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365 Reasons to Love Comics #91

Doctor Week slips into Day Eight. Today: a doctor I’m sure you all know and love and have waited to see appear in this column since day one.

4/1/07

91. Dr. Fredric Wertham

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Let me tell you about a man and a book that changed my life.

Dr. Fredric Wertham (1895-1981) changed the face of comics forever with his little book called Seduction of the Innocent in 1954. And thank God. I know everyone always says it, but Dr. Wertham was the one actually thinking about the children. After all, EC had been publishing some ghastly stuff with beheadings and eye injuries and all sorts of grotesque violence and hidden sexual deviances, and Dr. Wertham was the guy to shed light on the horror that was overtaking American youth. His help arrived not a moment too soon.

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Dr. Wertham was a renowned psychologist who had done extensive research on the topic of juvenile deliquency and criminal behavior, and discovered an important fact: all of these social miscreants read comic books at some point in their lives! Clearly, it was this part of mainstream culture which held the most reprehensible influence on the criminal element. Terrible crime and horror comics, especially those published by EC, were slipping in under parents’ noses and corrupting their children. Something had to be done. Dr. Wertham was the man to do it.

His book, Seduction of the Innocent, expounded on all these findings. All comics, even superhero ones, glorified crime and violence. Comics art was chock full of hidden female nudity. Batman and Robin and Wonder Woman were totally gay. Hell, Wonder Woman was filled with all sorts of dirty fetishes, like that bondage motif. Dr. Wertham even testified to the United States Senate about his findings, and how comics were causing juvenile deliquency. Parents across the nation banded together in uproar. If they couldn’t trust an expert witness and brilliant psychologist, who could they trust?

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Clearly, the only recourse was censorship. EC Comics tried to escape some of it by turning publications like MAD into “magazines” instead of “comics,” but much of their line was culled. The Comics Code Authority was put in place in order to maintain order and decency in the comics medium. All comics were extensively scrutinized by a panel of judges and anything remotely objectionable– not just actions or events in the pictures, but also bad words, like “terror,”– was immediately thrown out. Some claimed this made all comics watered-down pap, but we know the truth: it made comics safe for our children. It certainly reduced the crime rate.

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Thank God for Fredric Wertham. Now, some will tell you that he reversed his position later in life and said comics weren’t that bad– but don’t believe that. Clearly, his research into the comics world, coupled with what must have been senility, warped his mind in later years. If comics could get to the esteemed Dr. Wertham, by God, what could happen to weaker men and women like us!?

If Dr. Wertham had not stepped in, think of what could have happened to our society. Comics would have run rampant with terror, gore, sex, and horror, masking itself as “diverse content!” Young boys and girls would turn into criminals and deviants instead of upstanding, righetous citizens! Shame on those sick comics people. Didn’t they know comics have always been for children!?

Alas, Dr. Wertham died in 1981, basically down the road from me, in Allentown, PA. It was a terrible loss to the world’s morality. However, it may be a good thing he did not live to see today’s comics industry; it would have destroyed him. The once-mighty Comics Code has been crushed under the bootheel of terror and tyranny, and sickening violence and sex runs rampant in what used to be a children’s medium. Deviant adults take pride in what they think is “serious, mature” storytelling. It’s a shame they’ve been so warped by the deranged minds of these “writers” and “artists.” I’m certain that solid case studies could prove comics not only cause delinquency and crime, but also obsesity and, perhaps, beardedness.

Dr. Wertham was a great man, and his legacy is being tarnished by the current comics industry, which seeks to undo all the moral progress that a great man once set into motion. These villains must be stopped. Who’s with me? Let’s reinstate a strong Comics Code! Let’s censor this degrading and miserable content! Let’s save the children! They’re our future, dammit! We cannot let this horror go on, or America will fall! Don’t let the terrorists win!

QUESTION OF THE DAY:

If Dr. Fredric Wertham, the mighty moralist, and Dr. William Moulton Marston, the maniacal fetishist and creator of Wonder Woman, were to fight to the death on a rickety rope bridge suspended above a volcano with bo staffs, who would win?

31 Comments

I’m certain that solid case studies could prove comics not only cause delinquency and crime, but also obsesity and, perhaps, beardedness.

And blindness. You forgot blindness.

And a very happy April First to those of you at home. :)

Dr. Marston would get distracted by the ropes making up the bridge and it would be all over.

You know, in Watchmen, when the psychologist dealing with Rorschach comes home disturbed by the stories he’s heard all day, we see him as sympathetic.

Wertham had this guy (http://www.crimelibrary.com/serial_killers/notorious/fish/index.html), Albert Fish, *decades* before Ed Gein, Psycho, Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the like had conditioned people to the realities of the criminally insane. Add in the fact that juvenile delinquency was seen as a major threat to America (you have read All-Star Comics #40, from 1948, right?) from the time after WWII to the rise of rock and roll, and Seduction of the Innocent was basically just inevitable. Wrongheaded, to be sure, but still, it didn’t come from nowhere or from Wertham’s own depravity. He was just like the vice cop who comes to see the whole world as corrupt. I think he should be pitied rather than reviled.

I’ve read Seduction of the Innocent.

Honestly, dude’s arguments were at least well organized, and he did seem to genuinely care about his kid patients. Was interesting reading, much less crackpotty than I thought it would be.

April Fool’s Day aside, is Dr. Wertham a reason to love comics? I think he is.

Not because he was right (he wasn’t), and certainly not because of the companies that were ruined, or because of the idea– still prevalant to this day– that comics are children’s entertainment. He was the Jack Thompson of his day, only back then they didn’t have nifty words like “asshat”.

Because of Dr. Wertham, we got the Comics Code– and because of the Comics Code, we got the more informal Code of the Superhero– the Silver-Age Superman never tells a lie and never takes a human life, for example, which is in sharp contrast to the Golden Age Man of Steel. Because of the Comics Code, writers had to find more ingenious ways to express complex psychological ideas and to be entertaining– and so we got giant typewriters and The Case of the Invisible Batman and Superman’s New Power.

So, really, if you look at it from a historical context– if it wasn’t for Wertham, there would be no Silver Age. I’m not saying that censorship is ever, ever right– but at the same time, about ninety-percent of the totally wonky and frickin’ awesome reasons why Bill loves comics probably never would have come into being, if it had not been for this uppity asshat and his book.

Marston in a minute thirty.

It is because of this man that most modern comic fans still think every book should be a code happy love fest in capes and tights.

Forget the bondage, eye gouging, cliff throwing, back shooting, flesh melting, and electricutions (and that was just the superheroes) of my grandfathers comics.. nope it didn’t turn him into a psychopath as a child.

So why do they think children today want the boring code approved stuff you were forced to grow up with? When they can go get those things out of an X-Box?

“If Dr. Fredric Wertham, the mighty moralist, and Dr. William Moulton Marston, the maniacal fetishist and creator of Wonder Woman, were to fight to the death on a rickety rope bridge suspended above a volcano with bo staffs, who would win?”

Everybody.

Everybody would win.

Clearly, the only recourse was censorship.

As I understand it, Wertham himself wanted a rating system, with some comics marked as only for sale to children over 13 and put on a top shelf – which hardly seems unreasonable.

huh . . .

never thought of it that way before.

By wiping out EC and its whole genre, Wertham inadvertedly led straight to a whole new type of comics…
And straight to the silver age.

Now I like him better, I guess.

Weird old fucker, tho.

Forget the bondage, eye gouging, cliff throwing, back shooting, flesh melting, and electricutions (and that was just the superheroes) of my grandfathers comics.. nope it didn’t turn him into a psychopath as a child.

How do you know? Did you meet your grandpa as a child?

I recently read one of those sweet ass EC reprint hard-covers and have killed someone everyday since.

If Dr. Fredric Wertham, the mighty moralist, and Dr. William Moulton Marston, the maniacal fetishist and creator of Wonder Woman, were to fight to the death on a rickety rope bridge suspended above a volcano with bo staffs, who would win?

I often consider this scenario, one day I’m going to have to produce it as a pin-up. Wertham would be armed with an over-sized syringe embedded in a drippy eyeball, and Marston would have electrodes attached to his skull and a length of vulcanized rubber hose.

“As I understand it, Wertham himself wanted a rating system, with some comics marked as only for sale to children over 13 and put on a top shelf – which hardly seems unreasonable.”

There was a big to-do in the eighties when DC was considering implementing some kind of ratings system, which many creators equated with censorship. I never really understood that, myself.

The argument was that book-books don’t have such a rating system or any warnings about its content. And, at least in Michigan, it’s against the law to prevent a child from getting his hands on a “grown-up” book. (Actually, in Michigan libraries, it’s against the law to prevent anybody of any age from checking out any material regardless of content.)

Could it be that this distinction– books and paintings don’t have advisory ratings, while movies, comics, and video games do– is what, perversely, keeps these media regulated to the sidelines as mere “children’s entertainment”, as opposed to Art?

No, because books do have advisory ratings. There’s a voluntary system whereby publishers label their books as “Children”, “Young Adult”, “Teen”, and so on, and recommend them for specific age groups. It’s inconsistent at times, but then again, books have had their difficulties with censorship and banning as well. Perhaps they need a better ratings system.

Not to mention, I don’t think that movies are regulated to the sidelines as “children’s entertainment,” to be honest. I think the explanation is fairly simple–any new medium, or indeed movement, goes through a period of disdain from established critical sources, during which time they’re not considered artistically valid by said sources. Eventually, society grows to accept them as Art. (As has happened with movies, as is happening with comics, and as will happen with video games.)

“There was a big to-do in the eighties when DC was considering implementing some kind of ratings system, which many creators equated with censorship. I never really understood that, myself.”

The theory — and, mind you, I’m not wholeheartedly endorsing this — is that if there is a ratings system, the lower ratings will sell better (or even just be expected to sell better), and, thus, creators will be pushed, and even push themselves, to cut back on the material which will make for a higher rating. Personally, I think there is certainly some truth to this, but I think that, realistically, they do the same thing now anyway, they just don’t have a specific (third-party) board telling them “If you cut this, it will be more appropriate for children.”

“Could it be that this distinction– books and paintings don’t have advisory ratings, while movies, comics, and video games do– is what, perversely, keeps these media regulated to the sidelines as mere “children’s entertainment”, as opposed to Art?”

Movies, television, comics, video games, and music are all media that are often marketed to children, and a child can easily have access to, so parents groups began to complain and push for government intervention and mandatory ratings systems. The MPAA, the Comics Code, the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, and the “Parental Advisory” sticker were all instances where the industry voluntarily set up a ratings board rather than having the government force them to. The TV Parental Guidelines were government enforced, possibly because television requires more federal rules because it’s on the public airwaves.

I think it could be debated whether movies and music are art or not, but I certainly think they both are, even if parents want to think they’re protecting their children (in most cases, the ratings quickly wind up as little more than a token gesture with absolutely no consistency).

I must reveal the truth. In the grand EC tradition, I am really my own grandfather.

It is because of this man that most modern comic fans still think every book should be a code happy love fest in capes and tights.

I thought it was because of Showcase #4 (1956).

If you would like to read more about Dr. Wertham and the circumstances which led to the formation of the comics code, then you would do well to visit this website:

http://www.thecomicbooks.com/1954senatetranscripts.html

Which has all the transcripts of the 1954 Kefauver US Senate hearings on Juvenile Delinquency where Comic Books took centre stage and has all the players speaking before the senate, including Dr. Wertham, Bill Gaines and even special guest stars like Walt Kelly and Milton Canniff. Well worth a read.

He was the Jack Thompson of his day, only back then they didn’t have nifty words like “asshat”.

Bart Beaty wrote a book on Wertham, Fredric Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture, which I think goes to try and put the man’s work way more in context than most comic fans do. In an dialogue about his book on The Comics Reporter, Beaty says at one point:

When comic book fans tell me that Wertham should rot in hell for criticizing EC Comics I am mystified. Here’s a man who opened a free psychiatric clinic in Harlem at a time when he was one of a small handful of doctors who would even treat black psychiatric patrients, working there no less then two nights each week as a volunteer, and providing testimony that was important to overturning American school segregation, and we’re worried about the fact that he didn’t like EC? Talk about missing the forest for the trees.

(Beaty’s specifically mentioning Wertham’s testimony in Brown vs. Board of Education about the negative effects of segregation in case you’re wondering).

Feel free to read more of the dialogue at:
http://www.comicsreporter.com/index.php/briefings/commentary/3607/

I’m not wild about what was wrought in the wake of Seduction of the Innocent, and I don’t agree with a lot of what he wrote in Seduction (which I read years ago)…but I’m not sure if I’d ever call him an ‘asshat’ either, and a comparison with Jack Thompson isn’t entirely accurate either.

Norton Zenger

April 2, 2007 at 3:14 pm

While I find it hard to characterize the effects of Wertham on comics as a good thing, I do think it’s true that so-called “moral panics” can at times have unintentional good results. I am thinking here of the 1980s “Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons” campaign, which directly inspired Richard Garriott to write Ultima IV, the Best Video Game of All Time.

Say what you like about the old prude, Identity Crisis would never have been published on *his* watch.

I suppose something should and can be said about context, as Mr. Burk (and Beaty) points out above.

For example, Petain did a lot of good in the Great War. I don’t know where the Resistance got off demonizing him just because he was head of the Vichy government.

Mark_Lucas_TBP

April 3, 2007 at 7:37 am

“The Great War,” was WWI.

Petain and Wertham aren’t a good comparison. Petain claimed he was just trying to hold the line by working with the Nazis, but in truth he needed little prodding from them to start loading Jews into train cars. He was just another who bought into the Jews as scapegoat mentality that I have never understood.

According to comments above, Wertham was a scientist and doctor who attempted to use legitimate methods to study what he percieved as a possible societal problem. His rating system would have been less intrusive than the Code, in that some things that never passed Code would still have gotten to the (higher) shelf. My guess would be that the politicians, wanting votes and newspaper magnates, wanting money, made comics into the monster villain. Just like they did with Hollywood and the Hays Commission.

Although, I can see Wertham getting caught up in all of the furor and becoming more extreme.

I think Petain is almost as specious a comparison as Thompson.

He wasn’t a right-wing blowhard like Thompson. He wasn’t just conceding to the prevailing forces like Petain. He was a psychiatrist who disagreed with the mature subject matter found in comics and felt it shouldn’t be read by children and, in his view, it had a link with juvenile delinquency based on his professional work. And he found the industry itself had contemptible business practices at a distribution level that prevented retailers from selecting what they felt was appropriate to sell.

I don’t agree with him– I think as we’ve seen in succeeding generations with TV and videogames and Goosebumps novels and other cultural trends, most kids are attracted on some level to gore and scary stuff and violence. It doesn’t make them abberant or deliquents, it’s just a part of a pre-pubescent experience that probably goes back to tales of Ichabod Crane and beyond. But I understand his motives. He was a left-leaning social crusader who saw that something potentially harmful to children was out there and he wanted it legislated. (Not censored, legislated.)

The central irony with Wertham is that he wanted legislators to acknowledge something about comics that its fans also clamoured to be acknowledged (for different reasons) decades later: comics weren’t for kids. It’s his intransigence (not ‘not just for kids’ but ‘not for kids’) that causes me to part company with him but I also think there’s a lot there that isn’t quite so clear cut: Wertham rather than being the moralist prude straw man many comics fans make him out to be may simply have seen further ahead than many.

Anyway, I’d give Wertham odds over Marston in a head-to-head match any day. Marston was, quite literally, too much of a lover to be a fighter.

The Petain thing was a joke. (Forgot the smiley.)

Wertham did do a lot of good, just as the USA has done a lot of good, just as Religion has done a lot of good; Wertham also did a lot of bad, just as the USA and religion.

BTW, I knew the Great War was the first World War; it was his service in _that_ war (the “good” that he did) that made him a hero and that’s likely what caused his death sentence to be comuted.

You SUCK!!!!!!!!

You……SUCK!!!!!!!!!

Rev. Adam (Church of the SubGenius)

March 2, 2008 at 9:14 pm

If Dr. Fredric Wertham, the mighty moralist, and Dr. William Moulton Marston, the maniacal fetishist and creator of Wonder Woman, were to fight to the death on a rickety rope bridge suspended above a volcano with bo staffs, who would win?

I-Ching.

He is just that awesome.

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