David Hajdu’s The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America has been getting a great deal of press. The story of how the government investigated then all but destroyed comics, spurred by the pronouncements of psychologist Dr. Fredric Wertham, is an incredible story that needs to be told. In this weeks issue, the suddenly comics loving New Yorker presents a superb essay by Louis Menand that not only recounts the main points of the congressional witch hunt, but analyses the views in Bart Beaty’s Fredric Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture, which paints a more favorable picture of Dr. Wertham — if not for his views on comics than for his other writings, which were pioneering efforts towards the well-being of children, the end of racial segregation and even the benefits of fandom subculture.
The fall of the comic book in the ’50s has a much larger social context given what else was going on in the US, as Menand writes:
If it makes sense to speak of a Cold War culture in the United States—and it’s a concept that would have to accommodate a pretty wide assortment of artifacts, from Partisan Review to the transistor radio—then one of its classic moments was the comic-book inquisition. The event took place on April 21, 1954, at the Foley Square U.S. Courthouse (now the Thurgood Marshall Courthouse), in New York City, where a subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee charged with investigating the causes of juvenile delinquency took on an imminent danger within: the comic-book industry. The hearings were televised.
At a guess, most of the people reading this blog know the name Wertham; not as many, surely, know exactly what happened in 1954. For those who don’t, Menand’s piece offers a brisk summary:
The hearings went on for another two days, and some experts questioned Wertham’s methods and conclusions, but the industry was badly wounded. According to a Gallup poll taken in November, 1954, seventy per cent of Americans believed that comic books were a cause of juvenile crime. From the fall of 1954 through the summer of 1955, laws restricting the sale of comic books were passed in more than a dozen states, and there were also public comic-book burnings.
The article is online, everyone should read it. Understanding the effects of Dr. Wertham and his book Seduction of the Innocent is key to understanding much of the subsequent history of comics. While the obvious effects — the establishment of the Comics Code and the end of dozens of publishers and the ends of hundreds of careers — would cast a pall over comics for a long time, some other effects were more self-inflicted; Dr. Wertham would act as a boogieman who scared comics out of doing anything groundbreaking for years to come.
As a teenager in the 70s I was lucky enough to find a copy of SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT in the local library and read it (although, as was often the case, the pictures had been cut out.) It was only a little more than 20 years after the comics scare, an event more recent than the Death of Jean Grey is from today. All comics fans turned comics pros knew and feared the story of Wertham. Worries over a new crusade against comics were never far from anyone’s mind. As the 70s and 80s went on, a fear of a new Wertham was always mentioned whenever mainstream, i.e. superhero comics, seemed to be taking a step forward. It wasn’t entirely implausible that a new crusade could arise, but with new targets like Ice-T, Mortal Kombat and The Matrix to blame, comics got a free pass.
It wasn’t until a new century dawned that I began to wonder about all these “fears of a new Wertham.” It had been 50 years since Seduction of the Innocent! 50 years! People don’t still worry about the Hays Code coming back to ruin movies! It struck me that the very love of continuity that so many wardens of superheroic universes possessed would also extend to historic menaces. If Captain America and the Red Skull could be retooled for contemporary audiences over and over again, why not the dangers of Dr. Wertham? So what if comics weren’t read by millions of children anymore? The perception that comics are kid stuff is quite common, even in today’s literary comics era. However, the idea that any snake oil salesperson would pick on comics as the cause of social deviancy became more and more absurd.
I think it’s only in the most recent years, with comics on very adult topics getting widespread acclaim and cartoonists like R. Crumb hanging in museums that this “Wertham will return” attitude has faded to all but imperceptible levels. It’s ceased to be an active component in publishing decisions. Which isn’t to say that a new crusader couldn’t come along. We’ve been predicting the Wertham for Manga for years. But there are so many more targets. And no one can decide on who to blame. For once partisanship has its benefit. Janet Jackson’s costume malfunction may have set the airwaves back a decade or so, and protests against specific books, movies, records or TV shows are quite common, but they rarely gain any real traction. Tipper Gore had it easy.
But you know, forget history, doomed, etc etc etc and all that. People will always be idiots and look for an easy villain. You would think that with the country facing so many real problems now that finding a scapegoat for a solution would seem less likely, but sadly, that’s usually the way mob mentality works. I just think comics and even manga are still too low on the totem pole. Even video games can’t be blamed for violent youth. Check this out: Study: Violent crime caused by family violence, not videogames.
BTW, I don’t want to sound like a Pollyanna. Given the spectacular failures of intelligence in America in recent years and the panicky lengths to which we’ll go to protect ourselves from terrorists, no stupidity surprises me. It’s not that a new Wertham is so impossible; it’s just that Seduction of the Innocent shouldn’t be used as a reason to do anything any more. When the new threat arises it will be from a direction and in a shape that no one could have foretold. You might want to compare this:
Hajdu’s book is selling pretty well, at least on Amazon. As I write it’s #153. More reviews of Hajdu’s book: Laura Miller in Salon; Jeet Heer in the Globe and Mail; Chris Mautner; Ron Powers in the New York Times; the Christian Science Monitor; Douglas Wolk in the Boston Phoenix.
Hajdu appears at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge on April 3rd.