Comic books' real-life supervillain: psychiatrist Fredric Wertham

In the New York Times article about my research on psychiatrist Fredric Wertham, novelist Michael Chabon referred to the doctor as Ahab, obsessed with the white whale of comics. Well, if Wertham was Ahab, call me Ishmael.

(Images: Seduction of the Innocent website)

For anyone studying comics, Wertham is a difficult figure to avoid. A New York City-based forensic psychiatrist and pioneering mental health advocate, Wertham also was a prolific cultural critic, who decried the potential effects on readers and viewers of violent images and racial stereotypes in the mass media. Between 1948 and 1955, this German-born doctor was also among the most vocal opponents of the nascent comics industry. He was certainly not alone: teachers, librarians, parents, police officers, religious leaders, and other adults lent their voices to the anti-comics movement. But Wertham was different from many of the others in that he had a scientific / medical background and could enrich his arguments with examples from case studies of children.

In his book Seduction of the Innocent published to coincide with the 1954 Senate hearings on comics and juvenile delinquency, Wertham's thesis - stripped of all its rhetorical flourishes - was simple: crime comics corrupt children. Although he was against outright censorship, Wertham advocated that the government restrict the ability of younger readers to purchase crime comics. His definition of crime comics extended beyond the lurid and racy titles such as Crimes by Women and Crime SuspenStories to include more pedestrian fare like Superman and Classics Illustrated. If, in its pages, cartoon animals bopped each other on their heads or a woman shoplifted a necklace or a cowboy bled from a fight then that comic was a crime comic. Almost none of the more than 600 comic books regularly published in the US then could be excluded from Wertham's condemnation.

You read that right: more than 600 comic books were on the market in the early 1950s. Not only that but more than 95% of elementary-school aged kids - girls and boys, black, white, yellow, and brown, rich and poor -- counted as regular comics readers, sometimes reading dozens of titles each week. Teens and adults read comics too. At a time when there were fewer than a 200 million people living in the US, sales of new comics neared 1 billion issues annually. (For those of you keeping score, the combined January 2013 sales of the top 300 comics issues was less than 7 million copies according to The Comics Chronicles website.) Simply put, comics were big business and they were the defining cultural element of most young people's lives. Wertham wanted the comics industry to go away.

I've been reading comics for forty years, teaching people about them for fifteen, and studying them in earnest for ten. My first trip to the Library of Congress to view Wertham's extensive manuscript collection was in October 2010. For nearly thirty years his collection of more than two hundred boxes had been closed to nearly all researchers. I was among the first group of researchers to dig into the hoard of scrawled notes, transcribed cases, newspaper clippings, and correspondence carbons. I thought that the three days I had allotted for my visit would be more than enough to sift through these items and find the letters that Wertham's writings indicated he had received from librarians. You see, I wasn't even really that interested in Fredric Wertham as a subject (he's been vilified, discredited, mocked, and even re-habilitated in part). No, as a scholar, I'm more interested in the intersection of libraries, reading, kids, and comics, so the Wertham papers were a means to an end.

(Right: photo of Carol Tilley by L. Brian Stauffer) By the end of my first day using Wertham's collection, I realized that there might be a different story than the one I wanted to tell. Looking at the sources Wertham used in putting together Seduction of the Innocent, I saw inconsistencies. The more I looked, the more I found. Some evidence was unadulterated, but some was. I collected examples and made several more trips to use the collection. I never did find the abundance of letters from librarians that I thought I would find, but I continued to find changes, especially in quotations from young patients, that I found troubling. For many hard-to-articulate reasons, I didn't want to write the scholarly paper on Wertham and the problems I found in his evidence, but not to write it seemed a disservice to the young people whose words and experiences Wertham distorted to help make his case against comics. That many of these young people were socially and culturally marginalized - living in poverty, abused, of color, learning disabled, and the like - makes it more important to correct the record.

Wertham managed to snare his white whale, the comics industry, although he was neither solely responsible nor entirely satisfied with the result. Although there have long been critics of Wertham's methods and reasoning in Seduction of the Innocent, I am a reluctant witness to his reputation's final descent. There are still more stories for me to tell.

BAM! WAP! KA-POW! Library prof bops doc who K.O.'d comic book industry


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

Comics Code Authority is dead

Seduction of the Innocent: detective novel set during anti-comic book hysteria of the 1950s

Brain Rot: My First EC Comic

Lurid cover art from 1950s comic, Witches Tales


  1. I’ve been a long time reader of comics and love them. I think they’re a great way for kids to get into reading and feel that in the future they may play a bigger role as technology grows and continues to seduce young minds away from the printed page. It also makes sense that comics would be the first meaty reads kids will gravitate towards after being brought up, hopefully, on picture books and such.

    While I don’t think comics as a whole have a negative effect on the minds of kids, I am interested in arguments about comics and other forms of media (tv, radio, advertisements etc…) and the effect (purposefully or not) that they have on reader/viewers.
    I think comics are great at teaching kids about honor, doing the right thing, friendships, etc… for the most part. But, as an English major who wrote many a paper deconstructing novels, some comics may have some issues worth discussion. The main being with typical Superhero comics and their scantly clad heroines. I think to myself, would I really want my two little nieces reading comics staring super powered strippers? I wouldn’t. I’d feel creepy handing them over– And, I love comics!
    Also, I don’t think it’s too much to say that US culture is saturated with violence and to ask “What is the cumulative effect of all this?” Singling out comics is ludicrous. If they sanitized (and ruined) comics, we’d still have an unending stream of violent tv shows, sports, movies, video games, and novels. In comics, where nearly all problems are solved with violence, I don’t think it’s an unfair question to ask. I don’t know what the answer is. To me it seems that comics are a symptom rather than a cause. Media has the ability to influence and reinforce existing cultural phenomena.We’re most easily able to look at forms of racism or oppression with a critical eye because culturally we are (or are moving towards becoming) a society that devalues those aspects. So if someone came out with a overtly racist comic, I think we’d all be comfortable saying that’s wrong and ought not to happen–maybe even because it sends the wrong message to kids. Violence is more esoteric in nature. It’s wrapped up in the how, to who, and why the violence is being committed. It’s harder to pin down.
    Let’s say for example, we lived in a culture where beating women was okay and in comics we saw heroes beating their wives and girlfriends with legal and moral impunity, we wouldn’t bat an eye at it but it would describe and reinforce (to whatever small extent) that aspect of culture. But, in that same culture, if we were a member of the minority that was against beating women we would want our art, comics, and so on to reflect a different reality that treated women equally and with respect. Those comics would be on the cutting edge and, as comic fans, we would praise them. this is long…so I’ll stop, but any thoughts on this? I’m going to go read some Batman.

    1. You don’t have to suss this out Aristotle-style. You can actually look at evidence. And all those violent first-person shooting video games and hyper-violent computer effect movies have resulted in a crime rate that is going down.

      1. Not that I necessarily disagree with your basic premise, but be careful about saying that games and movies result in a declining crime rate. There’re a whole lot of theories about why the crime rate has gone down, and that’s one of them, but even if it is contributing, which hasn’t been proved, it’s not the only factor.

        It’s even possible that hyper-violent games and movies do actually increase rates of crime on their own, but that other factors (like the ever-popular reduction in use of lead in gasoline) have pushed it down enough that the overall rate is down.  I don’t think that’s the case, but it’s possible.

        Things that are true: Crime rates are going down. Games are realistic and violent. These factors may or may not be connected.

    2. To me it seems that comics are a symptom rather than a cause.

      How does manga and Japan’s rate of violence fall into your argument?

      1. I have no knowledge of Manga or Japanese crime rates, so wouldn’t try to make a point about it. Like I said, I don’t think comics “cause” anything anymore than I think Gangsta Rap caused gang violence in the 90s. But I do think cultures produce materials that reflect their values. We have history’s largest military industrial complex, the world’s first and second strongest military (the second being our B-team equipment), and the world’s highest incarceration rate. We love the idea of Good punishing “Evil,” and comic books reflect that. To say that comic books exist in a vacuum free of the cultures they’re produced in doesn’t make sense.

        1. My point was that manga reflects nothing about the crime rate of Japan (which is trivial), which implies that comics are simply fiction, not a byproduct of our violent ways.

  2. Sounds similar to the 1980s crusade against Dungeons and Dragons or the current outcry against video games.  In 20 years, today’s youngsters will be the old geezers blaming all the world’s ills on whatever stuff kids are reading or playing with then.

  3. On the lighter side of pedantry, without this schmuck doing what he did MAD magazine would have never existed.

    1. Actually, MAD did exist prior to the establishment of the Comics Code.  It was just the sole survivor of Gaines’ EC empire.  It was in the usual comic book format for about a year or so, then switched to magazine format so it could stay on the rack.

  4. Fredric Wertham?  I would say he single handedly killed the entire culture of comic books in the English literate world of that generation.  And perhaps even today.

    You can look across the ocean such as Japan, where manga managed to floursh without the influences of the “Seduction of Innocent”.  Different culture you argue?  Sure, but one developed without restriction.  

  5. As a young comic book collector in the 1980s, I received a first edition of Dr. Frederic Wertham’s “Seduction of the Innocent” for Christmas. I became a lifelong critical fan of Wertham’s writings and their contribution to 20th-century youth culture wars. With this, I was saddened by new findings that Wertham may not have been forthright with his research into impacts of comic books on teen readers.

    In his lesser-read later work, 1974’s “The World of Fanzines,” Wertham came full circle on comics and recognized the positive community to be found in comic fandom spread through the avid network of self-published newsletters. These fanzines would become the foundation for today’s online forums, blogs and websites where our video-gaming kids have created a new supportive community within the latest misunderstood youth subculture. Wertham eventually saw the light on youth culture, and I hope today’s culture warriors will do the same.

  6. I’m largely in agreement with Charlie Coombs above. There really isn’t a lot to say in defense of Wertham; even before Tilley’s excellent research, I think that it was generally accepted (at least among comics fans) that he was an obsessive crank who wasn’t afraid to employ pseudoscience to make his case. (I can’t read the caption on the black-and-white comics panels above, but I’m guessing that Wertham is arguing that it was a deliberate subliminal insertion of a woman’s naked pelvis; like Wilson Bryan Key and his finding the word SEX subliminally embedded in ads everywhere, for Wertham, comics seemed to be a cornucopia of stealth pudenda.)

    However, it’s difficult to have almost any kind of critical conversation about comics in the 1950s, or violence in comics in any era, without Wertham being invoked as some sort of rhetorical trump card. The prevailing myth is that the fifties represented some sort of unprecedented flowering of comics, and that it was mercilessly quashed by Wertham and the Comics Code Authority. But, left out of the myth is the simple question: how many of those 600+ monthly titles were really any good? (Yes, I know about Sturgeon’s Law, but have you ever really heard about anywhere near sixty titles from the fifties being regarded as timeless classics? I haven’t. Even the best artists of the era–Kurtzman, Elder, Kirby, et al.–couldn’t have produced that many between them.) I’m certainly not arguing that the CCA did any particular good, but look at the cover of Rangers Comics above. Artistically, it seems quite good, but it’s also a picture of a beautiful woman who’s helpless and in danger of being strangled. Is the story any good? Does it in any way justify the cover with its dual, entangled themes of sex and threatened violence? Do you think the teenager with a dime gave a fig about those questions? Even as a staunch free-speech advocate, if I found this comic in my teenager’s collection, I’d have to have a long and very serious talk with him. You don’t need to be a censorious shrink to disapprove of, and even despair at, things like that.

    Part of my consternation over stuff like this has to do with how I see comics trending today. Of course, nowadays there’s only a fraction of the comics readership that there used to be (as noted above), and some of the more lurid titles are trying to capture part of that disappearing market, but sometimes I’m embarrassed to step into a comics store because of the profuse T&A on the covers. On the other hand, thanks to the internet, you’ve got some encouraging signs such as the Hawkeye Initiative, which is both more acceptable and more creative than the CCA. So, maybe there’s still hope.

    1. And how many of those titles could of been great works of Shakespearean thought?  Great works of Art or literature?

      He, not the CCA which was created in response, was the one that provided the main fuel of rhetoric which resulted in the entire collapse of growth and culture.

      It could of been left to nothing more but market forces.  

      1.  There are a number of assumptions floating around your response; I’ll try to address at least some of them.

        1) I made it quite clear in my first paragraph that I don’t support Wertham at all. What I attempted to convey above is that it’s possible to criticize the comics of the time without resorting to Werthamite arguments. Unfortunately, most people, like you, seem to assume that any discussion which paints even a few of the comics of the era in a negative light is by default a Werthamite argument.

        2) “Entire collapse of growth and culture” is a wild exaggeration. The best artists of the era–your Kurtzmans, Elders and Kirbys–continued to work. I’ll read Hajdu’s book as noted below, because now I’m curious as to whether anyone’s particular career was ruined by either Wertham’s book or the subsequent Senate hearings. AFAIK, the only one who testified besides Wertham is EC publisher William Gaines, and he certainly did well afterwards purely on the strength of MAD magazine.

        3) If you’re talking about someone producing the artistic equivalent of Shakespeare in comics, well, we’ll never know, although we should also ask ourselves if there were any Shakespeare-equivalents in the Golden Age before Wertham got his hooks in. There may have been an incipient crime comics Tarantino who, faced with the restrictions of the Comics Code, left the field in disgust and made his living off of commercial art. It’s worth remembering, though, that one of the things that made Shakespeare so successful–aside from salting his highbrow works with lowbrow humor for the groundlings–is that he owned his acting company.

  7. A great history came out a couple of years ago. The Ten Cent Plaque by David Hajdu. It really gives a great description of the milieu at that time and gets down to the local level

Comments are closed.