Jeet Heer examines both side of the Wertham legacy in a piece in Slate.

So, who is right, Hajdu or Beaty? Did Wertham have a point? Beaty’s revisionism is valuable in forcing us to see Wertham as a complex historical figure, not an easy-to-dismiss cardboard crank. Still, Hajdu is right to point out that Wertham’s ideas of proof were extremely primitive, more forensic than scientific. (Wertham had often testified in court cases, which skewed his sense of evidence.) Wertham thought he could prove his point by stringing together many anecdotes collected from his clinical research, making his claims virtually unverifiable.

More: Pop Culture Safari.


  1. One of the untold stories in the comics crackdown is the influence of the demise of the eugenics movement. Before WWII and the Holocaust, prominent social reformers focused on eradicating the genetic basis of social disorder. The cause of poverty, crime and mental illness was diagnosed as the product of a flawed bloodline, such as breeding with an “imbecile” or someone from a “degenerate” ethnic group.

    The Holocaust pretty much discredited that approach–the Nazis openly adapted its principles and practices, thereby creating a Bizarro world version of charity and social programs in the U.S. What comes after the war is a series of social critiques that can be seen as a displacement of genetics with degenerate consumption.

    That’s one reason why Wertham’s involvement in civil rights reform is not really an outlier in my eyes. He was part of a broader generational reaction against racial and ethnic disparagement in social institutions. Nonetheless, Wertham also used the same tools as his predecessors–arguments from science and psychology–to brand people as problems based on what they wrote or read.

    There’s other stuff going on here too, most notably a virulent reaction of a text-based culture against image-based communication, which the literate assumed to be irrational and dangerous. Beyond all the root causes, the result was the same: a society at war with itself.