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Wertham & Romance Comics: “But I Did Live Down My Past”

Fredric Wertham was a psychiatrist who at one point in his career had a reputation as being progressive in his field in so far as he treated Black Americans for mental health issues at his Lafargue Clinic in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood. Wertham’s findings on the effects of racial segregation as detailed in his definitive text book were used as evidence in Brown vs Board of Education. Despite that work Wertham is infamously remembered for his criticisms against American comic book publishers for being, in his opinion, a major cause of juvenile crime. If only video games had existed at the time!

Here’s a random quote from Frederic Wertham’s Seduction of The Innocent, the book that led to Senate sub committee hearings which helped bring down a number of comics publishers This excerpt appears on pages 38 and 39 from chapter two which is titled “You Always Have to Slug ’em.”

“Just as some crime comics are especially marked on the cover “For Adults Only” (which of course entices children even more), so some of the love-confession comics are marked “Not Intended For Children.” And just as there are supermen, superwomen, superboys, and super-ducks so the the industruy now supplied a “super-lover.” Studying these love-confession books is even more tedious that studying the usual crime comic books. You have to wade through all the mushiness, the false sentiments, the social hypocrisy, the titillation, the cheapness.

Every investigation has its dark moments. One day I received a letter from a highly intelligent and socially active woman who had taken great interest in the curbing of crime comics. She wrote me that in her opinion the love and confession comics may be in bad taste, but at least they do no harm to children although they “give a false picture of love and life.” This letter gave me the first doubt that I could ever achieve any practical results from my time consuming investigation. What more harm can be done a child that to give him “a false picture of life and life”?

It is a mistake to think that love comics are read only by adolescent and older children. They are read by very young children as well. An eight year old girl living in a very comfortable environment on Long Island said, “I have lots of friends and we buy about one comic book a week and then we exchange. I can read about ten a day. I like to read the comic books about love because when I go to sleep at night I love to dream about love.”

Another confession comic book is the reincarnation of a previous teen-age book with an innocuous title. That one was, despite its title, one of the most sexy, specializing in highly accentuated and protruding breasts in practically every illustration. Adolescent boys call these “headlight comics.” This is a very successful way to stimulate a boy sexually. In other comic books, other secondary sexual characteristics of women, for example the hips, are played up in the drawing.

The confession comic into which this one turned has totally different style, the new love-comics formula. One story, “I Was a Spoiled Brat,” begins with a big picture of an attractive girl looking at herself in the mirror and baring herself considerably. The dash of violence here is supplied by a hit-and-run driving accident and by the father’s dying of a heart attack when he he hears about his daughter’s life. It all comes out right in the last picture: ‘But I did live down my past. Tommy is now a leading merchant in Grenville.'”

The synopsis for this story that these panels of art are from is as follows according to Grand Comics Database: “Jean learns her boyfriend Harry is a married man when they’re caught by divorce detectives. She leaves town due to the scandal and becomes a librarian in the city. Jean vows to avoid men and tries to discourage Jim when he approaches her. They eventually become friends but she rejects him when he parks his car and tries to kiss her. Jean decides to leave town but Jim shows up. She explains her past and Jim says she isn’t a cheap pick-up: he wants to marry her.”

Art from Love Diary #41 published by Orbit Wanted with a cover date of March 1954. The Girl With A Past was written by Bill Woolfolk and drawn by Mort Leav. This art was chosen at random based on the “But I did live down my past” line of dialog. Please get in touch if you know in which romance comic “I Was a Spoiled Brat” appeared!

This story and the complete issue, which is in the public domain, can be read at Comicbookplus.

August 24, 2023
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