Attacks on Comics

darkside

Joe Queenan had a long critical piece in the New York Times Magazine (April 30, 1989).  I read this piece and thought it demanded some response. I went to my local comic book shop in Rochester, New York and the store clerk found me the various titles Queenan referenced. May 1989 was the first time I had read a Superman comic in years so perhaps here was the genesis of my Superman book. I’m not so sure that these days I agree completely with my characterization of Wertham.

My May 3, 1989 unpublished letter to the New York Times Magazine. I like the way in 1991 I went back to my computer file of letters and made a note.

The Editor
New York Times Magazine

Joe Queenan’s article on comic-books (“Drawing on the Dark Side,” April 30), employs the sensational techniques to catch the readers’ attention that he ascribes to comic-books. Single panels removed from their context, and enlarged several times over, do not convey a sense of the comic-book’s story. Moreover, the illustration used from “Superman” was altered by the addition of the letters DYNA to the stick in the character’s mouth (for the original see Man of Steel No. 3, 1986, p. 12.). [1991 note: In fact Queenan used a version of this particular story printed in a trade paper back, price $12.95, in this version DYNA was on the stick in the character’s mouth but in the original comic book version it was not.] Given the context, a background character says “not Happy Birthday, Not Happy Birthday (a reference to a Warner Brothers animated cartoon) the panel is open to numerous interpretations.] There are numerous other misrepresentations throughout the article. For instance, to depict the “Joker” as simply a “deranged prankster of the 1960’s” who has since become a homicidal maniac is to ignore the “Joker” of the 1940’s and 1950’s who was a lethal killer. Likewise Queenan’s presentation of “Catwoman” and “Green Arrow” downplays the anti-drug and anti-sexual exploitation messages of these comic-books. Incidentally neither of these two comic-books are published under the seal of the Comic Code Authority as the article implies.

Queenan warns the comic-book industry that it “seems to be playing with the same fire that nearly destroyed it in the early 1950’s.” That “fire” was not so much the content of the comic-books at the time, but the campaign against them stoked up by Fredric Wertham a New York psychiatrist. Like Wertham, Queenan is worried about the effect of comic-books on children and adolescents and rushes to judge the media without understanding it. Queenan’s elite perspective of comic-books is displayed when he worries about their “pretensions to be more than just popular art” and the attention they have received in the “avant-garde press.” This latter contention is somewhat ironic given the piece on comics (“Comics as Inspiration: Are We Having Fun Yet?”, April 23) that appeared in the New York Times Arts and Leisure Section, hardly avant-garde, the week before.

There are substantive issues raised both by and in comic-books, but it requires a better understanding of the media than the elite perspective of Joe Queenan, or the misdirected notions of the late Fredric Wertham, to interpret their content. Perhaps Queenan should read twenty or thirty “X-Men” stories, and even some Roland Barthes, then maybe he will be better placed to discuss comic-books.

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