US government opens Fredric "Seduction of the Innocent" Wertham's files

The Library of Congress has just opened up 222 boxes' worth of files and papers on Fredric Wertham, the scaremonger whose book Seduction of the Innocent led to widespread bans, burnings and censorship of American comic books. Wertham wasn't just a nutcase pro-censorship crusader: he was also (paradoxically), a civil rights pioneer who worked for racially integrated education in America (he also appeared in defense of Ethel Rosenberg, later executed for spying for the USSR).
Among the items in the Library's col­lection of Wertham's papers is a selection of comics he deemed offensive, with notations he wrote inside.

His copy of "Kid Colt, Outlaw" (1967) includes a note that of the 111 pictures, 69 were scenes of violence. An issue of "Justice League of America" (1966) includes markings calling attention to the sounds of violence like "thudd," "whapp" and "poww."

In addition, Wertham's papers include patient drawings and his analy­sis of those sketches. He writes of a young patient: "This case demonstrates the confusion created by comic books between fan­tasy and reality ... cruelty in children's play especially directed against girls."

Wertham testified six times under oath on the harmfulness of comic books, including provid­ing testimony before the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency. Though the committee's final report did not blame comics for crime, it recom­mended that the comics industry tone down its content voluntarily, thus resulting in the Comics Code Authority.

Papers of Comic-Book 'Villain' Open at Library (via /.)


  1. Fred was born in Germany.
    They also once burned books there.

    I hate what this man did.
    Permanent cultural damage.

    In America, I have to explain to my aunt
    why I draw “funnies” and why it’s not
    about a man in tights.

    In Europe or Japan, I imagine comics are not commonly considered to be trash by old people that are out of touch.

  2. My mother bought into Wertham’s paranoia completely, destroying any comics she found [hiding them under a mattress never worked]. I finally took to hiding them in my father’s office, behind his collection of Victorian porn.

    My favourite [if I remember correctly] was the declaration that the Batmobile’s headlights = breasts = porn, because “headlights” was a slang term for breasts. Ummm, perhaps because the bulbous headlights on cars of that era so resembled the conical bras of the same? Chicken? Egg?

    1. Yes, I learned that hiding things under the mattress doesn’t work, because moms make beds and flip mattresses… rather a “duh” revelation in retrospect.

      Amusing that Wertham was so attuned to the dangers of comic books, but Soviet atomic spies, not so much!

  3. Hasn’t Ethel (not Edith) Rosenburg been un-deified by now?

    Besides that, at least this guy was consistent about his silly anti-violence crusade. Pity it took so long to undo most of the damage he did to comic books. By comparison video games are getting off easy, though some countries like Germany and Australia and Brazil (I think) have a ways to go.

    1. Certainly the evidence against Julius is now overwhelming. In her case things are somewhat foggier. Clearly she was with him politically, having met in the Young Communist League, and her own brother testified she helped with the espionage, and fellow spy Sobell thought she at least knew what he was doing. On the other hand, the brother recanted decades later.

  4. Ok, Werthams comicbook collection really needs to be re-published as an anthology now, don’t you agree?

    Most of the titles are probably in the public domain since the original publishers were shut down en masse.

  5. Wertham’s study was a textbook example of confusing anecdote with data. Since all of the juvenile delinquents he studied read comic books, he felt that comics were the sole responsibility for their delinquency.

    No quantitative, scientific study exists which indicates that either the act of reading or the material that is read has a negative effect on the reader.

    1. There’s also no evidence at all that people’s vocabulary has an effect on their moral behaviour either but that doesn’t stop crusades for Politically Correct language.
      Why do people ever listen to anything that the pseudo-scientists of psychology have to say? Their motives seem to consist of one or more of: having a spotlight focused on them to feed their bloated egos; more billable hours; pandering to whatever industry wants a veneer of respectability for some reprehensible position; or pushing some crank theory related to their own mental illnesses.
      Being prostitutes for assorted Robber Barons is probably the worst. They’ve denied the Germ Theory of medicine a number of times for the benefit of the insurance industry, for example in the case of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. They’ve demonised Asperger’s Syndrome people for the benefit of divorce lawyers. The list goes on.
      There are no sanctions for anything they do outside of civil lawsuits. Occasionally some truly grotesque, pubic scandal, such as the whips-and-chains-and-donkeys Bean-Bayog sex/suicide scandal at Harvard or some non-consensual Human Experimentation, causes someone to lose their license. This is, however, scarcely even an inconvenience as the perp just continues to do the same things to the same victims in some other division of the completely unregulated therapy industry: they just don’t have that particular license hanging on the wall,

  6. Well, you have to admit that that whole “Young Ward” stuff was awfully suspicious. As McSweeney’s so aptly put it:

    From: Gotham Child Welfare Bureau
    To: Bruce Wayne c/o Stately Wayne Manor

    This is to inform you that your ward, Dick Grayson, has been removed from Gotham City HIgh School into our protective custody due to an incident which occurred during today’s gym class. Mr. Henderson, the teacher in charge, noticed what were clearly rope burn marks on Grayson’s legs.

    When questioned, he would only say that you and he had gotten into “some rough action” the previous night…..

  7. jumpin’ dixiecrats, cory:

    ethel rosenberg.

    you oughta be ashamed.
    not as ashamed as wertham, but still pretty ashamed.

    and @rayonic & @PapayaSF:

    there’s still no evidence worthy of the name against the rosenbergs. the recent supposed revelations are all based on pretty dicey ‘interpretations’ of the venona intercepts – which do, in fact, conclusively demonstrate that the USSR had informants in the u.s., but do next to nothing to help identify them to anyone but right-wingers who already know the answer they’re looking for.

    in fact, by the time the rosenbergs were framed and murdered, the u.s. government knew exactly who had fed scientific information to the USSR.

    this guy: george koval, who left the u.s. after WWII. the u.s. government’s actions – hush-up and quiet investigation – following his departure, make it clear that they knew damn well that the rosenbergs were innocent, and desperately needed a fall-guy for their failure with kovacs.

    1. Anon, since Morton Sobell and the Rosenberg’s sons admit Julius was guilty, you’re really in the minority on this now. (The sons think Mom was innocent, though.) The Venona transcripts are more conclusive than you seem to think.

      As for Koval, lots of people were spying for the Soviets. That doesn’t exonerate the Rosenbergs.

      In other news, Alger Hiss and Harry Dexter White really were spies, too. Sorry!

  8. Wait a minute.

    I used to hate the guy as much as any self-respecting comics lover… but I recently read that book about the fetish works of Superman’s co-creator (sorry, I’ don’t remember the actual title), where I found a very rational argument by Werthram against violent comics.

    Briefly: turns out that mysoginistic and actually nasty comics with sadomasochistic themes were commonly sold to young kids, and a group of them had a Clockwork Orange-like spree killing and torturing people “under the inspiration” of said comics.

    Now, it is obvious that some reasoning behind The Seduction of the Innocent are bent at best, but I suspect we should take Werthram’s work as a whole, not concentrating just on the silliest parts.

    1. Anon, the book you are thinking about is “Secret Identity: The Fetish Art of Superman’s Co-Creator Joe Shuster”. Here’s quote from Amazon describing the book:
      “Created in the early 1950s when Shuster was down on his luck after suing his publisher, DC Comics, over the copyright for Superman, he illustrated these images for an obscure series of magazines called “Nights of Horror,” published under the counter until they were banned by the U.S. Senate.”

      Basically, Shuster couldn’t get work at major companies because of his big lawsuit with DC and ended up taking work on fetish comics as a necessity. These didn’t seem to be the type of comics sold to kids, but sold to adults.

    2. That is one of the silliest parts. Like these idiots weren’t going to torture people anyway? Every psychopath blames some exterior thing or person for every bad thing they do after someone expresses disapproval. Comic books, video games, junk food, society, whatever. Typically after blowing some old lady away they’ll say to someone looking askance at them “She diss’ed me. She made me do it!” It’s called something like “disassociation of responsibility” and is what they do to avoid even a hint of responsibility for anything. They especially like to tell people what they want to hear so if there’s a hint you’re some shrink or cop looking to demonise something in order to boost your budget they’ll go right along with that.

      I recall one subhuman who, after executing a carefully worked out plan to rape and kill a little girl, claimed that he impulsively did it under the influence of interNet child porn. Co-incidentally the Toronto cops have a huge interNet child porn budget that’s often under fire.

      Any reason why we should believe this or any other single word they say?

      Note also that the brainless violence rate is much higher in times and places without comics or video games.

    3. Briefly: turns out that mysoginistic and actually nasty comics with sadomasochistic themes were commonly sold to young kids…

      Damn you, Rex Morgan M.D.

  9. Wertham also wrote The World of Fanzines, where he had a positive view of a subject close to Boingers’ hearts. Sadly, it wasn’t nearly as influential. Sex panic and violent images catch the media’s attention so much better than, “Hey, what these kids are doing is pretty swell.”

  10. It is interesting that Wertham was still buying and annotating comics more than a decade after the publication of ‘Seduction of the Innocent’ and the establishment of the CCA.

    It’s also worth flipping to the back of David Hajdu’s excellent ‘The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America’ and giving a thought to all artists and writers who never worked in comics again after the Kefauver hearings. Comics lost a whole generation of artists because of this.

  11. Yes, Anon, I also found it interesting that Wertham was still buying and annotating comics long after the Comics Code was established. I’m webmaster of the Seduction of the Innocent website, and I recently went to the Library of Congress to do some research with the Wertham files. It appears that Wertham was documenting problems with comics into the 60’s because he believed that there were still problems in the medium that the Comics Code had not fixed. He wanted to publish an updated edition of SOTI, and in his files are annotated copies of Fantastic Four #52 and other well-known 60’s books. As we know, that updated SOTI was never published. It was probably a lot tougher to interest publishers and the public in a book about FF #52 and Silver Age Kid Colt than it was to get people upset about True Crime v1#2 and Crime Reporter #2.

    I’ll concur with your assessment of David Hajdu’s book. For anybody who has any interest at all in this era in comic book history, I can’t recommend strongly enough ‘The Ten-Cent Plague’.

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