Comic books' real-life supervillain: psychiatrist Fredric Wertham


20 Responses to “Comic books' real-life supervillain: psychiatrist Fredric Wertham”

  1. invictus says:

    “Well, if Wertham was Ahab, call me, Ishmael.”

    So? Did he call you, maybe?

  2. 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.

    • spejic says:

      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.

      • blearghhh says:

        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.

    • bzishi says:

      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?

      • 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.

        • bzishi says:

          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.

  3. SuperMatt says:

    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.

  4. BarBarSeven says:

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

    • 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.

  5. cservant says:

    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.  

  6. Nash Rambler says:

    Thanks Wertham.  Thanks a lot.


  7. Kimber VanRy says:

    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.

  8. Halloween_Jack says:

    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.

    • cservant says:

      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.  

      • Halloween_Jack says:

         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.

  9. 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

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