Some sixty years ago, comics were under attack from parents and politicians alike as being the cause of juvenile delinquency, crime and other social ills. Social pressure upon the comics industry grew from 1950 to 1954 until at last in June of 1954, the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency “urged” the comics industry to curtail its overweening excesses or face direct legal regulation. After the formation of the Comics Code Authority, an independent body that regulated the content of every comic book for “suitability” to children, comics sales plummeted. Company after company closed their doors, and the industry hit an all-time creative low that lasted over a decade, until the explosion of underground comix in the late 1960s.
At the center of all this controversy was a book, Seduction of the Innocent. Its author was a German emigré named Fredric Wertham, a brilliant psychiatrist who had pioneered the organic study of the brain and founded the first psychiatric clinic in Harlem.
Various comics historians have decried Wertham as a McCarthyist, a self-serving egotist whose only purpose in life was to doom the comics industry. The latest in this long line of condemnations is Carol Tilley’s “Seducing the Innocent: Fredric Wertham and the Falsifications that Helped Condemn Comics.”
I’ve argued the limitations of Ms. Tilley’s work elsewhere and was met with the usual response from comics fans: How dare you not demonize the person who killed off comics, Great Satan that he is. Though scholars like Ms. Tilley always claim to be setting the record straight, in truth they have no desire to do so. Comic books fans have their official hagiography of comics that simplifies reality to all the moral simplicity of a Frank Miller story.
So I’ll present an alternate view: That Fredric Wertham was a great advocate of free speech and personal expression. And that his involvement with comic books was far more complex than historians are inclined to note.
Reprinted here is an interview I did with Leonard Rifas on the subject back in the days before the Disneyfication of the medium. Mr. Rifas is a cartoonist, comics publisher and comic book fan himself whose paper “Fredric Wertham, Scientist” was presented at the first conference of Comic Arts Scholars. He has continued to write about issues of race and class, and to argue for the educational power of comics as a medium.
Seattle Star: What do you think are some of the most common myths about Wertham’s work?
Rifas: Well, one of the myths that I find especially interesting is the idea that he was the McCarthy of comic books. This is very seldom fleshed out in any detail, but there is a suggestion that is made again and again that Wertham did his work in the context of McCarthyism, and a persistent implication that Wertham acted in a McCarthyite manner.
Wertham was working in a McCarthyist environment, certainly, but he was working against McCarthyism. He testified on behalf of accused atomic spy Ethel Rosenberg. He named his clinic after Karl Marx’s son-in-law. He campaigned against lenient treatment for fascist sympathizer Ezra Pound. His work against comic books was part of his larger project to fight against social tendencies which he saw as harmful, including militarism, racism, fascism, harsh treatment of juvenile delinquents, and so forth.
Rather than singling out and attacking individuals as members of a conspiracy, Wertham was very reticent about identifying the people whose work he was attacking by name. He was not terribly interested in their individual identities, which can be frustrating for the historian or fan who tries to trace Wertham’s sources.
One of the ways I get my first impression of a comic book historian’s take on Wertham is whether they fall into this simple equation of Wertham = McCarthy. If they do, it tends to lower my opinion of their study.
Seattle Star: How about the notion that Wertham was a proponent of censorship?
Rifas: Well, there’s another one where the evidence is very clear. The first public testimony he gave against comic books was in the context of defending the right of nudist magazines to circulate through the mail. One of his favorite rhetorical strategies was to say that comic books were much worse than other stuff that people considered harmful. So, in this example, he said, “You’re condemning these nudist magazines, but I just picked up this comic down at the corner store…” and then went into a long, long description of the kinds of violence against women that appear in these comic books–available to people of any age.
That’s only one example. He was a pioneer in fighting censorship as a psychiatric witness.
Seattle Star: That’s very interesting. I know he was a fairly well-known German liberal, but isn’t it odd that a German liberal should move from Germany to England, then to the United States to escape from the rising conservatism of Europe, only to be condemned here as a McCarthyist? How do you think that got mixed up?
Rifas: I think that it got mixed up for a number of reasons. One is that there is a big discontinuity in our dealing with that period, and with Wertham in particular. He came out with Seduction of the Innocent, the comics industry responded with the Comics Code, and then the industry collapsed.
This all happened very quickly. By the time anyone was really thinking about his arguments again, a number of years had gone by. From that distance of time, certain things had melded together. There came the attack on Hollywood–which definitely was more of an inquisition to stomp out liberal perspectives. So that’s one thing: the comic book controversy got combined in popular memory with the Hollywood story.
But there’s more to it. Wertham in Seduction of the Innocent devoted a few pages to permanently antagonizing two separate influential groups. One was the EC Comics fans, and the other was the DC superhero fans. Comic book historiography is pretty much divided between those who come out of the underground comics tradition, which looks back to EC for its inspiration, and the superhero fans.
Seattle Star: Let’s sketch out some background. I’m familiar with Wertham’s work as a clinical psychologist. The first thing of his I recall reading was “A Psychosomatic Study of Myself” in a book called When Doctors Are Patients. That was 1952. Twenty years earlier, he had done the first book on the study of the brain as an organ. Ultimately he opened a psychiatric practice in Harlem.
Rifas: Yes. The LaFargue Clinic
Seattle Star: Right. That was in 1946. That was where he first came into contact with the trouble youth that occupy his later concerns. He began to work with the poor black families of the area and two years later produced his first book about the connection between social forces and violence, called The Show of Violence.
In that book he stated that:
The power of human violence is not only great on the direct victims, but in its influences on the orientation of society as a whole as well. That is why the control of violence-producing factors occupies a key position in the power structure of any society.
This, in the postwar period when many comics had become geared toward adults: more violent, more explicit. After he had opened the LaFargue Clinic, and seen some of the comics these kids were reading, he began his so-called “crusade” against comic books.
So that brings us to Seduction of the Innocent. Can you give a basic summary of the arguments in the book?
Rifas: Seduction of the Innocent was continuous with his and other previous criticisms of comic books, but took the argument forward in several ways. Most famously, Wertham claimed to have discovered a link between reading crime comics and committing crimes.
The metaphor he used was “tipping the scales.” In a number of places in the text he says that comic books are not the only factor, but could be one more factor which would “tip the scales” in some instances toward kids’ committing crimes or engaging in antisocial behavior. Also, his book proposed that there be some sort of state regulation to ensure that comic books with adult content would only be sold to people over the age of fifteen.
There were other important points–for example, the argument that comic books were teaching children race prejudice. From his base in Harlem, this was a big concern for him. 1954 was not only the year of Seduction of the Innocent but also of the Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. The Board of Education of Topeka, KS, which relied in part on studies that he conducted to show that state-enforced racial segregation was harming children.
Rifas: And one of the ironies there is that the people who responded to his book most strongly were not the progressives with whom he might have had more political agreements, but with social conservatives.
That’s another reason why Wertham’s argument is not remembered very clearly. When it came to the situation on the ground, so to speak, the progressives really had their plate full at the time. A lot of the kids whose comics were going up in flames were having them burned by people who were much more sympathetic to McCarthyism than Wertham ever was. There’s a terrific irony there.
Seattle Star: In the summary of Seduction of the Innocent, he wrote that “Comic books are not the disease, they are a symptom. They are more important as symptoms than as causes. The same social forces that produce crime comics make other social evils.” Now, if Dr. Wertham was not saying that comics are the disease, then how did that conception arise from the book itself?
Rifas: In the book he wrote that there is a whole matrix of causes, a whole universe of factors that are involved. But he just mentions it. He hardly even lists them. His attention is relentlessly concentrated on comics throughout. This is in contrast to his case studies of murder in The Show of Violence where he tried to sketch out a fuller description of the world the person lived in. Part of the problem, then, is Wertham’s own doing.
Seattle Star: I often hear how Wertham “took things out of context” or “played fast and loose.”
Rifas: Well, you can’t expect him to have reprinted entire copyrighted stories. The thing that’s important about Wertham’s examples, the thing that immediately separates his work from all others before him who had made the same criticisms, was that Wertham showed panels to illustrate his points. It’s a testament to the importance of pictures that when people saw these images reprinted in large circulation magazines they were stirred to action.
Seattle Star: It seems that his overall method in Seduction of the Innocent is much less thorough than in The Show of Violence.
Rifas: I have heard it said that Seduction of the Innocent was originally to be an 800-page manuscript that consisted largely of case studies.
Seattle Star: That would certainly have had a different effect.
Rifas: One of the strengths of Wertham’s approach was that he focused on individuals and individual circumstances. The problem with the book is that it gets reduced to a few extreme types of cases which are easy to mistake for his entire argument, then dismiss.
Seattle Star: Do you think that Wertham’s critics are more prone to point out that aspect of his work than to consider what he was really after?
Rifas: There’s not a lot of reason for people in comics to try to understand what he was after. The comics community is bound together as a community by having a certain shared history, certain shared experiences, certain shared heroes and villains. And Wertham is a very valuable shared villain. He brings together comics fans and comix fans.
On the other hand, one reason to study history is because false ideas about how we got to this point can generate lousy strategies for getting to where we want to go from here. Some comic book fans are mobilizing to prevent a repetition of 1954 but without understanding what happened in 1954. Lack of knowledge makes it easy to make false moves.
Seattle Star: That’s poetic.
Rifas: Wertham championed “social psychology.” A lot of what people think about Wertham gets folded in with stereotypical ideas of what psychiatrists do and what they believe, especially psychiatrists of that period. So even though in some ways he was a sort of marginal character in the psychiatry of the time, he nevertheless gets painted with the same brush.
Seattle Star: Perhaps a lot of misconception in this instance is based on the fact that Wertham tended to lump all comics together.
Rifas: Yes. I think the weakest part of Wertham’s argument is that he really did condemn the entire medium as a whole, and was very reluctant to see any potential or achievement in it.
Seattle Star: Yet he later wrote a very positive book about fanzines.
When Wertham wrote The World of Fanzines, he drew a very sharp dichotomy between the commercial comic book industry which was grinding out these brutal, censored stories on a regular basis and had all the bad features of comics books, and these fanzines, which were lively, humorous, genuine, and direct–everything a person in favor of a democratic culture would applaud.
In the years since that book came out, I think what we have seen is a cross-fertilization. The commercial comics have become more artistically self-conscious. They’ve given more power to individuals for personal artistic expression. They’ve certainly become more free in the kinds of material they deal with. At the same time, the self-published, smaller, fanzine-level work has included a much larger component of people expressing very bitter, violent, degrading kinds of messages like the crime comics of old.
Seattle Star: Since Wertham was not an advocate or proponent of censorship, do you have a clear summary of what he was proposing?
Rifas: As opposed to censorship?
Seattle Star: Yes.
Rifas: Wertham’s position was that there was no case in history of a regulation of children’s reading matter leading to a more general regulation of adult reading matter. Taking care to protect children was a precondition for opening up freedom of expression for adults. What eventually happened in the 60s with the rise of the underground comix, in a way, vindicated his position. Because it was not until comic books were distributed openly and with the restriction that they would only be distributed to people above a certain age that freedom of expression was restored the the comic book medium. Not only was it restored, but it flowered in a way it had never done before.
Seattle Star: There again is an irony, because the underground cartoonists took it upon themselves to parody the Code mercilessly.
Rifas: Oh yes.
Seattle Star: Which he was not responsible for, but there is some link between him and the Code, is there not?
Rifas: Well, the strongest link to the Comics Code is between it and the movie code, the Hays Code, which arose for the same reason: a frightened industry trying to preclude government regulation by regulating themselves.
Seattle Star: I know Dr. Wertham personally hated the Code.
Rifas: He was opposed to it.
Seattle Star: Quite opposed. He went so far as to write, “At present it is far safer for a mother to let her child have a comic book without a seal of approval than one with such a seal.”
Rifas: I think that, because the Comics Code was a self-censorship code, it did not impress him very much. From his point of view, the content of the stories had perhaps been toned down, but there was still the same undertone of callousness and brutality. I don’t know. It’s hard to say. He believed in a more direct regulation. Wertham belonged to a generation that had more faith in government regulation than is currently fashionable.
Seattle Star: How do you think the current comics situation relates to the situation of comics before the Code?
Rifas: It’s like a pre-Code situation in that most people are unaware of what is going on in comics, and that if they did know, a great many of them would agree that comics have gone too far in their depictions of sex and violence. More importantly, it’s like a pre-Code situation in that a few big companies are in a position to sharply choke back freedom of expression if they feel their profits are threatened by government regulation.
And the issues are the same. Open discussion and condemnation of misogynist, militaristic, racist, degrading comic book content does not threaten free expression in comics. “Freedom of expression” does not mean freedom to speak without fear of contradiction. Freedom of expression is freedom to participate in a discussion. The comic book industry’s reluctance (or inability) to draw clear distinctions between material appropriate for children and material that is not appropriate for children weakens public support for all freedom of expression in comic books.
Seattle Star: Leonard, it’s nice to talk with you.
Rifas: Thanks, it’s been educational. Best of luck with your magazine!