Friday, 15 February 2019


Welcome, culture-lovers, to another guest post by Bashful BARRY PEARL, where he takes a look at FREDRIC WERTHAM's (in)famous book, SEDUCTION Of The INNOCENT.  Let's not waste any more time with introductions from me, let's get straight to the meat and potatoes.  Take it away, Barry...


I thought this would be a good time to look back at Fredric Wertham’s attack on comics during the 1950s.  Why now?  Because his notes and records have only recently become available to scholars.

1955 brought Dr. Fredric Wertham, author of Seduction of the Innocent, to Senator Kefauver and his new committee looking into juvenile delinquency.  Wertham and the committee sensationalized the issue drawing attention almost solely to comic books.  They did not, at this time, bring much insight into the many societal causes of juvenile delinquency -- poverty, lack of jobs, opportunities, and lack of good parenting -- and seemed to just blame comics for all teenage evils.  Given time they would have included acne.  I know that a broken clock is correct twice a day and the same thing happens to be true for a broken doctor.

Wertham was correct, some of these stories were gruesome and should not have been available to children, but his book did not scientifically link juvenile delinquency to comics books, it just sensationalized the issue.  By scientifically, I mean using methods that were repeatable and verifiable.  Wertham found images where no one else did.  Judges, journalists and medical professionals challenged his results, but they were ignored amid all the furious cries of outraged parents and teachers.  Wertham also continued to treat the entire genre as if it consisted solely of crime comics, when nothing was further from the truth.  He also claimed that Superman, created by two Jews, was a Nazi and that Wonder WomanBatman, and Robin exhibited homosexual behavior.

There are different opinions about Wertham’s work, but many people confuse their view of his intent with what he actually published.  While people may have different opinions, we should not have different facts.  When I read his book as a teenager in the 1960’s and saw him on TV, I thought that he was trying to promote himself as an absolute authority, someone not to be questioned.  For example, in the 1960s, he still advocated the banning of comics because he said the lettering could cause blindness.

I do not have to use the polite words of a professional - Wertham made up many of his findings, distorted the truth, ignored important facts and didn't ever see many of the young people he claimed to.  The innocents that were seduced were parents and book buyers, whom he wanted to follow his lead.  Apparently Zealots don’t care about the facts as long as they can succeed in getting their views across.

There were catastrophic consequences to his book and the congressional hearings that followed.  Hundreds of people lost their jobs when dozens of publishers went out of business.  Publishers were made out to be villains.

And so, comics were forced to change and for a decade were written mostly for children.  Wertham said he was against censorship, but would also say a higher authority was needed to control comics.  If that isn’t censorship what is?  Wertham altered his speeches and changed his tune in different sections of the country.  In New York, where the major publishers were, he had said that he only wanted to ban "crime comics", which he said made up only 6 percent of the titles.  In other parts of the country he would say "crime comic books are comic books that de­pict crime, whether the setting is urban, Western, science-fiction, jungle, adventure or the realm of supermen, 'horror' or supernatural beings."  In other words, just about all serious comics.

Wertham maintained that a huge majority of the thousands of troubled children he saw read comics and that was a major cause of their problems.  Even as a teenager, this bothered me.  How could one man treat thousands in just a few years?  And he was seeing a limited sample, only troubled youths.  His patients did not include well-adjusted kids;  how did they react to comics?

Even as a pre-teen, I liked girls.  Still do.  I thought of them all the time!  Wertham suggested that reading Batman and Robin could make many boys not like girls, because Batman and Robin had an inviting gay lifestyle.  And, of course, Wertham considered gayness a terrible, infectious, affliction.  What did reading comics have to do with sexuality?

Carol L. Tilley, in the historical journal of Information & Culture (2012), presents a lot of the missing pieces in her enlightening and important scholarly work, "Seducing the Innocent:  Fredric Wertham and the Falsifications That Helped Condemn Comics".  Ms. Tilly studied the papers of Wertham that had been donated to the Library of Congress, but were unopened until 2010.

We discover that many of the children used for Seduction’s examples were not seen by Wertham, but by others, in many institutions.  Most of the children had long-term disorders, which Tilley lists as including "undesirable habits" (e.g., masturbation and nightmares), "personality traits" (e.g. daydreaming and restlessness), and "undesirable behaviors" (e.g. truancy and disobedience)".  Wertham, it turns out, had not seen all those children and relied on the reports of others.

Tilley researches the gay issue:  "In Seduction, Wertham proposed that homosexual men identified strongly with the Batman comics...  More specifically, Batman and Robin offered readers 'a wish dream of two homosexuals living together.'  Wertham shared the insights of a young homosexual man who stated, 'I think I put myself in the position of Robin.  I did want to have relations with Batman.'  The young man... was actually two men, ages sixteen and seventeen, who had been in a sexual relationship with one another for several years and had realized they were homosexual by the age of ten.  Wertham combined their statements, failing to indicate that the seventeen-year-old is the one who noted, 'The only suggestion of homosexuality may be that they seemed to be so close to each other' and omitting the phrase that followed, 'like my friend and I.'  Further, Wertham did not make any mention that the two teens had found the Sub-Mariner and Tarzan to be better subjects than Batman and Robin for their early erotic fantasies."

There are several other inaccuracies and falsification of data on this subject, such as Wertham mentioning Batman totally out of context to a subject’s statement. "Wertham’s treatment of evidence in Seduction and his responses to questions about his comics-related research were indicative of a larger pattern of spurious and questionable behaviors."

In one more example, Wertham states that strong female characters could not just ignite lesbian desires in young women but cause them to hate men and behave criminally.  He cites a 13-year old girl named Dorothy, as an example.  She writes: "Wertham commented that the images of strong women reinforced 'violent revenge fantasies' against men and possibly creates these violent anti-men (therefore homosexual) fantasies...  Sheena and the other comic book women such as Wonder Woman are very bad ideals for them."

Tilley writes: "Wertham also declined to mention in Seduction that Dorothy - in addition to being habitually truant - was a runaway and a gang member, was sexually active, and had both a reading disability and below normal intelligence… Most telling of all, however, is a key fact Wertham omitted from Seduction: Dorothy was Dr. Mosse’s patient, not his, and as she was hospitalized at Kings County Hospital, where he did not practice, he would have never spoken with or observed her."

Stan LeeWBAI radio:  "Wertham was the psychiatrist who came along and he blamed comic books for virtually every ill that has ever befallen mankind and I was very disappointed in him."


Interesting stuff, eh?  I'll make my own views known in the comments section eventually, but hopefully some Criv-ites will respond before then and thank Barry for his efforts on our behalf.  I'll start the ball rolling by saying thank you, Barry, for taking the time and trouble in supplying something more substantial than my usually trivial efforts.


Oscar Dowson said...

As Prof Marston had a movie made about him, so should Wertham; a filmic case study of hysteria, gullibility, moral panic and professional malpractice all manipulated for political ends. Netflix should be all over it.

Kid said...

I think Wertham was right to be concerned, OD, given some of the content in comics at the time. Trouble was, he over-egged the pudding. However, a badly argued case doesn't necessarily mean that the case itself is bad. Would make a great story, though biopics ironically often indulge in the sort of manipulation that Wertham stands accused of.

Anonymous said...

Wertham was a reactionary moron. Period.

His head would explode if he was around today with kids watching internet porn and playing violent video games.

Kid said...

Expressed in your usual understated way, CJ. And are you suggesting that there's nothing wrong with kids watching Internet porn and violent video games? I'd say there is - and I'm not a moron (despite the song).

Anonymous said...

No, Kid - I'm suggesting Wertham massively over-reacted about comics.
And I doubt kids are particularly affected by porn and video games. There's a lot of moral panic about these things but little proof they do any actual harm. Society was far more violent in the past, long before comics, porn or video games ever existed.

Kid said...

Well, it's all right looking back with hindsight, CJ, but by the standard of the times, the content of some comics was shocking. What to do, wait until they know for sure whether something is harmful or not, by which time it may be too late, or play safe by confronting something that, whether or not it causes juvenile delinquency, is hardly healthy for young minds? Sure, he went too far (something I've never denied, incidentally), but there was a kernel of truth behind what he was saying.

As for Internet porn doing any actual harm, I'm sure poor wee Jamie Bulger's parents wouldn't agree with you. Violence has always existed, as you point out, but that doesn't mean society should be complacent about it's possible modern causes. And there are loads of psychologists who'd disagree with you that there's little proof about porn and video games doing any actual harm.

McSCOTTY said...

Some of the stuff that's on the internet is foul. I was watching a documentary on the dark web recently very very distressing and i think a lot of things like (so called consenting) porn, video games etc can act as gateways to truely distressing things. Whilst i do think most folk are sensible this stuff surely must affect some people adversley. Re Wretham for me he overreacted but maybe had a wee point but went about it all wrong. It's very different today people have access to so much data most great some of it bad . I certainly don't want people to be policed but we Have to self edit whats acceptable.

Kid said...

At one time, PM, there was a consensus in society about what was right or wrong, good or bad, but that's no longer the case - at least not to the same degree. Therefore, 'self-editing' about what is acceptable is difficult when people have different ideas about what is and is not acceptable. I've read some bloggers say that comics could never have a negative or harmful influence on anybody, only for those same bloggers to claim what a GOOD influence comics had on them. If some comics can have a good influence, then it's only logical to conclude that some comics can have a bad influence - depending on what exactly the content is of course. And that's the important factor to remember - it isn't the 'carton', it's the content.

McSCOTTY said...

Good points Kid I have to admit I do think the lines have blurred between what is acceptable and what is not. I agree some films, book and comics have all had positive effects on me so the opposite must be true as well imho.

Kid said...

It's only logical, isn't it, PM?! Yet some people just can't or won't see it. Wertham took it too far, but his intentions were good - and presumably sprang from a desire to tackle what he perceived as a problem in society. Did he also want to make a name for himself? Perhaps, but the two aren't necessarily mutually-exclusive.

Barry Pearl said...


May I respectfully disagree with you. You don’t know Wertham’s intentions. We all can say we want the best for children, although comics were being read by adults too.

Wertham lied! To make his point he falsified evidence. He put hundreds of people out of work. He lied, so why do you think he telling the truth when he said he wanted to help children?

By falsifying evidence he stopped or delayed real programs that could have helped children. He Led Congress down a false path.

It also put a shadow over real research. The comics code did nothing to stop problems with teen agers. But now people began to question the work of proper researchers.

Please don’t say someone can lie, put people out of work and hurt children, but that’s okay so long as they say “I want to help.”

Kid said...

Of course you may disagree with me, Barry - I never shrink from publishing opinion different to my own.

However, YOU don't really know Wertham's intentions either - unless he personally expressed them to you.

And you'd be amazed by how many people 'lie' and 'falsify evidence' in pursuit of making their case. Scientists do it all the time. Not always intentionally (or even knowingly), but it's part of the human condition to cherry-pick bits of information that best makes our case.

Consider this: In one of Von Daniken's books, he describes his descent into a cavern in quite some detail, written as if he is recounting his own experience. It was later revealed that he himself was never in the cavern and that he was relating someone else's description who was acting on his behalf. So he lied - but the details of his description of the cavern were not in doubt - it was an accurate description, just not one based on his own experience.

Stan Lee claimed to have debated Wertham, but it was later revealed that he hadn't, he'd merely debated a 'Wertham-ite'. Does that negate Stan's claim that he won the debate? No, it just means that he never debated Wertham himself. (Given Stan's memory, he may simply have forgotten it wasn't Wertham he debated.) What I'm suggesting is, that just because Wertham was using other doctors' patients and/or research, it doesn't in and of itself prove that the research wasn't accurate or reliable. (Not that I'M claiming it was, I'm just saying that I don't know it wasn't.)

Whether or not it was one or two boys relating their sexual fantasies about Batman and Robin may not be a 'deal-breaker', because it's the content of their statements that is relevant, not necessarily the fact that it was a 'composite' account. And whether they fancied Tarzan or Sub-Mariner even more than Batman hardly matters; Werthan was perhaps merely keeping things tidy out of expediency or laziness.

I'm afraid you don't help your own argument when you say "Wertham was correct. Some of these stories were gruesome and should not have been available to children" because it means you recognise that there was a problem that needed addressing.

Hundreds out of work? I've read claims that this was due more to a general decline in the sales of comics anyway, than any specific involvement by Wertham, but I don't know how accurate this is. And if comics had gone on the way they were going, then we'd never have had the Marvel Age of comics and been all the poorer for that. How do you know that most of those 'hundreds' didn't go on to bigger and better things and were grateful for it?

Did Wertham prove a link between comics and juvenile delinquency? Well, no - it's too big a subject to be able to do that anyway, but that doesn't mean that there was no case to answer. Some comics MAY have had an influence in the case of some instances of juvenile delinquency or antisocial behaviour, but at this late stage we'll never know for sure.

And did Wertham ever 'hurt' children? I don't think you've provided any examples where he did, Barry, so perhaps you'd expand on that.

Gene Phillips said...

I don't know that Wertham's intentions are all that meaningful. He describes his intent in the book, and one can take his statements at face value or not. However, his honesty comes into question when he, the book's author, does not construct a fair-minded argument.

I'm sure that parents were duly shocked when Wertham described gory murders from horror comics. What many readers in the day probably did not notice was that Wertham doesn't just harp on gore, but on any kind of violence. I've seen some of the examples he cites-- for instance, one of Fawcett's NYOKA comics-- and Wertham fulminates just as much over bland hero-villain fisticuffs as he does over explicit gore.

I've never read anything detailed about Wertham's early years in Germany, but I've sometimes wondered if he might've led a really sequestered life. It's my recollection that his parents were upper middle-class. So despite the fact that Germany had its own tradition of pulp magazine entertainment, it may well be that he had very little exposure to that entertainment in his early upbringing. Thus, when he came to America, he only became interested in American popular fiction because he conceived that it might be responsible for juvenile deliquency. Thus pop fiction became, to paraphrase his opening chapter, a "weed" that could be duly excised from a prim and proper garden of young flowers.

Kid said...

His honesty maybe, but perhaps more his ability (or lack of it) to argue his own case - it's hard to know for certain. Some people can be honest but deluded, and honestly believe what they're saying is true while being wrong. It could simply be the case that he was convinced his viewpoint was true based on the worst excesses of some comics, but then viewed everything - even the milder examples - as being equally as bad. Interesting what you say about his background, and it wouldn't surprise me if you were right in your speculation.

Unknown said...

Wertham's witch hunt on comics was a much a sign of the times. America during the 1950s saw McCarthyism and the rampant communist paranoia it fuelled.I am just surprised he didn't appropriate some blame on thè commies as well.


Kid said...

Maybe it's overstating the case to call Wertham's concerns a witch-hunt (maybe not), but the way America reacted to such things was surely a sign of the times, what with committees and congressional hearings and the like. The way some sections of the public responded was more like a witch-hunt, what with burning comicbooks, etc., but I think parents had/have a right to be concerned about what their kids are exposed to.

I'm trying to find the piece I read that claimed it was more for longstanding economic reasons that publishers went out of business than Wertham himself, but haven't yet. It might not necessarily be true, but it's interesting to consider when evaluating the reasons for such a thing.

One thing's for sure though - we wouldn't have had Eagle comic in the UK (regarded as one of the finest comics ever) if it hadn't been for concern over crime and horror comics, and the US (and us) might never had Marvel comics - or comics at all come to that. The phoenix always rises.

Barry Pearl said...

What is good here is that the Kid and I have a very different view of this issue. We discussed it but there is no animosity that we see so often on the internet.

Kid, living in the US I can safely say that the Comics Code and Wertham put several companies out of business. They went after EC and the code even says that certain words, that were used in EC titles, were forbidden on the covers. Many stores moved comics to the back.

The lack of adult comics certainly hurt sales. But that was only part of the problem. First the new medium TV was then offering westerns and detective stories for free. (Although the TV cost $1,000 in our money today!) Novels became cheaper as paperbacks, which were new back then, were being introduced. Teenagers had more money but more places to spend it: On records (new too to homes), transistor radios, movies, concerts and teen age magazines and so much more.

Inflation was a VERY big killer in a way not often discussed. New magazines were being introduced in the 1950s, selling at much higher prices than 10 cent comics. These magazines got more and more shelf space, limiting comic sales. Had comics let their prices increase, they might have done better.

Yeah, Wetham and Congress hurt the industry

Kid said...

But maybe some companies deserved it, Barry. After all, as you yourself admit, some of the contents were pretty shocking. However, the code overreacted for sure, demanding pointless changes that were completely unnecessary. (Too much smoke coming out of a gun barrel for example.) However, that's what usually happens in such circumstances - things swing from one end of the spectrum to the other. I actually happen to think that the code made some writers and artists more creative, in the same way that having a similar kind of code in the film industry made movies more creative - and ultimately more entertaining too. I've always found Alan Moore's superhero comics far more entertaining when he was working within the parameters of the code than when he was given free rein.

And comics have always had their ups and downs throughout their history, with contributors having to seek employment elsewhere. For all we know, some of those who became unemployed perhaps went on to better things, but comics certainly benefitted in the long run. Had they continued the way they were going pre-Wertham, we may not have had a US comics industry at all today. Wertham and congress may have kicked the shins of comics, but ultimately they survived.

And yes, you're right - all those other factors played there part as well. See? A sterling example of how to hold and express dissenting opinions without falling out over it. If only some other bloggers would take note.

Barry Pearl said...

Here is an article that features Leonard Darvin, Roy Thomas, Carmine Infantino, and James Warren talking about the comics code from 1974:

Kid said...

Thanks, Barry - I'll read it later on today.

Barry Pearl said...

“Had they continued the way they were going pre-Wertham, we may not have had a US comics industry at all today”

Kid, that is true for all industries and companies. I don’t know what it is like in Great Britain, but few companies or even industries, have lasted 80 years as comics have without going through major changes.

DV, Marvel and Archie have survived 80 years, but ownership and direction has changed many times. The 1950s lost over 25 publishers, due to the factors we discussed.

But the late 1960s in the 1970s saw the loss of many of the biggest comic book publishers: Dell, Western, Charlton, ACG, Warren, Tower and Harvey. Newsstands began to disappear, as well as candy stores and other outlets. Comic sales declined. This is where publishers earn their living! They had to find new ways of selling and distributing comics. Many couldn’t.

Loosing newsstands, Archie developed their digests and got into supermarkets. Marvel and DC, of course, are in comic book stores. But their business NOW is not just selling books, but merchandizing, TV and movie production.

So the good publishers were always on top of things. Wertham or not, their market changed and they had to change with it.

Kid said...

And that's the key phrase, Barry - "Wertham or not". Things had to change for comics to survive as sales were declining anyway. That's why Fawcett pulled the plug on Captain Marvel - they didn't think it was worth spending any more money on defending the lawsuit by National when sales were falling anyway. They knew that even if they won, it would hardly be worth the battle.

In Britain, the word 'industry' is used in an honorary way out of respect for what it used to be. Despite what some people with a vested interest in talking things up say, there is no real comics industry in the UK anymore (compared to its heyday when circulation was sky-high) - it's more like a craft fayre.

Gene Phillips said...

Kid said:

"But maybe some companies deserved it, Barry. After all, as you yourself admit, some of the contents were pretty shocking."

Not to start a long debate on a matter of opinion, but are there any particular comics-stories of the period that you, Kid, viewed as having crossed a cultural line to the extent that they deserved censorship?

IMO talking about specifics in these cases may clarify our opinions for one another, even if we still agree to disagree.

Kid said...

I wasn't so much suggesting that some comics were so shocking that they deserved to be censored (nor was I suggesting that they shouldn't), but that some were so shocking (by the standards of the day) that perhaps it was no great loss if the companies that produced them decided to get out of the business. No specific story jumps into my mind at this time, but some of the images (and themes) I've seen in the past did seem needlessly gratuitous for young readers - whether they were specifically aimed at young readers or not. (Youngsters always have a way of getting their hands on things that they shouldn't.) I'd have to go looking for specific images, and I'm afraid I'm not sufficiently invested in trying to prove a point to go to the bother of doing so.

On the question of censorship, although I believe in the principle of free speech, it's only up to a point. For example, if a publisher wanted to issue a book containing images of child molestation, even if it was for the stated purpose of demonstrating just how horrible it is, I'd say it shouldn't be published, which many people might see as censorship. I'd be surprised if you'd be for such a book ever seeing the light of day, meaning that you also agree in the concept of censorship - in some instances at least.

As I've said, I think Wertham over-egged the pudding, and may even have presented 'evidence' which had been manipulated in such a way as to better favour his point of view (and it's possible to do such a thing while believing that one is being honest, because the human mind is capable of deceiving even itself), but his concern (if not his conclusions) was probably an honourable one.

I certainly think there was a case to be made that some comics went over the top, and if parents are concerned about such matters then it's their right to be. When it comes to children, parents understandably take the view that it's better to be safe than sorry, and that's perhaps the wisest approach to take.

I think it's become fashionable nowadays to kick Wertham, but I'd have to look into the subject more before I decided whether such an attitude was justified to the degree that has become popular in some circles.

Gene Phillips said...

Fair enough!

Kid said...

Ah, brevity. Something I've still to master.

TC said...

My opinions are pretty much similar to what's already been expressed here: (1) There was some legitimate cause for concern, but (2) the anti-comics activists went too far.

(The latter, BTW, is common in political activism. Sometimes the well-meaning crusaders just don't know when to stop. And, more often, professional activists move the goalpost and refuse to admit that the problem has already been solved, because they don't want to give up their sinecures.)

My impression is that comic book sales declined after WWII due to a combination of factors, including competition from TV in the 1950s (and, later, from video games and the internet). I'm sure the anti-comics crusade by Wertham and his ilk did not help matters.

I don't know if the Comics Code really hurt the medium all that much. At the time, comic books were generally considered a children's medium, and it made sense for the publishers to voluntarily comply with certain rules, e.g., villains could not get away with committing crimes, criminals could not be portrayed in such a way as to inspire readers to emulate them. I seem to remember a "Stan's Soapbox" editorial on the subject in the 1970s (or maybe it was by Jim Shooter in the 1980s), saying something like, "The Code doesn't prevent us from publishing anything that we would want to publish, anyway."

As for specific examples of crossing a line, I would say that (IMHO) EC's stuff, like Tales From the Crypt and Shock Suspense Stories, and probably a lot of crime and horror comics by EC's imitators, were unsuitable for kids. Even then, I would not advocate government censorship, such as banning them outright, but maybe requiring warning labels like "Parental Discretion Advised."

If I had been in charge at EC, I would have changed the format from full color comic books to B&W magazines. Then they could have been sold on the shelves next to the "real" men's magazines, instead of in the spinner racks next to Mickey Mouse and Richie Rich. It worked for EC with Mad, and, a decade later, it worked for Warren with Eerie and Creepy.

Kid said...

I remember reading Stan saying something like that, TC, and doubtless Shooter said the same thing when he was at Marvel. As you can see from the link that Barry provided, there seems to have been mixed views on the code, but Carmine Infantino was certainly for it in a big way. Good on him, though I have to say it surprised me, because it's usually artists (and writers) who protest about creative 'freedom', so to see such a big name being so pro-code is refreshing. Of course, it doesn't exist anymore, but I like to think that there are many who still apply the spirit of the code to their work.

On your last point, yes, it's a little surprising that publishers didn't change their comics into 'magazines' like EC did with Mad, but as the comics had been aimed at children anyway, it was perhaps thought that kids wouldn't be allowed to buy b&w mags, so it was considered pointless.

Thanks for the well-considered comments - you and everyone else.

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