Yes, folks, it’s finally happened: newspaper columnist James Carroll, eager to shift the blame for the tragic mass shooting in Aurora onto the shoulders of violent films and video games, has invoked Frederic Wertham’s notorious 1950s anti-comics treatise Seduction of the Innocent as a touchstone in his argument, telling his readers that “the connection between comics and behavior was never proven, but the argument goes on.”
The book, which speculated at a causal relationship between comic book readership and antisocial behavior and also famously spent a substantial amount of its time fixated on the potentially-homosexual relationship between Batman and Robin, led to a bizarre moral panic that forced comic book publishers to censor their work for years, and forced a number of titles and even some publishers out of business. Most obviously, it led to the formation of the Comics Code Authority, a self-ratings and self-censorship organization run jointly by a number of publishers until it was officially disbanded in 2011, after being effectively inactive since 2009.
The book effectively caused a comics witch-hunt, and both the fundamental logic of the piece and Wertham’s research have been questioned since its release. Seduction of the Innocent has widely been seen more as a curiosity, and a sign of its backward times, than as a serious piece of research for decades now. For Carroll to eagerly claim that its contents have simply never been proven, and not that they’re the object of intellectual derision, is roughly equivalent to using Mein Kampf as a source, noting only that “Hitler’s position on these matters is subject to debate.”
With the mainstream media reportedly descending on All C’s Collectibles, the comic book store in Aurora, trying to establish the theater shooter as someone with a Batman obsession, they’ve so far been disappointed to learn that he doesn’t actually appear to be a comic book reader–or at least not an “obsessive,” as would be convenient for the narrative, since he doesn’t have a pull box there or at any other comic shop as far as anyone can tell.
Facts like that won’t stop society’s moral guardians, though; the James Carrolls of the world have point to prove that’s bigger than the truth. There have been dozens (probably hundreds, let’s be honest, but I’ve only seen a few handfuls) of articles attempting to link the attack to comics, video games or movies, and as often as not, they’re falling back on tired emotional arguments rather than anything approaching a legitimate study. That isn’t to say their position is without merit–but when the closest thing you have to documentary evidence is a sixty-year-old piece of propaganda and some verses from the Old Testament, you probably shouldn’t have the Globe‘s bully pulpit to bring that message to millions of readers as something approaching an authoritative take on the question at hand.
In the case of today’s Boston Globe column, Carroll follows Wertham’s example, attempting to tie the behavior to a larger, psychological trend, and one that’s tied to violent, antisocial behavior, including terror attacks in Europe and the Middle East. It’s a tenuous link that relies on the logic that realistic violence–and particularly the interactive violence of video games, although he glosses over that pretty quickly in his eagerness to keep the focus on The Dark Knight Rises–has desensitized audiences and narrowed the gap between reality and violent fantasy, given deranged people carte blanche to take actions that they would otherwise have been socially conditioned to understand are out of bounds.
I find, though, that deranged people with a tenuous grasp on reality mostly work in the mainstream press.