experience tells them that comic
books alone cannot make a criminal out of a child nor can they even be the most important cause of juvenile delinquency.
For the real causes of delinquency, they say, you have to dig deeper than a child’s reading habits—unhappy, vicious homes, bad neighborhoods, emotional tensions, mental defectives.
Here are some authoritative opinions on the pro-comic books side:
Miss Phyllis Burns, secretary of the Child Welfare Division of the Canadian Welfare Council, Ottawa, observes: “Emotionally disturbed children may pattern their behavior at certain times upon that of comic-book characters. But their interest in comic books is certainly not the reason for their behavior. There is a real need to understand and help children of this kind; it is not enough to ban the comic books.”
Judge H. S. Mott of the Toronto Family Court: “I wouldn’t take away a child’s comic books. You can’t raise a boy or girl in a hothouse. A strong child is developed by reason of its ability to resist temptation. What the child learns in the home is allimportant.”
I queried the Society for the Prevention of Crime, New York, which has spent many years scientifically establishing the causes of crime. Edwin L. Lucas, executive director, answered: “I do not believe that the majority of comic books are detrimental to the emotional development of the child. I fail to see any evidence scientifically established that there is any causal relationship between the reading of comics and the behavior of children.”
There is a feeling among some authorities that the comics have a constructive, positive value for children who yearn to do deeds of great daring but must submit to the discipline of home and school.
“The triumphant heroes who overcome every obstacle,” contends May Hill Arbuthnot, an educator of Western Reserve University, Cleveland, “provide a healthy outlet for the child’s pent-up emotions. There is too little
opportunity for real adventure in real life. Dick Tracy and Superman are symbols of power through which the child, trying to function in a world of adults, begins to feel adequate, secure and even triumphant.”
This point of view has not gone unchallenged. The leading dissenter is Dr. Frederic Wertham, senior psychiatrist of the Department of Hospitals, New York City, and one of the most distinguished men in his profession.
“Certain experts,” he wrote me, “can be very persuasive with their 1895 Freudian theories in relation to the subject of childhood violence, torture and comic books subjects with which Freud had no dealings whatsoever.”
One of Dr. Wertham’s associates, Dr. Hilde L. Mosse, told a symposium of the Association for the Advancement of Psychotherapy about the reaction of Alex, one of her 12-year-old patients, to comics. Alex told her:
“I look at them hard and keep looking at them. Every time I look at a picture I imagine I am in it. Every time someone gets hurt or shot at I can feel that in the place where the person gets hurt or shot at . . . And I feel also like I have the gun in my hand and pull it and it jacks when I shoot. . . .”
Dr. Mosse points out that since practically all comics are violent in nature, the daydreams they stimulate have violence as their content.
Dr. Mosse suggests that there is a much better and happier way out for the child. Let the child dream but let his dreams be derived from good books, from making things, doing things, going places.
How They Helped Milton
While some parents and educators will concede that comic books can do little harm to the average, stable child, most believe that they should be strictly forbidden to the nervous, emotionally disturbed youngster.
Some trained observers, however, who deal with abnormal children, vigorously reject this view. A few years ago, Dr. Lauretta Render and Dr. Reginald S. Lourie made a careful study of several of their youthful patients in New York psychiatric wards who were avid comic-book fans. The children were committed to hospital for a wide variety of antisocial acts including chronic truancy, stealing, disobedience and threats of suicide.
The gist of their findings is contained in a single sentence: “It is felt that
even the more obviously emotionally unstable child should not be deprived of the possible benefits he will gain from reading comic books.”
What was the story behind such an unexpected pronouncement? Here is one of the case histories which Drs. Bender and, Lourie discussed at a meeting of the American Orthopsychiatric Association.
Ten-year-old Milton, a lad of normal intelligence, was committed for truancy, disobedience and stealing. He spent every spare moment poring over comic books and talking about how the “good guys” put one over the “bad guys.”
What was this boy’s background? He was born out of wedlock. Later, his father was forced to marry his mother but he showed complete disinterest in both the woman and the child. The mother would often lose her temper and shout at Milton, “I wish you were never born. You’re the cause of all my troubles.”
To the analysts, Milton found in the comic books a satisfying antidote for his feelings of being unwanted and alone. “Rather than fostering his
delinquent drives,” reported the doctors, “the comics acted as a deterrent. In this case, the comics formed a quite inexpensive form of therapy.”
Partisans of the comic-book camp claim that they are no worse than the fairy tales upon which past generations have been reared. The comic books, according to this point of view, are , merely yesterday’s fairy tales about wizards, witches and murders brought up-to-date.
Adults opposed to comic books don’t agree there is any similarity between them and fairy tales. The fairy-tale world, they say, is full of fantastic people and animals.
“Here the child may allow his fantasy to soar as he wishes,” says Dr. Johann G. Auerbach in the American Journal of Psychotherapy. “It is his private empire in which he reigns. He knows the difference between the real and the imaginary; there is no attempt to bridge the gap.”
The Sex Interest
And the comic books? They are packed with realism. We are dealing here with the sort of stuff that newspaper headlines are made of—sex, violence, atom bombs, lynchings, bank robberies, abductions, and electric chairs. Hence, it is possible to give the child certain undesirable attitudes toward the world around him.
Men like Dr. Wertham and Dr. Ralph Banay, a psychiatrist of Columbia University, are particularly alarmed at the sex education being imparted to youthful comic-book readers. They point to the comic-book heroines like Judy of the Jungle, Princess Pantha, Nyoka the Jungle Girl, etc., etc., who are extremely glamourous, have full hips and breasts and, more often than not, run around barefoot in a brassiere and panties.
What happens to these lush beauties? Do they meet up with a nice young man, get married, stay home and raise a family? Nothing quite as prosaic. Month after month, they are chained, whipped, burned, beaten, tortured and thrown to the wild beasts of the jungle. With hardly a second to spare, the hero rushes in to rescue them. They are unscathed, of course, for how else would they be able to stand up under the same sort of treatment in the next issue?
Such presentation, it is claimed, can interfere with the normal sexual development of an innocent youngster. After being exposed to hundreds of such comic-book heroines he may come to believe: (a) All women should be
extremely seductive—no other feminine or human qualities are worth while considering, (b) A woman is something to be fought over by a hero and villain.
(c) Violence is alluring—because of the ever-present sex interest.
In brief, say some psychiatrists, the youthful, unsophisticated reader may actually grow up to derive a certain degree of sexual pleasure from inflicting cruelty on others or from enduring pain himself.
Adolescent girls, who take the comics seriously, are particularly vulnerable. Sooner or later, they will compare themselves with the curvaceous Nyoka the Jungle Girl or the full-busted Princess Pantha and find themselves wanting. This can lead to a deep feeling of inferiority and inadequacy, which might, under certain circumstances, result in future frigidity.
Another feature of the comic books that has been condemned is the manner in which they flout our democratic way of doing things. Instead of teaching obedience to our laws, the hero—the superman—consistently takes the law into his own hands and deals out death and destruction on his own.
“The Superman formula is essentially lynching,” observed Gerson Legman to a symposium of the Association for the Advancement of Psychotherapy, “• • • nor are the comic books lacking in any of the trappings of their Nazism. There is the same appeal to pagan gods for totally unearned powers, there is the same exploitation of magical insignia . . . there is the same glorification of uniforms, riding boots and crushed caps.”
The Argument of Taste
There are two principal accusations leveled at the comic books. The first, as we have seen, is that they encourage antisocial behavior. The second is that they kill the child’s taste for reading anything better.
John Mason Brown summarizes the literary case against the comics.
“I resent the way in which the comics get along with the poorest kind of writing,” he declared in a recent radio broadcast. “I hate their lack of style. I hate their appeal to illiterate literates! I loathe their bad grammar, their tiresome toughness, their cheap thrills and their imbecilic laughter . . .
“They substitute bad drawing for good description. They reduce the wonders of the language to crude monosyllables and to narratives which are really nothing more than printed motion pictures.
“What riles me when I see my children absorbed by the comics is my awareness of what they are not reading and could be reading; in other words, of the more genuine and deeper pleasures they could and should be having.”
A representative group of responsible and interested Canadians shares these views. Miss Jean Thomson, in charge of Boys’ and Girls’ House, Toronto Public Library, told me, “Comics are cheap, vulgar and require little or nothing of the reader. They atrophy the child’s brain.”
Do comic books really discourage the reading of good books by children? If they do, then it should be reflected in the circulation figures of children’s libraries during the past decade. In 1936, there were no modern-type comic books; today, some 40 or 50 million are sold each month. It is therefore reasonable to deduce that library circulation figures should have by now reached an all-time low.
I polled a number of children’s librarians across Canada and was told emphatically that such was not the case. Libraries in Halifax, Toronto, Winnipeg and Vancouver reported substantial gains between 1937 and 1947 in the number of books loaned to youngsters. Of the communities re-
porting, the only place to show a
decrease was Ottawa.
While my survey was admittedly incomplete and limited in scope, it tends to support the opinion of Dr. Benjamin Spock, the New York pediatrician, author of the most widely read book on child care. Dr. Spock believes it a necessary step in the child’s development that he read simple comics before tackling something more complicated.
“There’s no more reason to think it will ruin his taste than there is to fear that letting him creep on hands and knees in infancy will keep him from ever walking in the more elegant upright position,” says Dr. Spock.
Comics in the Schoolroom
Many conscientious parents I have spoken to, after reviewing the comicbook field, drew up an approved list of titles. The comics which meet with parental approval generally fall into three categories. The first is animal comics, like Funny Animals, Coo Coo Comics, Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck; the second is fun and humor, and are usually reprints of syndicated strips like Blondie and Mutt and Jeff; the third is real stories and biography as exemplified by True Comics and Stories from the Bible. While comics of these three varieties have a total circulation well up in the millions, they find the competition from Mandrake the Magician and Dick Tracy very tough indeed.
Because True Comics are typical of the better class of comic book, they are worthy of closer examination. Each issue of True Comics makes a brave attempt to live up to the motto on the cover, “TRUTH is stranger and a thousand times more thrilling than FICTION.” The child can here find the real-life adventure stories of men like Winston Churchill, Richard Byrd, Henry Hudson and Christopher Columbus, as well as precise information about topics like global flights, earthquakes, glaciers, plastics and supersonics.
Many parents speak highly of True Comics’ ability to pass on information and are beginning to wonder if perhaps educators would not do better to investigate seriously the educational possibilities of comics rather than shudder every time the word is mentioned.
Dr. W. D. Sones of the University of Pittsburgh has used comics as supplementary texts in history, science and social studies. He found that children who learned slowly from conventional textbooks derived a real understanding from the comics in much quicker time, that average students made progress more rapidly, and that superior students derived additional information and interest.
Another victory for comic books was chalked up by Dr. R. L. Thorndike, of Columbia University, who found that children who read them expanded their vocabularies by coming in contact with words they would not have otherwise met.
What’s to be done about the comic books? Should we ignore them? Burn them? Ban them?
The demand for banning them is frequently made here in Canada. It is generally triggered off when a youngster commits a barbarous crime. He often admits that he reads comic books, which is not surprising since practically every child does.
One of the most concerted anticomicbook drives was recently spearheaded by E. D. Fulton, Progressive Conservative member for Kamloops, B.C., and vociferously backed by parentteachers groups, women’s councils and various municipal governments. Mr.
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Continued from page 73 Fulton asked for an amendment of the Criminal Code which would prohibit the printing or distribution in Canada of any magazine or periodical substantially devoted to depicting, in picture form, commission of crime.
The Cabinet expressed sympathy with the proposal but turned it down.
“It seems impossible,” explained Justice Minister Ilsley, “to devise anything which is at the same time wide enough to prevent evasion and narrow enough to avoid banning innocent publications. It might, for example, ban pictorial representation of the murder of Thomas à Bocket.”
Parents, too, who try to prevent their offspring from reading the more adventurous comics, will find practical difficulties in the way. If they buy only a few carefully selected titles, Junior can always read them and then swap them for more lusty fare. If they lose their tempers and absolutely forbid certain comics to enter the house, the child will do his reading under cover.
“The stern approach is not advisable,” cautions Dr. John Donald Atcheson, psychiatrist of the Toronto Family Court. “It tends to isolate the child from his parents. It can be of real benefit to the child if he feels that he can discuss his comic-book plots with father or mother and have certain points which bother him explained. The parent then has a ready-made opportunity to express his opinions.”
The parent can develop an interest in good books by reading to the child. Another stratagem is to have appealing, well-illustrated books distributed around the house where the child is likely to come across them.
Another wise move is to help the child start a library of his own. The pride of possessing a number of good books is almost certain to stimulate his interest in good literature.
Parents should also remember that in many communities there are libraries staffed by trained personnel who stand ready to help them. Miss Jean Thomson of Boys’ and Girls’ House, Toronto Public Library, recalls one case—and there are many like it—where the mother of a nine-year-old dropped in to complain that her son read nothing
but comics. Miss Thomson later had a talk with the lad and after ascertaining his interests was able to present him with a list of 50 attractive titles.
“That was three years ago,” she recalls. “Since then, we have given him three additional lists. The boy’s parents have long ceased worrying about comic books.”
The Department of Education in Saskatchewan is presently demonstrating that good books can compete with the comicsand come out on top. School libraries are being redesigned to he cheerful, friendly places where hoys and girls are tempted to drop in and browse. Books with drab covers, small type and cheap paper have been discarded and replaced by bright volumes with readable print, profusely illustrated.
But perhaps the cleverest device for winning children over to good hooks was hit upon by a Baltimore librarian. He had a huge colored illustration placed over one section of the stacks which read, “SUPERMAN RECOMMENDS THESE BOOKS.”
From then on, circulation boomed.
Much of the desk-thumping, pro and con, over comic hooks may become slightly dated when a new code of minimum editorial standards, accepted by the Association of Comics Magazine Publishers, becomes fully operative.
The code, recognized by leading manufacturers of comic books, was formulated only last May, too late to affect all issues now on the stands. Its main points:
1. Sexy, wanton comics are out. Female nudity shouldn’t go beyond normal bathing-beach standards.
2. Crime shouldn’t be presented in a way to throw sympathy against law and justice. No comics should show details of a crime by a youth.
3. No scenes of sadistic torture.
4. Vulgar, obscene language should never be used; slang seldom.
5. No glamourizing of divorce.
6. No attack or ridicule against any religious or racial group.
In the meantime, the debate over Comic Books goes on. Like any debate worth taking seriously, the most certain thing about this one is that it has more than one side. ★