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Diagram for Delinquents
August 3, 2014

Diagram for Delinquents is a movie-length documentary exploring Dr. Fredric Wertham and his effect on society with his drive to blame comics for juvenile delinquency.

The documentary aims to start from zero for the audience, beginning with explaining comics and their readers with narration by Bradford Wright, author of Comic Book Nation; Carol Tilley, author of Seducing the Innocent, a much-discussed response to Wertham’s charges and errors; and Amy Nyberg, author of Seal of Approval, the best book on the subject of comic censorship I’ve read. The “threat” of juvenile delinquency is also explained.

Even for those heavily familiar with these historical events, it’s eye-opening to see footage of Wertham himself. There’s a significant section on his history, including his work with the Rosenbergs, which puts his attack on comics in wider perspective. The later part of the movie additionally talks about the Comic Code’s rise and fall, although there’s no explicit conclusion given, nothing wrapping up the whole film.

Given the era of the subject matter, there’s a lot of “camera panning across image” footage, interspersed with cultural background film and black-and-white photos of kids reading comics back then. Plus, I lost track of who was speaking, since voices weren’t identified on-screen past their introduction. I also could have done without the reprinting of certain quotes onscreen in comic-style sound-effect lettering; it’s cheesy and stereotypical. The trailer, shown here, gives a good flavor of both the style and subject of the film.

You can’t overstate the historical impact of the material covered here, and Diagram for Delinquents is a thorough, if leisurely paced, explanation of the era. I can see it getting a significant amount of play, particularly in academic environments and among those who aren’t already familiar with the skeleton of the history. I wish they’d explored more of the point made by someone (one of the unidentified voices) that Wertham was an early precursor of talking-head sensationalized news coverage.

Additional contributors include Charles Brownstein, Executive Director of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund; Roy Thomas, who was sent as a kid to a comic book burning; and even some who want to defend Wertham’s book and efforts, or at least contextualize them among others of the time who felt the same.

You can buy a digital download or preorder a DVD at the Sequart store. (The distributor provided a digital review copy.)

One Response  
Mike writes:  

It’s interesting to me that Wertham’s crusade was seen as having “ruined” comics, stunting its growth. And yet, look at what comics have embraced with the freedom after the code: ever more gruesome violence, messages about the necessity to brutally murder people, sexual exploitation and marginalization of women, etc. The fact that Frank Miller, who is nothing if not a font of terrible ideas about society, is revered as having changed the industry is telling. I don’t believe that kids are influenced by what they read in comics; they are far more likely to be influence by film and TV for a variety of reasons having to do with how the brain functions and learns. But what exactly do people believe was gained by losing the Comics Code if all the industry has done since then is simply followed the film industry into the toilet?

 
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