For comic-book fans, Fredric Wertham is the biggest villain of all time, a real-life bad guy worse than the Joker, Lex Luthor, and Magneto combined. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Wertham was the intellectual spearhead of the anti-comics crusade, arguing in many articles and his 1954 best-seller, Seduction of the Innocent, that comic books stultified the imagination of normal kids (giving them a taste for blood and gore that would prevent them from ever appreciating literature and fine art) and severely damaged the socially vulnerable, contributing to juvenile delinquency. For Wertham, even the most beloved comic-book heroes were suspect: Superman reminded him of Nazi Germany's SS (a cadre of self-styled supermen), the adventures of Batman and Robin had homoerotic overtones, and Wonder Woman threatened to turn healthy young girls into lesbians. At the time Wertham made his attack on comics, the medium was at the height of its popularity, selling between 80 million and 100 million copies every week in scores of genres, ranging from funny animals and superheroes (for kids) to romance and horror (for teenagers and young adults).
As David Hajdu reminds us in his new book, The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America, Wertham's ideas had remarkably wide currency in postwar America. Countless religious and patriotic organizations organized book burnings to set comics aflame, and leading politicians held congressional hearings where William Gaines, the owner of EC Comics, publisher of the gory Tales From the Crypt and the satiric Mad comic book (later retooled as a magazine),was grilled as if he were a mobster.
As a result of this moral panic, the once-thriving comic-book industry went into a severe decline. In the two years after Wertham's book came out, more than a dozen publishers and hundreds of cartoonists left the field. Those publishers that remained were severely restricted by a self-imposed code that prevented comics from publishing anything but the most anodyne kiddies' fare. Only with the rise of graphic novels in the last few years have comics recovered from the stigma of the Wertham years. For Hajdu, the comic-book crackdown was a "purge," a precursor to later panics over rock music and video games.
No wonder Wertham has often been caricatured by fans as a prissy, cold Germanic elitist who wanted to deprive American kids of their entertaining reading material. Catherine Yronwode, a popular historian and comic-book fan, spoke for many when she wrote, in 1983, "We hate [Wertham], despise him. He and he alone virtually brought about the collapse of the comic book industry in the 1950s." Easy enough to mock, Wertham showed up in a brief and unsympathetic cameo in Michael Chabon's prize-winning book The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.
And yet Wertham is not without his defenders, primarily scholars who argue that the view promulgated by authors like Hajdu and Chabon is pure calumny. Chief among these academic defenders is Bart Beaty, a Canadian communications theorist whose 2005 book Fredric Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture argues that the psychiatrist's work has been unfairly dismissed. Wertham, Beaty notes, is often libeled as a pop-culture McCarthyite, when he was in fact a progressive scholar who ran a clinic in Harlem, and his research on black children was used in the legal challenges to segregation. Beaty contends that Wertham had legitimate questions about the social impact of art on socially vulnerable children.
Wertham was particularly concerned about the violence, misogyny, and racism that were endemic in comics (and other popular art forms). He wasn't wrong on this point. Many of the comics now nostalgically celebrated by Hajdu and Chabon were extremely unsavory in their social attitudes. EC comics regularly featured husbands and wives ending marital spats with knives, axes, and poison. On the racial front, Will Eisner's much-loved Spirit featured a Sambo-like sidekick named Ebony White, who was childish, had thick lips, and spoke in an illiterate minstrel dialect.
Finally, Beaty notes, Wertham actually never advocated censorship: He wanted a rating system to keep the most violent of comics away from kids. (Although it's worth remembering that Wertham's rating proposal was extremely draconian: Under his plan, it would be illegal to sell or display any comic book to anyone under 15.) The comic-book crackdown, according to Beaty, was caused by unscrupulous publishers who were unwilling to regulate themselves until forced to by a huge public backlash. Wertham, by his account, was the most reasonable voice during this sordid debate.
So, who is right, Hajdu or Beaty? Did Wertham have a point? Beaty's revisionism is valuable in forcing us to see Wertham as a complex historical figure, not an easy-to-dismiss cardboard crank. Still, Hajdu is right to point out that Wertham's ideas of proof were extremely primitive, more forensic than scientific. (Wertham had often testified in court cases, which skewed his sense of evidence.) Wertham thought he could prove his point by stringing together many anecdotes collected from his clinical research, making his claims virtually unverifiable.
More to the point, much of what Wertham thought was harmful could be seen as nurturing. Take Wertham's contention that stories about Batman and Robin have an unhealthy homoerotic subtext. Wertham noted, "Sometimes 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 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, and have a butler, Alfred. Batman is sometimes shown in a dressing gown. … [I]t is like a wish dream of two homosexuals living together." For this reason, "only someone ignorant of the fundamentals of psychiatry and psychopathology of sex can fail to realize the subtle atmosphere of homoeroticism which pervades the adventures of the mature 'Batman' and his younger friend 'Robin.' " Wertham's fear was that the Caped Crusader and Boy Wonder would pervert the sexuality of young readers.
Wertham was half-right on this point: There is something "campy" about Batman and Robin. As numerous gay writers (notably, novelist and book designer Chip Kidd) fondly recall, the Caped Crusader was irresistibly attractive to young readers whose sexuality was already inclined away from heterosexuality. But for many of us today, that's an argument in favor of Batman. Isn't it good for gay kids to have a role model like the Dark Knight? And the element of causality is worth keeping in mind: Batman didn't make readers gay; gayness made Batman attractive to readers.
Wertham shouldn't be mocked as a simpleton or censor, but he was rather prissy and uptight. As terrible as many comics were, they had a wildness and vitality that he couldn't appreciate. Comics had a raw, visceral power, reflecting the plebian underside of American culture. To put it another way, it's a racist and sexist culture that makes racist and sexist comics, not the other way around. And however wretched these comics were, they spoke to real psychological needs in children and teenagers. Kids need monsters and ghouls, supervillains and superfoes, as much as they need parents and teachers. The guardians of childhood face a difficult balancing act: They have to let kids give imaginative rein to their more destructive emotions while also protecting the young from genuinely harmful words and images. With his blunt language and crude simplifications, Fredric Wertham made this balancing act harder, not easier. If he had paid more attention to comic books, Wertham would have realized that he was following down the path of villains like Lex Luthor and Dr. Doom, who start off with good intentions only to become prisoners of their own blind arrogance.