comic books are dangerous -- 5/31/17

Today's selection -- from The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore. In 1942, the National Organization for Decent Literature published a blacklist of comics it viewed as dangerous, including the immensely popular new comic Wonder Woman. Comic book publishers turned to psychiatrists to try and disprove this claim:

"It seemed to [Wonder Woman publisher] Charlie Gaines like so much good, clean, superpatriotic fun. But in March 1942, the National Organization for Decent Literature put Sensation Comics on its blacklist of 'Publications Disapproved for Youth.' The list was used in local decency crusades: crusaders were supposed to visit news dealers and ask them to take titles off their shelves. Wonder Woman was banned. ...

"'Our youth are in danger,' [Anthony] Comstock warned [about dime store novels while campaigning against obscenity in 1884]. 'Mentally and morally they are cursed by a literature that is a disgrace to the nineteenth century.' In the 1930s, in much the same spirit, a committee of Catholic bishops had formed the Legion of Decency to protest sex, nudity, and violence in motion pictures, print­ing lists of church-approved films. But just as one evil was suppressed, another cropped up: comic books, a medium that borrowed its forms of storytelling from cinema. In 1938, the committee of Catholic bishops founded the National Organization for Decent Literature, whose posi­tion was that comic books were a disgrace to the twentieth century. ...

students burning objectionable comic books

"In the winter of 1942, [Gaines] arranged to have [information about the controversy] sent to Lauretta Bender, MD. Bender, forty-five, was a senior psychiatrist at Bellevue Hospital, where she was direc­tor of the children's ward. She was also an associate professor of psy­chiatry at NYU's medical school. She was an expert on emotionally disturbed and aggressive children; she specialized on children under the age of twelve, and she was especially interested in whether they could be either distressed or helped by reading. ...

"Between 1930 and 1940, Bender observed the cases of some seven thou­sand children brought to Bellevue. In 1936, Bender and two colleagues published a study involving eighty-three children admitted to Bellevue for behavioral problems; the psychiatrists had shown the children scenes of aggression in Flash Gordon and other comic strips and asked them questions like 'Is it right to hit somebody who insults you?'

"[When Bender's husband was killed in a car accident, leaving her] with three children -- Michael, three; Peter, two; and the baby, Jane -- [she] soon became painfully interested in studying how chil­dren cope with the traumatic loss of a parent. Watching her own young children, she observed that there were stories they simply could not bear. 'The oldest boy cannot tolerate anything in the way of a story, even of Peter Rabbit, who, if you recall your Peter Rabbit, went into a garden where his father got into an accident at the hands of a hoe of a farmer and had been put in a rabbit pie. I had to take him screaming out of the puppet show on that picture.' Her second son, though, had found comfort in comic books, especially those contain­ing stories of children losing parents. Bender explained, 'I think for him it is an effort to find a solution of the mystery of life and death and how it can happen that a child's father can leave him even before the child knows the father.' Her daughter, who never had any chance to know her father, began writing her own comic books as soon as she was old enough to write. She wrote one murder story, Bender said, 'in which the bloody head of the person who had been attacked would lie on the lap of the beloved person, whoever it was, and an effort would be made to soothe it.' This worried Jane's teacher, but Bender thought it was just fine: 'It is her way of solving her problem.' ...

"Pediatric psychia­trists [observed that] 'Anyone in contact with children of school age, and particularly those working closely with children, sooner or later becomes conscious of the extent to which the constant reading of comic books has invaded their think­ing, daily activities, and play,' they explained. They wanted to know whether comic books affected children's behavior. 'Do they lead to anxiety?' they asked. 'Do they lead to aggression?'

"Bender and Lourie addressed these questions by recounting four cases of children brought to Bellevue Hospital for behavioral prob­lems. All had suffered massive childhood trauma. Tessie, age twelve, had witnessed her father, a convicted murderer, kill himself. Her mother was dying of cancer. She had decided to call herself Shiera, after a comic-book girl who is always rescued, at the last minute, by the Flash. Bender and Lourie decided that reading comics was a form of self-therapy: 'This overwhelmed child was attempting to find, via the comic books, a method of clarifying her confusing personal prob­lems,' they wrote. 'By identifying herself with the heroine who is always rescued from perilous situations, she temporarily achieved an escape from her own difficulties.' Kenneth, age eleven, had spent most of his life in foster homes. He had also been raped. He believed he was going to die. He was frantic unless medicated, or unless he was 'wearing a Superman cape.' He felt safe in it -- he could fly away if he wanted to -- and 'he felt that the cape protected him from an assault in the rear.' Bender and Laurie, who wrote with marked compassion, approved of comic books with considerable enthusiasm. 'Comic books can probably be best understood if they are looked upon as an expres­sion of the folklore of this age,' they explained. They offered children a way to play, a kind of fantasy, entirely normal -- a way, even, to solve problems. Sure, there was mayhem everywhere -- murder, bondage, shootings. But it was resolved. 'Aggression is dealt with in most of the stories,' they observed, 'but its purpose as carried out by the hero is to prevent hostile and noxious aggression by others.' They concluded, 'The comics may be said to offer the same type of mental catharsis to its readers that Aristotle claimed was an attribute of the drama.' "



Jill Lepore


The Secret History of Wonder Woman




Copyright 2014 by Jill Lepore


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