Robert A. Emmons Jr. is a documentary filmmaker. His films include: Enthusiast: The 9th Art (2001), Smalltown USA (2005), Goodwill: The Flight of Emilio Carranza (2007), Wolf at the Door (2008), YARDSALE! (2008), and De Luxe: The Tale of Blue Comet (2010). Goodwill has had the privilege to be screened as part of the Smithsonian exhibition: Our Journeys/Our Stories: Portraits of Latino Achievement at the New Jersey Historical Society and it won “Best Homegrown Documentary Feature” at the 2008 Garden State Film Festival. In 2009 he received Mexico’s Lindbergh-Carranza International Goodwill Award as a “Messenger of Peace” for his work on Goodwill. From February to August of 2010 Emmons created two short documentaries a week. The 52 short documentaries formed the weekly internet series MINICONCEPTDOCS. Emmons teaches film and media at Rutgers University-Camden where he is also the Associate Director of the Digital Studies Center.
His latest documentary, about Dr. Fredric Wertham, comic books, and juvenile delinquency in 1950’s America, is called Diagram for Delinquents and will premiere theatrically at the year’s Reel East Film Festival on August 23rd, at 6 pm.
Thank you, Tom, for taking the time to watch the film. Today, with so much to choose from in the media landscape I try to make sure I thank everybody who finds the time to watch something I’ve made! I like this first question, because it’s causing me to reflect on something I don’t think I’ve given much thought to before. To start, I can easily say that even when I was an undergrad studying filmmaking I always knew that I wanted to get back to the environment of the classroom. I love the idea of being able to help mentor and foster ideas. It was a great experience for me learning filmmaking and I always wanted to pay that forward. But, to be a teacher and a writer, I think I need to be a documentary filmmaker first.
What led you to making a film about Fredric Wertham?
As a lifelong comic book reader, I was at some point, early in my reading days, introduced to the great villain: Fredric Wertham. He was the man who destroyed comics in the ‘50s and was the catalyst for the Comics Code. So, I went along for years knowing only this small bit of mythology about this shadowy figure. After I became a documentary filmmaker, I always had him in the back of my mind as a potential subject to make a film about. Then, three years ago when the Library of Congress opened his papers to the public, I thought, now is the time. I set out to make a film that most people familiar with Wertham would make: an exposé on the evil Dr. Wertham. But, the more I read, the more I researched, and the more people I talked to, I began to see an increasingly complicated image of the man.
Most of the information in this doc can be found in books and the words and stories of historians, critics, researchers, and so on. What I am doing is transferring it to a visual medium and synthesizing all of this information and trying to provide as many perspectives as I can on the story in one place. I am using a visual medium to tell the story of a visual medium. In doing that, I tried to play with some of the conventions and language of comics. I use a lot of multi-frame screens, text boxes, and various single frame sizes. Other documentaries about comics have done this as well, so it was my goal to study them and to avoid techniques they’ve used.
Gun control regulations are now widely discussed in many states and cities internationally. Did you have these conversations in mind when you made the film?
Most definitely. I teach media studies and so the topic of violence is a major focus of research and discussion. Because we have these frequent horrific mass shootings in the U.S. there is a lot of discussion around what is the cause of this phenomenon. One focus is on the impact that violent media has on aggression. This is at the heart of Wertham’s research. Gun violence, video game violence, and media and society were always a part of the architecture of Diagram. A very big part of the film is clearing up Wertham’s thesis on comic books and juvenile delinquency. He is often misquoted as saying that crime comic books cause juvenile delinquency. He never said that. He said that crime and horror comics are an important contributing factor in juvenile delinquency. He recognized that they are only one in a host of factors that include family, education, nutrition, housing, and so on. He was an early social psychiatrist. He looks into all the factors that shape and impact the mental health of an individual. This argument is still relevant today. The question is: What are the factors that cause violent, aggressive behavior? Now, just as in Wertham’s day, we don’t have all the answers. That’s what makes this topic particularly frustrating and frightening.
My research began in Wertham’s papers at the Library of Congress. He was a meticulous man and his papers hold a wealth of visual and ephemeral media. There was so much to go through and there still is. I’ll be curious to see what other things someone will pull out of there. After that, I tried to read everything written about him. One of the earliest books I read was Bart Beaty’s Fredric Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture (UP of Mississippi, 2005). This book was eye-opening for me. I was shocked. I had never heard what Beaty’s book covers. His image of Wertham shows a complicated man and era in American history that brings up a lot of questions and ideas that are often absent when discussing Wertham. From there I sought out all the various perspectives on Wertham that I could. I wanted to provide viewers with as many facts and opinions I could gather so they could shape their own informed opinion about Wertham. The film represents Wertham’s opponents, proponents, and quite objective opinions. This was important to me to show.
What, in your view, separates your project from these existing ones?
I think I’ve seen most of the comic book documentaries available. Most are larger looks at the history of comics. They cover the period I focus on in a glance. And it was always the same: Wertham was this curmudgeon who said all bad things about comic books, there was a Senate Subcommittee Hearing on comics at which Bill Gaines performed horribly, then there was a Comics Code that put EC Comics out of business and ended the splendor of the Golden Age. I call my film a zeitgeist film. It attempts to show a more complete picture of the times, 40s and 50s America, and how the spirit of this period led to a sea-change in comics. No doubt, this was an incredible and tumultuous period in comics history. But it was birthed from multiple, complex factors. Not one man, or one event.
I think the value is a richer discussion about Wertham and the era. In my opinion, up until now, it has been a very shallow discussion. With my film, the discoveries of researchers like Carol Tilley, and whatever may come in the future, we are only beginning to get somewhere with Wertham. We are expanding this period in comics history. We are demythologizing it.
You reveal that Wertham is still a compassionate, humanist physician notwithstanding his views about comics. How important was it to show these aspects of the man even if you don’t defend his views?
I love comic books. Wertham hated them. I believe comics have so much to offer intellectually, emotionally, artistically, and historically. Wertham absolutely did not. So we stand quite apart on that. However, I think Wertham has made one of the bravest stands against the notion that violence is an innate characteristic in humanity. Wertham believed that humanity could overcome, even eliminate violence. That’s courageous. It’s a silly thought to many people. An unattainable, utopian idea. For me, though, it’s an idea filled with hope. And for me, it was important to show Wertham as a man of hope and a man of action to achieve what he thought could be humanity’s greatest achievement. It’s really the stuff of comic books! Quite ironic, eh?
The film offers a history of comic books that is American-centric, tracing its rise to the Great Depression. In what ways are comic books distinctively American?
It’s so interesting you ask this question, because it’s the subject of an entire sequence that didn’t make it into the film. I think comics are a distinct American art form. Comics may have a larger impact and wider audience in places like France and Japan than they do in America. But we’re getting there. What makes them distinctly American is their origin: A new media shaped by inventive entrepreneurs, and a media that is defined by superheroes launched out of the Great Depression. And now, with comic books being the seed for the biggest money-making venture in what is arguably our most powerful mass medium, film, they are even more distinctly American than ever!
There’s no doubt about what makes American comics formally different: their subject matter. We are dominated by the superhero market. Those superhero comics are flashy, full-color comics, often dominated by violence and other images that raise eyebrows regarding race and gender issues. However, this changes every day with the expansion of alternative and small presses. All kinds of stories are being published now. It’s a wonderful time in comics.
By giving an account of comic book history, you demonstrate that juvenile delinquency is not exactly a symptom of comic books but rather that they have always operated as lens for exploring social and cultural issues. What makes comic books especially interesting as a cultural index?
Comic books are a great historical lens. They can show us so much. They can tell us what we thought, how we saw, and what we desired during a period. This is what all art does. So for me, it’s important to recognize that comics are as important an art form as any other. And this period is particularly interesting because comics are at the center of the controversy. So not only are they a lens, but they are also the catalyst for cultural, social, and political movement.
Comic books anticipate American opinion in their ideologies, as you say. Is that gap in ideologies commercially risky for comic books?
As with all media productions, there are safe messages and products and there are challenging and predictive messages and productions. To produce challenging comics is risky, but necessary. What’s important here is that the medium and the market grow. With that we can have access to a variety of stories. And when it comes time to look back and interpret and discuss the medium we can learn so much from both the safe and risky comics by what they have or haven’t said.
This film was successfully funded by Kickstarter. One of the prizes for pledging is to have one’s likeness included in the film’s animation sequences. Tell us about working with fans and integrating them into the film.
This was an incredibly fun part of the project. I worked with animator Jason Clarke on the film’s animated sequences. Those sequences use the actual audio from the comic book Senate Hearings. I’ve always been a huge fan of Jason’s style, so it was a great honor to have him on the project. I thought it would be fun in some way to have people that gave to the film actually be in the film. And this was simple. All it took was handing a photo over to the animator! I really love how they turned out.
What’s next for you?
I’m always looking for that flash of lightning that will reveal what will be my next project. I can’t say I’ve been fully zapped yet, but I have received a little tingle about a possible project. Without saying too much, it’s possible my next film might involve more tights.
Tom Ue writes for Film International. His edited collection World Film Locations: Toronto was published by Intellect in April 2014, and he is presently writing a book about the White Messiah in contemporary films and editing the Dictionary of Literary Biography 377: Twenty-First Century British Novelists. Ue is Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Doctoral Fellow and Canadian Centennial Scholar in the Department of English Language and Literature at University College London.