Comics History

Dr. Fredric Wertham

Dr. Fredric Wertham

Dr. Fredric Wertham was born in Munich, Germany on 20 March 1895. He studied at Kings College in London, at the Universities of Munich and Erlangen, and graduated from the University of Würzburg in 1921. He was very much influenced by Dr. Emile Kraepelin, a psychologist who emphasized the effects of environment and social background on psychological development - a novel idea for the time. Fredric Wertham also corresponded with Sigmund Freud for a while, which inspired him to become a psychiatrist.

Dr. Fredric Wertham emigrated to the USA in 1922, where he became a respected psychiatrist and director of several New York psychiatric hospitals. In 1934, he published his first book, 'The Brain as an Organ'. He then began to focus on the influences of culture and environment on criminal behavior, resulting in the book 'Dark Legend' (1941), about the true story of a 17-year-old who killed his mother. Dr. Wertham noted how the boy lived in a fantasy world, sustained by movies, radio plays and comic books. This was the first time Dr. Wertham linked comics to crime, and in his following work he took this line even further.

Not all of Dr. Wertham's work was directed toward condemning comics though. He also wrote an article about the psychological influence of racial segregation in schools. This article was used as evidence in the court case which led to the ruling that segregation in schools was unconstitutional. Dr. Wertham's main concern always was the psychological well-being of children. Dealing with a lot of juvenile criminals though, who almost all were avid readers of the most horrific titles the comic industry of that time had to offer, gave him a view of comics and crime which proved disastrous for the comic industry in the 1950s.

Seduction of the Innocent, by Dr. Fredric Wertham

In 1948, Dr. Wertham published an article stating that the crime and violence depicted in comics were an important factor in leading kids on the criminal path. But it was the publication of his book 'Seduction of the Innocent' that really made an impact on a society already troubled over an increasing number of comics like 'Terror', 'Weird Science' and 'Vault of Horror'. In this book, he gave graphic examples of how these books depicted sex, crime, murder, sadism and drugs.

Excerpts from the book appeared in the influential magazines Reader's Digest and The Ladies' Home Journal. It was the final straw for disconcerted educators. Already faced with questions from the U.S. Senate on juvenile delinquency, many frightened comic publishers got together and formed the Comics Magazine Association of America and laid out the infamous Comics Code, which stated exactly what comics could and could not depict. It was the end for a number of publishers, especially EC Comics, who only carried on with the humorous Mad magazine but lost all their other titles.

A Sign for Cain, by Dr. Fredric Wertham

Dr. Wertham's books, although influential, were not very strong on providing proof for their assertions, but gave lots of gruesome examples. In 1956 his book 'Circle of Guilt' came out, again centering on a murder case. After retiring, Wertham devoted himself to writing 'A Sign for Cain' (1966), again attacking environmental impulses such as comics and movies for being major influences on criminal behavior.

During the seventies, a milder Dr. Wertham got interested in the new subculture of comic fandom and the fanzines they published. To defend his earlier position on comics he wrote:

"My main interest is not in comic books or even mass media, but in children and young people. Over the years I have been director of large mental hygiene clinics... And I have done a great deal of work - sometimes with great difficulty - to prevent young people from being sent to reformatories where they are often very badly treated. I have also helped a number of young people so they were not sent to the electric chair. Seeing that so many immature people have troubles and get into trouble, I tried to find out all the sources that contributed to their difficulties. In the course of that work I came across crime comic books. I had nothing whatever to do directly with the comics code. Nor have I ever endorsed it. Nor do I believe in it. My scientific findings had something to do with it only because the crime comic book publishers, some of them multi-millionaires, were afraid laws or statutes would be passed against their worst productions. To guard against that the code was established. Controlling the excess of brutality in crime comic books has nothing to do with censorship. Protecting children is not censorship. I was the first American psychiatrist admitted in a Federal Court in a book censorship case - and I testified against censorship."

In 1974, Dr. Fredric Wertham wrote his last book, 'The World of Fanzines: A Special Form of Communication'. In this book, which was poorly organized and seemed somewhat out of touch with reality, he praised comic fandom as a nice subculture of youngsters, peacefully communicating through fanzines. After its publication, Dr. Wertham was invited to the New York Comic Art Convention. Here, he was greeted with suspicion, if not downright hostility, and Wertham left the convention and the comic field completely. He died on 29 November 1981.


Dr. Wirtham's Comix & Stories, 1979

Anti-Comics Crusader Who Turned Advocate