OUR CORNER: The positive side of comic seduction

In 1954, American psychiatrist Frederic Wertham published a book titled “Seduction of the Innocent,” a scathing indictment of comic books and their effect on children. If you’re not familiar with the specific title, you’ll probably recognize its long-lasting effects on our culture: Wertham was one of the first people to compare Batman and Robin to a gay couple. He encouraged America to fear its children long before the Columbine massacre made it fashionable.

Wertham’s views were so popular at the time they inspired a few book burnings and nearly prompted Congress to censor the industry, before the industry created its own Comics Code to self-censor its products.

My own experiences with comic books were quite different. When I was a 5-year-old living in New Jersey, one of the sweetest sentences in the English language was, “Daniel, get ready, we’re going to Price Club.”

Price Club was one of the first discount bulk stores and, in addition to epically-portioned milk and fruit snacks, it sold comic books in 20-volume packs.

Because all but two of the covers were obscured, I couldn’t choose what was there, but they were there and I read them all.

Incidentally, I started reading comic books at a very dark time for superheroes. Superman had been killed by Doomsday, Batman was recovering from a spinal cord injury and many of the stories dealt with issues like inner city gang warfare and child murder.

Needless to say, some of this content was shocking. I had barely recovered from Danny DeVito’s gruesome death in the second Batman movie and here was a fresh batch of nightmare fodder.

But the flip side was that I was reading. A lot. I kept a dictionary close by when I read the latest Spiderman so I could quickly look up words I didn’t understand. The fact that there were pictures next to the words made it even easier: the first time I saw the word “laughter” in print, I thought it was pronounced “lawter” (like “slaughter”) until I saw a character in the panel letting out big belly laughs and made the connection.

The same can be said for TV: I used to watch “The Simpsons” and know what I was seeing was funny, but I wouldn’t understand why it was funny until I put in a few too many hours researching the reference in a single joke.

But maybe comic books and TV are old hat: video games have been the hot thing for people to be outraged about during the last 15 years. After all, it’s just a bunch of irredeemable shooting and killing, right? Murder simulators!

Yes and no. Consider “Bioshock,” a game that is, for the most part, a straight shoot-em-up. But the premise is that of a purely capitalist society that has devolved into civil war. The story draws on the novels of Ayn Rand and a careful look into the game’s writing reveals an in-depth criticism of Objectivist philosophy.

Even “Grand Theft Auto,” which is perennial slow news day filler on television, contradicts the atrocities on-screen with writing that reveals the criminal behavior as absurd and foolish to engage in.

Of course, it’s up to parents to determine what their child reads, watches and plays. A parent’s judgment should never be substituted with big government censorship or strong-arming creators into producing bland gruel.

The lesson is that parents shouldn’t fear media. They should be deeply interested in the pop culture their children love, because it just might be an unexpected key to better learning.

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