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Dr. Fredric Wertham: The Man Who Almost Killed the Comic Book Industry

In the 1950s, a lone psychiatrist almost did what all the super villains in the world could never do…he put super heroes out of business. The noted doctor virtually destroyed the super hero medium. Who was this man Wertham and how did a single voice almost derail an entire industry? 

The latter half of the 1950s was a wasteland for super hero books. After 15 years as a lucrative medium, the publication of Dr. Fredric Wertham’s book “Seduction of the Innocent” resulted in those super-powered men-in-tights being shoved into limbo, causing the comic book industry to reevaluate its material and switch to more comedy-oriented material and less action themed books. How did one man accomplish all this?

First of all, let it be said that Dr. Wertham was not a charlatan or con man or a huckster. He was a noted psychiatrist, educated in the universities at Munich, Erlangen, London and Würzburg, graduating with a medical degree in 1921. In 1922, Wertham emigrated to the United States and taught at Johns Hopkins University, and practiced at the university’s Phipps Psychiatric Clinic. He also wrote an article about the detrimental effects of segregation which was used in the milestone Brown v. Board of Education case, which eventually ruled that segregation was unconstitutional.

This impressive resume made his opinion all the more respected. In the early 50s, he began looking into the causes of juvenile crime. The growing problem of ‘juvenile delinquency’ was the hot-button political topic that everyone was talking about in the 50s. When Wertham began studying  the problem during this period, his research into juvenile offenders found one thing most of them had in common—they liked to read comic books. Wertham came to the conclusion that violence in comics was the cause of juvenile delinquency. He began a one-man crusade to have super-hero comics banned. He was interviewed in the newspapers and on the radio, and his theories got a lot of support from politicians who were desperately looking for a cure to rising street crime by juveniles. His book on the topic, "Seduction of the Innocent" sold very well and influenced many people. 

Wertham also took on the topic of the “inherent gayness” and psychological ‘damage’ that the example of the Batman/Robin relationship was doing to young people. He said, “Only someone ignorant of the fundamentals of psychiatry and of the psychopathology of sex can fail to realize a subtle atmosphere of homoerotism.” He believed Batman comics were fostering homosexual tendencies in young boys. Wertham, by the way, ran a clinic in New York to ‘cure’ what he called “sexually maladjusted individuals”.

In 1954, the US Senate began a series of hearings regarding the comic book industry and Dr. Wertham was the key witness. He convinced the Senate that comic books were harmful to society. This led to the creation of the Comics Code Authority, which regulated what could be show within the pages of comic books. Comic books were suddenly demonized, forbidden in homes and schools. Kids had to hide their comic books from their parents, much the way other kids have to hide their Playboys. A kid caught with a comic book in school could be suspended.

Most of the comic companies either went out of business or switched their focus to funny books, like those featuring cute talking animals. Archie Comics and other humorous, non-action books took over the medium. Even Timely Comics (the forerunner of Marvel) began churning out Monster anthology stories, like “Where Creatures Dwell” and “Monsters on the Loose”. The only three super hero books to survive the purge were Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, because they were too valuable in terms of merchandising to cancel. (The Adventures of Superman TV series, starring George Reeves, was hugely popular among kids in the 1950s.) For all intents and purposes, the super-hero comic genre was dead.

Fortunately, all things pass. The whole national juvenile delinquency debate and the influence of Wertham’s book began to fade by the 1960s. Super heroes had been greatly missed in their absence. Marvel and DC re-launched their super hero lines and reinvigorated the industry. Wertham himself eventually had a bit of a change of heart, publishing “The World of Fanzines: A Special Form of Communication” in 1974, where he conceded that comic books and science fiction fanzines were a unique type of communication tools. He even spoke at the New York Comic Art Convention that same year. However, despite this olive branch, he was heckled out of the building by hostile comic fans who hadn’t forgiven him. After this, he stopped writing about comics permanently. He died in November 1981.

Parenthetically, Carol Tilley, Assistant Professor at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois, investigated the evidence collected by Wertham in his book in 2010, and she said, “Wertham manipulated, overstated, compromised, and fabricated evidence—especially that evidence he attributed to personal clinical research with young people—for rhetorical gain.”

 

And that is the story of how one man nearly caused the premature death of the comic book industry. Was Dr. Wertham a concerned but misguided man who took aim at the wrong target in his zeal to end juvenile delinquency, or was he an opportunist who saw the whole juvenile crime debate as a means of getting some attention for himself? Was his late-in-life reversal of opinion genuine or was he merely tired of the hate mail? Was he a flawed hero or a villain? What do you think?

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