Seduction of the Innocent: How one man set out to destroy comics

“Hitler was a beginner compared to the comic-book industry.”

                – Fredric Wertham

The now defunct Comic Code, established in 1954 as a measure of self-censorship by many of the major comic book publishers of the time, served as both a stamp of reassurance for retailers and the death knell for entire genres of comic storytelling. Horror comics became a rare breed and storylines were required to ensure that “in every instance, good shall triumph over evil and the criminal punished for his misdeeds.” 

The impetus for this code was largely due to the publication of Dr. Fredric Wertham’s book, Seduction of the Innocent, a highly subjective work that used mostly anecdotal evidence as well as Wertham’s own particular responses to titles that he felt portrayed prurient and overtly gruesome content that contributed directly to juvenile delinquency. The Association of Comics Magazine Publishers had previously enacted a largely unenforced code in 1948, but after Seduction hit the shelves, what had been scattered public opposition to some of the edgier comic fare hit a fever pitch, Comic Code resulting.  

Playwright Lenny Schwartz has been dealing head-on with injustices within the comic industry for years now, most notably with his exposes of the short shrift given to Batman and Spiderman co-creators Bill Finger and Steve Ditko, respectively. A notable presence at each year’s major Comic Cons, Schwartz and comics (for many people) are synonymous and his newest work takes a look at Dr. Wertham and the torturous journey towards the Code. A Seduction of the Innocent, opening November 14 at the RISE Playhouse in Woonsocket, is the true story of Wertham and the good he did in the world — at first. As events unfold, Schwartz’s drama portrays Wertham’s campaign against comics, as early as the late 1940s and then on into the 1950s, culminating with the publication of the infamous Seduction of the Innocent. Schwartz explores the effect that the book had on the world, pop culture and Wertham himself. It’s a look at a dark time in American history and how that period relates to current events.

Motif was able to speak with Schwartz and get some insight into why he chose Wertham as his next comic-related enterprise. Our first question was how Seduction differed, if at all, from his other comics-based adventures. 

“This is the third part of the ‘comic book trilogy’ if you can call it that. The first one was Co-Creator, a story about Bill Finger and the creation of Batman…which I am ironically redoing…I now have a much better script on the one. That was followed by Ditko, which we just brought to New York City in time for New York Comic Con, which was a pretty cool experience.”

While Ditko and Co-Creator had similar themes, Schwartz is quick to point out that Seduction of the Innocent stands somewhat apart. “The other two were about creation … Batman, Spider-man … while this one is about something completely different. This is about how somebody tried to destroy the comic book industry. And he nearly succeeded. The effects of what he did changed pop culture forever. This is a story of how one man who has done good in the world makes decisions that are opportunistic. He falsifies research. He turns America into a mob against comics. It’s about his rise to prominence. It’s about the results of the hysteria he created … people burning comics in school yards, kids holding mock trials and finding comics ‘guilty’ and burning them … most of this only three years after the Second World War! It has many themes to it … but it is a dark look at not just a horrifying time in comics, but in America as well.”

Schwartz also points out how his new work is acutely aware of modern parallels. “Seduction of the Innocent is also about somebody who fired people up,” says Schwartz. “He fired them up and he used that to his benefit. It is like the old saying — no matter how much things change, they remain the same. When you look at this play, it is very much like America currently. There is humor in the play … but a lot of it comes from a Disbelief, with a capital D. There is a disbelief that these things were said and a disbelief that this actually happened.”

Not unlike the Parental Advisory stickers that the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) managed to get slapped on recordings in the 1980s (resulting in nothing but higher record sales for stickered items), the Code had mixed results, with disgruntled publishers turning to underground distributors, like head shops, or retooling their efforts into magazine formats, which were exempt from the code. As a result, we lost Tales From the Crypt, but gained Mad Magazine. The Code’s power lessened over the decades until it finally becoming extinct after 2011 and Wertham’s legacy was tarnished. However, he was a fascinating character, and fascinating characters are Schwartz’s stock in trade. Just in time for another Comic Con, A Seduction of the Innocent reminds us of the power of free speech and the perils of following the herd. 

Daydream Theatre Company is proud to present A Seduction of the Innocent a world premiere play written and directed by Lenny Schwartz. The production is showing November 14, 15,16, 21, 22, 23 2019 at 8pm. For tickets, go to ristage.org. All shows are at the Rise Playhouse, 142 Clinton St Woonsocket RI.

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