Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Fredric Wertham: Awful or Awesome?

Was Fredric Wertham an evil monster who took comics away from the kiddies? Or simply misunderstood?

Comic Mix points out a Slate article on the psychiatrist who, in the 1940s and 50s, led a crusade against what he thought were "bad elements" in comics. In 1954 he wrote a book called "Seduction of the Innocent" which blasted the comic book industry and resulted in a bunch of really crappy issues of Wonder Woman where she goes stamp collecting.

Was Wertham a villain for attacking books like EC Comics' horror line and, essentially, driving them off the spinner racks of our great nation? Was he leading a witchhunt? Or, as the Slate article seems to be saying, was the witchhunt eventually turned upon Wertham?

"Wertham was particularly concerned about the violence, misogyny, and racism that were endemic in comics (and other popular art forms). He wasn't wrong on this point. Many of the comics now nostalgically celebrated by Hajdu and Chabon were extremely unsavory in their social attitudes. EC comics regularly featured husbands and wives ending marital spats with knives, axes, and poison. On the racial front, Will Eisner's much-loved Spirit featured a Sambo-like sidekick named Ebony White, who was childish, had thick lips, and spoke in an illiterate minstrel dialect."

The question as to Wertham's relative guilt or innocence in terms of his place in comic book history is a tough one. Certainly, as the result of his interference, a lot of crappy books came out from The Big Two until Showcase and Lee/Kirby.

On the other hand, having read a number of these EC horror titles -- some of this stuff is really, really gruesome. Having some sort of warning on those books as to the content, instead of racking them up next to Superman, might have prevented a lot of EC's grief. I know some people hate this argument, and hate the idea of putting warning labels on comics. But a comic about Superman meeting a caveman and a comic about a baseball diamond covered with internal organs are not the same thing.

I clearly remember looking at a stack of Fangorias when I was seven over some friend's house. Those images -- severed legs stacked on a table, melting heads -- played over in my head and gave me nightmares for years. I would say that these images of violence are far worse for a child to look at than even the T&A and "bad language" the American entertainment industry so assiduously tries to protect youngsters from. If I have to choose between reading the word "s**t" or looking at a boob in a comic and viewing someone getting their brains blown out, I'd pick the former.

Then again, Wertham seemed to have this idea that comics like Batman promoted homosexuality. Which is indirectly how we got that annoying Aunt Harriet in the TV show, by the way.

So maybe he was a jerk.

What do you think: was Fredric Wertham aw-ful or awe-some?

(note: I've seen his first name spelled "Fredric" and Frederic" on various websites. I'm going with Wikipedia.)


  1. The "awe-ful" part of Wertham is that he took hearsay and conjecture and essentially made that the conclusion of his argument. Sure, numerous of the adolescent boys he polled in Juvie read comics, but that doesn't necessarily equal a valid connection.

    He made some valid points about what the comics media presented to children in the 1950's, but without a true scientific study (and granted, the APA considered homosexuality to be a personality disorder in the DSM of the time period, so ethics were..lax) it's hard to truely lionize the man, no matter how well intentioned he thought it was.

    For further reading, please refer to my terribly poor thesis from college that no one has a copy of.

  2. I've come to accept that every hero will eventually be turned into a jerk by revisionist history but I did not anticipate that it would try to turn jerks into heroes.

    Wertham? Ignorant jerk.

  3. I'm not convinced his assertions, no matter how noble, are necessarily true. I grew up watching Bugs Bunny and Road Runner. I never believed you could blow someone up and they would just turn black. But guess which cartoons aren't on TV anymore. I remember in the 70s when there was a crusade against violent TV shows like Baretta, or Starsky & Hutch. Then in the 80s it was about the sex on Dallas and Falcon Crest. Now in the 90s it's violent video games and music. Maybe we should keep our kids from reading anything, watching anything and listening to anything. . .

  4. Anonymous2:49 PM

    Wertham was a jerk, but that doesn't mean he didn't have a point. Like all great scaremongers, there was just enough truth in his accusations to make it difficult to refute his claims. (Having a cranked up William Gaines as your spokesperson before Congress didn't help either.)

    The EC books were definitely not for young kids. However, they were also brilliant and subversive.

    In the end, the comics industry did themselves in. Congress didn't pass a law, the industry imposed the draconian Comics Code Authority on themselves.

    And the industry's greater sin was that they were not able to articulate the clear First Amendment issues that Wertham brought to light or to accept some measure of responsibility for some of the less than savory content that they were peddling to children.

    Somewhere in between a housewife dismembering her husband and baking his head in a pie and Superman singing with Pat Boone there was a vast stretch of middle ground that was unexplored until the seventies.

  5. I can go into a bookstore and find, stacked together, G rated Agatha Christie and much more explicit Ed McBain. There is no warning label.

    Comics should be no different.

  6. "I can go into a bookstore and find, stacked together, G rated Agatha Christie and much more explicit Ed McBain. There is no warning label.

    Comics should be no different."

    the only problem with that is when you have a precocious 11-year-old like I was taking out Jackie Collins next to her Encyclopedia Brown.

    Judy Blume, I think was ok for me to read -- even the more sexual stuff for teens like "Forever". But Jackie Collins was just all sorts of wrong.

    Of course, the librarian should have stopped me. I once got stopped for the Elmore Leonard, but I talked the librarian into it.

  7. I said this on Comics Should Be Good and I'll say it here. There's a great quote from an interview with author Bart Beaty on The Comics Reporter blog about his book about Wertham which I'll never forget:

    "When comic book fans tell me that Wertham should rot in hell for criticizing EC Comics I am mystified. Here’s a man who opened a free psychiatric clinic in Harlem at a time when he was one of a small handful of doctors who would even treat black psychiatric patients, working there no less then two nights each week as a volunteer, and providing testimony that was important to overturning American school segregation [he was a witness during Brown v. Board of Education], and we’re worried about the fact that he didn’t like EC? Talk about missing the forest for the trees."

    He wasn't a scaremonger. He was a left-leaning social crusader who felt that who saw that something potentially harmful to children was out there and he wanted it legislated. Note that: legislated, not censored.

    I disagree with the research findings and the broad brushstrokes in which he found all comics ultimately harmful, but I do agree with Valerie in that there is merit to many of his concerns.

    Also, Wertham wasn't just railing against the content in comics, he also objected to the sleazy business practices around distributing them.

  8. There's a difference between Looney Tunes and, say, Saw, Hostel, and other films of that nature. I mean, you can have violence at the PG-13 Lord of the Rings movies, and you can have it at the Sin City R.

    It's disingenous to claim there's no difference between a cartoon rabbit hitting a cartoon dog with a hammer, with no blood and no more harm than a few raised bumps and hallucinatory birds, and the gruesome, graphic depiction of one human being depicting another in full color, with full blood and sound and anatomical correctness.

  9. Anonymous5:14 PM

    There's something in between awful and awesome and I suspect Wertham falls in there. Many of his points weren't totally off the mark, but, I dunno, in a better world, the comic book industry would have worked with educational professionals to figure out what's appropriate material for whom and drawn up actual plans for distributing comics to their appropriate audiences and creating a broad range of quality releases. Instead, we get hearings and knee-jerk self censorship — as usual, an entertainment medium will act with any sense of reasonable planning, they end up being susceptible to censorous forces, and then must emasculate their own damn selves as punishment. We never seem to learn.

  10. Anonymous7:14 PM

    "Having some sort of warning on those books as to the content, instead of racking them up next to Superman, might have prevented a lot of EC's grief."

    Since EC's extremely gruesome covers accurately reflected the contents inside, I'm not sure what purpose an extra label would have served. "Hey, parents! This comic with the severed head on the cover might not be suitable for kids!" I mean, duh?

  11. What the Slate article misses is that along with the murders, EC comics also featured a vigorous, socially-progressive... dare I say it... liberal political agenda. One of the most famous covers (by Wally Wood) was an image of a KKK-like group involved in some characteristic depradation/terrorist act. The story inside made sure the readers understood these were bad, terrible people.

    Many stories carried a subtext supporting social and sexual nonconformity. I have the new Weird Science archive and in one of the stories, an angry father causes his daughter's fiance to transform into a woman... at which point she transforms herself into a man and the young lovers still make their wedding date. It's a daring, non-judgmental subversion of gender dichotomy and the persistance of love even beyond such considerations- truly they love the person, not the gender.

    Other stories combatted racism, or at least attempted to.

    So while the stories were frequently lurid and definitely showed some misogyny from time to time (wives were all too frequently depicted as shrewish), there was still something very subversive and wild going on with EC comics, and Wertham stilled that in its infancy with his simplistic confusion of cause-and-effect.

    Sure, juvenile delinquents read crime and horror comics. So did MOST kids at the time. Misguided social crusaders still fail to make this distinction.

    So for those reasons, I think Fredric Wertham was full of it. Good intentions don't make up for clumsy results- and American mainstream comics ended up aesthetically stunted as a result, curdled into a child's medium... a state from which they still haven't fully emerged. And they still carry an "icky" stigma, something that's not true of places like Europe and Japan where comics are enjoyed openly by people of all ages and socio-economic status.

    So, thanks, Wertham! You jerk!

  12. i have more problem with the busy bodies in individual small towns who took it upon themselves to start "drives" to rid their town of comics, and used social pressure to get other parents and kids to capitulate.

    each parent had/has the right of course to determine what their kid sees, but the 50s seemed full of people who saw themselves as THE Ultimate Authority to what their community could enjoy.

    i hope THEY rot in hell.

    Wertham did a lot of good in his life; except on comics, where he had his head up his ass.

  13. In an interesting bout of synchronity, I'm reading right now about Wertham, only not in relation to comics, but about his work as the alienist in the case of Albert Fish.

    all in all, I think the problem was that the Wertham was misguided. and the more I read about him, the more I wish he had never writen Seduction of the Innocent, because thanks to that, whatever good he might have done would always be shadowed by a very, very stupid situation.

  14. "Now in the 90s it's violent video games and music"

    *head tilt, brow knit*

  15. I can go into a bookstore and find, stacked together, G rated Agatha Christie and much more explicit Ed McBain. There is no warning label.

    Comics should be no different.

    Novels aren't a visual medium tho. You can convey a lot more offensive material or disturbing material or w/e at a glance with pictures :\

    I dun see a problem with a warning label or description of what's in it. I mean as a writer who posts a lot of fiction online I know a lot of stories have tags at the beginning to inform readers about what sort of themes are contained. We have NSFW stuff in posts. A tag or label isn't censorship in any way :\ It's just more information :) Like nutritional labels in food products :)

  16. I can't speak to his non-comic related work, so I wont call him a jerk. I will say honestly, I believe he did far more harm than good when it comes to comics, which gels with my general thoughts about people who make it their business to say what art is offensive and what isn't and contribute to the legislation of a medium.

    The whole idea of a rating system as an innocent tool of concerned parents has always struck me as naiveté. Ideally, yes, there should be a way of conveying the content of a comic book/album/book/movie and perhaps (though I suggest this VERY gingerly) a suggestion as to a potential age group it would appeal to. However, when has it EVER been that simple? Rating systems, more often than not, are motivated primarily by a desire to gentrify and suppress “unsavory elements” and or worse, economic reasons. The even self-policing organizations like the MPAA, the “Parental Advisory” sticker on music and the Comics Code have all acted as tools of suppression and have always had a distinct bias against cultural outsiders and have always had the support of concerned parents nationwide because it’s easier to just not have something exist than to eplain context.

    I really think he was part of an effort to snuff out some aspects of comics that were really amazing, insightful, and made great stories. Some of those old school EC comics i think have some of the most beautiful art and skillful writing (even in the most gory moments) you could find at the time. Adaptations of cultural mainstays like Poe and Hawthorne that simply CANNOT be more bloody and violent than the originals which are taught in schools (House of Seven Gables totally opens up with some dude choking to death on his own blood). And the whole idea of it being "more harmful if you show it..?" Seriously, has anyone even SEEN a movie? Things are INFINITELY more scary/menacing/influential/graphic if you DON'T see them, because you imagine them as way worse. I just don't buy it.

    Furthermore, as what ALWAYS seems to happen, what was probably at least well-intentioned censorship became a Comic’s Code (admittedly adopted by the publishers as self-censorship) used to reinforce the suppression of culturally “unsavory” elements, such as when the CC administrator Judge Chalres Murphy ordered EC to edit a story so as to not making the protagonist African American. I should hope that he found this particular usage of the CC repugnant given his social justice, but honestly, what did he expect? I'm sure his intentions were noble, but honestly, it all just seems very naïve and foolish for someone who was supposedly so smart.

    To his credit, it says in his wiki that he spend a great part of his later career writing about how fanzines are a healthy outlet of “constructive and healthy exercise of creative drives.” I don’t think he’s a bad guy, I suppose. He just got behind the wrong horse on this one.


    "the only problem with that is when you have a precocious 11-year-old like I was taking out Jackie Collins next to her Encyclopedia Brown."

    Honestly, Valerie, I think this statement alone is a testament to the fact that exposure to explicit content doesn't inherently degrade or harm young minds. You turns out pretty good, I think. Heck, they like talk aboutcha on Newarama n' shit. You totally hit the big time.

  17. I've already had my say on this issue over several essays but I want to adress Joel Bryan's point about the EC comics having good social messages. That's true, up to a point (although those messages were also heavy-handed and paternalistic in the style of 1950s liberal melodramas). But Wertham wasn't just concerned about what Gaines, Feldstein and others intended with with their stories, but also with how kids intepreted these stories. Wertham's work was based on clinical practise, that is to say the thousands of hours he spent talking to troubled kids. What these clinical interviews showed was that kids interprted the EC stories as having a racist message even when the purpose was the exact opposite (partially because the stories have "ironic" endings with good characters killed and partially because of their strong language, like "spics"). So as an analyst, Wertham was concerned about their impact.

    Bart Beaty talks about this on page 204 of his book -- it's worth taking a look.

    As I said in my various articles, Wertham was wrong on many different accounts, but his intentions were good and he made some valid points. Also, he was opposed to censorship for adults: he thought anybody over 15 should be able to buy any comic they wanted. But for kids, he wanted regulations. It's not a cut and dry issue at all.

  18. Wertham (and people who promoted his ideas in articles, Congressional hearings, and the like) scapegoated comics.

    Comics--by which I mean critics and fans like Feiffer and creators like Nelson Bridwell in Batman from the '30s...--scapegoated Wertham.

    Of course, some comics of Wertham's time deserved criticism, but he lumped them all together and blamed them for more than was reasonable.

    And for that, of course, Wertham deserved criticism, but comics defenders have heaped too much blame onto one man's shoulders.

    The first major attack on comics, I believe, came years before Wertham from Sterling North, the author of Rascal, the book about the cute raccoon. The best revenge on him, I believe, would be a good comics adaptation of his book.