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Wertham: Friend or foe?

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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.


Heer responds:

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.

  1. Unfortunately, many of today’s comicbooks are not like a comicbook.

    If one reads the Senate hearing transcript, there were other experts who questioned Wertham’s findings. Also, it can be argued that without some form of controlling influence, media will find ways to exploit extreme subject matter. We already see this in Marvel’s “All Ages” titles (use of crystal meth in Spider-Man, Doctor Doom calling Ms. Marvel “a whore”, superheroes using “@#$!”)

    That’s the paradox of teen culture: how do you offer something considered forbidden without incurring the wrath of adults?

  2. Life is like the kind of comic books Wertham put out of business, the ones with irony, crooked cops, death, etc. In real life, Wertham is a bully, known to history as a bully. A two-dimensional, dime-a-dozen bully who shouted and threw sand in our eyes and convinced the good people to let him have his victim. We did, he did and we got what we deserved, including a nuanced, human Doc Wertham.

    Move along folks, there’s nothing here to see. Go back to your homes.

  3. I studied at John Jay College, part of City University of New York, under one of Wertham’s proteges. Wertham was an expert on crime and was a pioneer in early forensic psychology/psychiatry(see: catathysmic crisis), as well as an advocate for children and desegregation. I think his (misguided) targeting of comic books was consistent with his overall life’s work, and done with the best of intentions. This debate is indicative of the difficulty that is inherent when honorable intentions go awry.

  4. There are children and teens who get the wrong messages from comic books and even films, but comics and films didn’t make them that way. Harlan Ellison talks about visiting a juvenile reformatory in the 1980s and when he mentioned slasher films (the kind where the POV camera made the audience identify with the killer), his bored audience suddenly got very exicted. They loved those films. Even in Wertham’s book it’s clear that the parents of the juvenile delinquents were looking for outside answers so that they didn’t have to take responsibility for the way their children turned out. Adults often dislike what children like. In the 1980s when the Garbage Pale kids cards were big, parents protested against them and finally put so much pressure on a TV network that it canceled a Garbage Pale Kids cartoon show 3 weeks before the first episode was set to air.

  5. interesting, I always took what others said about him as truth. but I may have to revisit some of those past opinions.

  6. Wertham was, in fact, a follower of Marxist culture critic Theodor Adorno, whom Hajdu doesn’t even mention because that throws a wrinkle into Hajdu’s narrative about the comic-book scare being somehow related to the Red Scare.

  7. I recall reading that Wertham recanted a lot of what he said in Seduction of the Innocent in his later years, and became interested in fandom as a social phenomenon.

  8. All I know about this debate is that I couldn’t bring myself to read the stories of comic book burnings, especially those where children were manipulated into doing it.

  9. To address a few points other people have raised:

    1) Wertham knew Theordore Adorno socially but its a disputed point as to whether Adorno influenced Wertham. James Gilbert and Gerard Jones say yes; Bart Beaty says no; Hajdu, perhaps wisely, is silent. Beaty has done the most primary research on Wertham, reading tens of thousands of pages of his private papers, so I trust him.

    2) Did Wertham recant his views on comics, as some have suggested? It’s a bit complicated. He started reading comics fanzines and admired them because of their creativity. He liked the fact that comics fans weren’t just passive readers (as some of his patients were in the 1950s) but that they actively engaged with what they read. But I’m not sure that’s a real recantation or incompatable with the basic message of Seduction of the Innocent (which is about readers in general, not fans).
    3) Did Wertham say, as some seem to think, that reading comics makes kids into juvenile delinquints? No, not quite. He wasn’t that simplisitic. He said that comics (along with other violence in the media) was a contirbuting factor. But he also took into account poverty, racism, bad parenting, etc. He was a complicated guy and as much as I disagree with some of what he wrote, he deservers respect.

    It’s not right to say, as someone suggested above, that he was a bully.

  10. One of Wertham’s biggest problems was that he seemed to have no concept as to the necessity of a young adult’s grappling with difficult, controversial concepts, or even just satisfying a desire for a little trashy entertainment.

    Somewhere in SEDUCTION Wertham claimed that he wasn’t against adults reading adult material. He even testified in favor of some such novel. But he was silent on just what point it was appropriate for young readers to make the transition to more challenging works.

  11. to be truthful, the only other place I’d ever heard Wertham’s name spoken was in connection to Brown vs. Topeka. I duno what he thought about comics as being right, but certainly his ideas on the damage of segregation to children’s psyches is something to be commended.

  12. Hi,
    I don’t think Wertham mentions “segregation” as such in SOTI, which certainly wasn’t a concern of the comics themselves. He did object to comics’ demeaning racial stereotypes, asserting that they hurt the feelings of nonwhite readers. I’m tempted to make the smartass remark about how a stopped clock is right at least twice during the day, but I’ll forego it. It may be SOTI’s only genuine insight.

  13. Jeet Heer writes:

    “It’s not right to say, as someone suggested above, that he was a bully.”

    I, John Tebbel, said, in clear English, “Fred Wertham was a bully.”

    I’m as right as right can be. I quote the good doctor (from the National Parent-Teacher in 1949).

    “Don’t mix up the comic book problem with that of radio and movies. Radio and movies are important media with great achievements and a great future. Comic books are cheap, smudgily printed, tasteless productions. Their form is the very opposite of art or literature. Their content is either outright bad or a distortion of something originally good.”

    In December of that year Canada criminalized crime comics. No First Amendment. Pity.

    Maybe he was only pretending to be a bully?

  14. John Tebbel:

    But Wertham didn’t call for the banning of comics. Quite the reverse: he thought that anyone should publish any comic they wanted and sell them to anyone over 15.

    He wanted laws to protect kids under 15 from lews and violent comics. This isn’t an abridgement of free speech since kids don’t have 1st amendment rights (I believe the US Supreme Court is very clear on this). I’m sure you yourself would support some form of regulation of children’s reading habits — or do you think it’s okay for a 7 year old to buy and read Hustler or Penthouse Comix?

    The Canadian law you mentioned was drafted in 1948 (i.e. before Wertham wrote the article). Wertham wasn’t the only participant in the anti-comics crusade nor the most strident. And he didn’t support censorship or even self-censorship (he was critical of the Comics Code Authority).

    You quote Wertham as writing: “Comic books are cheap, smudgily printed, tasteless productions. Their form is the very opposite of art or literature. Their content is either outright bad or a distortion of something originally good.” This happens to be true of virtually every comic book published in 1949; the only exceptions were Eisner’s Spirit, Stanley’s Little Lulu and Carl Barks’ duck stories. There might have been a few other exceptions but not many. Most comics at the time were as bad as Wertham said they were. One critique you can make of Wetham is that he didn’t allow that there a handful of exceptions to his generally true description of comics.

    So to call him a bully seems completely false and unfair.

  15. “But Wertham didn’t call for the banning of comics. Quite the reverse: he thought that anyone should publish any comic they wanted and sell them to anyone over 15.”

    I’m not sure what “quite the reverse” of calling for a ban on comics would be, but it wouldn’t be a ban on comics for some of the people.

    “He wanted laws to protect kids under 15 from lewd and violent comics.”

    This is the job of parents, not laws. If there’s no one around to parent, this child has more problems than any censor can fix.

    “I’m sure you yourself would support some form of regulation of children’s reading habits”

    Wrong again. If it’s not the parent that’s doing the regulation, it’s bogus grandstanding.

    “— or do you think it’s okay for a 7 year old to buy and read Hustler or Penthouse Comix?”

    It’s wonderful to see this old straw man propped up again. And here’s the match: most seven year olds are in what’s called the latency period in which the things that arouse adults are as ineffective on a child as truffles and caviar. And a sensible newsstand would not sell such a product to a seven year old if one were precocious enough to ask for one. No need to call in the cops.

    “The Canadian law you mentioned was drafted in 1948 (i.e. before Wertham wrote the article).”

    I meant no straight-line connection between any paragraph and any legislation. Wertham was quite active in 1948.

    “Wertham wasn’t the only participant in the anti-comics crusade”
    He was in a leadership role, sponsoring stacked-deck symposia, incendiary gallery shows, writing stuff and nonsense early and often. It’s no accident or injustice that he wears the albatross.

    “nor the most strident.”

    I guess I beg to be educated on this point. Who was the most strident? Or who were the other two making up the three most strident?

    “And he didn’t support censorship or even self-censorship.”

    A ban, even an age specific ban, is censorship. As a psychiatrist, he must have been having a joke on us if he ever wrote he was against “self-censorship.”

    “(he was critical of the Comics Code Authority).”

    Everyone but the publishers it saved was critical of the CCA. Judge Murphy threw up his hands after a year because it was a sham: he wasn’t given the resources to even attempt the job at hand. The publishers got a more compliant executive (the heat was off anyway, they didn’t have to pay for a judge anymore, or even an ex-dogcatcher) and the beat goes on.

    “You quote Wertham as writing: “Comic books are cheap, smudgily printed, tasteless productions. Their form is the very opposite of art or literature. Their content is either outright bad or a distortion of something originally good.” This happens to be true of virtually every comic book published in 1949; the only exceptions were Eisner’s Spirit, Stanley’s Little Lulu and Carl Barks’ duck stories. There might have been a few other exceptions but not many. Most comics at the time were as bad as Wertham said they were.”

    You’re both wrong. Your fig leaf “virtually” and “few other exceptions” are not good enough for me and not good enough for a free society. The same could be said of paperback books or big hole 45s.

    None of this has much bearing on the bully label, which in the end boils down to tactics. That he had some good will or was embarrassed by the unintended consequences seems off that point. I’m sure this dialog helps to point out to anyone who cares that the wrongs associated with the name Wertham went far beyond any bully’s schoolyard tyrannies.

  16. John Tebbel:

    I think there is a significant contradiction in your position. First you state that the regulation of childhood reading should only be the responsibility of parents, and no one else. “This is the job of parents, not laws. If there’s no one around to parent, this child has more problems than any censor can fix.” (The implication of this by the way is that society has no obligation to look after orphans or children who are neglected by their parents).

    Then, in response to a hypotethical question as to whether 7-year olds should be allowed to buy Hustler or Penthouse Comix, you respond that it’s not a problem because 7 year olds are are in a latent stage (questionable: 7 year olds also have a lot of curiosity) and also that “A sensible newsstand would not sell such a product to a seven year old if one were precocious enough to ask for one.” But if you’re saying that “sensible” newstands have a right to decide what to sell or not to sell to children, then you’re admitting that children don’t have absolutely free speech rights and also that concern for children extends beyond parents into the larger community.

    So in essence your big difference with Wertham is a matter of degree, not kind. Like Wertham, indeed like any sensible adult, you think that there exists images that children could harm children and that it is “sensible” to keep children away from them.

    As for whether the law should be involved or not, that’s largely moot since the preferred American way is to have self-regulation. An 10 or 11 year old can’t see any movie they want (because the film industry regulates itself) nor can he or she buy any magazine they want (because magazine publishers, distributers and newstands all agree that certain magazines should be adult only), and they can’t buy “adult” comics either (since both the comics code and the general practise of comic book stores is to keep such material off limits to kids). Because self-regulation exists, there is no public appetite for a law. But believe me if you had industries that wanted to sell X-rated material to 10 and 11 year olds, you’d have laws written up pretty quickly.

    As for the larger question of whether Wertham was a bully or not — what exactly did he do. He wrote articles and books condemning comic books. He also advocated a law that wasn’t passed. You may disagree with these activities but they hardly constitute bullying. If comic book publishers have the right to publish whatever they want, then don’t other people have the right to criticize comic books. Wasn’t Wertham just exercising his free speech rights?

    As for who was more strident than Wertham, I’d say virtually everyone else who criticized comic books in the late 1940s and early 1950s used language and tactics more extreme than Wertham. Many schools organized book burnings — that’s not something Wertham supported. The American Legion also took part in these burnings as did many religious organizations. And if you want to really read a screed attacking comics, look at G. Legman’s Love and Death.

  17. I’m sure these hypothetical orphans would prefer that the government expend its energies on health care, not limiting reading choices.

    There is a difference between a retailer choosing what s/he will sell to customers and the government enacting laws.

    As a parent, I never counted on the movie ratings system to tell me what was an appropriate movie for my child. I would bet you could walk into nearly any movie theater and find people in the seats who were not the intended audience.

  18. My position on press freedom, kids reading, etc. is to the left of yours. It is not inconsistent, just different than yours. It is not new or new to me, so I’ll stick to the new wave of Wertham apologia that is gripping the nation.

    Legman, a charming eccentric, was a peep in a chickencoop compared to Dr. Wertham’s seven year grand aria. You can call off the search, there is no other individual in Wertham’s league. And the resolutions of the American Legion conventions don’t approach his rhetoric either.

    One thing Wertham was not was shy or self-effacing. The Wertham I’ve read would not be pleased to think that he was being forced to share the credit he deserves for alerting the nation to the clear and present danger of a single comic book falling into the hands of a child.

    And Wertham can’t escape shame for the burnings. None of the outcomes satisfied him, did they? He didn’t call for this, he didn’t call for that, what he wanted was impossible (but he shan’t be held accountable for that). Terrible things happened and he moved on. Narcissist, I’d say, to start.

    However he accomplished it, he did far more harm than good, at a cost of nothing but history’s jeers. Poor baby. If he’s not a “bully,” we should hate him none the less for what he did and how he did it.

  19. Oh, I absolutely agree that if your interest is in improving the lives of kids (orphans and non-orphans alike) your priority should be 1) health care 2) better and more equitable schools 3) nutrition, etc. And you really shouldn’t focus too much on what comics they’re reading and what movies they’re watching.

    My only point was that we as a society accept all sorts of regulations on what can be sold to kids. The use of the language of freedom and censorship when talking about kids seems excessive given this fact. Since comics are no longer, for better or worse, a kids medium, the issue is moot.

  20. This isn’t about children, and no children were helped in the slightest by his malignant attack on the comics.

    The revisionists can have their fantasy Wertham whose notorious badgering of comics is overshadowed by his minimal, brick-in-the-wall achievements as a criminal psychiatrist, his completely inconsequential support of the fanzine, and a few private musings, never released in his lifetime. Anyone who reads the record will forever recognize a scoundrel.

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