Before Video Games, Comic Books Were Society’s Great ‘Menace’

Why you shouldn’t buy the argument that videogames are linked to aggressive behavior.

Charles Kenneth/AP

The carnage of Aaron Alexis’s rampage at the Washington Navy Yard was barely over before we began to learn of the shooter’s connection to violent videogames.

An acquaintance of his told The Blaze, “The thing that really struck me was the fact that he was really big into the shooter videogames.” Another friend, Nutpisit Suthamtewakul, told the Mirror that Alexis, a former Navy reservist, could barely find the time to eat when he was in the middle of a gaming binge. “He could be in the game all day and all night,” Suthamtewakul said. “I think games might be what pushed him that way.”

The forecast: more deep-thought pieces about the link between violent videogames and aggressive behavior, where research is either conclusive or ambivalent. More congressional hearings, more cable-TV debates, more calls for ... more research.

I hold no affection for these games, at least for those where the level of gore is near pornographic. In my ideal world, the purveyors of the worst of these games, as well as the films that lovingly depict severed heads and rivers of blood, would be shamed out of polite society. (Of course, in my ideal world, the men who brought our financial world into ruin—in the banks, the ratings agencies, and the government agencies—would also be shamed out of polite society.)

But it might be worth remembering one salient fact: every emergence of a media phenomenon with special appeal to the younger generation is branded a menace by the older generation. And the anxiety spikes when the perpetrator of a horrific event turns out to be an avid consumer of the latest media villain.

“They” are reshaping the thoughts and feelings of our children. “They” are undermining their values, seducing them with images of perverse sex. “They” are feeding aggression, desensitizing them to violence, coarsening our culture, making our pubic life more dangerous.

The only thing that changes is who “they” are. Offered for your consideration: Fredric Wertham and the menace of ... comic books.

Wertham was a Munich-born, British-educated American citizen and prominent psychiatrist who became convinced that violent and overtly sexualized media aimed at the young were having a malevolent effect on their behavior. In 1954, when juvenile delinquency was a major source of public anxiety, Wertham published Seduction of the Innocent, a bestselling book that argued that comic books were a clear and present danger to children. He deplored the graphic depictions of death and injury. He found (not implausibly) a gay subtext to Batman and Robin and bondage themes in Wonder Woman. He pointed to ads for knives and air rifles in the pages of the comics. In the wares of EC comics—whose great gift to the young was Mad magazine—he could point to especially ghoulish mayhem in the page of Tales From the Crypt.

Wertham’s warnings found a receptive ear in Washington. He was a featured witness at Sen. Estes Kefauver’s Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency (which also cast a wary eye on the new medium of television). Under pressure from Congress, the comic-book publishers agreed to self-censor their work by creating a Comics Code Authority, which effectively put the grislier fare out of business. And violent crime among the young virtually vanished.

No? Of course not. Because the same year that the authority was born, 1954, the newest threat to civilization emerged: rock-and-roll music.