Comics History

Dr. Fredric Wertham

Dr. Fredric Wertham

Fredric Wertham is a man who still evokes feelings of hatred, irritation and ridicule among comics fans. In the 1950s this German-American psychologist claimed to have found a correlation between violent comics and juvenile delinquency in his book 'The Seduction of the Innocent' (1954). In a time when many parents, teachers and moral guardians already looked down on comics his books, essays and speeches only accelerated witch hunts against the medium. Within one year a censor brigade, the Comics Code, was established. They set up a list of very strict rules regarding what comics were allowed to show and what not. Various publishers were forced to close down and numerous comics writers and artists were severely hindered in their creativity. The Comics Code remained in effect for decades, while comics received a pejorative, even dangerous, reputation that they could never quite shake off. As such it's not strange to see why Wertham's name is not greeted with much respect in comics history. Yet, at the same time, Wertham was far more complicated than his zealous reputation suggests. He didn't actually support much of the censorship which his writings evoked. In the last years of his life he even supported comics fandom in his writings, though he seemed as out-of-touch as he had always been.  

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 was equally concerned about the effects of television on children, which he expressed in his book 'The War on Children'. Interestingly enough publishers weren't half as willing to publish this manuscript as they were with his anti-comics essays. As a result it was never published. Wertham 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. It would therefore be unfair to just scorn him as a censor-crazy lunatic. Dr. Wertham's main concern always was the psychological well-being of children. Though by talking with a lot of juvenile criminals who all read the most horrific comics titles the industry had to offer, Wertham took the wrong conclusions. He correlated comics and crime in a way which proved disastrous for the comic industry in the 1950s. Even worse, most of his "facts" and "proofs" later turned out to be fabricated and/or twisted to justify his own viewpoints. But by the time this was discovered it was already too late.

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 to the criminal path. But it was the publication of his book 'Seduction of the Innocent' (19 April 1954) 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 comics titles depicted sex, crime, murder, sadism and drugs. Oddly enough, sometimes Wertham objected to certain scenes while completely overlooking others. For instance: his main problem with William Moulton Marston, Joye Hummel and Harry G. Peter's 'Wonder Woman' was that it seemingly "promoted lesbianism", since Wonder Woman lives together with many young females on an Amazone island. He seemed blissfully unaware of the actual questionable content, namely the fact that the superheroine was frequently subject of bondage...

Excerpts from the book appeared in the influential magazines Reader's Digest and The Ladies' Home Journal. Soon moral panic broke out. In June 1954 a series of erotic comic books named 'Nights of Horror' (1954) were published by Macla, a publisher in Queens, New York. The comics were anonymously illustrated by Joe Shuster, the co-creator of 'Superman'. 'Nights of Horror' aimed at people with a knack for fetishes, particularly sado-masochism, though had little actual nudity in them. Some people saw connections between juvenile crimes and these books and demanded a ban. On 10 September 1954 the State of New York banned 'Nights of Horror' for violating obscenity laws. 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, 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 November 1954, for instance, a group of juvenile delinquents named the Brooklyn Thrill Killers were arrested and sentenced for sadistic violence and murder. Wertham examined and interviewed the criminals and discovered that one of them, Jack Koslow, had read 'Nights of Horror', which had sexually aroused him and motivated him to copycat behaviour. The interview confirmed Wertham's theories once again and convinced many people that there was indeed a correlation between comics and violent behaviour. The fact that only one of the four criminals had read 'Nights of Horror' was ignored, left alone the teenagers' upbringing or their social context. 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.

Already at the height of the witch hunts against comics certain artists satirized the moral panic. One of them was Dutch comics artist Marten Toonder in his 'Tom Poes' story 'Horror, De Ademloze' (1949), in which Wammes Waggel is manipulated by an "evil" comics artist. Marvel Comics devoted an entire editorial to Wertham in a March 1949 issue. They tackled all his disproportional statements and reassured readers: "comics are good for you!" Another critic of Wertham was Al Capp. The creator of 'Li'l' Abner' debated him directly during a radio broadcast on 10 October 1948. Nearly a decade later, between 21 July and 14 August 1955, 'Li'l Abner' would feature a storyline in which a caricature of Wertham makes a cameo. The final comedy film of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, 'Artists & Models' (1955), also satirized the comic book witch hunts. The movie's director - former Looney Tunes animator Frank Tashlin - even created a fake comic book for this picture. 


Art Spiegelman addresses Dr. Wertham in his 2004 comics essay 'No Kidding, Kids…. Remember Childhood? Well.. forget it!'

While Wertham's writings led to a moral panic which hurt comics both on an artistic as well as a commercial level, he didn't support all activity against comics. What he actually favoured was a rating system to prevent certain comics being sold to minors. Instead many adults just banned comics altogether and discouraged young people from reading them. Wertham also disliked the entire Comics Code, because it wanted to avoid any scenes of sex of violence to the point that even he felt "wasn't realistic anymore."  During the 1970s, 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.

The only good legacy Wertham left behind, albeit unintentionally, was the underground comix movement of the 1960s. Many young people who'd lived through the moral panic against comics in the previous decade now drew their own taboo- and boundary breaking comics. Since the mainstream would never publish it they founded their own independent publishing companies or distributed it through the "head shops" across the country. This eventually led to more creative freedom, the creation of an open market for adult comics and proof that one didn't need the mainstream in order to publish their own work.


Dr. Wirtham's Comix & Stories, 1979

Anti-Comics Crusader Who Turned Advocate