While Fredric Wertham is the archetypal real-life bogeyman of comics, his legacy is not all black and white. Bart Beatty, author of Frederic Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture and Jeet Heer debate Wertham’s portrayel in David Hajdu‘s The Ten Cent Plague at The Globe and Mail
Beatty for the defense:
Hajdu’s portrayal of Wertham substitutes a stereotype of the uptight German intellectual in place of the facts. In order to portray Wertham as a censor, the author ignores his long history as an anti-censorship expert witness. To present him as a dilettante obsessed with comic books, he has to mask his accomplishments as one of the foremost psychiatrists of his day. Most important, to depict him as a foe of children, he has to entirely ignore the monumental role Wertham’s research played in public education reforms, in particular desegregating U.S. schools in the 1950s.
These are the facts that work to undermine Hajdu’s thesis, and which made me a “defender” of the man.
Alas, Beaty’s apologia is not completely convincing. True, Wertham didn’t favour censorship and the rating system he advocated was eminently sensible. Still, Wertham used language so inflammatory as to give aid and comfort to censors and book-burners. “I think Hitler was a beginner compared to the comic-book industry,” Wertham argued. If Superman and Tales from the Crypt were more dangerous than Mein Kampf or Triumph of the Will, then it might make sense to have comic-book burnings, as happened in the Wertham era.
As for the conflation of children and teenagers, that’s Wertham’s fault. He constantly talked about protecting children, obscuring the fact the most violent and salacious comics were too wordy for pre-teens and were largely read by high-schoolers.
It seems to us that both are right. Wertham may have been scattershot and unscholarly in his attack on comics, but he did a lot of other good things. Life is not always like a comic book.