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Monday, August 30, 2010

Ruminations of an Old Goat

In 1954, the book Seduction of the Innocent, by Fredrick Wertham, was published. It's the earliest "scientific" attempt I know of which claimed a specific media was not healthy for children. Wertham held comic books to blame for increases in child delinquency, noting that a large number of delinquent children also read comic books. Of course, during the time Wertham performed his research, almost all children read comic books. Popular titles sold millions of copies each month. So many children read comic books that Wertham couldn't have gotten meaningful statistics from his study. He might as well have asked the children if they liked hamburgers andtried to draw the same conclusions about the local burger joint.

Wertham's book caught the imagination of parents and teachers looking for a scape goat concerning the behavior of their children. And that captured the attention of politicians, leading to congressional hearings and causing one elected legislator to proclaim that all comic book publishers were communists. The end results was the Comics Code Authority, which ruled comic book content for decades.

Under the code, heroes were heroic and villains paid the price for their crimes. The wide range of comic books published into the early fifties -- including romance, science fiction, and horror titles -- narrowed to superhero titles and innocuous titles such as the Archie line. But the Comics Code was voluntary and eventually one of the big two publishers released an issue without the Comics Code seal. Eventually, more and more titles were released without the seal until, in 2001, Marvel Comics broke from the Comics Code Authority entirely. By that time, I doubt very many of Marvel's titles would have received the Comics Code seal, anyway.

And that brings us to latest psychologist to study superheroes, Sharon Lamb. Dr. Lamb believes the superheroes of today are sending the wrong messages to the boys of today. That message, she says, is that boys can be macho, the superhero, or a slacker, the funny guy who doesn't really try to do anything in life. But things are worse than that, her study concludes, as most of today's superheroes are cynical, manipulative, quite willing to use and discard those around, and rarely heroic in the traditional sense.

Part of me wants to ask, "You had to perform a study to learn that?"

Anyone who paid any attention to developments within the comic book industry over the last 30 years could have seen this situation coming a mile away. There was great discontent among a fairly vocal group of comic book fans, moaning that Marvel and DC were publishing comic books for children. Those fans grew older yet the comic book stories continued to be aimed at the same level. For some reason, that vocal group of fans felt as it that was just wrong. Writer/artist John Byrne, in an interview, compared their complaints to an adult getting upset because there were no Hardy Boys stories written for adults.

The obvious solution to this situation was for that vocal group of fans to start publishing comic books aimed at adults. To their credit, they did just that. To their detriment, they continued to complain about the publishing habits of Marvel and DC. Eventually, writers and artists responded. The response was slow. We got Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Electra. We got V for Vendetta and The Watchmen. Once the door was open, new writers brought new, more adult, ideas to the medium and we got edgy heroes, angst-filled heroes, heroes who were different from villains only in who they targeted.

By the late 1990s, I saw fewer and fewer children in comic book stores and first began wondering where the next generation of comic book fans was going to come from. I've since learned the answer to that question. The next generation of comic book fans are reading manga -- Japanese comic books -- which they can find in large quantities at their local Barnes & Noble or Borders. But those kids aren't going to grow up to read American comics. They'll graduate to manga aimed at older readers, not to Spider-Man or Superman.

But the point of all of this is that today's superheroes send the wrong image to today's boys because they are intentionally written that way. The comic book industry courted the adult fan and, in the process, is in the process of losing the child who grew into that adult fan.

We won't have congressional hearings over Dr. Lamb's research. In fact, it will be a minor blip on the radar, at most. After all, we're inundated with studies telling us about all the myriad things that are bad for our children. Perhaps, if you choose to give credence to all of those psychological studies, you can stop your children from seeing, reading, or playing all of those supposedly unhealthy books, shows, and games. Or you could just lock your children in the basement until they reach adulthood, as it would amount to the same thing. I recommend taking the time to pay attention to what your child reads, watches, and plays, making sure your child understands that popular culture is not the same thing as real life.

It might mean unemployment for a few psychologists but I think good parenting is worth the risk.
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