This review covers the book on its own terms without getting into the debate on how much of an impact it had. It is also longer than most reviews, given its controversial nature.
Wertham's book attacks comic books in general, but particularly crime comic books (which ranged from superhero titles to gangster titles). He argues that even the most violent comics are aimed at children and that crime comic books should not be available to anyone under 15.
To put things in perspective, comics were on the whole *way* more violent back than now or at least until recently, and while today comics were more extreme material in generally aimed at adults, back then children were the primary audience. This is born out by the references to youth, parents, etc in the text and by some of the ads.
Wertham interviews a number of children in his book, mainly "juvenile delinquents". He acknowledges other factors than comics in causing delinquency but either considers comics to be the most important factor or at least the one he chooses to focus on in this book. He argues in favour of preventing juvenile delinquency before it happens instead of simply treating it after the fact.
Having given a broad overview I will examine his book chapter by chapter I should point out that this book is 400 pages long so I'm deliberately leaving out certain elements he mentions in passing such as romance books, in the interests of finishing this review in my lifetime.
Chapter 1: Such Trivia as Comic Books:
This is mainly an intro chapter, where he first suggests a link between comics and juvenile delinquency. The first case he brings us is probably not the wisest choice: during a ball game a man is shot to death and his head slumps over like "a typical comic book illustration." A Negro boy's great aunt was arrested and held until the boy signed a confession (weapons were found near the apartment but not the apparent murder weapon). Wertham concluded from the presence of comics that certain ones he was reading influenced him. He does not consider the possibility that the boy signed the confession to free his great aunt.
Two conceits occur in this chapter that recur throughout: the aforementioned comparing the way crimes look to comic book panels (a bit iffy), and analogies (starting with comparing a child's mind to a garden). On the whole most of his analogies are reasonable enough though they must clearly be taken for what they are.
Wertham mentions the Lefargue Clinic, where many of his interviews with children take place, and mentions a few violent acts in comics, as well as taking Superman to task for Nietzschien elements (personally, the name notwithstanding, I think Superman's roots are more along the lines of Hercules, who predates Nietzschien theory).
Wertham also complains about portrayals of him in the comics, but I think his anti-comic positions would almost inevitably result in some sort of satire within the comics
Chapter 2: You Always Have to Slug 'Em
One of Wertham's better points in this chapter is that crime titles tend to emphasize the criminal aspect of their title while de-emphasizing the more moralistic aspects (e.g. Crime Does not Pay had the first word in huge letters, the rest in tiny letters).
He also mentions that despite such titles as Crime Does Not Pay and Lawbreakers Always Lose, criminals are often never caught at the end of the stories due to suicide or escape.
He concedes that crime comics have an educational page but notes that kids tended to skip such pages (I suspect this would also occur today).
An an extent he seems to want to have it both ways, criticizing comics in general while at the same time appealing to people who like comics but not crime ones. Accordingly at one point he refers to Super Duck as harmless, and then later in the same chapter mentions what he finds objectionable about Super Duck.
He also lumps in jungle and superhero comics with the crime books. While they probably did have some negative elements I tend not to think they were as bad as gangster comics, where people were chained alive to a car in such a way that their bodies would drag on the ground as the car moved.
He also criticizes superhero comics for giving kids a faulty view on history, such as when Superboy helps George Washington cross the Delaware. I have trouble believing that most kids would see this as what actually happened.
Chapter 3: The Road to the Child
Wertham discusses interviews with kids in which they tell him what they are actually reading, which in some cases differs from the parents. Wertham also mentions the results of Rorschach and other tests. Since all of the children that Wertham comes into contact with at work are delinquent, it is not surprising that the results tend to be negative.
Another point is that comic reading takes time away from play. This makes a bit more sense during the time than now, given that comics at the time probably took around half an hour to read, and many kids read in the vicinity of 12 a week.
Chapter 4: The Wrong Twist
One of the points Wertham makes that's particularly hard to refute is that (illustrated elsewhere in the book) a diagram shows a human body with instructions on how best to hurt those areas of the body. Wertham also mentions elsewhere in the book other instructions for committing crimes or getting alibis.
One of Wertham's more interesting findings is that children generally felt that there were elements in comics that were harmful to other children younger than themselves. This supports Wertham in the sense that even the kids saw that something was wrong with the extreme violence in crime comics, but what Wertham overlooks that this judgement alone showed that kids were still gaining some understanding of right and wrong whatever their reading habits.
Wertham also views the behaviour of supermen as undesirable. While certain of the beating up crooks might present negative ways to solve problems, I would also argue that there's also a certain "do the right thing" morality to such stories.
He also points out racial stereotypes in comics. Another point in Wertham's favour, and thankfully other races are generally drawn more realistically today.
He also goes in dreams somewhat. Since dreams are to this day are hotly debated, I won't go into general impressions of dream analysis, but one case warrants mention, where a kid got a nightmare after reading Blue Beetle, which Wertham calls "a very violent comic book" (implying he's read it since he has an opinion on it. The kid mentions his nightmare being based on the Blue Beetle's ability to turn into a beetle, which Wertham takes the comic to task for. Only thing is, no version of the Blue Beetle to date has had that ability The Blue Beetle then active lowered a "beetle-on-a-string" in front of bad guys or shone a flashlight creating a beetle silhouette, but his only real power was super-strength.
Chapter 5: Retooling For Literacy
Most of the chapter is devoted to his claim that comics stunt reading ability. Comics are nowadays generally seen as an aid to literacy, giving kids who have trouble reading at least some starting point.
He then makes valid ponts about adaptations of classics being watered down versions of the real thing, and being used by kids as shortcuts when doing book reports.
But then Wertham drops the ball again by criticizing the use of made of words like "arrrgh" and "wham" which kids then incorporate into their vocabulary. I hardly see the problem if a few sound effects end up in the kids' vocabulary. I know as a kid I could tell the difference between a sound or scream and an actual word.
Chapter 6: Design for Delinquency
This is the section of the book where Wertham goes into the most detail of crimes committed by kids. Whether one believes that comics are indeed the cause or not it must be stated that the acts are indeed shocking in of themselves. Example: "A ten-year old boy hit a fourteen-month-old baby over the head with a brick, washed the blood off the brick and then threw the baby into the river."
Wertham claims that kids are influenced to commit crimes because "every crime imaginable" (in that era of course) is seen in comics, including one comic including a price list for hurting people. That in of itself of course might be seen as dramatic license and not actually suggesting prices.
More of a problem though, and another point in Wertham's favour are ads for throwing knives and other weaponry found within crime comics. It much be conceded that with some impressionable children, showing brutal crimes (aside from shootings and stabbings dismemberments were not unknown in crime comics of the era) and then advertising weaponry might be tempting fate.
Chapter 7: I Want to be a Sex Maniac!
As you might suppose from the title, this is one of the more sensationalistic chapters.
It starts out okay, citing cases of young readers getting around by scantily clad women being tortured. Wertham points out that masturbation is not wrong in of itself, but young male teens should not be encouraged to masturbate over scenes of women being hurt. Point taken
But then he gets into his Batman theory, that Batman and Robin were a couple. It is implied from this that Wertham is anti-homosexuality though he does not state this outright. Regardless, since Robin was a young kid, I tend to think that the relationship was intended to be more father-son than gay. Specifically, I can't think of any instance in the comics that portrayed Batman as a pedophile.
He then covers the Lesbian aspects of Wonder Woman's relationship of the Holliday Girls. Not out of the question I suppose, but women tend to have closer relationships with one another than men and no Lesbian relationship was clearly shown. Again the biggest problem I have with that theory is that the Holliday girls were a bit younger than WW, not the idea of her being a Lesbian in of itself. It would certainly be one explanation as to why her relationship with Steve Trevor was always so boring.
Wertham also calls Wonder Woman anti-feminine. Since Marston wrote WW to encourage women to reach their full potential, and since in a later chapter Wertham mentions women's role a home maker, it seems that the strip was only opposed to a particular kind of femininity. Given that WW apparently largely influenced Gloria Steinem, it can be said that the comic did a reasonable job of promoting femininity in another sense.
Wertham also mentions the 1950s Black Cat as a Lesbian figure but his reasoning isn't clear on this point. He does mention a quote from her on how to take a bad guy out effectively if a bit violently, but I don't see the connection between beating up a crook and being a Lesbian.
Chapter 8: Bumps and Bulges
Wertham discusses ads of that era. The most interesting thing about these ads is that many were clearly aimed at women, showing what comics have lost as an industry. Many of his comments are valid enough (designed to make kids self conscious about their build, acne, and breast size for women). I won't go into too much detail here except to say that it seems that glossy magazines have inherited this aspect of comic advertising. 'm sure that most of you and heard the case against this kind of advertising. Wertham again mentions the sale of weaponry to kids.
Chapter 9: The Experts of the Defense
Wertham examines some of the evidence present by defenders of comics. He accuses them of covering up info, pointing out for example one survey (presented by Superman's publishers) which covered 10 comics, non of which were in the gangster or horror genres then prevalent
He also mentions behaviour considered imitative by kids which resulted in their deaths. A couple were imitating Superman but most of them were hangings. In most of the hanging cases there was a comic around showing a hanging. Wertham claims that these hangings were accidental. Since Wertham is sparse on the specifics I do wonder if maybe some of the kids were suicidal and simply used the comics as a "how to" (not that it's exactly good if comics give kids the means to do so).
Wertham addresses the similarities between the violence in comics and in some fairy tales but thinks that fairy tales' more fantastic settings create more of a separation from the real world and are therefore okay. I think this undermines some of his points since some violent comics he sites also had fantastic settings. Wertham also excuses dime novels in an effort to bring down comics as well.
Chapter 10: The Upas Tree
Here Wertham notes that unfortunately attempts to replace the more violent comics with more wholesome material is that kids gravitate to the most violent comics. In short the less nasty stuff didn't sell.
He also notes that comics (at that time) had strong ties to the distribution comics and dealers that didn't want to sell comics in general or the most violent ones fell victim to strong arm tactics. That is no crime comics, no other magazines that the distributor provided.
He notes that Mike Hammer novels by considered among the more violent of their genre were written by Mickey Spillane, a former comic writer who apparently honed his craft in comics. Fair enough, but then he tried to portray comics as a "get rich" business by mentioning a photo of Jerry Siegel relaxing comfortably. Siegel might have gotten some decent wages but it's common knowledge that Siegel got very little of the comic profits compared to what DC made.
Chapter 11: Murder in Dawson Creek
This chapter is mainly interesting in terms of how other countries viewed American comics. Basically it wasn't very favorable overall and some countries refused to take them.
Chapter 12: The Devil's Allies
Wertham accuses defenders of comics from contradicting each other in their reasoning. He doesn't address the fact that they might simply have felt differently from one another, nor does he mention if a given writer contradicts his/her own writing, as Wertham occasionally does (e.g. the aforementioned Super Duck example)
A more valid point that Wertham makes is that many of the experts speaking out in favour of comics were in fact employed by the comic companies themselves. In one sub-committee hearing (the Kefauver Committee, comics were found harmless since 5 out 8 experts considered them harmless. All five of the pro-comic experts were employeed by the companies, meaning all 3 experts with no conflict of interest were against comics.
He also points out that a "wholesome" comic called the Nightingale was not given its promised publicity in a national magazine because at the last minute the creators were told they had to submit it to an association run by crime comic publishers. By refusing to do so they lost the publicity.
Another magazine was almost sued for printing an untruthful article on a comic, stating it showed a person with his hands cut off. The comic company claimed it was only a dummy. They backed off when Wertham provided the magazine with a detailed account of the comic, in which both a dummy and a human got their hands cut off.
Wertham also mentioned a hearing by another sub-committee (New York State) which voted in favour of a bill banning crime comics to children under 15, but a governor vetoed the bill.
Chapter 13: Homicide at Home
Wertham claims that TV is more wholesome than comics but that TV was getting bad influences from comics in an effort to compete. This is interesting given that nowadays comics tend to compete by borrowing from TV.
Chapter 14: The Triumph of Dr. Payn
Wertham makes his closing remarks, ending with an overly smarmy bit where a mother begs Wertham to tell her one more time that it wasn't her fault that her child became delinquent and he does. One of the flaws of this book is that it does occasionally veer more to sensationalism than facts.
One more that Wertham makes (and I forget the chapter) is that it seems unlikely that crime comics do not promote aggression as some claim if they're being given to soldiers in Korea.
Wertham provides numerous instances of violence by children and numerous instances of violence in comics. He admits the difficulty in proving a link but notes that if you wait for a link to be proven it might be too late. He does note that that healthy children might not be affected so badly at first but claims alternately that the effects might not be visible for years or that comics or other factors might not alone cause delinquency but the combination of the factors would do so.
He does therefore note other factors but feels that you shouldn't keep one negative factor if other negative factors are at work.
He also considers virtually all comics to be trash with no redeeming literary value, though he feels that adults should have the right to purchase them if they wish. I agree with the last part but feel that there was some quality ti them. A baseball game using body parts for example is effective as dark humour.
Overall I found myself agreeing with him more than I thought I would. Comics at that time did have nasty elements which were promoted more for kids than today's mature comics, which don't advertise weaponry or give instructions on committing crimes. And with a different definition of crime comics not including the superhero or jungle comics, I agree that certain titles of the era should have been aimed at adults instead of kids.
However, proving causality is difficult and I'm note sure what percentage of otherwise healthy kids turned to crime due to comics, not what percentage of kids would have turned to crime regardless. And I certainly disagree with his more extreme views. But taken in the context of the era, Wertham, if a bit sensationalistic is not quick the crackpot that some writers have painted him as, and given the extreme nature of the material of the time, it's not surprising that someone like him showed up. Obviously I agreed and disagreed with a lot of the material. So much to my surprise I'm giving the book a recommendation on the grounds that it does make you question your own views on comics, particularly those of that era; it's fun to debate with the author; it makes for an interesting examination at a past comic era of comics; and because the case studies are interesting in their own right. The fact that it's flawed in many areas and the fact I don't agree with some of his more extreme views does not take away the fact that the book really got me questioning my beliefs, which is more than many books on comics can say.