The Seduction of the Ignorant: How Our Pre- and Post-War Betters Whipsawed Comics

Tuesday , 3, March 2015 5 Comments

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

She-Hulk: Online and Self-Aware Ambulance Chaser, Capable of Breaking the Fourth Wall with A Single Punchline.

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.

Captain Marvel #101. Lamest. “Horror.” Comic. Ever.

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.

5 Comments
  • mistaben says:

    It would be analogous if in 2020 the IGDA launched the Games Code Authority based on the “research” of one Anita Sarkeesian.

  • Daniel says:

    Games that would be gone under the Comics Code Authority:

    Any games with zombies (including plants vs. zombies), vampires, werewolves, or the words Horror or Terror in the title. Pretty much all survival horror.

    Any games depicting women’s bodies.

    Any games with realistic death portrayed.

    Any games with AI that includes the possibility of a criminal act going unpunished.

    Any games with sexual content.

    Any games with racial content.

    Most games with supernatural content.

    Any games with religious symbolism that could be interpreted as misrepresenting that or any other religion.

  • Deb says:

    It seems to me that perversion lies within the mind of censor – one way or another… Is not so a matter of “hide-and-seek” but when you look for something you might as well find it. When it comes to art (as well any form of expression), what each one of us read is exactly not what the author meant.

  • Deb says:

    Also, media, art and entertainment aren’t the only font of influences that are upon us. People influence people. Monkey see monkey doing and automatically do the same because it was a monkey it saw.

    (I made a ridiculous mistake in the other comment: is not exactly*)

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