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 kept a pejorative 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 evoked by his writings. 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.  

Early life and academic career
Dr. Fredric Wertham was born on 20 March 1895 in Munich, Germany. He studied at Kings College in London, followed by the Universities of Munich and Erlangen, and in 1921 graduated from the University of Würzburg. He was strongly influenced by Dr. Emile Kraepelin, a psychologist who emphasized the effects of environment and social background on psychological development - a novel idea at the time. Wertham also corresponded with Sigmund Freud for a while, which inspired him to become a psychiatrist. In 1922 he emigrated to the USA, where he became a respected psychiatrist and director of several New York psychiatric hospitals. In 1934, Wertham published his first book, 'The Brain as an Organ'.

Theories about comics
Wertham focused on the influence 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, influenced by movies, radio plays and comic books. This was the first time Wertham linked comics to crime, and in his following work he developed this thought even further. His theories parallelled a rise of more violent comic books. Since the 1930s several detective comics, war comics and superhero comics had become bestsellers, often featuring many scenes where the hero shot or punched antagonists. By the late 1940s EC Comics specialized in very gruesome horror, fantasy and thriller comics with disturbing imagery that few other media offered at the time. Hollywood still suffered under the Hays Code, which censored anything too violent or sexual. In the comics industry, particularly publishers of independent comic book lines, there was no such general censorship commission... yet..., thus allowing more creative freedom.

Not all of Wertham's work condemned 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, people weren't half as willing to publish this manuscript and, as such, it never saw print. Wertham also wrote an article about the psychological influence of racial segregation in schools. This article was used as evidence in a landmark court case (Brown v. Board of Education, 1954) which ruled that segregation in schools was unconstitutional. It would therefore be unfair to just scorn him as a censor-crazy lunatic. Wertham's main concern was always the psychological well-being of children. Though by talking with juvenile criminals who all read the most horrific comics titles the industry had to offer, the psychologist took the wrong conclusions. Wertham 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. In the 2010s Carol L. Tilley discovered that Wertham, for instance, exaggerated the number of youths he had interviewed for his research. He took certain quotes from different individuals and presented them as the opinion/experience of one individual. In other cases they were generalized as if "thousands" of other youngsters had had similar experiences. Wertham also deliberately ignored the problematic family and social backgrounds of these delinquents and often lowered the ages of certain teens to make their claims more shocking. 

Seduction of the Innocent, by Dr. Fredric Wertham

Seduction of the Innocent
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 wasn't until the publication of 'Seduction of the Innocent' (19 April 1954) that his ideas took flight. The book offered graphic examples of how comic titles like 'Terror', 'Weird Science' and 'The Vault of Horror' depicted sex, crime, murder, sadism and drugs. Wertham often mispresented certain facts. For instance, he cited a seven year-old boy who "had nightmares" after reading 'Blue Beetle' comics, because of a scene where the superhero turns into a beetle. Yet in his original writings Wertham wrote: "Boy says he does not remember anything about the nightmares." In fact, 'Blue Beetle' never even featured an insect transformation scene. It's fairly obvious that Wertham just looked at the title, without actually knowing what the series was all about. He claimed that Batman and Robin advocated homosexuality and cited a "young boy" who phantasized about being Robin in a relation with "the Dark Knight". Yet this "young boy" was in reality a sixteen year-old. 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 'Seduction of the Innocent' appeared in the influential magazines Reader's Digest and The Ladies' Home Journal. Most adults, completely unfamiliar with most of the comics Wertham discussed, simply took his opinions for granted. 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 who were into certain fetishes, particularly sado-masochism, though had little actual nudity in them. Some people connected comics with juvenile crimes 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 organized the Comics Magazine Association of America and laid out the infamous Comics Code, which stated exactly what comics could and could not depict. Yet many comic book publishers still had to close down. In 1956 EC Comics was forced to drop all their titles, except for the humorous MAD magazine.

A Sign for Cain, by Dr. Fredric Wertham

In November 1954, 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 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 Wertham's book 'Circle of Guilt' came out, again centering on a murder case. After his retirement, his book 'A Sign for Cain' (1966), criticized comics and movies for influencing criminal behavior.

Satirical portrayals
At the height of the comic book witch hunts, certain cartoonists satirized the moral panic. In a 2 February 1949 episode of Will Eisner's 'The Spirit', a school psychiatrist named "Dr. Wolfgang Worry" organizes a comic book burning. Some people in the comic industry defended their profession. Timely Comics (nowadays 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!" From 22 June until 13 September 1949, Dutch comic artist Marten Toonder serialized a 'Tom Poes' story, 'Horror, De Ademloze' (1949), in which the duck Wammes Waggel is manipulated by an "evil" comic artist. Another critic of Wertham was Al Capp. The creator of 'Li'l' Abner' debated him live on the 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 with 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. Wallace Wood lampooned Wertham in Mad Magazine (issue #34, August 1957) as "Frederick Werthless" in 'Baseball Is Ruining Our Children', printed in Mad Magazine issue #34, August 1957. The article depicted the batshit insane psychologist making ludicrous claims about the dangers of "baseball". 

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

Reputation  vs. reality
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. But 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, which even he felt "wasn't realistic anymore." During the 1970s, a milder 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, Wertham wrote his last book, 'The World of Fanzines: A Special Form of Communication'. In this work, which was poorly researched and somewhat out of touch with reality, he praised comic fandom as a nice subculture of youngsters, peacefully communicating through fanzines. After its publication, Wertham was invited to the New York Comic Art Convention. There he was greeted with understandable suspicion and hostility, and the disgraced psychologist left the convention earlier than planned. Wertham never wrote anything about comics again and died on 29 November 1981.

Legacy and influence
Wertham's writings should be understood in the context of their time. During the late 1940s and early 1950s the Cold War was in full effect and senator Joseph McCarthy led an active witch hunt against supposed Communist infiltrations and anything vaguely left-wing. Around the same time teenagers emerged as a subculture who wanted to rebel against society. Moral panic was in the air and young people were indeed less obedient than previous generations. Wertham provided an easy answer to a more complicated evolution in society. Since he was a certificated psychologist, he had a lot of credibility. Most adults, teachers, moral guardians and preachers weren't passionate comics readers and relied much of their impressions about the medium on Wertham's deductions (or what they'd heard about it). The fact that they knew little about the subject helped stigmatize comics, much in the same way jazz was suspicious during the 1920s and 1930s and rock 'n' roll, hippies, punk rock, heavy metal and video games would be tar-and-feathered in future decades. Even though Wertham only stroved for a ratings system, he unwillingly opened the gates for fanatic censorship, bans and book burnings. It would take years before comics were able to recover from all this bad press. Even today, comics are still regarded as depraved forms of literature in some circles. Although the Comics Code officially remained in effect until 20-21 January 2011, it was already less strict from 1971 on. 

The only good legacy Wertham left behind, albeit unintentionally, was the emerging underground comix movement of the mid-1960s. Many young people who'd lived through the moral panic against comics during the 1950s, drew their own taboo- and boundary breaking comics in the following decade. 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. It also created a genuine market for purely adult comics, which helped the genre to become more commonplace. 

'Dr. Wirtham's Comix & Stories', 1979.

Anti-Comics Crusader Who Turned Advocate