Remembrance of Werthams Past

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 secure uploadedImages The Phoenix Arts Books HAJDU tencentplague Remembrance of Werthams Past
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.

 images 2008 03 31 p233 080331 r17237 p233 Remembrance of Werthams Past
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:
 2008 03 bookburning Remembrance of Werthams Past
to 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.

Comments

  1. Torsten Adair says:

    For further reading:
    Seal of Approval: The History of the Comics Code by Amy Kiste Nyberg.
    (Contains all three versions of the Code)
    Haunt of Fears: The Strange History of the British Horror Comics Campaign by Martin Barker (The British reaction, mentioned in Ten Cent Plague)
    Not Just for Children: The Mexican Comic Book in the Late 1960s and 1970s, Vol. 30 by Harold E. Hinds, Charles M. Tatum

    The transcript of the Senate hearing can be found here, courtesy of Jamie Coville. http://www.thecomicbooks.com/1954senatetranscripts.html

    The National Archives is the repository of the Committee’s papers, so I suspect the comics and slides used in the Hearing are located there. Some of the televised hearing can be seen on the DVD “Comic Book Confidential”. I do not know how much footage exists or where it is located.

    And finally, David Hadju will be appearing at the Barnes & Noble at Lincoln Center at 7:30, on Thursday, March 27, 2008. (Also April 12 and April 19 at other B&N stores.)

    As for the book, I was a bit disappointed in that the author did not chronical the aftermath of the Code, particularly the Underground comics and the revision in the 1970s.

    What struck me is that many of the laws mentioned in this book still exist. PW reports that Indiana has passed a law requiring any bookstore which sells “adult” material to register with the state, and detail what exactly they sell. http://www.publishersweekly.com/article/CA6544559.html
    And thus the Curse of Santayana repeats itself…

  2. Steve Taylor says:

    I was born in October of ’54.
    Grew up on the great newspaper strips. A perfectly acceptable medium in my home.
    Naturally, when I discovered comic books,…I was in love.
    My father,…a news broadcaster,…was appalled.
    I never understood his reaction to them.
    He didn’t want them in the house and when he found them he would tear them in half and leave them laying in the middle of the living room floor.
    I learned rather quickly to hide the books.
    It wasn’t until a little later in life, when I discovered the writings of Fredric Wertham, that I fully understood why he was so down on comics.
    Wertham became my Lex Luthor,…my Sivana.
    And of course, I never totally shook the idea that Batman and Robin were gay.
    I did, however, grow up being much more accepting of gay people than anyone else in my nuclear family. After all,…one never knew,…did one.

  3. Steve, it was interesting to read your comments on being on the front line during that time – thanks for sharing.

  4. Torsten Adair says:

    Teen culture is rarely understood by adults. Let’s review the pre-Comics Code era: a medium marketed to children and teens, review panels ineffective against public outcry, images taken out of context, adult incomprehension concerning the medium, local and state laws enacted.

    There has already been an Otaku murder case in Japan. All one needs in the U.S. is a media hook (like Columbine) to start a crusade where manga and comics can be misinterpreted. Will the American graphic novel community stand in solidarity with the manga publishers, or will they let them swing like strange fruit, like the National Cartoonists Society did in 1954?

    While you read this book, ask yourself, “How difficult would it be to repeat this today?”

  5. DJ Schuldt says:

    The release of this book and the surrounding press has been great for a class I’m teaching this year at Carnegie Mellon University. It’s an English 101 writing course to teach argumentative writing to freshmen, but the content can be anything. The class I’m teaching is called Comics are for Kids; Comics are Art: The Comic Book in American Culture since 1940. We’ve read excerpts from Seduction of the Innocent, Nyberg’s Seal of Approval, Beaty’s book on Wertham, Irving Howe’s “Notes on Mass Culture,” and Mark Evanier’s Wertham was Right!, not to mention Jack Cole’s Murder Morphine & Me, early issues of Captain America, and some Animal Man & Daredevil issues. The press Ten-Cent Plague has been getting has really invigorated some of my students with an added sense of immediacy and value to this debate we’ve been studying in class.

  6. James Van Hise says:

    What hurt Wertham in the long run was his contention that reading comics lead to juvenile delinquincy because all of the juvenile delinquents he interviewed read comics. In the 1940s and 50s most all boys (and many girls) read comics. It would have been unusual if the children he interviewed DIDN’T read comics. Even in the 1960s when I grew up most kids read comics.

  7. I’m DYING to read this book. I preorderd it and waiting for it to be delivered to me.

    One thing we should remember about Wertham was that he wasn’t out to “clean up” comics. He hated the very medium of comics and wanted them banned from sale or even display to kids under the age of 15. He believed kids reading comics wouldn’t go on to reading the great works of literature that he approved of. That’s what he fought for the entire time. All the rabble rousing about the horrible stuff in them was just a means to that end.

  8. Tom Galloway says:

    Just checked and it’s not up yet, but David Hadju spoke at Google last Friday as part of the Authors@Google series and a video should be up on YouTube within a few days. http://www.youtube.com/profile_videos?user=AtGoogleTalks links to videos of talks in the Authors@Google, Candidates@Google, etc. series ordered by most recent first. Other comics related authors in there include Neil Gaiman and Andrew Helfer (and there’s a possibility of a few more to come in the next few months; I’m no longer at Google, but still occasionally drop the A@G folk, of whom I used to be one, a line about possible comics speakers in the area).

  9. Mark Coale says:

    I started reading it today and have already found, in the first two chapters, some golden age history of which I was unaware.

  10. John Tebbel says:

    Menand: “William Gaines and Al Feldstein were no doubt interesting, complicated, talented people who believed in what they did, but they were businessmen manufacturing entertainment for children.”

    They were businessmen like Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks, whose artistic sides were in control at least half the time. If it weren’t for their artistic and creative endeavors, we wouldn’t be talking about them today. They can’t be tarred as some kind of capitalist kid exploiters (calling Hasbro/Mattel/Kelloggs).

    And no one, then or now, has any idea who was buying those comics. Talks with Russ Cochran and Archie Goodwin leads me to believe the EC audience was older children. There’s not one datapoint in existence on the subject.

  11. John Tebbel says:

    They were both too gentlemanly to correct my grammar in public.

  12. James Van Hise,
    IMO nothing “hurt” Wertham except that the Comics Code succeeded in taking the bite out of his complaints, in large part by eliminating the gorier horror titles that were so upsetting to middle America. Once that was done, Dr. W was yesterday’s news.

  13. AndyDecker says:

    I read “Seduction” back in the 80s, and even then it was hard to understand how people could take a lot of Wertheim´s ideas seriously. I mean, hidden sex-organs in panels, come on, this is one step removed from lunacy. The mantra of “this comic is the first step to juvenile crime” was also as tiresome as his fear that comics makes boys into gay adults. Reading this helped one to understand however how people ticked at the time, how they thought that lobomity was a good prescription against mental illness. Or that “duck and cover” really works in case of a A-Bomb. Any of this stuff which one just can´t understand today any longer.

    But I have to admit that among all those nonsense Wertheim came across as a man who really cared about his patients. A good case of the road to hell etc, etc

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