Tonight in SoHo, a panel of comics all-stars will discuss the Carol Tilley’s Seducing the Innocent, which purports to expose industry bete noire Fredric Wertham as a fraud. What’s more important for us today, however, is understanding why he was right.
Tilley’s article has received a fair bit of play in recent months, and understandably so. Besides bringing to light new details from the recently opened Wertham archives, the article also affirms the fundamental righteousness of the comics community and other free-speech progressives continuing to oppose calls to censor pop culture. As Jeet Heer and others have noted, Wertham is the community’s own super villain, a totem of the arrogant self-deception threatening all that is good.
Yet the misbegotten pursuit of virtue can go both ways. While we tug at a few stray details in our effort to prove the man whose research helped end segregation was nothing but a lying racist prig, we tend to overlook how Wertham’s intuitive grasp of comics, society and law was actually more insightful than our own. To recognize this is not to concede that his programmatic agenda in regard to comics was correct–in fact, it can help us understand how our community can respond more effectively to similar challenges today.
Was Wertham a fraud?
Given the meme now circulating as to Wertham’s campaign of deliberate deceit, it’s worth pausing for a moment to note a couple caveats about the charges themselves. First, as Tilley notes, her charges against Wertham aren’t actually new, at least in their broad strokes–there were critics of Wertham’s evidence and techniques back when his influence was at its peak.
Which in itself should not be a surprise. There’s a fine tradition in academia and the sciences of criticizing the methodology of the previous generation, and Wertham, a German immigrant pushing 60 at height of the anti-comics furor, exhibited an approach to information gathering and interpretation that was cutting-edge in the 1920s but seen as woefully inadequate by then modern standards.
Plus ca change and all that, of course–today’s empirical scholarship is itself a reaction against the alleged inadequacies of analytical patterns from a couple-three decades ago, which in turn criticized the approach then current among many of those who were attacking Wertham. While such critiques can have their merits, they can also descend into pettiness and character assassination in ways that reflect agendas outside of the pursuit of more accurate research, as exemplified by critics’ glib dismissal of Wertham as “imperious,” priggish and guilty of such horrendous sins as citing examples from comics that were five years old.
In fact, one could even turn the same critique against Tilley’s article. Instead of aggregating all of Wertham’s factual claims and calculating how many of them had a credible basis, the article slags the man’s reputation for veracity on the basis of a few anecdotes. Moreover, these anecdotes themselves arguably don’t fairly represent what Wertham claimed. For example, Wertham acknowledged that he was drawing the work of other colleagues and junior researchers, so the fact that a couple of his stories came from cases he didn’t handle personally is no more the sign of a clueless fraud than popular books by psychiatrists today that include anecdotes from a clinic or colleagues.
Yet there’s a danger in this sort of devil-in-the-details bloodsport, as illustrated by the rejection of one of Wertham’s contemporaries whose work was similarly rejected due to its alleged lack of research rigor and fudging of details. Today we celebrate Marshall McLuhan as the prophet of the electronic age, but at the time academics savaged McLuhan’s work as that of a fraudulent hack. Whatever the flaws in his approach to gathering and presenting data–and they were many–McLuhan’s capacity for pattern recognition was nonpareil.
The example of McLuhan is particularly relevant to the Wertham case, inasmuch as Wertham, like McLuhan, was engaged in making an inventory of the effects of comics as a medium.
Consider the accusation that Wertham skewed his research by focusing on comics-to-crime correlations while hiding other factors. In fact, in Seduction and elsewhere Wertham was forthright in asserting that he wasn’t making a comics-to-crime direct correlation. His argument was actually more subtle. As Wertham repeatedly explained, he was making a broader point about how even small influences within a social environment can have disproportionate effects.
Although we don’t tend to use the same language, Wertham’s argument’s are more familiar and accepted than we admit. Wertham’s understanding of comics as a medium that shapes our perception, identity and actions is McLuhan before he became McLuhan, albeit with one important exception that we’ll discuss later. Nowhere is this more evident in Wertham’s assertion that comics were making the younger generation illiterate, an assessment that McLuhan and his disciple Walter Ong would soon systematize in their landmark discussions of the shift away from a linear textual culture.
Wertham’s disavowal of direct correlation in favor of indirect systemic effects reflects the emergence of dynamics systems theory, which at the time was continuing the development that had begun in the early 19th century and the birth of modern social science. In this regard, Wertham’s metaphor of social health anticipated our current analytical vocabulary in interesting ways. Take, for instance, his description of comics as a “bacillus” that had spread throughout our social environment. Today we would call this going viral.
Where Wertham differed from a media or systems theorist was his preoccupation with social order and legal responsibility. Bart Beaty has already done a stellar job of describing Wertham’s place in the shift from reform-minded progressive research to the more (ironically) Germanic scholarship of the contemporary academy, but rather than focusing on how Wertham was superseded it’s worth focusing on how he was trying to advance our understanding beyond the dominant frameworks of the early twentieth century.
Wertham’s emphasis on health metaphors had a different resonance in the 1940s and 1950s than they have today. They marked a subtle shift away from the genetically based eugenics that had dominated Western progressive thought in the decades leading up to World War II and even a few years afterward. Wertham’s argument, expressed not just in his comics work but his research in support of desegregation, was that non-whites and the poor were not inherently defective. Segregation, prejudice, mass incarceration–the mainstream’s response to poverty, crime and difference was not only counterproductive, it failed to respect others’ core humanity as well as the corruption wrought by the mainstream environment itself.
While certain particulars can be seen as outmoded, the core insight continues to be relevant today, from urban strategy based on the broken windows theory to the use of architecture, zoning and social design to enhance community life. Wertham’s approach is also consistent with the current struggle within legal theory with such issues as America’s incarceration culture to the culpability of human agency in light of the subconscious shaping influences of our social environment and cognitive processes.
Comics as change
This brings us to Wertham’s specific allegations about comics. Once again, if Wertham’s a fraud, he’s a damn clever one. While we might disagree with his critique of some of these effects (most notably his views of human sexuality, which at the time were the clinical norm), his assessment of values and themes evident in comics was for the most part correct.
Comics fostering a sense of unbounded imaginative transformation? Sure, for Wertham it’s sinister, but if the core description is bunk we might have to rethink our affection for Calvin and Hobbes.
The gay subtext in comics? Today you can get tenure writing about how Warhol aptly distilled it in his 1962 painting Superman – Puff; art galleries and charities regularly explore the theme; and Michael Chabon won a Pulitzer with a novel that in part turned this subtext into text. A similar point can be made in regard to Wertham’s finding sado-masochism in Wonder Woman (a direct hit, confirmed by what we later learned about Marston) as well as the sexually exploitive depiction of women more generally.
Superman as a fascist corporate power icon? Yes, it’s easy to call out Wertham for missing Siegel’s and Shuster’s judaism, but his central point regarding icons of corporate control is textbook proto-Foucault (and proto-Frank Miller, proto-Watchmen, proto-Kingdom Come …). We should also acknowledge–following the lead, if I recall correctly, of Craig Yoe–that Wertham called attention to DC’s systemic mistreatment of creators years before the comics community itself.
On a deeper level, what connects all of these assessments–including the assertion that comics can be a factor in antisocial behavior–is Wertham’s conviction that comics as a medium have the power to change who we are. Just as McLuhan saw artists as prophets of a culture where people have fluid identities with multiple roles, Wertham sees comics as a medium that both depicts and transforms.
For an example of the same point made in more positive terms within comics itself, we need look no further than a comic that came out today–Grant Morrison’s Action #18, which expresses his decades-long theme of comics as a medium that creates a new reality, making the impossible possible. Sometimes the effects are destructive, even nihilistic, but properly understood the same transcendent impulse can enable us to become something more.
Dismissing Wertham as a hack and fraud may make us feel good about ourselves and our community’s past, but outside of that it has little probative or strategic value as a means of countering censorship today. The same goes for the adamant insistence that comics have no relevance to antisocial behavior. In contrast to Morrison’s more honest and accurate metaphors, our model of comics in academics and advocacy tends to be anodyne. Comics have power, yes, but only the power to be comfortable, familiar and safe.
However, comics, like all media, are dangerous. By insisting otherwise, we come across as naive and self-serving, much like ideological researchers whose empirical research always just happens to align with their agenda. We also do a disservice to comics themselves, which are valuable precisely because of their capacity to foster systemic change.
Instead of engaging in a futile campaign to persuade people that the fusion of words and image is not what is, we would do better to concede the point. For instance, Wertham presented an intriguing opening with his uneasy blend of cutting-edge media theory with his most glaring retro mistake: the more traditional, linear depiction of comics as an instruction manual that served as a textbook for crimes. Trying to refute this on its own terms was a self-defeating distraction. There was far more potential in explaining how comics are indeed powerful and disruptive, so much so that they only way to deal with them effectively is not to impose restrictive laws, but to teach kids how the medium works.