Norbert Muhlen here attempts to turn available social-scientific light on a continuously perplexing problem for parents and educators: what is the effect of the prevailing terror movies, radio programs, and comic books on the minds of the children who consume them in such enormous quantities? Dr. Muhlen has previously discussed in these pages (March 1947) the political role of radio (“Radio: Political Threat or Promise?”).
Crime is entertainment, and murder a Parlor game,” Viscount Samuel recently said of our times in an address before the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Judging by present-day books, radio, movies, and comics, it seems “as if we were all engaged in a slightly hysterical parlor-game, the object of which is to scare the living daylight out of the assembled company,” says J. Donald Adams, chronicler of literary tides in the New York Times Book Review.
Complaints of this sort are probably as old as art and entertainment themselves; what is undeniably new is the sheer expansion in the mass of entertainment by murder and violence that the last decade has produced. Since the entertainment industry aims to deliver to its market exactly what the consumers want, what they are willing to pay for, and what will win in the competition with other types of entertainment goods, does this quantitative increase in murder, crime, and agony as favorite contents of mass entertainment reflect a new desire of the people for descriptions of aggression, destruction, and death? The entertainment industry says yes, and cites fairly reliable and continuous scientific tests which have ascertained this mass preference; and it is increasingly engaged in satisfying this blood-and-guts taste by all the technological means at its disposal. Those given to alarm have two problems to concern themselves with—what ominous factors does this new trend signify and portend as to the character of the public mind today, and what further effect may this endless tidal wave of terror entertainment have on our national life?
When, shortly before the Second World War, mass distribution of low-cost books was finally achieved, detective and mystery novels became the basic staple of the new book-reading public. At least one-half of the twenty-five cent books produced today are devoted to the elaborately concocted means by which human beings can trap and kill each other. The same preoccupation has in recent years come more and more to the fore in the movies. In the late 30’s the airwaves began to resound with manhunts and murders, and in the following years half-hour crime programs turned out to be the favorite radio entertainment. In the summer of 1948, for instance, sponsors bought more time for “suspense and mystery” than for any other type of program. A somewhat more restrained juvenile edition of the crime stories monopolizes the airwaves in the hour before 6 PM, with violence slightly watered down ad usum delphini.
But the newest, widest-circulated, least inhibited, and least understood carrier of horror and destruction is the comic book. Thoroughly different from the older, much-censored, and more refined newspaper comic strips, approximately two-thirds of the comic books are devoted to the dehumanized, concentrated, and repetitious showing of death and destruction, whether against the highly realistic background of the “crime and police comics,” or the supernatural level of the Superman-type comics, or in the fantasy world of the Jungle Comics. (The rest of the comic books contain romance, humor, animal stories, and educational subjects—there exists even Bible Comics.)
Their name to the contrary notwithstanding, there is nothing comical inside their covers. “Penny dreadfuls,” as they are called in England, seems a better name, although American comics imported into England are recognized as a class apart, and given a name of their own, “Yank Mags.” “There is a great difference in tone between even the most bloodthirsty English paper [comic book] and the threepenny Yank Mag,” George Orwell, the English essayist, writes. “In the Yank Mags you get real blood-lust, really gory descriptions of the all-in, jump-on-the-testicles style of fighting, written in a jargon that has been perfected by people who brood endlessly on violence. A paper like Fight Stories, for instance, would have very little appeal except to sadists and masochists.” (Fight Stories is one of America’s most popular comic books.)
The comic books date back to the middle 30’s, when they escaped the apron strings of newspapers and advertisers, and won the right to indulge without inhibitions in concentrated violence. In the last three pre-war years, when the mass appeal of the “action comics” really set in, they sold ten million copies a month. In 1947, the rate was sixty million copies a month. That means that for every book of any kind published in this country, two comic books were published simultaneously. (In the period from 1943 to 1945, for instance, this country produced slightly more than one billion comic books, and 428,000,000 other books, 237,000,000 of which were textbooks and 43,000,000 religious books.) However, there are three to four readers to every comic book, considerably above the rate for other books.
Reading of comic books is by no means restricted to children. An impressive segment of the adult population of America reads comic books regularly, that is, six per month or more.1 Of the men in army training camps in the last war, 44 per cent read comic books regularly, an additional 13 per cent read them occasionally.
In the army post exchanges they outsold the total of the three most popular national magazines ten to one. The army was only a little more addicted to comic books than the rest of the population: 41 per cent of the civilian male adult population, and 28 per cent of the female adult population, are regular comic book readers.
These adult comic book readers are neither illiterates nor morons. One study finds that 25 per cent of the adult elementary school graduates, 27 per cent of the adult high school graduates, and even 6 per cent of the adult college graduates (and 2 per cent of the nation’s schoolteachers) are regular comic book readers.
In the age group from 18 to 34 years, almost three times as many people read the comic books as do people of older age.2 Perhaps—for biological or other reasons—the interest in, and need for, the entertainment of violence and aggression decreases with advancing age. But it is not unlikely that the young adult comic book readers simply represent the first grown-up generation of children that were brought up on, conditioned by, and habitually addicted to this kind of reading. If this is so, the habit will be still more general among the next adult generation, for the children of today are en masse readers of the comic books.
Between six and eleven years of age, 95 per cent of the boys and 91 per cent of the girls throughout the nation, with few regional differences, read an average of 15 comic books per month. In the age group between twelve and eighteen, more than 8 out of 10 children still read at least a dozen every month, with the boys again slightly leading the girls.
Children of all intelligence levels read comic books. In a survey of 2,500 grade-school children in Illinois, Paul Witty reported that “the o per cent of the pupils who read comics most in one school were compared with the 10 per cent who read them least. The average IQ was in the interval 105 to 110,” that is, both groups were of the same intelligence level. (Journal of Experimental Education, 1941.) Alice P. Sterner, after a study of 372 high school children in New Jersey, stated that there was no relation between these children’s interests in radio, comic books, and motion pictures, and their intelligence (Publications of Teachers College, Columbia University, 1948).
Thus most children will consume more than 1a dozen comic books per month, go to the movies four to eight times a month, and listen to radio dramas practically every afternoon and evening for several hours. Whether they look at pictures, listen to words and sounds, or read the printed word—and they do all of this together some of the time—they perceive the same world-view. The children take their daily lethal dose of crime and cruelty, torture and terror as regularly as their daily vitamin-enriched breakfast food. “Comes a pause in the day’s occupation that is known as the Children’s Hour. . . .”
In contrast to the official pattern of the American Dream, and its world of peace and progress in which people get along with each other, the American daydream (and nightmare) of the media of mass entertainment is acted out in a world in which human relations are opened and settled by daggers, whips, tommyguns, or atomic exterminators. In psychoanalytic terms, the entertainment of a large part of the nation’s adults, and of the overwhelming majority of its youth, is directed toward mortido rather than libido: toward destruction rather than procreation, toward hate rather than love, toward aggression rather than understanding, toward death rather than life. Its common denominator is violence—all the forms, techniques, systems, and possibilities of violence. And almost never is there any concern with the reasons for which people act in violence—for this there is obviously little time and space in the ninety minutes of a movie, the thirty minutes of a radio play, the sixty cartoons of a comic book story.
The guardians of the public weal have not let all this go un-protested; the entertainment industries have had to contend with aggrieved pressure groups as they became increasingly popular.
The pattern was established when in the early 20’s a storm of criticism from church organizations induced the motion picture industry to set up an office for the control of offensive violence (and sex). Mr. Will H. Hays, former Postmaster General in the Harding Administration, the arbiter of morality and taste on the screen, proclaimed: “This industry must have toward that sacred thing, the mind of a child, toward that clean virgin thing, that unmarked slate, the same responsibility, the same care about the impressions made upon it, that the best clergyman, or the best inspired teacher of youth would have.” Mr. Hays succeeded at least in giving such respectable appearances to horror as to make it acceptable to the reformers, while leaving it profitable enough for the producers bound on satisfying the demand of the market. The close-up of the victim’s slow strangulation, for instance, was banned from the screen and replaced by the dim shadow of strangling hands, or the movement of a rope, or only a blood-curdling moan.
The pattern of self-censorship was later repeated by the broadcasting industry when, in the late 30’s, the industry authored and applied a code of rules which either repressed or refined the most direct sound and fury of violence. Vigilant network vice-presidents policed the scripts for swearwords and too articulate terror. Now in the case of the comic books, the process of enforcing more respectable and acceptable appearances has been started. In 1947, an Association of Comics Magazine Publishers was founded; in the fall of 1948, it published a self-regulatory program directed at deleting raw violence and raw sex from the industry’s output. A lawyer connected with the industry, who holds a public-school office, presides over a board of experts which will award a “seal of approval” to the comic books meeting its standards. It may be assumed that the success of the Hays Office, in the form of a sly camouflage of the image of violence, will in due time be repeated in the comic book world.
With discussion raging as to the possible effects of violence as entertainment, particularly on children, it was only natural that the scientists would be called in—by those attacking, and those defending, the new developments—to offer their expert advice. As specialists on the influences playing on human behavior, they could presumably best gauge the effects of the communication of horror and violence. Most discussions in the past few years have centered around the comic books, as the most prominent, least reluctant, most intriguing vehicle of violence directed toward children. And the Battle of the Comic Books has developed to some degree into a civil war among psychoanalysts, since the leading accusers as well as defenders are psychiatrists trained in and using the methods and insights of Freud’s dynamic psychology. (Many of the psychiatrists, educators, and child psychologists who have been most active in public and scientific defense of the comic books are retained by comic-book publishers as advisers.) To be sure, clinical and social observation on the subject is deplorably scarce, theoretical interpretations, based on general assumptions and a restricted, non-representative number of cases, are the rule, while the contradicting conclusions are delivered with a certainty based on conviction rather than verifiable truth.
The crucial question around which the controversy turns is: Do these media present to the mind of the child fantasy or fact, dreams or reality, play or lesson?
The accusers claim that the child can be so deeply impressed by crime and horror stories without end that it accepts their world as the real world to which it has to adjust itself. The symbol of this theory is the little boy who got a Superman cape on his birthday, wrapped it around himself, and sprang out of the window of his apartment house. The defenders, on the other hand, assert that the child, finding it necessary to suppress his violent and aggressive drives under the impact of adults and education, can do this in a more healthy way by finding an outlet for them through mentally participating in the violence-play and aggression-fantasies of his favorite entertainment media. According to their reasoning, comic books and other horror media are the child’s aspirin and penicillin which help him to overcome the pains arising from the task of growing up into a peaceful adult world, while according to the first theory, they are the opium of the nursery, leading the individual child spellbound by their evil charms straight onto the road to crime.
There is some evidence that mass media have direct effects on the public mind and behavior, most obviously in the areas of fads and fashions. The publishers of the newspaper funny strips themselves boast that the example of Popeye the Sailor popularized spinach-eating among America’s children, that in the wake of “Bringing Up Father” corned-beef and cabbage became a favorite dish of the nation, that Penny made the teen-agers wear hats, and that the upswept hairdo and bare-midriff dress were invented and publicized by another funny strip heroine. But the more serious charge that they also stimulate and incite socially disapproved actions—as well as approved or ethically neutral actions—is less convincing.
In August 1948, newspapers reported from New Albany, Indiana, that three boys, aged six, eight, and nine, had tortured a playmate of seven “merely to re-enact a comic book plot.” A few months later, the press publicized the suicide of a twelve-year-old boy in Niagara, Wisconsin, allegedly inspired by Wild West comics; and the poisoning of a fifty-year-old woman in Los Angeles by a fourteen-year-old boy who got the idea and the poison recipe from another comic book. Many saw this as proof for the theory that, in the words of Frederic Wertham, comic books suggest “criminal or sexually abnormal ideas” to children and make them act out these ideas (New York Times, September 4, 1948). Dr. Wertham, a leading psychiatrist who works with the two largest mental hygiene clinics of New York City, has repeated his point in popular and scientific publications, and has marshalled as proof for the crime-inducing quality of the comic books seven cases of juvenile delinquents who were also ardent comic-book readers.
Using the same kind of argument, L. J. G. Proal, a French criminologist and one of the leading authorities of his day, “proved” fifty years ago, in his work on Le crime et le suicide passionnels, with a few cases and newspaper clippings, that crimes had been committed under the direct influence and in imitation of novels by Dostoevsky, Paul Bourget, and other novelists whom the criminals admitted to have read. M. Proal went further back in history and discovered that Goethe, Shakespeare, Ovid, and other writers were directly responsible for murders and suicides committed by their readers; that, in other words, crime in life is only a slavish imitation of crime in art. The conclusion, reluctantly suggested by Proal as to the literature of crime in general, and openly called for by Wertham as to the comic books, is to ban these abettors of crime.
But since more than nine out of ten American children read comic books, while considerably less than one out of one thousand commits a crime after the comic book description, the argument of Wertham, like that of Proal, hardly permits a general conclusion; neither Proal’s nor Wertham’s cases are clearly symptomatic or typical for the behavior of readers of Goethe and Dostoevsky on the one hand, or the comic books on the other.
In An earlier work, Dr. Wertham himself rejected this simplistic theory of causation: “It seems to me just as inexact,” he wrote, “to say fiction has no influence at all on people’s actions as to blame crime on such fiction. Apparently anti-social impulses do not originate in that way. But when they once exist, added impetus may be given them by way of identification with a fictional scene.” (Dark Legend, A Study in Murder, 1941.)
But “the increase in juvenile delinquency,” Dr. Wertham charges now, in a second statistical argument, “has gone hand in hand with the distribution of comic books.” (Saturday Review of Literature, May 29, 1948.) But is this not the kind of fallacy that enabled a playful statistician to prove that the stork delivers babies? The evidence, it will be remembered, was: the higher the number of storks in a district, the higher, too, the number of childbirths. Storks as well as childbirths happen to be more frequent in rural areas than in industrial and urban ones. Similarly, a common root cause might in the past decade have led to the increase in juvenile delinquency and the number of comic books.
Nearly fifty cities—among them Chicago, Los Angeles, Detroit, Indianapolis, Terre Haute, and Hillsdale, Michigan3—have already acted against the sale of comic books deemed harmful to youth, but there is as yet no news that this has resulted in a decrease in juvenile delinquency.
On the other side, Lauretta Bender, another New York psychiatrist and a leading defender of the comic books, denies that the printed word leads directly to imitative behavior by children. “Well-balanced children are not upset by even the more horrible scenes in the comics as long as the reason for the threat of torture is clear, and the issues are well stated. If the child seems to react with some emotional or behavior disorder to reading the comic books, the reason predisposing him to the trigger action it supplies lies within the child and should be sought. It is evident from our case studies that whatever anxiety, aggression, or confusion was attributable to the comic books could be traced further back to the basic traumatic factor within the children’s background. . . . ” (Lauretta Bender and Reginald Lourie, American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 1941.) Four case studies of children are given by the authors.
The drive to criminal aggression—and its counterpart, its repression creating guilt and anxiety feelings of a disturbing nature—appears in only a minority of children. (But here, it seems likely from the evidence of both supporters and attackers, the communication of violence is likely to increase, if not mobilize and stimulate, these drives.) Therefore, we should not speak of the effect of these media on “the mind of the child”: we can only observe their effects on the minds of different children with different personalities, backgrounds, and predispositions.
For healthy children, Dr. Bender sees only healthy rather than harmful effects. “Normal, well-adjusted children with active minds, given insufficient outlets or in whom natural outlets for adventure are curbed, will demand satisfaction in the form of some excitement. Their desire for blood and thunder is a desire to solve the problems of the threats of blood and thunder against themselves or those they love, as well as the problem of their own impulses to retaliate and punish in like forms. The comics may be said to offer the same type of mental catharsis that Aristotle claimed was an attribute of the drama.”
According to Freud and his close followers, this was also the purpose and effect of the entertainment presented by folk and fairy tales. “Fairy tales have a constructive value; they fulfill children’s wishes, they have the same structure as dreams, and their content is really nothing more than the disguised realization of wishes,” wrote Sandor Lorand (Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 1935). And in an analysis of fairy tales, D. S. Ferenczi wrote: “Fantasies of omnipotence remain the dominating ones. Just where we have most humbly to bow before the forces of nature, the fairy tale comes to our aid with its typical motifs. In reality we are weak, hence the heroes of fairy tales are strong and unconquerable; in our activities and knowledge we are cramped and hindered by time and space, hence in fairy tales one is immortal, is in a hundred places at the same time, sees into the future and knows the past. . . . In fairy tales man has wings, his eyes pierce the walls, his magic wand opens all doors. A man may live in perpetual fear of attack from dangerous beasts and fierce foes, in the fairy tales a magic cap enables every transformation and makes us inaccessible.” (Sex in Psychoanalysis, 1916.)
Those defending the modem mass entertainment of violence draw a close analogy between the fantasy of folklore and fairy tales and the fantasy of the comic books. “We concluded that the comics—dealing with universal problems of relationship of the self to the physical and social reality; replete with rapid action and repetition; giving continuity to a central character who invites identification; free to experiment with fantastic solutions, but with good ultimately triumphing over evil, like the folklore of other times, serve as a means to stimulate the child’s fantasy life and so help him to solve the individual and sociological problems inherent in his living.” (Lauretta Bender, Journal of Educational Sociology, 1944.)
This folklore of our time—produced on the assembly line by hard-working writers and cartoonists, stimulating the child’s fantasy life by skillfully mixing some sex (for adult readers) with much violence (for the kids), with technological good (be it the electric chair, the G-man’s gun, or Batman’s death-rays) ultimately triumphing—can, however, be most easily talked about in such comfortable generalities if one resolutely removes from one’s sight their actual, concrete content. If the all-out attackers of the comic books have selected only a few atypical criminal children out of thousands of comic-book readers, the all-out defenders have selected, it would seem, only a few atypical comic books from the hundreds on the newsstands, and concentrated on the fairy-tale qualities of Mickey Mouse and Superman, to the exclusion of the much more frequent Crime, Police, Jungle, Fight, Weird, Rangers, and countless other “action” comics. The fairy tale analogy breaks down when applied to the contents and character of eighteen out of twenty-five comic books given this writer by his news-dealer, when he was asked for those he sells most often to the kids in the neighborhood (which is not particularly tough or crime-ridden).
Actually, what problems are shown and solved by these books?
“All the revulsion civilized men feel for the beast that appears in a female from time to time . . . ,” begins a story in one of these books, the story of the “pig-woman,” who “like a beast slew men for money” in sixty-two different cartoons, and was executed only in the sixty-fourth. A half-naked girl, looking like the poorest man’s pin-up girl, is, in another book, consecutively crushed by an airplane, attacked by a lion, whipped by a man, attacked by a leopard, tied and whipped by a savage, and finally rescued by a blond man in a bathing suit who says: “Pah, you silly woman. The lumbering rhino stalks better than you.” In another comic book, a wounded man lies on the floor, saying: “Hey fellers, I’m hit. Ugh, wait for me. Ugh Ugh,” while his three pistol-packing friends voice the following sentiments:
Hank got it in the chest. He’s done for. Let him croak.
He’s gotta be finished off. He’s sure to squeal if them bulls get their claws on him.
He could spill enough to fry us all a dozen times. Let ‘im have it.
The analogy between fairy tales and mass entertainment does not hold for two reasons: First, fairy tales happened “once upon a time,” in a world conspicuously removed in age and dimension from that in which the child lives; the stories of mass entertainment happen in cur day, are acted out by real people, have as background the drugstore, the hotel, the boardwalk, the living room of the child’s actual environment. While fairy tales do indeed offer fantasies, mass-produced modem murder tales offer facts of life in dark, stark realism. As a matter of fact, quite a few of the comic books are called TRUE Stories, TRUE Crime Comics, REAL Detective Comics, and so on, just as the preamble to many crime shows on screen and radio stresses the fact that they are painted from life, after actual happenings.
Second, the media of entertainment by violence are produced and consumed continuously, telling in variations the same stories over and over again, and becoming a routine part of the child’s daily life, as repetitious and exciting as other parts of his life. Different from the Punch-and-Judy show in which children used to indulge once in a while, different from fairy tales of which children got tired after hearing them too often, mass entertainment offers new thrills, chills, and lessons every day, almost every hour. The alcoholism of a man who gets himself drunk every night cannot be considered harmless or healthy, even if we may admit that it is harmless or healthy to get drunk a few times every year. The difference in consumed quantities, whether in liquor or stories, should, it seems, make for different effects; in both we would seem to have the right to be concerned over the existence of a high “habit-forming” potential.
And, indeed, the strong effect of repetition, often indeed the ubiquity, of realistic horror on the child’s mind has been observed in the work of several child psychologists: “By the very repetition of the ‘biff and bang’ theme day after day, on radio, printed page, screen, conflict and aggression become too permissible. This either activates a child’s guilt on account of his own hostile impulses, or it replaces guilt with underdeveloped conscience,” Dr. Auguste Allpert has observed.
Her latter point is confirmed by Dr. Katherine Wolf who notes that “excessive readers (of comic books) do not identify themselves with the hero; he symbolizes a deity or savior to whom they delegate all responsibility” (Child Study, Spring 1948). Dr. Wolf found, in an unpublished study conducted in cooperation with Marjorie Fiske for Columbia University’s Bureau of Applied Social Research, that excessive comic-book readers (those who read more than five, sometimes as many as twenty, comic books per week) tend to identify themselves with the protégé of the hero rather than with the invincible hero himself (e.g., the young side-kick of Batman, rather than Batman himself). Moderate readers, on the other hand, tend to identify with the hero. This pattern of identification with irresponsible, “stooge” characters who have handed all their powers and hopes to an infallible superior human being, remains unchanged among the excessive readers from early childhood to adolescence. In personal interviews with them, the researcher found them usually undersized and underweight, mostly older children of families with numerous offspring, and their personal behavior showed a very aggressive or extremely frightened pattern. This suggests that excessive addiction to the comic books may be a symptom rather than a cause of personality disorders.
On the other hand, healthier children, according to Dr. Wolf’s study, do not identify themselves at all with comic-book characters before the age of nine or ten, when they enjoy the thrilling but understandable world of Walt Disney. And they stop identifying themselves with the invincible hero at fourteen or fifteen, when they begin to understand that they have to grapple with the difficulties of life. But even in these so-called normal cases, where no individual fixations or frustrations are “mobilized” by the comic books, it appears quite probable that the image of the strange adult world presented to the children may leave lasting imprints on their minds.
It Is hard to avoid at least a tentative conclusion that mass entertainment by violence—being part of the child’s life in regular routine repetition, and showing the facts of life in seemingly true depiction—tends to become the child’s education to violence.
People in our society are frustrated by their inability to solve their problems by certain acts and behavior patterns which society has outlawed and suppressed, but which nevertheless may seem to some very desirable—aggression, destruction, violence. For many grown-ups, the vicarious experience offered by mass entertainment may legitimately and usefully help them find escapes from, or solutions of, these conflicts. For adolescents, however, it creates a firm picture of a world of violence into which they grow, and to which they have to adjust themselves; it conflicts with, and may supersede, the image of democracy, with its moral and spiritual values and emphasis on the sanctity of human life, which they are officially taught. It is an education which shows individual and social violence as the solution of human problems.
The real point is not that the children will tend to resort to violence themselves; it is rather that they begin to accept violence, when practiced by others, as “normal,” just as Americans in the last war began to accept the idea of putting people in concentration camps, even when practiced by “their” side, as normal.
Granted that this message has not been primarily created by the media of modern mass entertainment, which merely express a basic drive, repressed in our time, trying to struggle out of its repression; nevertheless, it seems inescapable that the continuous expression and communication of repressed desires makes them appear to young minds as a permissible reality, and confirms them as primary forces in future social life.
The media of murderous mass entertainment express and also teach a society in which survival means to kill rather than to be killed, to destroy rather than to be destroyed, to be tougher, shrewder, and technically better equipped than your neighbor.4 The hero of the success story of our time is Dick Tracy rather than Horatio Alger; while the latter made good by a prayerful, profitable, peaceable, and progressive life, the former survives by being quicker on the trigger, by slugging it out without mercy, by keeping shooting and alive even when his situation seems desperate.
And this is a perfect picture of godless, totalitarian man. We are taught that there are good and bad people, and the good people will prevail, not because their cause is good, or their means and ways morally better, but because they have—physically, mentally, and technologically—better weapons, or simply better luck. There is no forgiveness for the bad, no temptation for the good. Man belongs wholly either to the good or the bad, those who must be victorious or those who must be killed in the end (these often happen to show a foreign, “racially inferior,” physical appearance).
Finally, there are the dangerous implications emerging from the at first puzzling fact, from Dr. Wolf’s study, that among the most intense readers of comic books there is identification, not with the hero, but with the weak person who depends on him. The passivity of modern man—his tendency to be less the active participant than the spectator, less the responsible citizen than the unconcerned onlooker, less an independent individual than a helpless bystander vesting his hopes and his enmities in an omnipotent hero-ruler—is mirrored in this tendency among comic-book readers. Again, we may ask, are we dealing with a very early pattern that finds its expression in the attitude children take up toward comic books, or is the attitude inculcated by comic books? And again the answer is—comic books can hardly be given any large responsibility for creating this attitude, but by popularizing it they can hardly avoid strengthening and developing the trend toward the robotization of the individual, la Germany and Russia.
The wishdream and Weltanschauung of totalitarian men produced by the insecurity of our time, expressed by our entertainment industry, taught to our children by their favorite leisure-time occupation, thus seems the real danger of comic books and other horrors. The official juvenile entertainment by violence turns into an underground education to violence.
This education to violence, while hardly presenting the “clear and present danger” of causing juvenile crime waves, breaks the ground for a future criminal society. Individual insecurity and social anxiety, the common roots of both the murder trend in entertainment and increasing juvenile delinquency, can lead to brute force and terror as a normal basis for society where today it is only an abnormal individual behavior pattern. If that is the case, the comic books may be helping to educate a whole generation for an authoritarian rather than a democratic society.
1 Figures are from surveys conducted by the Market Research Corporation of America, by Paul H. Stewart and Associates (quoted in The Comics, by Coulton Waugh, New York, 1947), and by other commercial market and media research organizations.
2 According to the most recent study (Tide, September 24, 1948), of a representative cross-section of the population of Dayton, Ohio, 43 per cent of the men and 51 per cent of the women between 21 and 30 regularly read comic books, while in the age groups upwards from 31 years only 35 per cent of the men and 26 per cent of the women read them.
3 Twenty states’ statutes forbid the sale of obscene, indecent, harmful, or immoral literature, and these statutes are being used against some comic books. However, a recent decision of the United States Supreme Court held unconstitutional a New York State law that prohibited distribution of magazines composed principally of criminal news or stories of bloodshed and lust—a law sometimes used against the sale of comic books. On its “balance sheet of civil liberties,” the American Civil Liberties Union listed this Supreme Court decision as a favorable item.
4 It seems especially unfortunate that comic books have become part of America’s effort to help a democratic Europe:
“Dear sirs: I am the president of the Blue Bolt Comic Club,” a comic book reader writes; “our club is organized to help the unfortunate people in Europe. We send comics to kids who can’t afford to buy them. We have sent three packages containing three Blue Bolt comic books in each package. . . .” Thus is a distorted and dangerous picture of America distributed together with canned milk and vitamins among the young people of Europe.