"HE WAS A PSYCHIATRIST -
SO PEOPLE LISTENED"
FREDRIC WERTHAM'S PSYCHOPATHOLOGY OF COMIC BOOKS -
LEADING THE ANTI-COMICS MOVEMENT OF THE LATE 1940s
Blackest night descended on the American comic book industry in 1954 when senate hearings on juvenile delinquency also looked into the possible influence of comic books and eventually triggered the creation of the Comics Code Authority with its censorship principles and its seal of approval to single out the misfits - all of which ultimatey drove a number of publishers, and many artists along with them, out of the business. For most comic book enthusiasts, one single man is to blame for all of this: Fredric Wertham, MD, who authored the book "Seduction of the Innocent" in 1954 as part of his anti-comics crusade.
The following essay looks at the background influences from the late 1940s and illustrates how Wertham started out as an advocate of children's rights before turning into the most noted but fierce and dogmatic critic of comic books. A few recent attempts have been made to rehabilitate Fredric Wertham and portray him as a social reformer who only meant well, but Wertham's public appearances and statements in print from 1948 and 1949 literally speak an entirely different language. Fredric Wertham was a cultural elitist and a furious ideologist driving a populist campaign.
WERTHAM'S PROFESSIONAL CAREER BEFORE HIS ANTI-COMICS CRUSADE Friedrich Ignaz Wertheimer was born in Nuremberg, Germany, in 1895 and studied at universities in Erlangen, Munich and Würzburg, where he graduated with a medical degree in 1921 (Womack, 1992). Following postgrad studies in Paris and Vienna he took up his professional life in Munich with an employment at the German Research Institute for Psychiatry (Deutsche Forschungsanstalt für Psychiatrie) before moving to the United States in 1922 to work at Johns Hopkins Universitys Phipps Psychiatric Clinic.
Now known under the anglicised name Fredric Wertham he received US citizenship in 1927 and moved to New York City in 1932 to work as the senior psychiatrist for the city's Department of Hospitals. As part of his primary job duties Wertham was called upon to provide psychiatric examinations in conjunction with criminal court cases, and in this function he became involved in the 1935 trial of serial killer Hamilton Howard "Albert" Fish, also known as the Gray Man, Werewolf of Wysteria, the Brooklyn Vampire, and The Boogeyman.
Wertham's defense examination concluded that Fish was the most deranged human being he had ever met, but the court judged the accused to be legally sane and sent him to the the electric chair. Even years later, Wertham would heavily criticise the prosecution's psychiatric witnesses for - in his point of view - sensational statements and lack of interest in the underlying factors which triggered Fish's terrible crimes, and in 1949 he described the case and his involvement in other murder trials in his book The Show of Violence.
Fredric Wertham MD
(1895 - 1981)
Working at the Bellevue Hospital Center and its well known psychiatric facilities since 1932 and appointed director of the Bellevue Mental Hygiene Clinic in 1936, Wertham came into increasing contact with troubled youth, alongside which he developed a clinical interest in popular culture.
His focus began to zoom in on what he perceived to be the negative influences of mass media, and after his appointment as director of the psychiatric services at the Queen's Hospital Center in 1940, Wertham wrote and published Dark Legend in 1941. Based on the true life story of a 17-year-old murderer, Wertham depicted the youth as having a dark fantasy life which triggered his crime and was based on movies, radio plays and - comic books.
GROWING PUBLIC CONCERN OVER COMIC BOOKS With the comic book industry expanding quickly, comics had started to attract the attention of educators as of the mid-1930s and a number of essays and articles were published on the subject which displayed a growing tendency to view comic books as a detrimental influence on children:
"Is a continuous diet of lurid melodrama, told by pictures of brutal men doing brutal deeds, good for children or for adults who are mentally immature and emotionally unstable?" (Ryan, 1936)
"Badly drawn, badly written, and badly printed - a strain on the young eyes and young nervous systems - the effects of these pulp-paper nightmares is that of a violent stimulant. Their crude blacks and reds spoils a child's natural sense of colour; their hypodermic injection of sex and murder make the child impatient with better, though quieter, stories. Unless we want a coming generation even more ferocious than the present one, parents and teachers throughout America must band together to break the `comic' magazine." (Editorial by Sterling North, Chicago Daily News, 8 May 1940, quoted by Coville, A.N.)
The vocabulary of the comic book critics became increasingly pronounced, and in 1940 the National Education Association Journal published an article discussing "an antidote to the comic magazine poison" (Decker, 1987), whereas amicable portrayals of comic books and their creators such as Sheridan (1942) soon became scarce exceptions.
Public comic book bashing - conducted in a tone of increasingly martial rage - was therefore far from being something new when Fredric Wertham joined the clamouring. He had since continued his psychiatric work and in 1946 drummed up private support and funding to establish the Lafargue Mental Hygiene Clinic in Harlem, offering counseling to poor people regardless of race (although most patients came from the African American community) or ability to pay. Driven by Wertham's belief in the application of psychiatry to the masses, the clinic also rejected abstract notions of psychoanalytic neurosis and worked on the concept basis that an individual's social environment was largely responsible for his or her actions, regardless of whether they were noble or anti-social (Eversley, 2001).
WERTHAM'S WORK AT THE HARLEM LAFARGUE CLINIC - FINDING A TRIGGER FOR ANTI-SOCIAL BEHAVIOUR Through his work as a forensic psychiatrist, Wertham reached the conclusion that violence was not a deviation from mainstream society but an integral part of that mainstream, because in his eyes the various settings of society influenced and even triggered such violence.
For Wertham, juvenile delinquents were thus not born to be felons - on the contrary, they were acting out a social misery which was an everyday part of their life, and he thus found it inacceptable to place the entire blame on these children or their parents for any anti-social acts they committed.
"To understand a delinquent child one has to know the social soil in which he developed and became delinquent or troubled." (Wertham, 1954)
This was a sharp and pronounced deviation from the majority views of the times, which is summed up by a newspaper report on the opening of the Lafargue Clinic in 1946 which read "They're crazy anyway" (Eversley, 2001) and pointed to the common belief that ethnic minorities and the socially underprivileged had "inherent problems". Indeed, Wertham's approach still incurs criticism today because it seemingly turns perpetrators into victims almost automatically and under all circumstances.
Defending this point of view was thus all the more difficult for Wertham in the 1940s, not the least because it substituted a simple answer ("bad genes") with a highly complex alternative ("socio-economic influences"). It is very unlikely that Wertham was not aware of the fact that the reality of any society would provide for a plethora of possible triggers for juvenile violence, not to mention post-WW2 Harlem with its racial discrimination background and reduced access to climbing up the social ladder. At this point, however, the psychiatrist Wertham gradually turned into the social reformer Wertham, and findings founded on facts turned into belief and finally conviction.
St Philip's Church on 134th Street in Central Harlem (in an early 1930s period photograph), which provided a physical home for the Lafargue Mental Hygiene Clinic in its basement 1946 - 1959.
It was here that Wertham's focus on comic books as a primary trigger for anti-social behaviour began.
Along with this fundamental change in defining his own role, Wertham dropped his professional objectivity and took on a personal agenda.
"I felt that not only did I have to be a kind of detective to trace some of the roots of the modern mass delinquency, but that I ought to be some kind of defense counsel for the children who were condemned and punished by the very adults who permitted them to be tempted and seduced." (Wertham, 1954)
Throwing virtually everything to the wind, Wertham gradually gave in to the temptation of putting forward a simple explanation in order to bolster his views on the underlying causes of juvenile delinquency, and during his sessions with youngsters from the neighbourhood of the Lafargue Clinic (named after the creole doctor Paul Lafargue who was also the son-in-law of Karl Marx) Wertham noticed that comic books were mentioned here and there, and steadily began to develop his idea that comic books were such a major "tool of seduction" that they had to be seen as a primary cause to blame for juvenile delinquency.
A selection of crime comics from 1948: Crime Patrol Summer 1948 Special (EC Comics), Murder Incorporated #3 (Fox, May 1948), Crime Does Not Pay #59 (Gleason, January 1948) and Authentic Police Cases #3 (St John, June 1948). Of these, Crime Does Not Pay was both the first "true crime" comic (which launched the genre and claimed a readership in excess of 6 million on its cover by 1948) and possibly the most notorious title. Lev Gleason Publication's flagship title was known for its lurid detail, confessional tone and exceptionally violent artwork, and the stories often dealt very frankly with adult relationships, drug use and sex as well as featuring open depictions of physical violence, torture and murder - which were standard for every issue. It is no doubt titles such as Crime Does Not Pay which incited Fredric Wertham's crusade against comic books and shaped his perception of the industry.
After two years at Lafargue, however, Fredric Wertham's approach to his work relating to comic books had lost all methodological soundness. He focussed exclusively on a very specific group of individuals - troubled youngsters who were taken to the Lafargue Clinic for psychiatric counseling - without ever setting up or studying a proper control group of contrasting individuals. Wertham simply excused himself from such basic scientific research procedures by implying that the thoroughness of his work was beyond question, let alone doubt.
"We have from the beginning integrated our studies of comic books with our general routine work in mental hygiene and child psychiatry. Good clinical work is good clinical research." (Wertham, 1954)
In reality, Wertham's clinical work was constantly concerned with the underprivileged youth of a very particular part of New York City. It should thus not have been surprising that individuals who read comic books (which were not only amongst the most widespread popular entertainment at the time but also amongst the cheapest) would be found in abundance in this specific socio-economic environment, including the higher percentage of individuals with a delinquency problem which one would expect to see in such a neighbourhood.
Wertham not only ignored the fact that a large percentage of all kids at the time were reading comic books - the majority of whose behaviour was completely inconspicuous and who never showed up at Lafargue or indeed any other institution. He also blacked out contemporary research results which indicated - albeit reluctantly - that there was no negative influence discernable with regard to the intelligence of comic book readers versus those children who did not read comics (Witty, 1941).
1948 - "THE PSYCHOPATHOLOGY OF COMIC BOOKS": LAUNCHING THE ANTI-COMICS MOVEMENT To all intents and purposes, Wertham's work had gone beyond the point of no return in terms of scientifically sound research on which to base any valid statements. His initial cause was still a noble one - defending the underpriviledged child and sparing him a happless life, possibly in correctional institutions - but his modus operandi now became increasingly radical as he proceeded under the smokescreen of his professional standing - insisting that his views originated from "clinical judgment" - in what now started to turn into an all-out campaign. Wertham was also becoming increasingly critical of American commercial culture as a whole, which in his view subverted the morailty of children simply for the sake of profit (Wright, 2001).
In 1948 Wertham began to take a more active stance and initiated a symposium on The Psychopathology of Comic Books which was held on 19 March in New York City by the Association for the Advancement of Psychotherapy. It was here that he took center stage for the first time, chairing the event and declaring it to be a milestone by gathering several speakers who were presented as specialists on the topic of comic books.
"The idea of this symposium originated in researches carried out by the Lafargue Clinic (....) This is also the first report on scientific research about comic books which is not under the auspices of the the comic book industry itself." (Wertham 1948a)
This appraisal of the event is highly questionable. Straight out of the starting box, Wertham alluded to previous tampering and hence foul play by the industry, for which he provided no further detail (let alone proof). In effect, his statement was nothing but a first strategic move to damage the reputability of the comic book publishing trade right from the start.
As for the scientific character of the meeting, it can be noted that the symposium was above all characterized by sweeping statements of condemnation made by virtually all of the participants. Some were fairly subtle, but others hardly disguised their evidently unscientific attitude and approach, such as "Manhattan Folklorist" (as Time Magazine dubbed him) Gerson Legman who deplored the violence in all comic books, hitting out at "the disguises" used by Disney, and finally concluding that comic books virtually reeked of "anti-intellectuality" and even "naziism". All contributions, as well as a brief recapitulation of the discussions held, were collected in the American Journal of Psychotherapy, vol 2 #3, in July 1948.
Fredric Wertham had left the confines of his Lafargue Clinic and launched the anti-comic book movement. Although de facto self-declared, he was the ideal leader for this movement. As a children's psychiatrist, he could present himself as an impartial professional whose standing was not to be doubted.
He was also an excellent strategist who knew exactly what to say where and when and what not to say. Wertham would now also refer to opposing views to his own, albeit only to dismiss or even ridicule them. Nevertheless, it gave the impression that he was involved in a dialogue, when in fact he was holding a monologue. Those guests at the symposium who came from the comic book industry to discuss their publications were instantly cornered by Wertham, who likened their presence to "distillers attending a symposium on alcoholism" (Wright, 2001). In a similar vein, his manifesto was just as clear, although at this point in time still dressed up in scientific vocabulary:
"We are getting to the roots of one of the contributing causes of juvenile delinquency. You cannot understand present-day juvenile delinquency if you do not take into account the pathogenic and pathoplastic influence of comic books." (Wertham 1948a)
In other words: comic books not only inspire violence, they also provide direct images and ideas to copy and follow - Fredric Wertham had fired his first round of direct shots at the comic book industry.
Although attendance at the symposium (as well as reader circulation for the American Journal of Psychotherapy) was restricted, the ball was nevertheless publicly set in motion because the event sparked the publication of two articles only a few days later.
An actual report on the symposium was featured in a short article in the issue for 29 March 1948 of Time Magazine, which reaffirmed Wertham's leading role in the now emerging anti-comics movement, not the least by publishing his picture. The actual text, however, was rather lukewarm with regard to the agenda of the symposium's speakers and even ran the slightly ironic remark that children might also get some inspiration for violence from fairy tales, mythology and even the Bible.
It really wasn't such a big deal for Wertham, in spite of the fact that Time Magazine brought nationwide circulation. In contrast, the weekly Collier's could offer far less readers (around 2,5 million copies) but an article the periodical ran two days prior to Time Magazine's report on the symposium would add speed and public attention to Wertham's cause virtually over night. "HORROR IN THE NURSERY" - THE SHAPING OF WERTHAM'S MANIFESTO Penned by Judith Crist with the sensational title "Horror in the Nursery", the article in the March 27th 1948 issue of Collier's - illustrated with specially staged photographs - was in essence little more than an extended platform for Wertham's rallying call against comic books which he had launched at the symposium (which Crist had already reported on in the New York Herald Tribune of 21 March 1948 under the headline "Comic Books Dissected at Psychiatric Forum").
"Horror in the Nursery"
27 March 1948 issue of Collier's
The article starts out with a claim to the validity of its content by asserting Wertham's professional validity.
"Dr Fredric Wertham, who is quoted extensively in this article, is one of America's leading psychiatrists, who has spent many years studying the causes of crime among young people." (Crist, 1948)
As the article proves, Fredric Wertham was certainly on his way to become a publicly noted psychiatrist. Presenting him to the readers as a leading member of his profession, however, was based primarily - if not entirely - on a purely personal point of view.
The psychiatrist's fight against comic books must have struck a chord with Crist - so much so that she would be present at the 1954 Senate hearings.
"Your Honor, I [Wertham] notice in the room the reporter who brought to my attention one of the earliest cases of children - may I say who it is - Judith Crist, who works for the New York Herald Tribune. She brought to my attention a case in Long Island where children stuck pins in girls or something." (1954 Senate Subcommittee Hearings into Juvenile Delinquency, Transcript of the afternoon session, 21 April 1954)
By that time, however, Crist was a veteran follower of Wertham's cause, having already pledged her allegiance to the psychiatrist's drive against comic books in a letter in 1948.
"I hope we can continue this together - we certainly got a lion by the earlobe." (Gilbert, 1988)
It is therefore hardly surprising that "Horror in the Nursery" concentrates entirely on Wertham's take on the subject and embraces his views as factual information from an expert who is not to be doubted. As a result, the article can be seen as both a programmatic manifesto and a strategic outline of Wertham's upcoming crusade against the comic book industry.
WERTHAM'S FOUR POINT STRATEGY "Horror in the Nursery" almost serves as textbook to illustrate the strategy which Wertham would pursue in the following years in his move against comic books and the comic book industry. He cleverly combined his professional standing and reputation with simple but coherent tactical elements which would allow him to seize public platforms, claim moral superiority, discredit the object of his criticism and anyone defending it, and then deal out the punches before the "other side", i.e. the comic book industry, had even entered the ring. It was something of a populist "Blitzkrieg" strategy, and in most cases it worked out brilliantly for Wertham.
Step 1 - Point out the relevance of the issue "comic books"
It was extremely important for Wertham to assure himself of an audience if he wanted to achieve anything, so the first thing to do was to ascertain the importance and timeliness of his topic. He did this by pointing out just how popular comic books were and by giving an estimate of around 60 million copies which he believed to be in circulation each and every month.
Step 2 - Deplore the negative characteristics and effects of comic books
Wertham's next step was to move on from such impressive figures - clearly this was a nationwide mass phenomenon - and deplore the negative influence and effect of comic books.
"The comic books, in intent and effect, are demoralizing the morals of youth. They are sexually aggressive in an abnormal way. They make violence alluring and cruelty heroic. They are not educational but stultifying." (Crist, 1948)
It is clear from these few sentences that Wertham was now targeting the industry in an increasingly aggressive way by not only attributing all but the most negative qualities to their publications in general but also by accusing the industry of deliberately corrupting moral and ethic standards.
Step 3 - Claim a commonly accepted superior moral motivation
Wertham's next step was to in effect preventively excuse himself with regard to any statements which some might deem to be inappropriate or exaggerated by claiming a moral as much as a professional motivation for his actions.
"He got into the fight, Dr Wertham said, 'not as a psychiatrist but as a voice for the thousands of troubled parents who, like myself, are concerned primarily with their children's welfare'" (Crist, 1948)
Step 4 - Discredit the critics
Having established the noble cause of his mission, Wertham was now only left with the task of how to deal with opposing views and critics. In true populist fashion, he effectively avoided entering into any substantial discussions by simply discrediting the source of any criticism voiced towards his position. He had already done so with the comic book industry at the symposium, but in "Horror in the Nursery" he pointed his finger to anyone who already did or would dare to have an opinion not in line with his own - especially colleagues from his own profession.
"Dr Wertham is impatient with the psychiatrists and educators who serve as consultants to comic book companies (...) [Dr Wertham says] One must distinguish between those psychiatrist who actually work with children in clinics and the psycho-prima donnas who sit on committees and decide the fate of children from a distance. The fact that some child psychiatrists endorse comic books does not prove the healthy state of the comic books. It only proves the unhealthy state of child psychiatry." (Crist, 1948)
The stark modus operandi laid out in "Horror in the Nursery" would prove highly effective for Wertham, and although he would also provide more temperate remarks, these would - in Priest's article just as in upcoming publications - almost instantly be covered up again by absolute statements.
"We do not maintain that comic books automatically cause delinquency in every child reader. But we find that comic-book reading was a distinct influencing factor in the case of every single delinquent or disturbed child we studied." (Crist, 1948)
The solution for the problem according to Wertham was to stop circulation of the most offensive books through local enforcement of existing penal codes by district attorneys or license commissioners.
Another selection of comic books from 1948 - All American Comics #97 (DC, May 1948), All Winners Comics #1 (Timely-Marvel,August 1948), Black Terror #24 (Standard, September 1948) Airboy (vol 5) #4 (Hillman, May 1948). It wasn't all crime and real-life violence as these examples of costumed heroes and fantastic adventures illustrate. Nevertheless, some standard motifs concerning females and weapons were apparent (note, however, that the Blonde Phantom was a costumed heroine), and Wertham found fault with all of them.
WERTHAM KINDLES THE FIRE: THE COMICS - VERY FUNNY Comic books were now a topic of discussion and interest to a growing portion of the public, and Wertham's arguments quickly gained momentum as more periodicals turned to him as the expert on the matter.
Next in line was the Saturday Review of Literature, which ran an article by Wertham titled "The Comics - very funny" in its issue of 29 May 1948. It became one of the most widely read and discussed articles ever to appear in the Saturday Review of Literature (Haverstick, 1957) and would be included almost ten years after its original publication in the compendium The Saturday Review of Literature Treasury.
Now acting as author and not as interviewee, Wertham took an even more active stance and listed a number of counterarguments to his own views which he then refuted, mostly by ridiculing them. He thus continued to use a pronouncedly populistic style but now added outright aggressive vocabulary as he dismissed any colleagues from his profession who functioned as experts for certain publishers of comics as "apologists [who] function under the auspices of the comic-book business" (Wertham, 1948b). The industry itself was dismissed with the use of the comparison already heard at the symposium.
"When I recently conducted a symposium on the psychopathology of comic books I was blamed for not allotting more time to a representative of the comic-book business who was there. I am even guiltier than that: I once conducted a symposium on alcoholism and didnt invite a single distiller." (Wertham, 1948b)
All of this, however, paled in comparison to another statement by Wertham in which he - literally - kindled the fire of the anti-comics movement.
"My own clinical studies and those of my associates at the Lafargue Clinic have convinced me that comic books represent systematic poisoning of the well of childhood spontaneity. Many children themselves feel guilty about reading them. In a Chicago school recently the pupils collected and burned all the comic books and then went around in groups and persuaded dealers in the neighborhood not to handle them any more. Some other schools in Chicago followed their example." (Wertham, 1948b)
The statement rests there, with no further comment, and there is nothing in Wertham's article to indicate that he did not, explicitly or implicitly, endorse the burning of comic books. For a German born psychiatrist to write so casually about this, and to do so only three years after the fall of the Nazi terror regime in his country of origin, is striking. Fredric Wertham was not, of course, a Nazi. But Fredric Wertham was an intelligent man who increasingly chose to ignore his own best knowledge, which surely included the famous quote from his fellow countryman Heinrich Heine.
"Dort wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende Menschen. [Where books are burned, men and women will be burned in the end as well] (Heinrich Heine, Almansor, 1823)
The logical consequence of this complete lack on behalf of Wertham in making any outspoken public disapproval for such actions was that his silence was taken as implicit approval by parts of the now widening anti-comics movement.
It was thus hardly surprising to see public burnings of comic books in various places in the US, the most commonly known having taken place on 11 December 1948 in Binghamton (NY).
Most studies on Wertham's crusade refer to the very brief (22 words) report in the issue for 20 December 1948 of Time Magazine and the famous picture included, but whilst this report spread the news about the burning nationwide, the reports from the more locally based media covered the Binghamton burning and its background setting in greater detail and illustrate more clearly the background which set the stage for this event.
"A mound of 2,000 comic books and pictorial magazines was burned here today as students of St. Patrick's parochial school sought to dramatize their movement to boycott publications they say stress crime and sex. (...) The students at Binghamton were released from classes to watch the burning of the books, which they had collected in a house-to-house canvas during the past week. The books were burned in a courtyard back of the school in the city's residential west side. Most of the schools 560 students attended. John Farrell, president of the junior class, who led the student movement, said that 35 store owners had pledged that they would withdraw "objectionable and indecent literature, comic books and the like" from their newsstands." (Schenectady Gazette, "Comic books burned in Binghamton", 11 December 1948)
The same article in the Schenectady Gazette also clearly illustrated which kind of pressure groups Wertham's drive was triggering.
"In Albany, meanwhile, Bishop Edmund F. Gibbons of the Albany Catholic diocese asked all Catholics in the diocese to "boycott" dealers who sell "pictorial magazines and comic books which portray indecent pictures and sensational details of crime". The bishop's request is contained in a letter to be read at all masses in churches of the diocese on Sunday. (...) Bishop Gibbons is asking Catholics to renew their pledge of membership in the Legion of Decency to combat indecent motion pictures and literature. The letter says: "Another evil of our times is found in the pictorial magazine and comic book which portray indecent pictures and sensational details of crime. This evil is particularly devastating to the young and I call upon our people to boycott establishments which sell such literature." Diocesan officials said they believe this was the first time comic books had been mentioned specifically in the bishop's annual letter." (Schenectady Gazette, "Comic books burned in Binghamton", 11 December 1948)
Although Wertham himself leaned to the political left (Wright, 2001), he was now attracting wide support from right-wing conservative and moralist movements which openly embraced or even demanded censorship (such as the National Legion of Decency). Fittingly, the brief report in Time Magazine on the burning in Binghamton was featured in the "Morals & Manners: Americana" section and was immediately followed by a report from Macon, Georgia, where "the Ku Klux Klan initiated 300 new members in a public ceremony in the City Auditorium. Among the participants were 150 masked women. One Klansman, apparently believing that the education of prospective members can't be started too early, brought along his young daughter - in full regalia, except for mask". The writing on the wall could not have been more obvious.
Other burnings also came to the public's attention. Whereas children - overseen by priests, teachers and parents - publicly burned several hundred comic books in Spencer, West Virgina (Hajdu, 2008), boy scouts in New Jersey gathered comics and burned them in the hopes of earning their Eagle Scout rank (Gabriel, 2001).
Wertham could not be pinned down as the direct driving force behind these and many similar events - he never propagated such measures. However, such events would not have taken place without the feverish mental framework established by Wertham in his writings and presentations on comic books as a general threat. Typically, he was not the man to set fire to the explosives - he only handed out the matches.
Fredric Wertham thus increasingly became a man willing to sacrifice some of the fundamental ideals of a democratic state of law if it served his cause. As the anti-comics movement quickly came to the realization that preventing the sales of objectionable comics at a legislative level - as Wertham had suggested himself - would prove difficult if not entirely impossible in the face of the First Amendment, and that the only way to get at the comic book industry was through concerted and continued pressure from the public and increasing retail bans throughout the country, Wertham was willing and ready to provide the populist campaign needed to create and sustain precisely such pressure.
THE COMIC BOOK INDUSTRY'S REACTION - THE 1948 FOUNDING OF THE ACMP Criticism towards their publications was nothing new to the comic book industry, but so far it had always been possible to either just more or less ignore it or counteract any negative publicity with the engagement of educators who would act as an in-house review committee. However, it quickly became apparent that Wertham and his campaign were working on a completely different scale and with a force never seen before. To make things worse, the industry also lacked someone of a similar standing and stamina whom they could have sent out into the arena to challenge Wertham. And worst of all, a certain percentage of their comic books actually were just as lurid and brainless as Wertham described them to be. On top of all this, civic and religious groups throughout America now actively pressured distributors and retailers to remove objectionable comics from their newsstands. The industry urgently needed to appease their challengers to a certain degree, and it found a partial and quick solution in copying the Hollywood movie industry's 1930s move to enact a self-regulating body to oversee a code of standards that all films would adhere to.
As a result, the Association of Comics Magazines Publishers (ACMP) was formed on 1 July 1948 to regulate the content of comic books. The founding members included publishers Leverett Gleason of Lev Gleason Publications, Bill Gaines of EC Comics, Harolod Moore of Famous Funnies, and Rae Herman of Orbit Publications, with attorney Henry E. Schultz serving as executive director.
The ACMP quickly released their "Publishers Code", drawing heavily on the Hollywood "Production Code" (better known as the "Hays Code") which had been drafted in similar circumstances, i.e. to stave off external regulation.
Likewise, the Production Code forbid portrayals of crime that might "throw sympathy against the law" or "weaken respect for established authority". It also outlawed "ridicule or attack on any religious or racial group" and "sexy, wanton comics" were banned from publication.
"Regulated" comic books were intended to display a seal of approval in the form of a star. The code, however, was an emergency move hastily set up, and was quickly ignored by both large and small publishers, whilst some publishers (e.g. Dell Comics) even refused to join the organization, leading others - including the founding member EC Comics - to quit and end their participation in the scheme. The ACMP seal of approval was further weakened by the fact that it was used without any formal process of review, and by 1950 the ACMP was reduced to a skeleton. During the 1954 Senate Subcommittee hearings, Schultz gave his opersonal opinion on why the ACMP faltered.
"The people who left, some of them, are the finest publishers of comics in the industry; some of the largest ones. They left for a variety of reasons. Some of them felt that they should not be associated with some of the elements in the industry that they felt were publishing products inferior to theirs and there is also, in passing, a great deal of internecine warfare in this industry, a lot of old difficulties which mitigated a strong, well-knit attempt to organize." (1954 Senate Subcommittee Hearings into Juvenile Delinquency, Transcript of the morning session, 21 April 1954)
READER'S DIGEST - A BLUEPRINT FOR ANTI COMIC BOOK ACTIVISTS In August 1948, Wertham's article "The comics - very funny" from the Saturday Review of Literature was published in a condensed version but under the same title in Reader's Digest. As the psychiatrist from Harlem and his crusade became darlings of the conservative mainstream media, the widening public platform Wertham achieved through this resulted not only in a growing level of support but also in numerous local and regional initiatives. Wertham was increasingly becoming the spiritus rector who provided the ideology for others to follow and enact, and many statements from the August 1948 issue of Reader's Digest served precisely that purpose.
"Think of the many violent crimes committed recently by young boys and girls (...) The common denominator is comic books." (Wertham, 1948c)
"A 13-year-old Chicago boy who murdered a playmate tells his lawyer that he reads all the crime comic books he can get hold of. He is sentenced to 22 years in prison; while the comic-book publishers who filled his mind with thoughts and methods of murder continue as before." (Wertham, 1948c)
"Comic books are the greatest book-publishing success in history. Children are bombarded with at least 60,000,000 copies a month." (Wertham, 1948c)
"It is pretty well established that 75 percent of parents are against comic books. (The other 25 percent are either indifferent or misled by propaganda). Since the comic-book industry enjoys second-class mailing privileges, the parents, as taxpayers are paying for what they do not want. The mass production of comic books is a serious danger to the production of good inexpensive childrens books." (Wertham, 1948c)
In a short editorial text accompanying Wertham's article, readers were also told that
"Dr. Wertham is not impressed with the argument that comic books are no worse than classical fairy tales. Fairy tales, he holds, present a world removed from the everyday life of the child. The magic wands convert pumpkins to coaches or beasts into handsome young princes. This is clearly a world of magic. But in comic books men play with super-machine guns and atomic energy, bringing the terror of todays adult world close to the child. Furthermore, he insists, children do not recognize comic books as a world of make-believe. (Wertham, 1948c)
In addition, Reader's Digest added an update on measures taken against comic books.
"Three U.S. cities have acted against the sale of comic books deemed harmful to youth, reports the American Municipal Association. Working together, Indianapolis magazine distributors, city officials and civic groups have banned 35 comics. Detroit police have forbidden newsstand sale of 36 comic books. Hillsdale, Mich., has banned the same books prohibited in Detroit." (Wertham, 1948c)
It was almost a blueprint for anti comic book activists, and as a consequence "Wertham clones" took to the campaign in many places. But it was not all black and white, as an event which took place in Milwaukee on 21 September 1948 illustrates.
Although labelled as "a symposium on the psychopathology of comic books", the participating editor of The Milwaukee Journal "green sheet" (the newspaper's entertainment section which also published comic strips), together with the guidance and welfare director of the Milwaukee school board, and the chief probation officer for the juvenile court, took up the discussion launched by Wertham - but not his ideology.
"Parents who have trained their children to be emotionally stable and properly discriminating need have no fear of the effects of comic books on them, a panel of experts agreed." (The Milwaukee Journal, "Comic books' peril studied - Parents given advice", 22 September 1948)
The panel even took into account the newly founded ACMP and was eager not to generalize.
"We can't outlaw comics altogether (...) There are 250 different titles issued each month that (...) children can pick up from newsstands, and they range from the very harmless to the very dangerous." (The Milwaukee Journal, "Comic books' peril studied - Parents given advice", 22 September 1948)
Differentiation, however, was not inspired by Fredric Wertham's line of movement - on the contrary: it was a reaction by those who felt that Wertham had touched upon something which merited some inspection without instantly reducing - figuratively or literally - the object to ashes.
1949 - WERTHAM'S CRITICS FIND THEIR VOICE Events such as the "symposium" in Milwaukee were indicative of the subtle changes which were taking place regarding the discussion of comic books. Throughout much of 1948, Wertham had succeeded in occupying the playing field virtually by himself and therefore scoring point after point. The comic book industry was too stunned and probably also too sure of itself to react immediately, and those who would engage in a serious discussion of the issues raised by Wertham took some time to properly review the situation before stating their position. For that period of time, Wertham's increasingly populistic agenda and style had effectively monopolized the issue of how comic books related to juvenile delinquency and anti-social behaviour.
By the beginning of the following year, however, Wertham's critics began to speak up more frequently and more prominently, and comic book publishers started to directly address the accusations made. Timely - using the label and logo "Marvel Comics" for several months in 1949 and 1950 - grabbed the bull right by the horns in full-page editorials.
"Lately there has been quite a debate about comics raging in the Saturday Review of Literature (...) In an article a Dr. Wertham discussed the problem of juvenile delinquency in America today, and pinned the blame for some of these cases on comic magazines, simply because many of the delinquent youngsters had read comics. 93% of all young people (from 8 to 16 years of age) read comics. Naturally a few young people get into some kind of trouble... so do a lot of older ones... and of course many of the kids who get into trouble do read comics. But what the article does not state is the fact that 93% of the boys and girls who get into no trouble at all also read comics. (...) Once again let us remind you to show our magazines, or any of the other good comics, to people who criticize this form of entertainment. Show those people that your favorite magazines are not harmful. Let them see Dr. Thompson's endorsement on the first page of every one of our magazines, and prove to one and all that the comics you buy and read are good for you." (Timely Comics Editorial, 1949)
Comic book publishers were now hitting back at Fredric Wertham, and in doing so were even using some of his own rhetoric. Timely belittled their critic by referring to him as "a Dr. Wertham" and used the same tactics of attempting to rally others to their side of the cause - in this case the young readers who were virtually told to go out and lobby in favour of comic books. And finally, Wertham's point that comic books are bad for their readers was not only negated but actually outright dismissed by postulating the antithesis, namely that comic books are actually good for the readers.
Clearly this was not an impartial statement either, much as Wertham himself had lost almost all qualities of a balanced point of view. Nevertheless, Timely's editorial did point to the weakest point of Wertham's argument, and this was also increasingly noted by those who had no personal share in this conflict.
In January 1949, columnist Norbert Muhlen - German born like Wertham - reviewed the issues raised by Wertham in an article titled "Comic Books and Other Horrors - Prep School for Totalitarian Society?" in the periodical Commentary. Muhlen himself felt rather strongly about what he perceived to be a substantial increase of violence in mass culture, including comic books, and that "mass entertainment by violence tends to become the child's education to violence" (Muhlen, 1949b). But in spite of his proximity to Wertham regarding his very sceptical view of popular and mass culture, Muhlen voiced substantial objections to Wertham's approach as he felt that the discussion on comic books had turned into something of a "civil war among psychiatrists" (Muhlen, 1949a) and that Wertham had become a monocausationist in the process. Muhlen also argued that Wertham had made an important mistake: comic books did not cause juvenile delinquency, but many of the themes and stories featured in comic books came from the same common root. Muhlen himself critized comic books for favouring, in his view, an authoritarian rather than a democratic society but at the same questioned Wertham's approach in that respect, together with the lack of sound data and methodology.
"Dr. Wertham asks for censorship against the comic books; this infringement upon the freedom of the press is logically as well as legally based on his opinion that the comic books present "a clear and present danger as one cause of juvenile delinquency", and he claims to be able to prove his point by - so far unpublished - case material. (...) While preparing my article, I asked Dr. Wertham to give me an opportunity to let me see the case material on which his opinions are based. Dr. Wertham replied that "it is physically impossible for us to comply with [such a request]. As far as I know there are quite a number of people in different parts of the country wishing to write the type of article you propose." Without access to his materials, I based my conclusion on my own socio-statistical deduction that his charges against the comic books are not verifiable and not corresponding to the facts." (Muhlen, 1949b)
Muhlen thus introduced a significant change of tone into the discussion. Whereas Wertham had increasingly strayed from what could be considered an opinion based on scientifically sound methodology and facts and had first leaned towards and finally embraced an outright populistic and at times demagogic approach over the course of the year 1948, Muhlen demonstrated that Wertham's position was so overgeneralized as to ultimately reduce it to nothing more than an absolute personal opinion - in spite of sharing Wertham's critical view towards the function and effects of comic books for society. In other words, Muhlen tried to advocate a more balanced discussion of the topic in question. Wertham's reaction was to reproach Muhlen for having misquoted him - and accusing Muhlen of having done so deliberately. Muhlen's challenge regarding the lack of access to Wertham's case material, however, remained unanswered (Wertham, 1949).
Fredric Wertham, it seemed, was not interested in a real discussion. An important representative from the comic book industry, however, was: Whitney Ellsworth, Editorial Director of National Comics Publications, Inc. - better known as DC - engaged in an exchange of views and comments with Muhlen through the letters page of the March 1949 issue of Commentary.
The first issue taken up by Ellsworth was Muhlen's view that there was a fundamental difference between the older, much-censored, and more refined newspaper comic strips (Muhlen, 1949a) and the dehumanized, concentrated, and repetitious showing of death and destruction (Muhlen, 1949a) in comic books. Ellsworth disagreed on this and pointed out that Dick Tracy and a number of other newspaper crime strips were every bit as brutal and gory as anything that might be found in even the most violent comic book (Ellsworth favoured the term "comics magazine"). Muhlen, however, insisted that there was a fundamental difference and that "scenes of cruelty characterize a minority of the newspaper strips, while they form the great mass of comic book content" (Muhlen, 1949c). The fact that comics were published in different forms (i.e. strips and magazines) had never been of concern to Wertham, and the fact that Muhlen and Ellsworth discussed this aspect is indicative of the fact that they were actually engaged in a real discussion, probing many aspects of the topic and not restricting themselves to premature judgements. The focus of the public discussion as influenced by Wertham, however, was clearly on comic books and not comic strips.
Far more closer to the core of Wertham's discussion - and indeed the focal point - was the question of to what extent comic books gave readers ideas and prototypical step-by-step illustrations to follow. In his article, Muhlen had related what is possibly the classic story of "comic book reenactment" - and most certainly an urban legend.
The symbol of this theory is the little boy who got a Superman cape on his birthday, wrapped it around himself, and sprang out of the window of his apartment house. (Muhlen, 1949a)
Ellsworth's reply, however, was spot on and took this anecdotal story - of which Muhlen consequently had to admit that "the story of the Superman cape was widely told two years ago. 'Se non e vero, e ben trovato'." (Muhlen, 1949c) - to the really salient level: the factual.
"Just where the boy got the Superman cape is a mystery to us, since we never manufactured, nor authorized manufacture of, nor ever heard of any unauthorized manufacture of a Superman cape. This notwithstanding, the premise itself is not very solid. I knew, in my own youth, a highly intelligent boy of twelve who leaped from the rooftop of his parents' three-story brownstone house with an umbrella in lieu of a parachute. The fact that he was fortunate enough only to break both legs is probably more important than the fact that his act predated the adventures of Superman by more than two decades. There were foolish children before comics, and juvenile delinquents too. Official Federal Bureau of Investigation figures quote a substantial falling off of the juvenile delinquency rate in the last three years." (Ellsworth, 1949)
Ellsworth's arguments were strong, and they revealed an aspect of the anti-comics movement which had so far been systematically left aside: in essence, Fredric Wertham had been allowed to make just about any statement without ever having to supply any factual evidence. DC's editorial director also pointed out just how restricted and incomplete the analysis based on a comics-only focus could be.
"Of course it is hardly necessary to make the comparison between comics magazines and some of the so-called classics and semi-classics which many people suggest as a substitute for the comics. The fairy tales are replete with horror, fantasy, and gore. The classics similarly depict scenes of cruelty, murder, and mayhem..." (Ellsworth, 1949)
Ellsworth also commented on the question of self-regulation by the comic book industry to some length and detail in order to set the record straight from his side.
"Let me point out that we, as one of the oldest and largest publishers in the comics magazine field, are heartily in accord with the movement to scrutinize comics. We are definitely opposed to those elements in the industry (even though they constitute a distinct minority) which publish tasteless comics. We at National Comics have been aware of our responsibility - long before there was any practical need to control, apologize, or defend (...) We do not deny the aid rendered by prominent professional persons - as a matter of fact, we are grateful for their excellent assistance. (...) Rather than serving as mere window dressing as Dr. Muhlen implies, the whole Board meets with the undersigned at intervals, and there is constant individual contact with its members. (...) This Editorial Advisory Board was formed in 1941 for the purpose of making professional recommendations to the editors, and has been of inestimable value through the years. The Board has no powers as such, but the professional standing and personal integrity of the individual members would preclude any possibility of their continuing to function on the Board if the publication failed to meet their high standards." (Ellsworth, 1949)
The DC Editorial Advisory Board at the time consisted of psychiatrists and educators, namely Dr Lauretta Bender (Associate Professor of Psychiatry, School of Medicine, New York University), Josette Frank (Consultant on Children's Reading, Child Study Association of America), Dr C. Bowie Millican (Department of English Literature, New York University), Dr W. W. D. Sones (Professor of Education and Director of Curriculum Study, University of Pittsburgh) and Dr S. Harcourt Peppard (formerly Acting Director of the Bureau of Child Guidance, Board of Education, City of New York, and then Director of the Essex County (New Jersey) Juvenile Clinic).
This grouping of professionals was most obviously on a par with Dr Fredric Wertham to say the least, and Whitney Ellsworth concluded his contribution by returning to the point in question which had triggered the whole discussion on comic books launched by Wertham: the possible causality between comic books and juvenile delinquency. In his closing remarks, Ellsworth turned to what Kenneth Warburton, Director of the Youth Counsel Bureau of the Bronx District Attorney's office, had to offer on the subject.
"The causes of crimes committed by juveniles, Mr. Warburton says, are broken homes, poverty, excessive drinking, and other unfavorable social conditions." (Ellsworth, 1949)
This argument was, of course, directed at Wertham and not Muhlen, as Ellsworth and Muhlen found agreement on that point.
"I, too, objected to current sensational attempts to blame the comic books for juvenile delinquency. What I tried to emphasize was the more general, less acute effect of comic books - their tendency to encourage the acceptance of violence as the basis of human relations." (Muhlen, 1949c)
It is interesting to note that - with Wertham absent - Muhlen and Ellsworth were able to engage in a discussion which, although conducted with stiff arguments from both sides, included listening to what the other party had to say. In the end, this resulted in some common positions and views covered by both, as well as an agreement to disagree on other aspects. Ultimately, the letters pages of Commentary in early 1949 proved that a civilised exchange of views on the topic of comic books and their - possibly negative - effects on society and youngsters was indeed possible.
However, Commentary was only into its forth year of publication and its circulation was negligible in comparison to Reader's Digest. Ellsworth and Muhlen were thus heard only by a few. Nevertheless, Wertham's critics began to gather momentum.
THE TURNING OF THE TIDE Fredric Wertham had experienced an initial wave of media and public support in early to mid-1948, but now the tide was slowly beginning to turn. Media coverage for Wertham himself was markedly down and his continuously overgeneralized bashing of the comic book industry was no longer met with stunned silence. Following accusations regarding excessive violence which Wertham made in an article in the March 1949 issue of National Parent Teacher Magazine entitled "What Are Comic Books ? A Study Course for Parents", Fawcett Publications threatened the periodical with a libel suit. Wertham, however, stood his ground, was backed by the editors of National Parent Teacher Magazine, and in the end nothing happened.
On another legal front, however, the anti-comics movement was faced with defeat as various courtrooms throughout the US would declare anti-comics legislation (drawn up in several states as a reaction to the public outcry) to be in violation of the first amendment and thus unconstitutional. The basis for these court cases had been laid only ten days after Wertham's initial NYC symposium as the Supreme Court delivered its ruling in the case of Winters v. People of the State of New York (333 U.S. 507, 1948) on 29 March 1948. The Supreme Court overturned a New York state law prohibiting the publication or distribution of "true crime" books and magazines. One of the important reasons for the court's decision was based on the finding that the law was too vague and broad, thus failing to create a context in which a well-intentioned distributor could know when he might be held to have ignored such a prohibition. This resulted in a situation where the protection of free speech was at stake.
"Though we can see nothing of any possible value to society in these magazines, they are as much entitled to the protection of free speech as the best of literature." (US Supreme Court, 333 U.S. 507, 1948)
Wertham's crusade had thus been hampered by legal constraints straight out of the starting box, and although his followers would at times try to claim that "trash" such as comic books did not constitute protected speech, the reverberations of the Supreme Court ruling would be all too evident and damaging for Wertham's agenda. Municipal legislation such as the ban of 36 titles in Detroit - being one of fiftiy cities to impose anti-comics measures (Wright, 2001) - or Los Angeles County's outright ban of the sale of any crime comic to a minor (with a penalty including up to 6 months in jail) now started to fall one after the other on the common grounds of being unconstitutional, and subsequently politicians - some of which had embraced Wertham's topic with open arms - started to shy away (Wright, 2001). The anti-comics movement was denied the legal backing it sought in the US, but not elsewhere, as both Canada and France passed national anti-comics laws in 1949 (Introvigne, 2003).
In the US, however, public discussion gradually acknowledged previous, more positive evaluations of comic books by renowned individuals, such as Dr Benjamin Spock, one of the most influential child-care experts, who had commented favourably on comic books in his The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care in 1946. Spock even felt that violence in comics could serve a healthy emotional purpose for youngsters because it served as a means of indulging in aggressiveness without the need of acting it out (Wright, 2001).
Wertham was no longer omnipresent in the media and his major publication effort for 1949 was his book Show of Violence, in which he described his experience as a forensic psychiatrist. Nevertheless, he was now also feeling the turning of the tide on a very personal level, as more and more respected members from the scientific community identified him as the leader of the pack and started to dissect his meagre data and his doubtful methodology in various media and scholarly publications. In February 1949, Dr Paul Tappan, a professor of sociology at New York University, dismissed Wertham's ideas as over-simplification in the New York Times (Wright, 2001).
The year turned out to be a lean one for Fredric Wertham's anti-comics crusade in comparison to 1948, and it ended with an outright bashing when the Journal of Educational Sociology devoted its entire December 1949 issue to the topic of comic books - and directed nothing but criticism towards Wertham.
The editorial warned of impending censorship, and the contributors all agreed that the problem of juvenile dleinquency could not be solved by simply finding and brandishing a scapegoat, which in this case was the comic book industry and its publications.
From the industry's point of view, ACMP chairman Henry E. Schultz - not surprisingly - found no kind words for Wertham.
"The recent era of hysteria can be directly attributed to the activity of Dr Fredric Wertham (...) Writing vigorously and emotionally, if not scientifically and logically, in widely read and highly respected journals (...) Dr Wertham has succeeded in frightening parents, teachers and public officials into the belief that no matter the cost the comic book must go." (Schultz 1949)
Being essentially a partisan opinion, Schultz's contribution could easily be shrugged off by Wertham and his followers, but the views expressed by other authors proved extremely damaging. An outright desaster for the anti-comics movement and Wertham's personal standing was the contribution by Frederic M. Thrasher, professor of educational sociology at New York University. Not only was Thrasher a renowned expert on juvenile delinquency who had conducted extensive research into the gangs of Chicago but he was also the initiator of media studies at NYU and conducted a series of studies on the effects of motion pictures on children. On top of all this, he also served widely as a consultant to groups concerned with movies, crime, prison reform and the prevention of juvenile delinquency.
"Expert students of mankind have always tried to explain human behavior in terms of their own specialities. This is particularly true in the field of adult and juvenile delinquency, where anthropologists, psychologists, psychiatrists, and sociologists have been guilty of a long series of erroneous attempts to attribute crime and delinquency to some one human trait or environmental condition. These monistic theories of delinquency causation illustrate a particularistic fallacy which stems from professional bias or a lack of scientific logic and research, or both. Most recent error of this type is that of psychiatrist Fredric Wertham who claims in effect that the comics are an important factor in causing juvenile delinquency. This extreme position which is not substantiated by any valid research, is not only contrary to considerable current psychiatric thinking, but also disregards tested research procedures which have discredited numerous previous monistic theories of delinquency causation. Wertham's dark picture of the influence of comics is more forensic than it is scientific and illustrates a dangerous habit of projecting our social frustrations upon some specific trait of our culture, which becomes a sort of "whipping boy" for our failure to control the whole gamut of social breakdown." (Thrasher 1949)
"Delinquent and criminal careers can be understood only in terms of the interaction of many factors. Evaluation of their relative influence demands research based upon more rigorous sampling and control, and requires the utmost objectivety in the interpretation of the data the research yields.(...) After surveying the studies dealing with the influences of comics we are forced to conclude such research does not exist. The current alarm over the evil effects of the comic books rests upon nothing more substantial than the opinion and conjecture of a number of psychiatrists, lawyers, and judges." (Thrasher 1949)
"We may criticize Wertham's conclusions on many grounds, but the major weakness of his position is that it is not supported by research data. (...) Wertham's major claims rest only on a few selected and extreme cases of children's deviate behavior where it is said the comics have played an important role in producing delinquency. Although Wertham has claimed in his various writings that he and his associates have studied thousands of children, normal and deviate, rich and poor, gifted and mediocre, he presents no statistical summary of his investigations. (...) On the basis of the material presented by Wertham with reference to children's experience with the comics, it is doubtful if he has met the requirements of scientific case study or the criteria for handling life history materials. (...) Unless and until Wertham's methods of investigation are described and demonstrated to be valid and reliable, the scientific worker in this field can place no credence in his results." (Thrasher 1949)
"In conclusion, it may be said that no acceptable evidence has been produced by Wertham or anyone else for the conclusion that the reading of comic magazines has or has not a significant relation to delinquent behavior." (Thrasher 1949)
In essence, Thrasher meticulously dragged all of Wertham's methodological and analytical weaknesses out into the open for everybody to see, and it contrasted sharply with Thrasher's sound scholarly presentation and the ramifications of his views through the quoting of work by other experts in the field. At least in the pages of the Journal of Educational Sociology, Wertham was completely discredited. It was a beating, but Wertham could still console himself through the fact that this took place in front of a rather restricted audience and not, for example, in the pages of Reader's Digest.
SUMMARY - WERTHAM AND THE 1940s ANTI-COMICS MOVEMENT The drive to censor comic books or bully them off the market in the US had a long standing by the time Wertham joined the cause in 1948, but it had been an uncoordinated series of individual statements and events which failed to make more than a short and at best regional impact. When Wertham stepped out of the Harlem Lafargue Clinic and onto the scene of a Manhattan symposium, he instantly gave the existing anti-comics movement what it needed most: a strong leading hand and a powerful aura of professional respect and moral integrity. He was, quite simply, the ideal individual to become the personified anti-comics icon - because unlike other individuals he combined all the required qualities for success in his own personality.
His political standing (which was far more leftist than the many portraits which describe him as a liberal make it appear to be) did not contradict an elitist notion (in this case regarding culture) which in turn gave rise to a personal view of holding a position of absolute insight and truth. These qualities effectively made him a highly talented populist, as Wertham also had an appetite for attention and understood how to use the media. But it would never have worked out they way it did if it hadn't been for Wertham's professional standing, which gave him a mainstream credibility and a broad acceptance by the media and audiences alike - or, in the words of Stan Lee, his antipode in terms of comic book history iconicity:
"His arguments were patently sophistic (...) but he was a psychiatrist, so people listened." (Lee & Mair, 2002)
Another important element for the anti-comic book movement was that Wertham was in a position to claim not just professional but practical experience through his work at the Lafargue Clinic.
Refering constantly to his "clincial research" in said institution, Wertham could instantly add the enormous weight of "practical experience" to his line of arguments.
On a factual level, Wertham was probably aware of the blatant weaknesses of his studies at Lafargue as a basis for what he claimed to be able to draw from them - why else would he have chosen not to respond to his critics such as Muhlen and Thrasher? If his data and methodology from Lafargue was as sound and as elucidating as he claimed, he would certainly have published it, and with the utmost joy. His complete silence in that respect speaks volumes in comparison to his verbosity throughout 1948 and 1949, and substantiates the criticism in that respect with which he was confronted.
In fact, this tell-tale shroud of silence continued even after Fredric Wertham's death, when his collected papers were presented to the Library of Congress by the estate of his wife, Florence Hesketh Wertham, in 1987. Acces to these papers and documents was to be restricted until 20 May 2002, with the exception of individuals receiving permission of the personal representatives of the Wertham estate. At the request of the Wertham family, this date was extended twice up until 20 May 2010 (governmentattic.org, 2009). As of that date, most of the papers are now accessible by appointment.
As the decade of the 1940s came to an end, Wertham's activism in the anti-comics movement cooled off for a while before he would re-emerge in the early 1950s. The anti-comics movement itself would march on, but the temporary absence of its major leading figure was felt. Wertham possibly withdrew for the time being due to the growing criticism he personally encountered, but another major factor can certainly be found in the change taking place in the comic book industry's output itself.
Crime comics remained popular, but the superhero comics increasingly lost favour amongst readers and in 1949 Timely's signature title Marvel Mystery Comics was cancelled, leaving the Sub-Mariner and the Human Torch without a home. Western comics became more and more popular, a genre which would seem a lot harder to criticize in a way which would appeal to the mostly conservative anti-comics movement, and the newly emerging romance comics were completely free of any violence or sexuality and thus automatically took some companies out of Wertham's line of fire. In the case of Timely, two thirds of its titles were directed at a female readership by the end of the decade (Robbins 1999).
No analysis of Wertham's role in the American anti-comic book movement can, of course, be complete without fully considering his main era of acitivity and impact, the 1950s. However, too many scholars and comic book enthusiasts seem to focus exclusively on The Seduction of the Innocent and the events following its publication in 1954, unaware of the fact that the seeds for those events and the massive consequences they entailed were sown in the 1940s, in Wertham's clinical experiences at Lafargue and his subsequent activity and way of thinking with regard to the late 1940s anti-comics drive. In order to fully understand Fredric Wertham's anti-comics agenda, this period needs to be taken into consideration.
FREDRIC WERTHAM - WELL MEANING SOCIAL REFORMER OR WELL-POISONING POPULIST? The perception and evaluation of Fredric Wertham, his motives and, above all, his modus operandi have been the source of diverging opinions and controversy since 1949. There were parts of the public who applauded and supported him, and there were others, including the scientific community at large, who disagreed with Wertham both in terms of what he seemingly wanted to achieve and his methodology. Not surprisingly, neither the industry nor comic book enthusiasts had any nice things to say about Wertham - and for them the worst was yet to come. When parts of the comic book industry took the newly emerging genre of horror comics to extremes, Wertham would return to the anti-comics movement in 1954 with a bang, and the fallout damage would prove drastic and lasting.
The discussion concerning comic books in the 1940s and 1950s took place in public and through the media. In assessing Fredric Wertham's role and ethics in this discussion, his public as well as his printed statements are therefore to be considered as the main source for answering that question. Comments and notes made in private may elucidate certain motives and procedural aspects, but apart from the fact that they were not available to researchers at large for an extraordinary long period of time, they were also not part of the public figure Fredric Wertham.
Frederic Wertham continues to stir the interest of researchers, and in 2005 even found a sympathetic biographer in Bart Beaty and his Fredric Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture.
Beaty, now a professor at Calgary University and head of the English Department, describes Wertham as a well-meaning social reformer unwilling to adopt "the pretense of scientific impartiality" (Beaty, 2005). Whilst this seems rather striking for a scientific study written by an academic researcher, it is also interesting to see how Beaty gradually adopts not only Wertham's point of view but also his discourse methodology.
The author was awarded the 2006 Gertrude J. Robinson Book Prize for his apologetic portrayal of the psychiatrist from the Lafargue Clinic, but for some, Fredric Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture will hold as little scientific value as, indeed, Seduction of the Innocent. Beaty almost instantly engages in what quintessentially turns out to be a lengthy defence of Wertham and his views and suggests to view Wertham as
"a figure who bridged the divide between the public intellectuals and the researchers." (Beaty, 2005)
It might be both helpful and appropriate to recall that this is the same person who stated in front of a US senate committee:
"Well, I hate to say that, Senator, but I think Hitler was a beginner compared to the comic-book industry." (Testimony of Fredric Wertham, Senate Hearings, 21 April 1954)
Interestingly, now that the Wertham Papers are more easily accessible, further research shows traits which would seem to fit the image of the well-poisoner better: Carol L. Tilley (2012) documents specific examples of how Wertham not only overstated and compromised evidence from his clinical research but actually manipulated and fabricated data in order to serve as "evidence" which he then attributed to his personal clinical research with young people. Tilley concludes that Wertham did this purely for rhetorical gain.
In the end, it all points to Doctor Fredric Wertham coming to see only what he believed to be right. Initially, he meant well. Ultimately, he himself betrayed all the principles he once stood for.
first posted to the web 7 May 2010
revised and updated 2 February 2013
reposted 12 April 2014
Text is (c) 2010-2014 Adrian Wymann
The illustrations presented here are copyright material.
Their reproduction in this non-commercial context is considered to be fair use.
BEATY Bart (2005) Frederic Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture, University Press of Mississippi
COVILLE Jamie (----) "The Comic Book Villain, Dr. Fredric Wertham M.D.", in Integrative Arts 10: Seduction of the Innocents and the Attack on Comic Books, available online and accessed 17 May 2010 at www.psu.edu/dept/inart10_110/inart10/cmbk4cca.html
CRIST Judith (1948) "Horror in the Nursery", in Collier's Magazine, 27 March 1948
DECKER Dwight (1987) "Fredric Wertham - Anti-Comics Crusader who turned Advocate", originally published in Amazing Heroes (available online and accessed 12 July 2007 at www.art-bin.com/art/awertham.html)
ELLSWORTH Whitney (1949) "Violence in the Comics - Reader's Letters", in Commentary 9
EVERSLEY Shelly (2001) "The Lunatic's Fancy and the Work of Art", in American Literary History (Vol 13, #3), 445-468
GABRIEL David Jay (2001) A brief history of first amendment issues in comic books, Ms.presented at the "Comics Code and Free Speech" discussion panel at the New York City Comic Book Museum, 2 October 2001
GILBERT James (1988) A Cycle of Outrage, America's Reaction to the Juvenile Delinquent in the 1950s, Oxford University Press
HAJDU David (2008) The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America, Farrar, Straus and Giroux
HAVERSTICK John (1957) The Saturday Review of Literature Treasury, Simon & Schuster
INTROVIGNE Massimo (2003) "Fighting the three Cs: Cults, Comics, and Communists", Ms.presented at the CESNUR conference in Vilnius, 29 April 2003
LEE Stan & George Mair (2002) Excelsior! The Amazing Life of Stan Lee, Fireside
MUHLEN Norbert (1949a) "Comic Books and Other Horrors - Prep School for Totalitarian Society?", in Commentary 7, 80-87
MUHLEN Norbert (1949b) "Violence in the Comics - Reader's Letters", in Commentary 8
MUHLEN Norbert (1949c) "Violence in the Comics - Reader's Letters", in Commentary 9
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