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.

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