Nearly 65 years ago one man, promoting faux science and fake news almost single handedly destroyed the American comic book industry.
Unlike most purveyors of pseudo-science, Dr. Fredric Wertham was not a quack, but one of the most respected psychiatrists of his era. Born in Munich, Germany in 1895, Wertham was educated in London and Munich before graduating with a medical degree from the University of Würzburg in 1921. Early on he developed an interest in psychiatry, going so far as visiting and corresponding with Sigmund Freud. In 1922 he came to America and started practicing psychiatry at the prestigious John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, MD. He moved to New York City in 1932 and started working at the Bellevue Mental Hygiene Clinic, which gave mental evaluations to all convicted felons. He often testified as an “expert witness” in New York City trials for decades.
Wertham was critical of Jim Crow laws and was a supporter of civil rights for African-Americans. In 1946 he started a free clinic in the basement of a church in Harlem to treat Black teenagers and in 1954 his writings were admitted as evidence in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Brown vs. The Board of Education which outlawed school segregation.
The roots of Wertham’s infamous claim to fame began in 1948 when he participated in a symposium entitled The Psychopathology of Comic Books. Also that year he was cited in “Horror in the Nursery” that appeared in Collier’s Magazine, as saying the contents of comic books were very harmful to children. The next year, he wrote an article “The Comics-Very Funny” for The Saturday Review. Then in 1954 Wertham penned “What Parents Don’t Know About Comic Books” which appeared in The Ladies Home Journal containing excerpts from what would be his most famous book.
Seduction of the Innocent (SOTI) debuted in the spring of 1954 at 400 pages and a 16 page illustration section. The very first copies of the first edition had a two-page bibliography, but these were later literally torn from the book by Wertham’s publisher, because the New York based Rinehart & Company, Inc. was afraid of lawsuits from the comic book industry. The back dust jacket made it clear that the doctor’s findings were based on comic books and not newspaper comic strips “which are required to observe the same standards of good taste” as the newspapers themselves. The introduction claimed that the book was the result of seven years of research by Wertham and was “thoroughly documented by facts and cases.”
In Wertham’s opinion, all comic books, regardless of genre, were “crime comics” filled with overt or covert depictions of violence, sex, drug use, or “adult” material. (He was particularly critical of horror comics with their gruesome images.) Because of this, he believed that comic books were one of the leading causes of juvenile delinquency, which was on the rise in America.
Superheroes were not exempt from Wertham’s wrath. He argued that “Superman, with a big ‘s’ on his chest, I suppose we should be thankful it is not an ‘ss,’ has long been recognized as a symbol of violent race superiority” adding that the character’s “psychology…undermines the authority and dignity of the ordinary man and woman in the minds of children.” This argument ignored the fact that Superman’s creators were Jewish, as were many others who worked in comic books industry. Also, most of the men who worked on comic books were World War II veterans.
Wertham came down hard on Batman and Robin, writing:
“They constantly rescue each other from violent attacks by an unending number of enemies. The feeling is conveyed that we men must stick together because there are so many villainous creatures who have to be exterminated…Somehow Batman ends up in bed injured and young Robin is shown sitting next to him. At home they lead an idyllic life. They are Bruce Wayne and ‘Dick’ Grayson. Bruce Wayne is described as a ‘socialite’ and the official relationship is that Dick is Bruce’s ward. They live in sumptuous quarters, with beautiful flowers in large vases…Batman is sometimes show in a dressing gown…It is like a wish dream of two homosexuals living together.”
Wertham claimed that this revelation came from “overt homosexuals treated at the Readjustment Center.” The accusation that the Caped Crusaders are a gay couple haunted the heroes for years to come, and is the reason why the character of Aunt Harriet was added to the 1966 Batman television series. However, comic book artist/historian Jules Feiffer notes in The Great Comic Book Heroes that no other team of superheroes, and there were several at the time, received any such scrutiny from Wertham.
Likewise, Wonder Woman was “the Lesbian counterpart of Batman,” according to Wertham. “Wonder Woman is a frightening image. For girls she is a morbid ideal. Where Batman is antifeminine, the attractive Wonder Woman and her counterparts are definitely antimasculine.” In fairness to Wertham, he was partially right on this as DC Comics announced in 2016 that Wonder Woman was bisexual, though in the 1950s Wonder Woman had a male sweetheart, Capt. Steve Trevor.
Wertham also claimed that any superhero who took a pill or a potion to get powers (like Hourman) was encouraging drug abuse.
Even those who advertised in the comics, especially those who sold pocket knives, and real or toy guns were denounced for promoting violence and juvenile delinquency. Despite all this, Wertham denied that he favored censorship or had anything in general against comic books.
Though exact sales figures for the book are unavailable most historians consider SOTI a minor best-seller. It sold well enough to justify a second printing (sans the bibliography).
The attention the book garnered, along with Wertham’s credentials resulted in his being invited to testify before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency in 1954. The committee was headed by Sen. Estes Kefauver (D-Tn.), who would be the Democratic Party’s nominee for Vice-President in 1956. He was known for his tough anti-crime crusades which were fueled in part by the anti-communist “Red Scare” of that era.
In the televised hearings, which in some ways foreshadowed the Parents Music Resource Center hearings on music lyrics in the 1980s, Wertham cited arguments from his book and told the committee, “Comic books are an important contributing factor in many cases of juvenile delinquency.” The doctor went so far as to call for a ban on comic book sales for anyone under the age of 15.
Also testifying before the committee was William Gaines, owner/publisher of Entertainment Comics (EC), whose horror titles, most notably Tales of the Crypt, were on the receiving end of Wertham’s harshest criticism. Though they had a well-earned reputation for good stories and art, they “definitely pushed the envelope” according to DC artist and publisher Carmine Infantino in his memoirs.
Gaines was allegedly on Valium during the hearing. When asked, “Is the sole test of what you would put into your magazine whether it sells? Is there any limit you can think of that you would not put in a magazine because you thought a child should not see or read about it?,” Gaines replied, “No, I wouldn’t say that there is any limit for the reason you outlined. My only limits are the bounds of good taste, what I consider good taste.”
When Sen. Kefauver asked if a cover from one of EC’s comics which had “a man with a bloody axe holding a woman’s head up which has been severed from her body” was in good taste, Gaines replied, “Yes sir, I do, for the cover of a horror comic. A cover in bad taste, for example, might be defined as holding the head a little higher so that the neck could be seen dripping blood from it, and moving the body over a little further so that the neck of the body could be seen to be bloody.”
Gaines has been championed for his stance on freedom of expression for his stance, but at the time his outspoken views gained very little support from the committee or the public at large. In scenes reminiscent of Nazi Germany, schools, churches and civic groups promoted boycotts and staged mass burnings of comic books.
The committee’s final report did not blame comics for crime, but recommended that the comics industry tone down its content voluntarily. As a result, comic book publishers took a cue from the motion picture industry and created its own censorship board: the Comics Code Authority (CCA). The new code would ban the use of certain words, monsters and concepts. Crime and evil could not be glorified and criminals must always be punished. For decades no comic book could be published with the CCA stamp on the cover.
Prior to SOTI comic book sales were at an all-time high, with an estimate 70-150 million comic books being sold per month. After the book came out, the industry was fighting for survival.
National Periodical Publications (now DC Comics) saw it number of titles drop from 52 to 6. Despite Wertham’s attacks, National continued publishing Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman comic books because they were too popular and successful to be dropped, but the characters were revamped to make them acceptable to the CCA. However, all other superhero comic books were discontinued. According to Infantino, co-creator of the Black Canary and the Silver Age Flash, National was “trying to get by on Westerns, romance and science-fiction. We were trying to get anything going.”
National’s entire staff had to take a voluntary pay cut, while the company enacted a hiring freeze for several years just to stay afloat. While Infantino considered himself lucky, because he had a job, he had to stop attaching his real name to his comic book work out of fears for his safety and his own personal reputation.
Fawcett Publishing, whose Captain Marvel rivaled Superman as the most popular superhero, ceased comic book publication all together, though that decision was also spurred by ongoing lawsuits between Fawcett and National over copyright issues concerning their two stars.
On the other hand, Gaines went down fighting. He refused to have EC publications subjected to CCA approval. Consequently, wholesalers stopped carrying EC titles. Eventually Gaines dropped all the horror titles and focused on science fiction comics which were CCA approved until the board refused to approve a 1956 story about a planet torn apart by racism, because the hero in the story was an African-American human astronaut. For Gaines that was the last straw. EC ceased publishing comic books and Gaines focused all his attention on his last remaining publication: Mad Magazine. Because it was a magazine and not a comic book, Mad did not need the CCA stamp. Consequently, Mad became the most popular and influential magazine of social, political and cultural satire in the 1960s and 1970s, making it arguably more subversive than anything Wertham attacked.
What makes all of this even more frightening is that Seduction of the Innocent was based on flawed research. After Wertham’s SOTI research papers were made available to scholars in 2010, Carol Tilley of the University of Illinois reviewed them and found that “Wertham manipulated, overstated, compromised, and fabricated evidence—especially that evidence he attributed to personal clinical research with young people.” She went on to say Wertham “played fast and loose with the data he gathered on comics.”
Among her findings was that Wertham overstated the sample size of his research to make it look more objective and less antidotal than it actually was, nor did he follow any acceptable standards of research. Furthermore, much of his sample population were New York City teens who came from troubled backgrounds, and had behavioral issues or psychiatric disorders that were so severe that they required hospitalization.
She also found that the statements Wertham used were often misleading, altered or hearsay. The infamous claim that Batman promoted homosexuality was a combination of two statements of two men who had been in gay relationships for years.
Another question revolves around the examples that Wertham cited from published comic books. While many of the examples cited in SOTI have been found, there are still dozens that have not been located. Some have speculated that this may be the result of children telling the doctor what they thought they saw in the book as opposed what they really saw.
Eventually the hysteria over SOTI died down and soon National/DC and a new company called Marvel Comics were publishing superhero comic books again, though it would be years before sales returned to pre-1954 levels. Still the influence lingered for years. Eventually the CCA relaxed its standards to allow tales of crooked politicians, drug abuse, monsters and more violence. However, many writers and artists still found the code too restrictive, leading to the rise of underground comics, which undermined the code. Yet it was not until 2011 that the CCA became defunct.
As for Wertham himself, he became a professor of psychiatry at New York University, and continued working in the New York City Department of Hospitals. Wertham tried to follow-up SOTI in 1959 with The War on Children about the harmful effects of television on children, but he could not find a publisher. In 1966 he wrote A Sign for Cain– A Exploration of Human Violence about how he felt the medical professionals should treat violence in society.
Wertham returned to comic books with his last work, 1974’s The World of Fanzines. Contrary to what he wrote two decades earlier, he felt that fanzines were “a constructive and healthy exercise of creative drives.” This book earned him an invitation to appear at the New York Comic Art Convention. However, he was so badly booed and heckled at the event that he never wrote about comic books again. He died in 1981 at a retirement home in Pennsylvania.
In some ways, Wertham was a victim of his own book as well. While no serious modern scholar accepts the findings in The Seduction of the Innocents, many argue that if the book had never been written, Wertham would be fondly remembered today as a progressive humanitarian, who fought against racism and segregation.
Interestingly, SOTI is highly sought after by collectors and is listed in many comic book buying guides. A first edition with the bibliography intact can fetch up to $1000. A first edition without the bibliography can go for $350 and a second edition can cost up to $200. There have been subsequent reprintings of the book, primarily for scholars and the curious. Furthermore, comic books that were cited in SOTI fetch a premium in the collector’s market.
For millions of people, summer is a time of year to read comic books, watch the latest superhero movie, or binge-watch comic book themed television shows or DVDs. Yet, if Wertham had succeeded all those years ago, none of this might be possible, and he came frighteningly close to achieving his goal.
Staff Writer/Resident Historian: Nerd Nation Magazine