In the long ago days of the 1950s the comics industry almost ceased to exist – and most point the finger of blame at one man: psychiatrist Dr. Fredric Wertham. But who was he? Come July 2024, the acclaimed creators behind Did You Hear What Eddie Gein Done? – crime writer Harold Schechter and comics auteur Eric Powell – reteam to explore the life and legacy of the notorious Dr. Wertham in Dr. Werthless: The Man Who Studied Murder (And Nearly Killed The Comics Industry) from Dark Horse Books. The 200-page hardcover graphic novel will hit bookshops July 30 and comic shops July 31, priced at $29.99.

The Dark Horse press release said:

“Acclaimed true crime author Harold Schechter, multiple- Eisner Award-winning cartoonist Eric Powell, and Dark Horse Books present a new true crime graphic novel, Dr. Werthless: The Man Who Studied Murder (And Nearly Killed the Comics Industry), arriving Summer 2024.

Dr. Werthless: The Man Who Studied Murder (And Nearly Killed the Comics Industry) examines one of the most polarizing figures in pop culture: Dr. Fredric Wertham. Reviled by comic book fans as a witch-hunting zealot who stirred up panic among the parents of America for his own self-promoting purposes, he was also a renowned psychiatrist who, among other accomplishments, opened a clinic in Harlem for disadvantaged African-American patients and played an important role in the desegregation of the nation’s schools. Believing that murder could be abolished through a proper understanding of the mental and social roots of criminal violence, he took a genuinely humane approach to some of the most notorious homicidal maniacs of his time. Among these was the monstrous Albert Fish, whose relationship with Wertham forms a key section of Schechter and Powell’s book, epitomizing the renowned psychiatrist’s deep contradictions: his enlightened efforts to shed light on the most depraved aspects of human behavior and his willingness to exploit his subjects’ lurid cases histories for his own commercial ends.”

Talking about the genesis of the book, Powell said:

“When Harold and I were discussing possible topics for another collaboration to follow Did You Hear What Eddie Gein Done?, the minute Harold said, ‘What about Fredric Wertham?’, I knew we had something. The history of comics, civil rights and some of the most shocking murder cases in America. And a polarizing, complex individual at the center of it all. I think this book will be fascinating to anyone who is a fan of true crime, American history, psychology or comics.”

Dr Fredric Wertham was a German-American psychiatrist who wrote the text that many believe incited the moral panic that led to the near end of the American comic book industry – asserting that comic books were leading to “juvenile delinquency”. The Seduction of the Innocent (1954) – with its fixation on obvious and subtle suggestions of drug use, sex, sexuality, violence and more within the pages of comic books supposedly read by children and accusations it was warping their minds – led the charge in an extremely heated moment of American culture that saw comics burnings, localised bannings, and congressional hearings…with the very real risk that the US government could shut down or regulate the industry out of existence.

Dr. Werthless
The notorious text itself – Dr Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent (1954)

One of Wertham’s legacies was the Comics Code Authority, a self-censorship board established in 1954 that was a last ditch effort by publishers to save themselves. Only comics passing extremely strict (draconian) requirements received the stamp of approval that made them viable for distribution to newsstands, pharmacies and grocery stores. The end result was the erasure or immolation of entire popular genres – including horror, romance, and crime – for decades and some publishers were forced to close. It took years for superheroes to find their feet again. In later years it was revealed that much of the interview evidence that Wertham used in Seduction of the Innocent were inaccurate, false, or ethically dubious but the damage was done. Wertham died in 1981, the CCA ceased to exist in 2011.