In 1956’s SHOWCASE #4, Barry Allen – The Flash – raced into the hands of comics readers all over the country and ushered in the Silver Age of Comics. Drawn by Carmine Infantino and written by Robert Kanigher, The Flash was the first of the Golden Age revival characters produced by DC, the first rays of a new dawn in comics, an era that ushered in storytelling innovations that would keep the medium and industry vibrant for decades: shared storyworlds, the limitless creative potential of a multiverse, reinvention, evolution and an infectious sense of fun.
It’s often said that it’s the darkest just before the dawn, and, in spite of booming sales, the post-WWII years had been ever-darkening for comics; Janet Murray (HAMLET ON THE HOLODECK) says that “every new medium… from print to film to television, has increased the transporting power of narrative. And every new medium has aroused fear and hostility as a result.” In 1954, that fear and hostility reached a boiling point when psychiatrist Frederic Wertham, long an advocate for underprivileged children, published SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT, and laid bare the evils of comics that his research had uncovered including Batman and Robin’s blatant homosexuality and Superman’s (an “un-American” and “Fascist” character in a “crime comic,” according to Wertham) undermining of the parental unit and ability to arouse “fantasies of sadistic joy in seeing other people punished over and over again.”
Wertham’s 1954 testimony to the Senate Committee on Juvenile Delinquency and the publication of Seduction of the Innocent was a crippling blow to the comics industry; FLASH artist Infantino remarked (in an interview with TEN CENT PLAGUE author David Hadju), “The work dried up, and you had nowhere to go. You couldn’t say you were a comics artist, and you had nothing to put in your portfolio. If you said you drew comic books, it was like saying you were a child molester.”
While Wertham’s conclusions and leaps in logic have been called into question since the publication of SEDUCTION nearly six decades ago, it wasn’t until Carol Tilley, Assistant Professor at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Champagne-Urbana, immersed herself in Wertham’s papers (released only in 2010) that hard evidence of Wertham’s deceptions was discovered. Tilley’s resultant article, SEDUCING THE INNOCENT: FREDERIC WERTHAM AND THE FALSIFICATIONS THAT HELPED CONDEMN COMICS, was published in the November 4, 2012 issue of INFORMATION AND CULTURE: A JOURNAL OF HISTORY.
In the following interview, Professor Tilley and I discuss her findings and look at the broader picture of censorship in American culture.
What was it about the time period, about the American psyche, particularly in the dawn of the Cold War, that made the time ripe for Wertham and his ilk to have the most impact?
Broadly conceived, the anti-comics movement of the late 1940s and early 1950s was fueled by the same threat and suspicion that seemed to pervade much of American society and culture during these years. Communism was a big bogeyman, prompting public scrutiny, loyalty oaths, censorship campaigns, and more. That said, it would be incorrect to link Wertham’s rhetoric against comics with anti-Communist initiatives, including either the McCarthy hearings or the work of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Instead Wertham’s ideas about comics derived from a couple of very different traditions.
First, his arguments against comics were informed by his psychiatric training, which had a strong emphasis in mental hygiene and social psychiatry. These are complementary fields that endeavor to situate mental health and illness within broader social and cultural contexts. For Wertham, reading comics—especially those comics that depicted or encouraged violence—was an undesirable activity that contributed initially to mental ill-health and, ultimately, to social decay.
Second, his ideas about comics bear the influence of the Frankfurt School philosophers such as Theodor Adorno. For these theorists, products of mass and popular culture such as comics served to turn consumers / readers into slaves of capitalism. Wertham was not opposed to visual and literacy arts—his wife Florence Hesketh was an artist, the pair collected art works, and Wertham often quoted from classic literature in his writings. For him, though, comics were mass-produced dreck that exploited both the laborers who created the comics as well as the young people who read them.
What were some of the most blatant and brazen fabrications in SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT?
For me some of the most compelling fabrications Wertham perpetrated in SEDUCTION have to do with a young patient named Carlisle, a fifteen-year old truant and petty thief. Carlisle seems to have been one of Wertham’s chief sources of information about comics, as there are numerous transcripted pages of their conversations on the topic. In the book, Wertham turns Carlisle into multiple characters: in one instance he has a conversation with him as two different boys and he appears in at least two other settings as boys of different ages. Beyond this strange multiplication of Carlisles, Wertham also made numerous small changes in wording for Carlisle’s statements, sometimes changing the order of his statements, other times substituting words, and on occasion omitting key portions of statements.
To some readers, these may not seem like especially important fabrications, as seldom are they integral to the force or intent of Wertham’s argument. Some evidence was unadulterated, but some was. It would take me years of poring over his archival materials and conducting textual analysis to determine what portion of Seduction is problematic from an evidentiary perspective. Would my conclusions differ if I were to do that? Perhaps, but only in terms of being able to quantify the extent of goodness or badness in the evidence. These changes and discrepancies I have found trouble me enough as it is. We all make mistakes, but with the instances I’ve uncovered in Wertham’s evidence, there is a deliberateness and pervasiveness that suggests these were not unintentional mistakes, but rather deliberate changes. From a generous perspective, they suggest carelessness in research and writing. Perhaps they even indicate a bit of authorial embellishment to improve the story. Viewed less charitably, they suggest scientific dishonesty combined with social and cultural imperiousness. Either way—even if the changes were made with the best of intentions—the discrepancies are disrespectful to the young people whose words and experiences Wertham drew on to make his case against comics.
Is mine a modern perspective? It’s difficult for researchers and writers to separate themselves wholly from the time in which they live (that’s true for Wertham too), but even some of Wertham’s contemporaries who had no knowledge of the falsifications I have uncovered took issue with his approach. For instance, Bertram Beck, a social worker who led the Special Juvenile Delinquency Project for the United States Children’s Bureau, wrote to Wertham a month after SEDUCTION’s release, saying,
Your treatment of contrary evidence and, in fact, anyone who disagrees seems to me to be as unscientific as you demonstrate the defenders of the comic book have been. These lapses, inaccuracies, and misinterpretations seem more unfortunate to me since they will alienate some of the professional support which you should have [April 16, 1954, Box 123, Folder 7, Wertham papers].
While best known as the man who nearly killed comics, Wertham was also an advocate for underprivileged children, with Seduction of the Innocent being a rallying cry of overprotectiveness. With the fabrications you uncovered in your research, and your access to his personal papers, did you come across anything that spoke to a view on the part of Wertham that “the ends justify the means?” Did Wertham truly believe that he was acting in the best interest of those whose stories he over-simplified (at best) or manipulated (at worst) to fit his thesis?
Wertham was genuinely motivated to help people who he believed were vulnerable, whether those folks were young comics readers or children attending segregated schools or patients in psychiatric wards. Yet in his work on children and comics, he seemed early on to have gotten blinded by his dislike of and anger toward comics publishers and others who profited from the industry. As I wrote in my paper, Wertham “gave readers a clear indication that rhetoric must trump evidence: commenting about a colleague, Wertham wrote [SEDUCTION, p. 351], “Neutrality—especially when hidden under the cloak of scientific objectivity—that is the devil’s ally” [Tilley, SEDUCING THE INNOCENT: FREDERIC WERTHAM AND THE FALSIFICATIONS THAT HELPED CONDEMN COMICS, INFORMATION & CULTURE: A JOURNAL OF HISTORY 47 (4, November 2012)].
Your research also turned up letters from kids who wrote to the Senate Subcommittee trying to save their comics. Talk about your research into how kids have related to comics over time. Is the seeming marginalization of comics (marginalized in that they are no longer the big-selling item they were during WWII or Wertham’s time?) tied to their popularity with kids? Have video games taken over the spot once held by comics?
Comics were more popular among kids and teens during the 1940s and 1950s than video games are among today’s young people. Regardless of whether it was a marketer or a researcher conducting the survey, studies of comics readership during these decades found that more than 95% of all elementary school-aged children read comic books and comic strips regularly. There was really no difference in readership based on gender or race or intellect or socioeconomic levels. Of course, it wasn’t simply younger kids who read and purchased comics. More than 80% of teens read comics regularly and many adults did as well. The combined readership pushed sales of comics to more than one billion new issues annually in the US alone by the early 1950s and made comics in newspapers the most popular section.
And yes, young people did write both to Wertham and to the US Senate to help these adults understand the role that comics played in their lives. Many of these young writers wanted people to know that reading comics didn’t make them delinquent, that they didn’t read comics to learn to commit crimes. Instead, comics were amusement and entertainment and inspiration. One of the young people who wrote to the Senate, Phil Proctor—who went on to co-found the Firesign Theater—stated in his letter, “We don’t buy these mags because we have a thirst for blood, we buy them for the stories, the snap endings, the artwork, and because they deal with the unknown.” I think many young people might say the same today about video games.
Numerous parallels between the comics inquisition of the 1950s and the current attacks on video games are apparent, such as the pervasiveness and immersiveness of the medium, the derision of an entire medium as violent and blinders to the benefits of the medium. What warning signs should people look out for in the current debate over video game violence?
I don’t feel equipped to talk deeply about comparisons like this one. Some commentators have drawn connections between the anti-comics movement and the current fears about video game violence.
I will say that we are a nation prone to moral panics centered on media and technologies. We all should be critical readers and consumers of research and rhetoric, acknowledge our biases and presuppositions, and ask questions.
The need for critical assessment is especially acute any time children are subjects in or beneficiaries of social science research. We have too much cultural and social baggage when it comes to kids, which results in us demonizing them or protecting them.
Both comics and video games have numerous benefits that are glossed over in debates over their effect on children. What are some of those benefits, and how can we better frame the debate to shine a light on those benefits?
Comics and video games are both examples of different forms of media. They’re not simply textual or visual or filmic; instead they innovate on these media to create wholly new categories of communicative experiences. Both comics and video games can help those who engage with them develop stronger understandings of narrative and increased ability to empathize. Reading the textual components of comics can encourage enhanced reading fluency.
Can we use comics and video games for intentional learning situations? Of course, we can, but we must remember that they are entertaining and part of the social experience of childhood and adolescence. Kids should have opportunities to explore these story worlds without being burdened by adults’ instructional or developmental goals. Sometimes kids (and adults) just need to play.
Because comics and video games are new types of media, scholars and policymakers must find new strategies for studying them and new vocabularies for discussing them. We’re making strides here with groups such as the Learning Games Network and various academic journals that publish research on gaming or comics. I don’t know that we need to think of the process of helping comics and video games become normalized as a debate that needs to be reframed. Rather it seems we simply must continue demonstrating that comics and video games are part of our contemporary social and cultural fabric.
Like all media and art, comics and video games can be used for good as well as for evil; they have power. When Wertham was fighting against comics sixty years ago, some comics were indeed lurid, misogynistic, violent dreck. The same can be said about some video games today. And about some films and music and books. We can’t demonize whole types of media and art because we dislike how some people employ them.
Comics and video games can be used to tell important stories—serious, funny, sad, true, and imagined. When the stories trouble us for whatever reasons, let those moments be springboards for conversation with one another rather than for condemnation of the media through which those stories come to us.