A Review of Max Allan Collin’s Seduction of the Innocent

seductionMax Allan Collins in addition to being an outstanding mystery writer who was Chester Gould’s handpicked successor to write the Dick Tracy newspaper comic, has written for Batman, rewrote Jason Todd’s origin after the Crisis, created the comic Mike Danger with Mickey Spillane, created Ms. Tree and of course The Road to Perdition.

When wearing his mystery writer’s hat, he likes to insert murders into real historical events, such as the Titanic’s sinking, the bombing of Pearl Harbor or the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby.

With his Jack and Maggie Star books he brings his three loves together: mystery, history and comic books. His protagonists Maggie Star and her step-son Jack run a comic book publisher in the early 1950’s just before the bottom dropped out of the market.

At present there are three books in the series. The first, A Killing in the Comics, is a murder mystery wrapped around the dispute over the ownership of Superman. The second, A Strip for Murder, is a fictionalize account of the Al Capp (“Li’l Abner”) and Ham Fisher (“Joe Palooka”) feud. The third, published in 2013, Seduction of the Innocent, is a fictionalized version of Frederic Wertham’s misguided crusade against comic books.

In Seduction of the Innocent, Collins takes us back to a dark time in the history of  comics. When the 1950’s started, Captain Marvel was selling over a million copies a month. EC Comics was the undisputed king of horror. By the end of the 1950’s very few comic book publishers were left standing and EC dropped all their titles but one, Mad Magazine. And while television helped almost kill off comics, it was the work of Frederic Wertham which set off the fire storm which engulfed the industry.

Wertham claimed that comics led to violence and gasp, shudder, homosexuality. To back up his claims, he asserted that 95% of all children in reform school read comics. He failed to mention that 100% wore shoes. Clearly, there was a greater correlation to the wearing of shoes than to the reading of comics. He also used, as it later turned out, false anecdotal stories of children being led into crime and sexual perversions because of comic books.

But, it was not the shoe manufacturers but the comic book publishers who were hauled before a Congressional Committee. The upshot was that many companies disappeared and the voluntary censorship board, the Comic Code Authority was born.

Collin’s fictional account opens with the firestorm in full swing. Maggie and Jack are trying to manage as well as weather the crisis. All of the characters in the book, unlike his disaster mysteries, are fictionalized stand-ins for real people. Part of the fun is pulling off the masks. I’m pretty sure I got most of them, though some like the M.C. Gaines stand-in was too easy.

Strangely, Collins is far more sympathetic to his Wertham stand-in. Perhaps it would have been too easy to paint him as a fool or an outright charlatan. Instead, “Dr. Werner Frederick” is depicted as an earnest but misguided man. Both the fictional character and real man wrote about the devastating effects of segregation. In fact, Wertham’s writings were used as evidence in the landmark case of Brown v. The Board of Education, which made segregation illegal.  In his book the Mark of Cain, he wrote about the medical professions complicity with the Holocaust.

Since this is a  murder mystery, someone has to die, and no surprise it’s Dr. Frederick. When it looks like someone in the industry killed him, it’s up to  Jack to quickly find the killer in order to protect the industry from any further problems.

As a mystery, this is a fine read. But, for people who are curious about the circus atmosphere Wertham created, this book is a treasure. For further reading check out Professor Carol Tilly’s demolition of Wertham’s book in her 2012 paper, Seducing the Innocent: Fredric Wertham and the Falsifications That Helped Condemn Comics Information & Culture: A Journal of History, Volume 47, Number 4,2012, pp. 383-413. The University of Illinois published an interesting article on Tilly’s research. Turns out that Wertham, perhaps in a misguided effort to make his case, deliberately lied and falsified data.

In the end, Wertham, who died in 1981, was disgraced and we can take satisfaction at how horrified he’d be if he could see today’s comic book offerings.