Saturday, May 30, 2015

Robert Warshow on comic books


In The Immediate Experience, his classic collection of essays, Robert Warshow wrote an essay on comics that is interesting primarily because it was written in the 1950s at the height of the controversy over comic book content.
He opens with telling us about his eleven year old son who is a member of the EC Fan Addict Club.  He questions his son’s taste in comics and finds the EC titles gruesome. But he’s torn because he recognizes that these comics are more imaginative and carefully wrought than the other comics his son has outgrown. But he strongly objects to the gore in them. He wishes his son didn’t read any comics at all but trusts his boy not to be influenced by them to become a switchblade wielding hood.
He won’t deny his son access to the comics for several reasons. Warshow admits that he lives in the new age of parented where post-war kids need an explanation for everything. That one’s true. At my house I recall asking “Why?” when told to do something and was often reminded that kids “in my day” didn’t ask questions like that. I’m not sure what drove me to ask why when the answer was so often, “Because I said so.”
Warshow also won’t deny his son comics because he knows that kids need an activity or an escape from the adult world; a place of their own. And this escape usually involves something that adults wouldn’t approve of. He thinks that if he forbids comics that his son will only be drawn toward the grisly crime magazines or seedy “romance” and movie rags.
He’s such an involved and tolerate parent that he actually takes his son and a few of his son’s friends to visit the EC Comics offices! They never make it past the reception area. But some of the boys use the opportunity to purchase Fan Addict kits from the receptionist and purchase some back issues from a spinrack loaded with ECs in the lobby. (!!!) When a door to the offices is momentarily open the boys catch a glimpse of Johnny Craig working at a drawing table. Craig waves a polite hello and the boys go ape. I’ll tell you, if my eleven-year-old had the wherewithal to go ape over Johnny Craig I’d be proud of that. They also meet Bill Gaines who comes through the lobby on his way to the bathroom and Bill signs autographs for the boys.
Warshow goes from that story to a review of Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent which has only just been published. Warshow is no fan of comics. He finds Mad and Pogo to be interesting but thinks that most comics are bad; the gruesome ones too stimulating and the bland ones too dull. He thinks comic in general contribute to a shorter attention span or, as he puts it, cripples a child’s ability to wait for fulfillment.
But he has no time for Wertham either. He thinks the good Doctor’s views are simple-minded and suspects much of his “research” to be a fraud. He points out that many of Wertham’s childhood “witnesses” speak in terms well beyond their years and that their remarks about comics fall to closely in line with Wertham’s own syntax. One of the tikes even calls into question the integrity of psychiatrists paid by the comics publishers to endorse comics as healthy for children!
He also pans Wertham for lumping all comics together as if there were no good or bad comics and the quality were the same throughout the industry. But he sadly recognizes that the bloody EC comics that so disturb him are the best one son the newsstand in terms of quality. He scoffs at Wertham’s notion that Superman is a “psychopathic deviant”  and indignant that Wertham claims that Batman and Robin are homosexuals. He finds this last charge so odious that he won’t even repeat except in the broadest,  most circumspect terms.
In the end, Warshow wishes that there could be a ban on all comics because he wishes his son wouldn’t read them at all but rather seek his thrills in more acceptable forms of popular literature. But he also acknowledges that he prefers his son being exposed to comic books over living in the sanitized world that Wertham seeks.

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