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.

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