Once again he was testifying as an psychiatric expert, this time in an obscenity trial. He had appeared as a defense witness for a murderous cannibal, an Oedipally-wrought, matricidal teenager and now on the side of a nudist magazine publisher.
Ilsley Boone, a Baptist minister from Mays Landing, New Jersey, was founder of the American Sunbathing Association and editor of its monthly magazine, SUNSHINE AND HEALTH. The magazine had long been a target of the U.S. Post Office which sought to restrict its distribution through the mails. In 1944, Boone was arrested and eventually indicted in 1945. This led to a protracted trial, during which Dr. Fredric Wertham was called on behalf of the defense.
Wertham was of the opinion that the magazine was not pornographic, that instead, true obscenity was being published in comic books, several of which he reportedly produced as visual aides while testifying.1 With this dramatic flourish, the psychiatrist took his personal vendetta against comics public. And the media was happy to indulge his crusade.
Josette Frank was apparently listening to WNBC and the John K. M. McCaffery radio program, Author Meets the Critics, when she was inspired to write a letter.
January 23, 1948
Dear Dr. Wertham,
I was greatly interested in your presentation this morning on the McCaffrey [sic] program concerning comic books and particularly in your statement that "99 % of the comics" contain obscene material.
I am wondering whether you would be good enough to let me know where I can locate the data on which this is based. It is certainly a very frightening figure to give parents and ought to be substantiated by sound data.
As you possibly know, I have been interested and concerned with comic books for a number of years as part of my work in the field of children's reading. I have done considerable work with them and I thought I knew them pretty well, but it seems evident that you have made some studies or have access to data which I do not have and would like to study.
For the past year or so I have been concerned, as you are, about the growing number of new comic books with a sex interest. These are certainly an aberration of the earlier content of both comic books and comic strips. I should have guessed, roughly, without any careful tabulation that they comprise a fairly small percentage (though still too many) of the total number of some 250 titles on the news stands. I am amazed at the figure you find.
Will you be good enough to let me know the basis on which this conclusion was arrived at?
And the January 28th reply.
Dear Miss Frank:
Thank you for your letter. Dr. Wertham and his associates have been interested for some time in the question of comic books and related subjects. He wishes me to let you know that none of his data have been published as yet.
I might add that in examining the transcript of Dr. Wertham's remarks on the McCaffery program I do not notice at any point the word "obscene".
T. B. Foster
If Frank was upset by Wertham's attack (and dismissive reply), then she was clearly frustrated by the Town Hall Meeting of the Air broadcast of March 2nd.
March 10, 1948
Thank you for your very helpful contribution to my knowledge via the letter to Miss Mannes. I am sure it did me more good than it did her.
I hope you at least enjoyed your research because I greatly fear that your enjoyment was the only fruits you will have from it! From my brief observation of Miss Mannes I doubt that she is open to learning.
Frank's brief note to Edwin Lukas, Executive Director of the Society for Crime Prevention, conveyed her exasperation with what they had both witnessed.
They were in the audience when a panel comprised of drama critic John Mason Brown, writer Marya Mannes, cartoonist Al Capp and publisher George Hecht debated "What's Wrong with the Comics?".
As is often the case in such forums, the debate consisted mostly of unswerving points of view with little to no consideration of the other side.
Befitting his profession, Brown led off with a dramatically haughty attack on comics that contained the infamously invective, "Most comics, as I see them, are the marijuana of the nursery! They are the bane of the bassinet! They are the horror of the home, the curse of the kids and a threat to the future!".
Hecht lauded the virtues of "good" comics and quoted Frank by name to support his view. He went on to extol the potential of comic books as a learning tool and was followed by Mannes, who conversely denounced comics for stunting intellectual growth, "...comics kill the imagination", reiterating a claim she had written about the year before in a THE NEW REPUBLIC article attacking comics.
"Though there is no palpable evidence to support the following statement," observed Mannes in her article, "it is at least reasonable to assume that just as the childhood use of tobacco can stunt the growth of the body, so can the excessive reading of comics stunt the stature of the mind." 2 Like many of comics' critics, Mannes didn't let lack of scientific evidence stand in the way of her opinion.
Capp skewered Brown and like-minded critics with a satirical scenario wherein a father seeking to ban his son from reading comics is flustered as he realizes that each of his preferred reading choices for the boy--newspapers, Oliver Twist and Shakespeare--are rife with violence and sex.
After a bit more barbed repartee and posturing by the panelists, a microphone was passed among the audience for questions. It's quickly evident that the audience had among its number several well-known cartoonists, well-spoken children and a strong showing of comic book defenders.
The first questioner was a woman from the CSAA who posed a query to Brown as did Charles Biro, editor of Lev Gleason Publications' much reviled, CRIME DOES NOT PAY. Frank's correspondent, Ed Lukas, asked Mannes if she thought comics
contributed to juvenile delinquency; a correlation she denied making.
Frank's turn came and she directed her question to Brown. She confronted him with a quote from a piece he wrote for his column, Seeing Things, in a recent issue of the SATURDAY REVIEW OF LITERATURE.
"Mr. Brown, in the February 14th issue of the SATURDAY REVIEW OF LITERATURE you wrote a charming article on a little trip you took with your children, a cultural trip I believe, to a museum to show them a tapestry and found surprisingly, to you, that they were only interested in the murderous ones. And what you said, may I quote your words:
"To the young, suffering is almost unimaginable, death is inconceivable. Pain is not real to them. Violence is. And this, quite naturally, they see as an expression of vigor, a manifestation of health and adventure."
Now I would like to ask you, in view of the fact that in the hands of responsible comic publishers, this is what is done in the comics, how does it happen, in so short a time, you have changed your mind?"
Brown artfully sidesteps her question, denying that he had changed his mind, averring that he was always against the wholesale bloodlust of the comics.
Even though it was couched in pomposity, it was evident that the level of opposition to comic books had entered a new phase. The earlier, relatively genteel arguments centering around the readability of comics had given way to a more serious, more urgent charge that they contributed to delinquent behavior. Bolstered by the supposed clinical evidence cited by Wertham, comics' opponents sharpened their attacks.
Suspicious of such "evidence", Lukas looked to his own research. At first blush, he seemed to be an odd ally for Frank. As a criminologist and the head of an
organization devoted to crime prevention, it figured Lukas would side with
those who found an easy demon in comic books. However, he eschewed this convenient answer by assigning blame to a source that many didn't want to hear. "The way to prevent crime is to prevent the criminal," he said. "I have talked to hundreds of adult criminals and I don't know of one who felt that when he was a child he was loved and wanted by his parents." 3
In a March 3rd letter to Mannes following the Town Hall Meeting broadcast (and the letter referenced by Frank in her note), he painstakingly laid out his case in favor of comics by discussing the relevance of psychological "sublimation" (the change of a socially unacceptable behavior into a socially acceptable form) cited by Mannes in her 1947 article and his resulting conclusion.
"All of which brings me to the point of suggesting that in comics, children find outlets for their naturally aggressive tendencies," Lukas wrote, "If you prefer to call that sublimation (it might also be called a form of expression) then I can't imagine why you should consider it harmful; the sense in which you use the word might also be interpreted to mean that it is good for the child (as healthy sublimation always is). On the other hand, if your use of the word was intended to imply that it is harmful to sublimate in this way, then--as my question last night implied--I merely ask for proof which you may have (which all of us seem to lack) that reading comics has in itself produced any harmful emotional disturbances in children."
But the battle wouldn't end with a well-reasoned letter. In fact, the battle was about to get far nastier.
April 27, 1948
Herewith I am sending my expense account for the Atlantic City conference.
I found the conference very worthwhile from several points of view. The whole field of social work is, of course, enlarging its viewpoint to take in family problem relating to such subjects as comics, radio, etc. The high spot of the conference for me was, of course, the final discussion on these subjects. You and your confreres will, I am sure, be interested to know that of the whole panel content of this meeting, see Page 25 of the program herewith, the only questions, which were asked at the end of the panel presentations, were on the subjects of comics. Since my presentation in this panel had to do with children's books and since Dr. Sones was representing comics there, I waited to see how the discussion was going. It was interesting to find that three people le[a]pt to the defence [sic] of comics--Dr. Sones (of course), Dr. Zorburgh and Dr. Luther Woodward of the National Committee for Mental Hygiene. This was pretty imposing array of volunteers! However, the chairman then specifically asked me to make a statement so I entered into it, but there was really no opposition. I found this astounding and I knew you would be interested.
Frank's letter to Bob Maxwell was surprisingly optimistic given the growing furor over comics, but it was also indicative of the fact that there was still a true debate. At this point, comic book defenders could counter Dr. Wertham with their own licensed professionals.
In the Spring 1948 issue of CHILD STUDY, Frank interviewed several psychiatrists and psychologists for their opinions on the effects of comics and other media upon children. Perhaps not surprisingly, among the interviewees were Frank's fellow DC Advisory Board members, Dr. Lauretta Bender and Dr. S. Harcourt Peppard, and Dr. Katherine M. Wolf, a noted psychologist who had previously conducted her own comics study and written a well-regarded article generally absolving comic books of harmful effects.
"Does blood and thunder in children's entertainment create or increase their fears?," asked Frank in the opening paragraph.4
Dr. Bender's perspective was that it depended upon the media and the imagery the children were presented with.
"Children are fascinated by the Frankenstein monster because it personifies their own fantasies of growing into power. It therefore becomes frightening to them," suggested Bender, "perhaps they could do these terrible things, or their parents could! Frankenstein personifies their own capacity to let go of impulses to destroy and its therefore threatening. The Superman figure is the reverse of this, an opportunity to identify with good deeds. He is benevolent and loving and upholds a moral code. Children are frightened by the absence of controls. Clearly they want restraint--they want a moral ceiling on what they might conceivably do." 5
Further on, Bender states that much of what children find in comics, "deals with their own unconscious fantasies," a positive effect, in her point of view.
"Comics constitute experience with activity, motility, movement. Their heroes overcome time and space. This gives children a sense of release rather than fear." 6
Wertham, Bender's colleague at Bellvue Hospital, clearly disagreed.
On April 8, he had appeared as a defense witness once again, this time on the side of the publisher of the scandalous novel, THE GILDED HEARSE. The book was facing obscenity charges brought against it by the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice and Wertham was called to counter the charge.
As he had in the SUNSHINE AND HEALTH case, Wertham produced a copy of a comic book, TRUE CRIME COMICS #2 (May 1947) and referenced a page from the Jack Cole illustrated story, "Murder, Morphine and Me".
"These comic books, very many of them, like the one I have here, depict
sadism. That is to say, violence in relation to sex. This particular
book," said Wertham, singling out a panel, "shows a man jabbing a hypodermic
needle into the right eye of a young blonde girl. I think that can only
have two effects on young people: either it would cause anxiety -- even
to adults who look at it; or it makes them completely obtuse to sympathy
and to any kind of human feeling about inflicting pain or suffering on
other people, especially a girl. And I think that this kind of picture
would have a very deleterious effect on adolescents and children." 7 As he had in the earlier case, Wertham saw censorship of adult literature as unnecessary, but for children he suggested it be mandatory.
Just a month earlier, on March 19, Wertham had put together a psychotherapy symposium dryly entitled, The Psychopathology of Comic Books.While the symposium itself may have been largely intended for a specifically professional assemblage, its content reached a wider audience.
Wertham, as the symposium organizer, had invited An abstract of the presentations by each were published in the July issue of the AMERICAN JOURNAL OF PSYCHOTHERAPY, while Wertham's own words were presented in an extended form in the March 29th SATURDAY REVIEW OF LITERATURE. The resulting article, entitled, "The Comics--Very Funny!", laid out Wertham's arguments bolstered by his claimed clinical research. Even though this article was widely read and cited, Frank was not the only skeptical observer.
Norbert Muhlen, writing in the January 1949 issue of COMMENTARY magazine, questioned Wertham's methodology in linking comic books to juvenile delinquency. Wertham took umbrage at this and responded to Muhlen in a letter to the editor in a subsequent COMMENTARY.
"Dr. Muhlen misquotes me," asserted Wertham, "He attributes to me the statement that "the increase in juvenile delinquency has gone hand in hand with the distribution of comic books. That is not what I wrote. What I did write (in the same article in the Saturday Review) is that: "The increase of violence in juvenile delinquency has gone hand in hand with the increase in the distribution of comic books. That is something very different." 8
Immediately following was Muhlen's reply.
"Whether the subject of violence is or is not one of the most important problems of our time, it certainly is the basic problem of comic books," Muhlen wrote, in partial agreement with Wertham.
"As a matter of fact, the very conclusion of my article was that mass entertainment by violence tends to become the child's education to violence."
"I disagreed, however, with Dr. Wertham's often-repeated opinion that "comic-book reading was a distinct influencing factor in the case of every single delinquent or disturbed child we studied."
Not to mention that Muhlen had problems with Wertham's clinical "proof".
"While preparing my article, I asked Dr. Wertham to give me an opportunity to let me see the case material on which his opinions are based. Dr. Wertham replied that "it is physically impossible for us to comply with [such a request].""
"Without access to his materials," Muhlen wrote, "I based my conclusion on my own socio-statistical deduction that his charges against comic books are not verifiable and not corresponding to the facts." 9
Despite their lack of substantiation, Wertham's claims were repeated by an increasing array of acolytes. Among the first was writer Judith Crist, who in the March 27, 1948, COLLIER'S magazine provided an agreeable forum for Wertham's attack on comics and those he perceived as the main culprits dissuading the publishers from "cleaning house".
Crist wrote that Wertham blamed not the publishers, artists or writers, whom he offered the backhanded exoneration, "it's their way of earning a living--one that incidentally earns them a fat margin of profit."
"The major responsibility, Dr. Wertham believes, lies with the mental-hyigene associations, child-study committees, child-care councils and community child welfare groups," wrote Crist, "So far most of these organizations have been silent on the subject or they have frankly or apologetically endorsed comic books." 10
Wertham, via Crist, had made it very clear that he considered the Child Study Association as a main apologist for the comic industry. This fact, along with the onslaught of public condemnation of comics in the wake of his attacks, necessitated a response. A response that was referenced by CSAA director Sidonie Gruenberg in a June 28th letter to Fawcett Publications editorial director, Ralph Daigh.
"The whole question of the comics is, as you say, very much before the public and the Child Study Association is planning another survey of the present status of the comics."
The formal announcement of the survey in the Fall 1948 issue of CHILD STUDY laid out its purpose and the challenges it faced.
"The enormous growth in the publication of comics books in recent years--an increase both in number and in variety--poses some difficult problems for parents," wrote co-authors Katie Hart and Flora Straus, "The current hysteria, ranging from sensational journalism to police censorship, has certainly offered them no help in the solution of these problems. On the contrary, it has served to add to their confusion and to intensify their anxiety. Nothing could be less conductive to constructive thinking or more disturbing to sound parent-child relationships than anxiety and confusion."
"With a view to offering some practical basis for parental guidance in this almost universal problem, the Children's Book Committee of the Child Study Association is gathering and classifying about two hundred of the comics books currently displayed on the newsstands." 11
As head of that committee, Josette Frank would oversee its conduct and ultimately write its conclusions. One problem that Frank faced with the uncomfortable fact that this survey would undoubtedly include comics which she would find indefensible.
The announcement of the survey was met with a flood of requests from concerned individuals, educators, PTAs and librarians asking for copies of it upon its completion. Others offered their own surveys as a help.
"I am making a study of comic book reading in my 6B class at Oxford School, Cleveland Heights, Ohio," wrote one teacher, "I have found the children on the whole are interested most in the Mickey Mouse style, but I am eager to know what conclusions your committee have arrived at relative to this type of comic books as well as the deadly crime comics that occupy part of the group."
Not surprisingly, there were parties with a more vested interest in the CSAA study.
"We are intensely interested in knowing when the Child Study Association's newest study of comic magazines will be available," wrote Robert D. Wheeler of the Premium Group of Comics in a November 18th letter to Frank.
"Also I wanted to tell you about the much discussed "McGuire Report" prepared in New Orleans. Perhaps you already know about it, but if not, you would find it extremely interesting. Mr. David McGuire is Assistant to the Mayor of New Orleans. He prepared a 49-page study of comics, in relation to New Orleans problems. Without agreeing in all respects with Mr. McGuire's report, I must say that it is a remarkable piece of work., distinguished both by the effort which went into obtaining facts and by well-balanced judgment."
Frank's reply five days later thanked Wheeler for his recommendation of the McGuire report and finished with an inquiry.
"Am I correct in understanding that you still have not joined the Association? I am very much interested in this whole situation, for it presents many problems," she wrote.
Frank was referencing the recently formed comic book industry group, the Association of Comics Magazine Publishers (ACMP). The group had been announced with much ballyhoo in July, 1948, along with its six-point code of ethics. A January 18, 1949, press release detailed the program.
"Completion of plans for the first organized effort at self-regulation in the comics magazine industry was announced today by the Association of Comics Magazine Publishers.
Comics magazines of publishers willing to subscribe to the comics code are now being screened under the new process, under the personal supervision of Henry E. Schultz, Executive Director of the Association.
Non-members, as well as members of the Association, are eligible to apply for and receive permission to sue the seal, certifying conformance to the comics code on an equal basis, it was announced.
"Non-members have been welcomed to participate in the self-regulatory process," Mr. Phil Keenan, President of the Association, said, "All publishers must submit drawings and manuscripts prior to publication to the Schultz office, if they wish to be considered for use of the seal"
Mr. Schultz disclosed that all comics magazine publishers have been notified that they may apply for the use of the seal. Wholesale distributors throughout the United States have also been informed of the Association's action, he added.
Fees for the screening service of the Schultz office, are based upon print orders. The fee system for the review is employed in the motion picture industry, where productions are screened under a code, Mr. Schultz explained.
"We are going to review free of charge any magazine that has a planned print order of less than 250,000 copies", Mr. Schultz added. "The reason for this is that we want to leave publishers free of all financial burdens, so far as screening is concerned, if they are starting in business or trying a first issue of a publication."
Comics magazines of larger circulation bring in adequate revenue to permit nominal charges for review, he added.
In connection with the announcement, Mr. Keenan made the following statement:
"All publishers who subscribe to the Code are making a conscientious effort to raise standards of their magazines and meet all reasonable requirements. We know that the first magazines that appear with the seal will represent careful and sincere effort by their publishers. On the other hand, it should be borne in mind that this is the first organized effort at self-regulation and our first direct step forward. We, therefore, realized that there may be imperfections in the initial stage of our program.
"We look for continued improvement and refinement of our publications as we gather experience in this work. We are in the same position, as an infant organization, that the motion picture industry was in twenty years ago. We are confident that this first test will be met by publishers honestly an that they will cooperate in continual efforts to raise standards."
The ACMP was formed as a response to those who called for a self-policing body to regulate editorial content in comics.The code adopted by the ACMP was reminiscent of the editorial code DC had been utilizing since 1941.
The membership of the group itself was problematic. While it did have several large distributors along with such notable publishers as Lev Gleason and Max Gaines son William among its number, it was lacking not only Premium's membership, but that of other major publishers.
"You are correct in believing that we have not joined the Association of Comics Magazine Publishers," wrote Wheeler in his December 2nd response to Frank, "We have subscribed to the Association's code, and we believe that Mr. Phil Keenan, President, and Mr. Henry Schultz, Executive Director, have been doing some good work. Some of the strongest and best edited comics publications are not affiliated with the Association--notably the Superman D-C group! I should like to see one strong association in the industry, and should be glad to support it when we have evidence that we can enter it and be in the company of those publishers whose editorial policies most closely resemble our own."
Wheeler had touched upon one of the issues plaguing the comics industry group. The largest publishers--DC, Fawcett and Dell--didn't belong to the ACMP since they assumed they were relatively immune to most of the criticism directed toward comics. Still, DC was sensitive to the negative publicity surrounding comic books and looked to get in front of any criticism aimed their way by taking out a full page ad in the September 11, 1948, edition of THE SATURDAY REVIEW. Though not credited, it can be surmised that the text of the ad went by Frank at some point before publication.
After detailing at some length the good works associated with Superman and the moral benefits attributable to comics, the text makes a special effort to separate DC from other comic publishers.
"As publishers of one of the largest groups of comics magazines, we cannot pretend to defend the context of all comics magazines. Whenever proper restrictions in publishing for the young audience are not consistently observed, the magazines warrant criticism." 12
This paragraph appeared in italics so that no reader would miss its significance. It also immediately precedes a self-congratulatory section trumpeting its,"obligation to publish nothing harmful to the sensibilities and moral values of children," and its long-established Editorial Advisory Board.
Without the membership of DC and the other major players, and the lack of any enforcement powers, the ACMP was a toothless organization doomed to failure. Not insignificantly, certain members of the group who hoped to find cover behind its seal, helped it to its inevitable end by routinely ignoring their own code.
It can be supposed the Wheeler's previous enthusiasm for the McGuire report was tempered somewhat when early in 1949, it resulted in the appointment of a supervisory committee to oversee the sale of comic books in New Orleans. McGuire claimed to have found a third of the surveyed comics to be, "offensive, objectionable and undesirable".
"The women of the comic books generally stand out in two groups," McGuire explained, "Lithe, attractive, bosomy creatures who wear form-fitting clothes, and lithe, attractive, bosomy creatures who wear little or nothing." 13
Early in 1949, Frank organized yet another debate on the issue of comics. Among the panelists was Dr. Bender and several local educators. Among the audience was Edwin Lukas.
Although Frank hoped for a discussion of differing viewpoints that would be, "lively and controversial", the reality was anything but.
"I thought last night's meeting," wrote Lukas to Frank on February 15th, "failed to serve the purpose you may have had in mind. Conflict for its own sake is not very helpful in resolving issues; but conflict, for the purpose of attracting an audience which is not already converted to an enlightened point of view, helps clarify many confusing issues. The comics have been exposed to a good deal of confusion in thinking, and only through the sharply etched contrast of opposed points of view can that confusion be partially dissipated."
He found no argument from Frank.
"I quite agree with everything you said," she wrote in her March 10 reply, "For some reason this meeting seemed to be jinxed from the very start in its planning...".
"We had counted too, very heavily on Dr. Siepmann to inject some of the controversial issues and to raise more response from the audience. While we did not try to have a knock-down drag out fight, we did expect to have much more controversy than appeared in the discussion."
Frank had encountered a developing aspect of the comics debate. Both opponents and proponents of comics found certain material within the books to be objectionable. There was real anxiety over the increase in perceived sexual and violent content and even the staunchest allies of comic books were troubled by some of what they saw. Not every defender of comics was a fan of the medium. The disagreement came in how this material affected children, to what degree and most importantly, in how to address it. Sometimes, it was difficult to find much distance in opposing points of view, which made for tepid debates.
Frank began her public affairs pamphlet, COMICS, RADIO, MOVIES--AND CHILDREN, with a brief history and an acknowledgment of the popularity of comics books. But this wasn't the purpose of this booklet and she soon got to the crux of the controversy.
While she found that most comics fell into the same genres as their predecessors, Frank noted that there were,
"an increasing number of highly unsavory crime and horror stories,
many of them sadistic and full of sex excitement, whose covers scream
with lurid pictures, often promising more murder or more sex interest
than their pages inside offer." 14
The quality of comics varied widely in Frank's estimation. So, too, did the editorial oversight of art and grammar. Some comics, though, had an advantage.
"A few of the leading publishers of comics magazines maintain advisory boards of educators and psychiatrists who pass upon their material from the point of view of its suitability for children and who have set up standards for guidance in this respect," 15she wrote without a hint of her own involvement in such an arrangement.
"What is the fascination of the comics? Probably the greatest common ingredient," Frank suggested, "is action".
like things to happen, and in comics they do, fast and furiously. The
very first page, even the cover, offers a sort of preview of things to
come. And from the very outset there is never a dull moment. Even the
gentler types of comics never let the reader down, but maintain a swift
pace from beginning to end." 16
Children, she assessed, loved comics since they provided, "a
reflection of their own fantasies. Identifying themselves with the hero
or villain, they are in there punching. They fancy themselves strong
and invincible, able to overcome the limitations of time and space,
defending the weak and routing evil." 17
As in classic folk tales, which she had noted and written about many years before, "children may find release for pent-up feelings of hate, anger, fear, and aggression." This was a view condemned by Wertham; a fact Frank directly confronted.
is there any basis in fact for the current news headlines which blame
comics for children's delinquent acts, or for reckless claims that they
have caused a rise in juvenile crime. Certainly we cannot accept at its
face value the plea of a frightened child, hoping to please the judge by
his "reasons", that he committed his crime because he "saw it in the
comics" or "in the movies". Yet such confessions have been quoted as
"proof" of the damage wrought by comics." 18
Frank quotes Wertham from his SATURDAY REVIEW OF LITERATURE article wherein he attempted to trace the murder of a policeman by a young man with the observation, "Is
that so astonishing when he can see anywhere a typical comic-book cover
showing a man and a woman shooting it out with the police?".
"The causes of crime are not so simple! Children have always done
dangerous things, damaging themselves and others. They do not know why
they are driven to behave as they do. We shall not cure the causes of
this juvenile behavior by blaming it on their reading, or on the radio,
or the movies. It lies much deeper, in our society's failure to meet the
basic needs of these children." 19
She follows with
agreeing quotes from Edwin Lukas and a psychiatrist. Frank observes that
the presence of violence in comics reflected, "the desire of a large
number of people, including children, to read about crime and violence.
This is nothing new. The greatest literature of all time--Shakespeare,
Homer, even the classic fairy tales--abounds in violent deeds." 20
This observation, though, was followed with the more sensitive effect
that comics may have on childhood fears. Frank cites an earlier piece
she wrote which quoted Dr. Lauretta Bender among others whom all agreed
upon moderation when it came to exposing children to any medium. They
all stressed, "the importance of knowing each child's vulnerability and "tolerance point" for this kind of excitement." 21
Frank found some common ground with comics' critics.
"All children, even the hardiest, should be protected from the type of
comics magazines whose pages drip with horror and blood." 22
This statement reflected the tightrope walk Frank was attempting. While
she could rationally argue away Wertham's most outrageous attacks upon
comics, she had her own misgivings. From her earliest days working on
DC's editorial policy, to her complaints about Wonder Woman,
Frank had battled against egregious violence, torture and sexism.
Thanks in no small measure to her input, DC for the most part had been
able to stay above the fray, Wonder Woman not
Over time, though, Frank had become the face of comic book
advocacy. All comic books. In response to this increasingly difficult position, in her writings, in her many appearances and debates, her
defense of comics became more nuanced and selective.
Frank's letter dated February 15, 1949, was in response to a request for a list of approved comics. It also detailed the challenges presented in conducting the comic book survey being conducted by the CSAA.
"In answer to your inquiry I am afraid that we cannot yet give you the specific information about comics books which you want," Frank wrote. "For several months our Comics Book Committee have [sic] been reading and trying to evaluate the various comics magazines which are on the market with a view to evolving criteria which would be helpful to parents. Whether from this study we will be able to prepare a list of specific titles which are harmful or the reverse, is still not decided.
"There are many difficulties in the way of preparing such a list--for example, the ephemeral nature of the medium itself--one would have to approve or condemn a particular issue of these monthly magazines which the following month might not conform to the same standard. There is too, the difficulty that we cannot find any unified opinion as to what is and what is not harmful or desirable in these magazines. We are working on this problem now and trying to formulate criteria for such judgments."
It would be some months, but in the Fall 1949 issue of CHILD STUDY, Frank made her presentation of the comic book survey. She led off with a statement that nearly everyone could agree upon.
"Anyone who is concerned with children and their reading must, at some point, consider the problem of the comics. No matter what else they read, or whether they read anything else at all, most children in America read comics." 23
She followed with a summary of the concerns generally expressed over comic reading.
"Many parents have watched with misgivings, and some bewilderment, the growth of this reading among boys and girls of all ages and all levels of intelligence and economic background. They have feared the inroads of this kind of "picture-reading" on their children's ability and desire to read more challenging books, its effects on the development of their tastes and appreciation of literature and art. They have deplored the low level of vulgarity and sensationalism to which some of the so-called "comics" magazines have resorted for their appeal. They are concerned about the possible effects on impressionable youngsters of so much pictured violence." 24
In one paragraph, Frank outlined virtually every argument being used by the enemies of comic books. Such arguments had elicited a number of requests, "from parents and teachers for a list of "approved" comics". After noting both "some welcome" and "regrettable" changes in comics since the previous survey in 1943, Frank devoted the rest of her article, entitled "Looking at the Comics--1949", to determining what constituted a "good" comic book.
She stated that, "the Committee believes there are certain basic essentials to look for in all comics magazines, certain earmarks by which to recognize good comics publications and to guide the children toward discriminating choices." 25
In their determination, comic covers, "should be clean-cut, uncluttered and not overly sensational" and story content, "should be plausibly motivated and valid, if they deal with reality, imaginative if they deal with fantasy".
"Relationships," she wrote, "between people should be sound and human, especially family relationships. Stereotypes should be avoided, especially those of minority groups. The ideology of "good" characters and of the plot should carry a sense of social responsibility--respect for constituted authority, democratic principles of living, ethical and moral concepts of behavior." 26
This statement concisely summarized not only Frank's personal beliefs, the larger beliefs of the Ethical Culture movement, but the beliefs she had been trying to infuse into comics (particularly Superman) since the beginning of her involvement with them.
"They [comics] are in process of change," Frank concluded, "some of it good, some in the wrong direction. We believe the community, by its own awareness of values and standards, can influence the direction of this change--not by censorship and imposed "regulation" but by a process of education and selection. There is no need to "reform" out of them those elements which seem to give them such appeal for children." 27
In 1949, the New York legislature took up the matter of comic books and convened a committee to study them. Although created as a fact-finding body, the committee essentially became a soapbox for Wertham and other comics detractors. One prominent publisher appearing before it in December, 1951, vented his frustration.
"I have gained the impression that the committee is unfair," stated Lev Gleason, "biased against a great American industry--comic magazine publishing--and perhaps itself the innocent victim of career charlatans."
"This committee's report of previous hearings disparaged the reputation, integrity and competence of those who testified in favor of comic magazines and of the comic industry, yet gave highest praise to those who criticized the comics and the industry." 28
Gleason had been at the forefront of the comics controversy for a while. His company had imposed a list of self-censorship rules in early 1948 and he had served as first president of the Association of Comics Magazine Publishers. While others in the comic book industry hoped to avoid the glare of publicity, Gleason made efforts to present comics in a positive light.
Speaking at the November, 1951, roll-out of his new comic aimed at the three-to-eight age bracket, UNCLE CHARLIE'S FABLES, Gleason cited the influence of psychologists and educators on the publication of the book and quoted Josette Frank personally.
"One must regret that comic magazines have," she said, "in some respects, missed their opportunity for giving children more than they do."
"The comic magazine has a high potential value not only because its form is so acceptable to children but because it can be timely and contemporary in a way books cannot. Here, perhaps, more effectively than anywhere else, we can find an opportunity to give children forward looking attitudes, ideas and ideals around the world they live in." 29
For her part, Frank continued to appear on panel discussions, P.T.A. meetings and radio programs discussing her writings on comics and the media. One of her primary connections to comics terminated with the end of the Superman radio show on March 1, 1951. She remained as part of the DC editorial advisory board, but that, too, would cease as a result of certain events.
1 Gilbert, James, A CYCLE OF OUTRAGE, pg. 98, (1986).
2 Mannes, Marya, "Junior Has a Craving", THE NEW REPUBLIC, pg. 20-23, (Feb. 27, 1947).
3 Boyle, Hal, "Society Develops Plan for Prevention of Crime", KENTUCKY NEW ERA, April 13, 1948.
4 Frank, Josette, "Chills and Thrills in Radio, Movies and Comics", CHILD STUDY, pg. 42 (Spring 1948).
6 Ibid., pg. 44.
7 Dr. Fredric Wertham testimony in Harry Kahan vs. Creative Age Press, Jame E. Reibman introduction footnote #17, SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT, (1999 ed.).
8 Letters to the Editor, "Violence in the Comics", COMMENTARY, (Feb. 1, 1949).
10 Crist, Judith, "Horror in the Nursery", COLLIER'S, pg. 97, (March 27, 1948).
11 Hart, Katie and Straus, Flora, "Children's Books", CHILD STUDY, pg. 118, (Spring 1948).
12 National Comics Publications, "A million young people will be better citizens...", THE SATURDAY REVIEW, pg. 4, (Sept. 11, 1948).
13 "New Orleans Censors Comics", INDIANA EVENING GAZETTE, (Feb. 2, 1949).
14 Frank, Josette, COMICS, RADIO, MOVIES--AND CHILDREN, pg. 3, (1949).
15 Ibid., pg. 4.
17 Ibid., pg. 5.
18 Ibid., pg. 6.
19 Ibid., pg. 7.
21 Ibid., pg. 8.
23 Frank, Josette, "Looking at the Comics--1949", CHILD STUDY, pg. 110, (Fall 1949).
25 Ibid., pg. 111.
27 Ibid., pg. 124.
28 "Comic Book Publisher Charges Probers Biased", BINGHAMTON PRESS, (Dec. 5, 1951).
29 "Educators Believe Comic Books May Have Future in School Work", BROOKFIELD COURIER, (Nov. 15, 1951).