It was in the author’s afterword and acknowledgements that I learned that the heroes of Seduction of the Innocent, Max Allan Collins’ roman à clef about the comic book controversy started by Dr. Fredric Wertham with his 1954 book of the same name, had been featured in two previous novels. With this third book, Collins says, his originally envisioned trilogy was complete. Not that he wouldn’t mind writing more books about Jack and Maggie Starr, if readers asked for them. How many readers that would take is anyone’s guess. He admits, however, that the publisher of the first two decided against the third, so I’m guessing it wouldn’t be many.
Seduction comes to us thanks not to readers but to Hard Case Crime. Hard Case Crime seeks to bring back the pulp excitement of the paperback original, both by reprinting older works and by publishing newer ones. Without HCC I may never have discovered Michael Crichton’s John Lange books. I like HCC and I like their lurid covers. And I say good for them that they allowed Collins a venue for Seduction. Even if his original publisher probably wasn’t crazy.
Fortunately this trilogy is thematic rather than narrative; I don’t think I missed much not having read the previous two. All are centered on various controversies in the comics world: who really owned Superman, the Al Capp/Hal Fisher fued, and now Dr. Wertham’s crusade against comic books that ultimately resulted in the creation of the self-censoring Comics Code Authority.
Fredric Wertham is here named Werner Frederick, and fans of comic book history will have fun matching real people and titles to those in this book. Mad, for instance, is Craze, and Bill Gaines is Bob Price; Batman becomes Batwing; and so on. Collins tells us that his caricatures are ultimately fictional, but at least in Wertham’s case, the representation is clearly wish-fulfillment as well, as Collins takes one pot-shot after another at the good doctor.
“Good” doctor? Within the last couple of years, a study was made of Wertham’s research and scientific rigor as it related to comic books. Let’s just say that Wertham, it seems, took a few shortcuts on his way to his conclusion that comic books should be removed from the hands of children under 15. But let’s also “remember” that Wertham established the Lafargue Clinic in Harlem, where he specialized in helping black teenagers. Collins reluctantly cops to this fact of Wertham’s good nature, but he can’t resist undermining it: at one point in the book, in a scene set in the clinic, he has Werner look about “dismissively.” In his afterword, he admits that Wertham “made important contributions to the Civil Rights Movement.” These, however, he says, are “understandably” overshadowed by what he had to say…about comic books. But he’s right: the naked quest for money will always trump a social conscience. Especially when writers like Collins fixate on the one and “dismiss” the other.
I’ll be honest and say that I don’t view Wertham as a villain even regarding the comics controversy. In fact, I think many (including Collins) who have read Wertham’s book have missed the point entirely. I think maybe Wertham did. The point isn’t that comics are (or were) so awful, but that society needs to take a hard look at itself and its values and how it promotes those values. This, to take an example ripped, as they say, from today’s headlines, is exactly what cartoonist Joe Sacco has done in this strip about the Charlie Hebdo killings. I applaud Sacco and I applaud Wertham, both of whom are telling us that real freedom comes with a price, that of responsibility. And that things are never quite so simple as the knee-jerk crowd would have us believe.
One of the funny things about Collins’ book — which is certainly sometimes intentionally funny, but this isn’t one of those times — is the way Collins takes Wertham to task for trying to manipulate people into seeing things a certain way while all the while doing exactly the same thing to his readers. The action is set in the 50s, but the heroes are plucked straight from our own 20-teens, being just as liberal and open-minded and tolerant (even of the Mob, though not, of course, of domestic abuse) as they can be. Jack Starr is Mike Hammer, but decidedly soft-boiled. And yet it’s all part of that funny brand of liberalism that tells us women are men’s equals, so long as they’re beautiful, stacked, and sex-crazed.
Anyway, the story is about what happens when one of the players in the comic imbroglio gets murdered. It’s lightly written, a fast read, and kind of fun if you’re into comic books. But it is a crime novel: don’t let it mug you.