Few will take issue with Dr. Wertham when he stresses the many disgusting aspects of comic books. The pictorial examples and quotations he presents are irrefutable evidence that the comics incite to crime and violence, that they make their appeal often through sex, perversion and sadism. That the aesthetic quality of the drawings and writing are in incredibly bad taste hardly needs further demonstration…
~From Bruno Bettelheim’s Review of Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent in The Library Quarterly, January 1955
It is clear: Dr. Frederic Wertham held the sympathy –if not full agreement — of academics and politicians from the launch of his book through his long public relations campaign against the comic book.
Attacking comic books for their perversion, incitement to delinquency and contribution to the crime rate, the respected psychiatrist had already earned a nation’s respect for his The Show of Violence. That book held sympathy for the criminal, and hypothesized that need reform – i.e. attacking poverty and other root causes of criminality – rather than legislation against crime, was the rational path toward the elimination of crime. So, when Wertham very publicly discovered the new root cause (comics) of the juvenile delinquency boom, people listened.
Note the “Comics Code” label on good ol’ She-Hulk. Nearly 30 years after Wertham helped inspire its implementation, it was still the reigning minder of what belonged in books of drawings and conversation bubbles, and what most certainly did not. It didn’t go away until a few years ago.
Sixty years later, academics are still finding ways to defend Wertham. Carol Tilley in Information & Culture comes right out and says that Wertham “had a genuine passion for children and their welfare, though it is difficult to document that passion meaningfully,” and also “I want to be clear, however, that my intent…is not to add my name to the list of psychiatrist’s detractors.”
Tilley in the present day is – like Bettelheim was in 1955 — conflicted about Wertham, and says so. Where Bettelheim questioned Wertham’s conclusions, Tilley took a look at Wertham’s data.
And the data is shocking.
Wertham manipulated it. He altered it. He distorted it. Sometimes, he faked it. Wertham lied about his research in comic books, and he lied about it a lot. The archive of his research findings became available to Tilley a few years ago:
Wertham may be the source of the fabricated homo-eroticism of Batman and Robin. Wertham not only asserted that Detective Comics (Batman’s primary book of that day) was a “wish dream” of perversion, but as evidence, he mashed up the testimony of two men and omitted details that both of them recognized their homosexuality from an early age and in any case, preferred “better subjects” than Batman and Robin for fantasies. Not only that, but he attributed the homosexuality of a thirteen-year-old to Batman and Robin even though the boy’s favorite comics were war comics and he only had a passing knowledge of the caped crusaders.
Wertham “borrowed” his sense of a patient with whom he had no direct observation. In his book (if not on the patient file) he demonstrated her depravity due to Sheena and Wonder Woman comics, and wrote that she would, in fact, be non-aggressive if society could only get rid of comic books.
The doctor then goes on to describe a small child’s horror at seeing a decapitated man in a Captain Marvel horror book. Of course, Captain Marvel was not a horror book, and the panel in question is a comical scene of Captain Marvel himself suffering a splash of invisibility potion on the noggin, from issue 101. (to the right)
Wertham in Seduction continues: Blue Beetle was “Kafka for the kiddies!”, “a very violent crime comic book” whose hero “changes into an insect” and this causes nightmares for a young boy. His notes betray his book: “Father says he does not read [Blue Beetle] at home, he saw it a friends house. Boy says he does not remember anything about nightmares.” In the real comic, of course, Blue Beetle never changes into anything. Well, except his blue suit.
What is remarkable about Wertham’s bizarre fabrications is that perversion was there for the finding. Although he occasionally hits on books with actual perverse do-gooder origins, such as Wonder Woman, his deceitful brush is simply too broad to isolate any possible real offenders, and instead it fills in wholly imaginary ones.
In 1954, you had actual perversity set up as a badge of equalitarian idealism facing off against the honest charlatan in Wertham for the souls of children…and, somehow, the Blue Beetle lost.