Comics, Moral Panic, and the Curious Legacy of Fredric Wertham

Chris Randle is a writer from Toronto who has written for The Globe and Mail, The...

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Blemishes were already jostling for space on Fredric Wertham’s reputation. Popular lore holds the American psychiatrist—whose most well-known book, 1954’s Seduction of the Innocent, blamed outré comic books for either dulling or corrupting the minds of children—responsible for a medium-decimating moral panic. (In one infamous, strangely lyrical passage, Wertham described Batman and Robin’s relationship as “a wish-dream of two homosexuals living together.”) Religious and community organizations put pamphlets to the torch, frustrated cartoonists went into advertising, and the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency convened hearings, during which horror publisher William Gaines testified with mesmerizing, Dexedrine-assisted disaster. Soon, and for decades to come, the industry would chafe against the inventive content restrictions of the Comics Code Authority.

Earlier this week, however, Wertham’s image as a lipless prude declined even further, when the University of Illinois professor Carol Tilley revealed how much of his heavily anecdotal evidence was skewed: the researcher changed clinical subjects’ ages, garbled quotes and tactfully omitted data that might challenge his central thesis. I was struck less by the specific charges against Wertham (his crude, legalistic standards become apparent after reading a few excerpts from Seduction of the Innocent) than how they could affect the ongoing revision of his legacy.

Historians within comics, amateur or otherwise, loathed Wertham for generations. (Like Charles II hanging Oliver Cromwell’s corpse, Nerd Court still presses the long-dead psychiatrist into unflattering fictional analogues.) He’s the prudish censor who nearly destroyed comics and subjected what remained to such rules as “no vampires, werewolves, ghouls or zombies.” Wertham-as-supervillain menaces art in generalist retellings as well, including David Hajdu’s book Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America. The anti-pulp outcry was an ominous phenomenon, but it wasn’t orchestrated by a single cackling mastermind, like the Joker poisoning some reservoir. That eventual panic first stirred at least a decade earlier.

His career beyond Seduction of the Innocent smudges the caricature too. Wertham’s Lafargue Clinic served the black citizens of Harlem; his research was cited in Brown v. Board of Education and other school desegregation cases. There weren’t many upper-class, finely assimilated German Jews echoing McCarthyism, and indeed Wertham’s ideas were informed by the left rather than the right, disdaining mass culture for its perceived corrosion of peaceful, altruistic interdependence. He even opposed censorship, preferring a ratings system instead, albeit one that would have barred certain comics from anybody under 15. The Comics Code was created by the industry itself, and happened to put those lurid horror titles employing so many brilliant cartoonists out of business without giving Marvel or DC too much grief.

Those nuances began receiving more attention recently: the comics critic Jeet Heer has written about both Wertham’s careless rhetoric and his support of racial equality, while Bart Beaty, the University of Calgary communications scholar, published a book defending his critique of the gleeful racism and violent misogyny then routine to comic books. But Wertham’s life retains its tragic line: having changed his thinking by the 1970s and come to appreciate the fanzine subculture, only to receive understandable distrust in return, getting posthumously caught for his earlier frauds is a bitter irony. I think of those stories with an imperious doctor, too proud to recognize that their treatment is only causing new damage.

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