by Nicky Wheeler-Nicholson
Frederic Wertham’s name is akin to the devil incarnate in the comics world. Wertham was one of the ringleaders of the anti comics movement in the early 1950’s with his book Seduction of the Innocent. Carol Tilley, scholar, professor and librarian at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who has written extensively about the subject gave a panel on Thursday morning at NYCC under the auspices of the American Library Association.
These are smart people and if you think you’re entitled to geek status, these people not only know their comics and love them but can also place them within the context of history and culture. And if your second thought is—oh librarians, and yawn…dull—far from it. Carol is not only smart and funny, uses lots of interesting visuals but her talks are also lively and thought provoking.
In looking at what we’ve lost Carol pointed out that in the early 1950’s about 95% of elementary age kids were reading comics. Teens and adults were also reading comics. From the moment comics arrived on the scene in the early 1930’s kids loved them and the titles proliferated. Once Superman started throwing villains and automobiles around the number of genres and titles became prolific. After World War II comics became more mature and there were 600 new titles in a decade. That’s a lot of comics.
Wertham’s campaign against comics was part of the death knell that led to the much smaller percentage of kids reading comics today. Comparing the smaller percentage of 7 million in sales today to over 1 billion in the early 1950’s tells the tale. That the prejudice against comics led to the reduced readership is important for everyone in the industry to understand.
Carol not only has done research in the usual avenues but has also researched specific teenagers from that period who responded to Dr. Wertham’s message of anti-comics. She gave some fascinating examples of kids crusading against racial stereotypes and a young woman who set up a lending library for comics during this period as well as the cogent arguments presented by teens who wrote to Dr. Wertham in response. Carol pointed out that social media is nothing new since comics have long supported social media through the fan letters printed in comic books.
One of the major results of Carol’s scholarship and research is the fact that Wertham fabricated some of his statistics in his zeal to eradicate comics. In other words there was no necessity for the Comics Code, which was in existence until 2011.
From the very beginning of comic books librarians used the image of Superman urging kids to read. Today’s librarians celebrate comics because they encourage children to read. This is one of the basic foundations of the inception of early comics. Carol’s challenge to the librarians in the group was to point out that in the Wertham scare the ALA did nothing and to ask them what would they do if something similar to the Wertham campaign happened today? Who says comics are silly and shallow—not in this panel.