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Wertham and comic danger

Wertham and comic danger
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First Published: Thu, Sep 02 2010. 08 09 PM IST

Violence galore: The Preacher series.
Violence galore: The Preacher series.
Updated: Thu, Sep 02 2010. 08 09 PM IST
I have been reading comics for the past 35 years and my brain is yet to turn to jelly or, to quote the popular song, a “jellyfish in the ocean of my head” (the first person to write in with the name of the group that sang this song will get, what else, a comic book) but there was a time when comics were considered dangerous. Now, this writer has been horribly disappointed by many comics, including several new (and serious) Indian ones, but dangerous?
Violence galore: The Preacher series.
I was reminded about this as I set out to write this version of Cult Fiction—on the Tintin in Hindi books that I have been trying to write on for several weeks now—by an email from an acquaintance. The mail pointed me to the Library of Congress blog (Blogs.loc.gov), specifically a 27 August post by Matt Raymond pointing to an article by his colleague Erin Allen for the library’s newsletter.
Allen’s piece was about the papers of the late psychiatrist Fredric Wertham that apparently were made available to public researchers in May, nearly 23 years after the library received them. Now, I didn’t encounter Wertham till the early 1990s when my interest in comics took a marginally academic turn and I started reading about the history of comics. By then, he was long dead (he died in 1981). Wertham figures in comics history as a villain—my first encounter with the name was as the man responsible for the creation of the Comics Code Authority (CCA). Wertham was convinced that comic books blurred the lines between fantasy and reality for many young readers and, with their violent presentation, encouraged them, in turn, to perpetrate acts of violence. In its early days CCA made life difficult for the publishers of comic books. It is also this writer’s opinion that some of this interference curbed the freedom of expression because the CCA pretty much behaved like a censor.
My initial opinion of the man was that he was indeed a villain, but over the years, as I have seen the impact of mass media on young children (Indian media has been replete, for a few years now, with stories of children hurting themselves or others by imitating the acts they see in movies, TV shows, even advertisements), my view has changed. As Allen points out, Wertham “was dedicated to protecting children from harmful material in all mass media”.
Allen’s article goes on to quote Sara Duke, the curator of the Library’s comics art collections: “I think he (Wertham) was part of a movement that is uniquely American—the need to protect children from adult life.” That isn’t really an American trait; it is a human one. Still, life, and the comics book industry, have moved on since then. Today, many publishers, DC and Marvel included, publish comics that do not have the CCA seal of approval and are meant for adults. But the very fact that the books mention that they are for “mature audiences”—a sort of warning—is a doff of the hat to the CCA and Wertham.
R. Sukumar is editor, Mint.
Write to him at cultfiction@livemint.com
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First Published: Thu, Sep 02 2010. 08 09 PM IST