The Legal View: Wertham was right

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Seduction of the Innocent The Legal View: Wertham was right Tonight in SoHo, a panel of comics all-stars will discuss the Carol Tilley’s Seducing the Innocent, which purports to expose industry bete noire Fredric Wertham as a fraud. What’s more important for us today, however, is understanding why he was right.

Tilley’s article has received a fair bit of play in recent months, and understandably so. Besides bringing to light new details from the recently opened Wertham archives, the article also affirms the fundamental righteousness of the comics community and other free-speech progressives continuing to oppose calls to censor pop culture. As Jeet Heer and others have noted, Wertham is the community’s own super villain, a totem of the arrogant self-deception threatening all that is good.

Yet the misbegotten pursuit of virtue can go both ways. While we tug at a few stray details in our effort to prove the man whose research helped end segregation was nothing but a lying racist prig, we tend to overlook how Wertham’s intuitive grasp of comics, society and law was actually more insightful than our own. To recognize this is not to concede that his programmatic agenda in regard to comics was correct–in fact, it can help us understand how our community can respond more effectively to similar challenges today.

Was Wertham a fraud? 

Given the meme now circulating as to Wertham’s campaign of deliberate deceit, it’s worth pausing for a moment to note a couple caveats about the charges themselves. First, as Tilley notes, her charges against Wertham aren’t actually new, at least in their broad strokes–there were critics of Wertham’s evidence and techniques back when his influence was at its peak.

Which in itself should not be a surprise. There’s a fine tradition in academia and the sciences of criticizing the methodology of the previous generation, and Wertham, a German immigrant pushing 60 at height of the anti-comics furor, exhibited an approach to information gathering and interpretation that was cutting-edge in the 1920s but seen as woefully inadequate by then modern standards.

Plus ca change and all that, of course–today’s empirical scholarship is itself a reaction against the alleged inadequacies of analytical patterns from a couple-three decades ago, which in turn criticized the approach then current among many of those who were attacking Wertham. While such critiques can have their merits, they can also descend into pettiness and character assassination in ways that reflect agendas outside of the pursuit of more accurate research, as exemplified by critics’ glib dismissal of Wertham as “imperious,” priggish and guilty of such horrendous sins as citing examples from comics that were five years old.

In fact, one could even turn the same critique against Tilley’s article. Instead of aggregating all of Wertham’s factual claims and calculating how many of them had a credible basis, the article slags the man’s reputation for veracity on the basis of a few anecdotes. Moreover, these anecdotes themselves arguably don’t fairly represent what Wertham claimed. For example, Wertham acknowledged that he was drawing the work of other colleagues and junior researchers, so the fact that a couple of his stories came from cases he didn’t handle personally is no more the sign of a clueless fraud than popular books by psychiatrists today that include anecdotes from a clinic or colleagues.

Yet there’s a danger in this sort of devil-in-the-details bloodsport, as illustrated by the rejection of one of Wertham’s contemporaries whose work was similarly rejected due to its alleged lack of research rigor and fudging of details. Today we celebrate Marshall McLuhan as the prophet of the electronic age, but at the time academics savaged McLuhan’s work as that of a fraudulent hack. Whatever the flaws in his approach to gathering and presenting data–and they were many–McLuhan’s capacity for pattern recognition was nonpareil.

Understanding Wertham

The example of McLuhan is particularly relevant to the Wertham case, inasmuch as Wertham, like McLuhan, was engaged in making an inventory of the effects of comics as a medium.

Consider the accusation that Wertham skewed his research by focusing on comics-to-crime correlations while hiding other factors. In fact, in Seduction and elsewhere Wertham was forthright in asserting that he wasn’t making a comics-to-crime direct correlation. His argument was actually more subtle. As Wertham repeatedly explained, he was making a broader point about how even small influences within a social environment can have disproportionate effects.

Although we don’t tend to use the same language, Wertham’s argument’s are more familiar and accepted than we admit. Wertham’s understanding of comics as a medium that shapes our perception, identity and actions is McLuhan before he became McLuhan, albeit with one important exception that we’ll discuss later. Nowhere is this more evident in Wertham’s assertion that comics were making the younger generation illiterate, an assessment that McLuhan and his disciple Walter Ong would soon systematize in their landmark discussions of the shift away from a linear textual culture.

Wertham’s disavowal of direct correlation in favor of indirect systemic effects reflects the emergence of dynamics systems theory, which at the time was continuing the development that had begun in the early 19th century and the birth of modern social science. In this regard, Wertham’s metaphor of social health anticipated our current analytical vocabulary in interesting ways. Take, for instance, his description of comics as a “bacillus” that had spread throughout our social environment. Today we would call this going viral.

Where Wertham differed from a media or systems theorist was his preoccupation with social order and legal responsibility. Bart Beaty has already done a stellar job of describing Wertham’s place in the shift from reform-minded progressive research to the more (ironically) Germanic scholarship of the contemporary academy, but rather than focusing on how Wertham was superseded it’s worth focusing on how he was trying to advance our understanding beyond the dominant frameworks of the early twentieth century.

Wertham’s emphasis on health metaphors had a different resonance in the 1940s and 1950s than they have today. They marked a subtle shift away from the genetically based eugenics that had dominated Western progressive thought in the decades leading up to World War II and even a few years afterward. Wertham’s argument, expressed not just in his comics work but his research in support of desegregation, was that non-whites and the poor were not inherently defective. Segregation, prejudice, mass incarceration–the mainstream’s response to poverty, crime and difference was not only counterproductive, it failed to respect others’ core humanity as well as the corruption wrought by the mainstream environment itself.

While certain particulars can be seen as outmoded, the core insight continues to be relevant today, from urban strategy based on the broken windows theory to the use of architecture, zoning and social design to enhance community life. Wertham’s approach is also consistent with the current struggle within legal theory with such issues as America’s incarceration culture to the culpability of human agency in light of the subconscious shaping influences of our social environment and cognitive processes.

Comics as change

This brings us to Wertham’s specific allegations about comics. Once again, if Wertham’s a fraud, he’s a damn clever one. While we might disagree with his critique of some of these effects (most notably his views of human sexuality, which at the time were the clinical norm), his assessment of values and themes evident in comics was for the most part correct.

Comics fostering a sense of unbounded imaginative transformation? Sure, for Wertham it’s sinister, but if the core description is bunk we might have to rethink our affection for Calvin and Hobbes.

The gay subtext in comics? Today you can get tenure writing about how Warhol aptly distilled it in his 1962 painting Superman – Puff; art galleries and charities regularly explore the theme;  and Michael Chabon won a Pulitzer with a novel that in part turned this subtext into text. A similar point can be made in regard to Wertham’s finding sado-masochism in Wonder Woman (a direct hit, confirmed by what we later learned about Marston) as well as the sexually exploitive depiction of women more generally.

Superman as a fascist corporate power icon? Yes, it’s easy to call out Wertham for missing Siegel’s and Shuster’s judaism, but his central point regarding icons of corporate control is textbook proto-Foucault (and proto-Frank Miller, proto-Watchmen, proto-Kingdom Come …). We should also acknowledge–following the lead, if I recall correctly, of Craig Yoe–that Wertham called attention to DC’s systemic mistreatment of creators years before the comics community itself.

On a deeper level, what connects all of these assessments–including the assertion that comics can be a factor in antisocial behavior–is Wertham’s conviction that comics as a medium have the power to change who we are. Just as McLuhan saw artists as prophets of a culture where people have fluid identities with multiple roles, Wertham sees comics as a medium that both depicts and transforms.

For an example of the same point made in more positive terms within comics itself, we need look no further than a comic that came out today–Grant Morrison’s Action #18, which expresses his decades-long theme of comics as a medium that creates a new reality, making the impossible possible. Sometimes the effects are destructive, even nihilistic, but properly understood the same transcendent impulse can enable us to become something more.

Countering censorship

Dismissing Wertham as a hack and fraud may make us feel good about ourselves and our community’s past, but outside of that it has little probative or strategic value as a means of countering censorship today. The same goes for the adamant insistence that comics have no relevance to antisocial behavior. In contrast to Morrison’s more honest and accurate metaphors, our  model of comics in academics and advocacy tends to be anodyne. Comics have power, yes, but only the power to be comfortable, familiar and safe.

However, comics, like all media, are dangerous. By insisting otherwise, we come across as naive and self-serving, much like ideological researchers whose empirical research always just happens to align with their agenda. We also do a disservice to comics themselves, which are valuable precisely because of their capacity to foster systemic change.

Instead of engaging in a futile campaign to persuade people that the fusion of words and image is not what is, we would do better to concede the point. For instance, Wertham presented an intriguing opening with his uneasy blend of cutting-edge media theory with his most glaring retro mistake: the more traditional, linear depiction of comics as an instruction manual that served as a textbook for crimes. Trying to refute this on its own terms was a self-defeating distraction. There was far more potential in explaining how comics are indeed powerful and disruptive, so much so that they only way to deal with them effectively is not to impose restrictive laws, but to teach kids how the medium works.

Comments

  1. Kater says:

    Couldn’t agree less with this article. Nothing pointed out here makes his effects on comics history less disastrous. By mixing analysis with biased normative ideology Wertham did unimaginable damage to comics as a medium. Without him comics might have been accepted as a serious art form next to movies and literature by now. The article highlights Wertham’s formal values by radically downplaying the socio-cultural effects of his work. This analytic relativism (“okay, he ruined the reception of comics forever, but he actually did it in a pretty clever way”) is, to my understanding, utterly inadmissible. No, no and no.

  2. Jeff Trexler says:

    @Kater At no point do I embrace the effects. To the contrary, the post is about how to be more effective in preventing such effects. Step number 1: understand what the other side is saying.

    This is particularly important when dealing with someone with evident insight and integrity. The same research by the same man we now ridicule as a charlatan played a crucial role in bringing down segregation–it’s something we studied at Yale Law School back in the day, focusing on the Court’s revolutionary reliance on sociological research as the basis of constitutional reasoning. If any academic deserved to be “imperious” about his insight, I’d vote for the guy whose work persuaded the Supreme Court to desegregate the U.S.

    When dealing with Wertham, I believe that the industry would have been better served by using some rhetorical jiu jitsu. The same goes for today. Unfortunately, the industry itself did not fully understand the significance of comics as a medium, and Wertham’s opposition blinded it to the potential utility of his insights as the basis for an educational strategy that would treated comics as a serious medium much sooner, not to mention even more so than they are today.

  3. Kater says:

    Obviously Wertham had the rhetorical upper hand at the times – the seasoned intellectual vs. the young new medium run by much less educated businessmen. There were no comics intellectuals in the 50s, noone who could or would defend the medium on the academic battlefield, not until about ten years later (and on the other side of the atlantic ocean with Eco & co.).
    So the super-villian view on Werthan is acutally spot-on: The genius mind who uses every deception in his power to fight the defenseless vistim of his choice: comics. And Wertham didn’t fight fair. That has been pretty much proven by Tilley’s research. His goal was the destruction of the comics medium and industry, and he did everything he could to achieve it. Of course Wertham wasn’t an idiot. He knew exactly what he had to do to achieve his goal, and thus turned out very successful. If manipulation of his research helped his course, who was there to expose him?
    But what I really don’t get is your insistance in his part of the ending of seggregation. What has that to do with anything? He did “good” then, so that makes him less of a villainous scum in regard to comics? That’s what I call relativism, excuse me. This is not about Wertham’s karma points as a person but about his role in comics history, and that remains unchanged by deeds of the “other” Wertham.
    You also forget, though he may have done some good in the context of US history, his devestating impact on comics was felt internationally. In Germany, for example, his writings were well recieved by the cultural critics of the Frankfurt school, most notably Adorno and Horkheimer, who hated comics maybe eben more than Wertham did. Their influence, fueled by Wertham’s writings, led to extensive book burnings of comics in Germany (only about ten years after the downfall of the nazi regime that used a similar strategy of cultural ciriticism). Unlike in the US, the German comics scene never really recovered from this and artists here still suffer from extreme prejudice about their work and its cultural significance.
    So Wertham + comics = big, big, big damage. No other way to look at it. You can look for and find insightful perspectives about his work, but to claim Wertham was right? Ouch!

  4. John Shableski says:

    Great posting Jeff! I’d also like to add that Wertham seemed to have a very keen sense of marketing in that he was able to place his opinions in front of adults, who at that time, trusted ‘the experts’ and the government.

  5. John Shableski says:

    Another element folks tend to forget is how society was changing at that time. We had the McCarthy witch hunts, rock and roll was blowing up and comics became the scape goat. However, nothing happens overnight. The bias against comics goes back to the days of Pulitzer and Hearst and even the beginnings of educational organizations like the National Council of Teachers of English…many of the principals of these groups were literary elitists who were determined to argue that literacy could only be achieved through text and not include images. With the onset of the Cold War and the fear mongering that accompanied it society needed something to blame for it all. Comics took the beating because so few had the balls to stand up and fight back.
    Now comics are finally making a recovery though it probably doesnt look anything like most would have anticipated. There are still those who refuse to recognize the value of comics as a brilliant form of communication but they are now the fading minority. Thank god!

  6. I think Wertham expressed himself just fine. He was a decent writer.

    He thought “crime” comics were contributing to juvenile delinquency. He wanted “crime” comics to be off the racks, sold only to adults upon request. He also defined “crime” comics as any comic depicting a crime and even said the ‘so called good comics’ (eg the Funny Animal type) were worse than the actual crime comics. He also said that the “good” comics were so few they were not worth talking about. Oh, and that comic books were hurting children’s reading abilities.

    But that was wrong. How he came to that conclusion doesn’t really matter IMO. It doesn’t really matter if he was using the most respected progressive research techniques of the times or if he said it because a talking burrito told him to.

    When it comes to censorship, it’s not so much about research as it is about what the Constitution (and other laws) say and arguing to get it enforced as (we think) it’s supposed to be. People will always come up with new reasons to why something should be censored, be it (faulty) research and/or (misguided) moral arguments. Why these things are wrong we already know.

    Comics do influence people, but does not force them to do bad things against their will. Influencing people is not illegal. If you don’t like some form of media, you can choose not to participate in it or give it to your children. For everybody else it’s a free country and they can and do have the freedom to choose different than you.

    They also might not:
    A) the same conclusion you might have. EG Crime Does Not Pay might actually be about convincing kids to NOT become criminals instead of becoming them.
    B) disagree with the way they are trying to get that message across.
    C) think the influence is bad or harmful. They might think it’s just entertainment and nothing more.
    Among other things.

  7. Jeff Trexler says:

    I just got back from the interesting panel on Wertham at the Soho Gallery for Digital Art. Had a chance to chat with Carol Tilley herself–but before we get to that, a few responses:

    @Kater Determining truth value on the basis of the effects raises its own questions vis a vis relativism. Saying someone got something right is not the same thing as agreeing with what they do with that assessment–it’s possible to accept that 1 + 1 = 2 even if the counter is a murderer putting bullets in a gun.

    I would dispute that Tilley’s research proves that Wertham didn’t fight fair. As Craig Yoe, Wertham’s biographer and others noted at the event tonight, shaping anecdotes in a popular narrative, especially when dealing with confidential identities, is common. Moreover, even if we accept that all the assessments in Tilley’s article are correct, it has little if any impact on the points he was making.

    As for Wertham’s work on Brown, it does indeed matter. People are complex. Disagreeing with one perspective or sphere of action doesn’t mean I can’t respect the good a person does in other areas. In fact, acknowledging that good can help understand the arguments with which I disagree, which in turn can help in answering them.

    @John Wertham certainly was media savvy. As for literary elites and the bias against images–yes indeed. The world was ending.

    @Jamie Hi! Like you, I would differ with Wertham in the negative valence of his analysis and recommendations. However, he did intuitively grasp the power effect of children’s media, something we see today with kids and iPads. In fact, I arrived home tonight to a copy of the latest Atlantic, whose cover story on the touchscreen generation is essentially a modern variant on Wertham’s assessment of the sensory effects of funny animal comics.

  8. Jeff Trexler says:

    As mentioned above, I had a chance to chat with Carol Tilley, who was most gracious. Disagreement is part of life, and it’s always nice when that doesn’t get in the way of a pleasant conversation.

    One thing I mentioned to her is my appreciation for the fact that her article does include a nice rundown of Wertham’s career, to which she returns at the end. This is something that tends to get left out in articles about her article, where the tendency is to celebrate Wertham’s allegedly being discredited as a lying fraud.

    Tilley did note her disagreement with my assertion that “the article slags the man’s entire reputation for veracity” on the basis of his work on comics. To be fair, the last paragraph does express her sense of being “conflicted” and not wanting to add herself to Wertham’s detractors.

    That said, after the event I re-read the article again a couple of times and compiled a list of references to Wertham. No doubt I am over-sensitive, but when I read that someone “manipulated, overstated, compromised, and fabricated evidence,” engaged in “numerous falsifications and distortions,” “privileged his interests … at the expense of systematic and verifiable science,” “played fast and loose with the data,” and exhibited a “willingness to alter details to fit his rhetorical need,” I tend not see this as an endorsement of a researcher’s overall character.

    Moreover, it’s worth noting that the article does not limit its negative assessment of Wertham to his work on comics. Consider the following from page 403:

    “Wertham’s treatment of evidence in Seduction and his responses to questions about his comics-related research were indicative of a larger pattern of spurious and questionable behaviors. Gabriel Mendes, in his historical examination of the Lafargue Clinic, notes that ‘throughout his entire career in psychiatry Wertham would continuously fail to observe the codes of professionalism that marked one as a candidate for institutional leadership and prestige in the wider world.'”

    This paragraph goes onto to cite Mendes’ description of Wertham in terms of the cardinal sin of most academic innovators–being (gasp!) uncollegial–and goes on to cite Wertham’s alleged “temperamental and imperious” demeanor in his work for the NAACP. If this isn’t an indictment of Wertham and his entire career in a way that goes beyond his alleged lies, deceptions, manipulations, self-serving distortions, etc. in regard to comics, well, mea culpa, tho I think it’s understandable how a reader could reach that conclusion.

  9. I wish people, in this day and age, would be smart enough to tell the difference between McCarthy and the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

  10. Synsidar says:

    BTW, the Library of Congress has a guide to the content of its collection of Wertham’s papers. He did many things besides write Seduction of the Innocent:

    Wertham wrote more than a hundred articles and essays on subjects such as battered children, violence in comic books, movies, and television, the problems of parenting, juvenile delinquency, the Vietnam War, the mass media, and sex crimes. He was a prodigious reviewer of books, critiquing more than a hundred during his lifetime. [. . .]

    Wertham’s literary interests went beyond his own professional bounds, however, as evidenced by his reviews of works by Matthew Josephson, Richard Kluger, Arthur Miller, Norman Vincent Peale, and Richard Wright. He was a tireless public speaker, and during his professional career participated in more than one hundred interviews and delivered almost as many speeches and lectures. Wertham also composed poems and short stories and wrote frequently to newspaper and magazine editors.

    SRS

  11. swampy says:

    I wonder if there are any parallels with the violence in comics and video games. Comics were heavily censored, video games to a much lesser extent. By looking at today’s VG industry, can we make a guess at what the comic industry would have become?

  12. Wow. I’m sorry, but this reads like a college essay by somebody who didn’t actually read the material. Every other sentence is pure hyperbole. No references, no quotes, no sourcing, no stats, and throwing out every iconic keyword/phrase as though to either a) skyrocket to the top of the google search engine stepladder or b) masturbate the author’s pop culture and scholarly know-how. You could have at least quoted one of the books you were attempted to discuss. Don’t assume everybody has read what you have or interprets it the same way.

    I mean, really … you keep referencing things without telling your readers what your referencing. That’s what politicians do in order to mislead constituents (or people who are lying without actually lying) not writers!

    Just a little disgusted. Please write better in the future and don’t use filler words and phrases just to hit your word length goal.

  13. Jeff Trexler says:

    @swampy Interesting question. One reason Wertham persists as a bogeyman is the ongoing threat of censorship of video games & other new media–that’s the no so subtle subtext of the response, as the CBLDF link illustrates. Part of me wonders whether the 1950s crackdown had something like a cultural Streisand effect vis a vis EC-style horror, which otherwise might have gone the way of the western.

    RDM: This wasn’t written for a peer-reviewed journal, and it was not written with SEO in mind at all. It was an opinion piece, pure and simple, and its context is the comics community’s discussions of comics as a medium, censorship + Fredric Wertham, the latter of which has escalated in recent weeks. I could easily have loaded this with pin cites and quotes given world enough and time.

    I didn’t make statistical arguments; hence, no statistics. My word-length goal was about 2/5th of what I actually wrote, so clearly I screwed up there.

    Re not naming my references in the article, there are actually links to some pieces and in a world with Google, mentioning names of folks such as Fredric Wertham, Marshall McLuhan & Walter Ong is an invitation to search if you want to learn more.

    As I hope my comments show, I love discussion and debate. I invite you and any other reader to read the main specific references in mind as I wrote (Seduction of the Innocent; Tilley’s article; McLuhan’s Understanding Media + Take Today; Walter Ong’s Orality & Literacy) and show me where I’m wrong.

  14. Jeff Trexler says:

    Also worth checking out: books on the eugenics movement, such as Edwin Black’s War against the Weak, and research pertaining to Brown v Board, including studies of Jewish involvement in the African-American civil rights movement.

  15. Brian Spence says:

    I think this was kind of interesting, but In the end, Wertham’s conclusions were wrong to a massive degree. What about Wertham’s examples of triangular shaped shading on someone’s shoulder representing a pubic area? Its been a while since I’ve read Seduction of the Innocent, but I remember laughing at a lot of utter nonsense in there! Maybe you can cut him some slack because research wasn’t as rigorous as it is today, but it was still poorly done and was directed towards ruining an art form and the lives of those who created it.

  16. James Van Hise says:

    The sloppiness in Wertham’s book is evident in that he doesn’t even provide enough information for anyone else to investigate his claims about specific comic books for themselves. Other than when covers are shown, Wertham doesn’t cite the issues he lifts panels from. The so-called “bibliography” which was removed from many copies was nothing more than a dizzying list of the arcane DBA’s that many publishers used. People have spent years tracking down what the actual comic books portrayed by Wertham in his book are because Wertham chose not to tell us. Real research books employ footnotes so that the reader look up things for themselves. No such help is provided by Wertham’s book.

  17. Dr. Wertham deserves his due for his work in the area of desegregation. But there is no reason he is owed any apologies for what he did to the field of comics (and how absurd that Yoe would site his forward thinking on “DC’s systemic mistreatment of creators” considering the thousands of artists and writers who lost their jobs in comics from the moral panic he helped to foster). What I find the most difficult to digest about your article is the implication that Wertham was insightful despite the lack of any real scientific basis for his observations. Were we to accept this thesis we would be opening the door to a world full of crackpot ideas. Rather than make this argument myself, I would prefer to quote from one of Wertham’s contemporaries – a real scientist – who could not remain silent as he watched what Wertham was doing at the time. He was another Fredric – Dr. Frederic Thrasher (1892–1962) – an sociologist at the University of Chicago, whose epic work: The Gang: A Study of 1313 Gangs in Chicago (published 1927) fully qualifies him to discuss what does and does not influence children into criminal behavior.

    From THE COMICS AND DELINQUENCY: CAUSE OR SCAPEGOAT (1949): “These monistic theories of delinquency causation illustrate a particularistic fallacy which stems from…a lack of scientific logic and research…. Most recent error of this type is that of psychiatrist Fredric Wertham who claims in effect that the comics are an important factor in causing juvenile delinquency. This extreme position which is not substantiated by any valid research is not only contrary to considerable current psychiatric thinking, but also disregards tested research procedures which have discredited numerous previous monistic theories of delinquency causation. Wertham’s dark picture of the influence of comics is more forensic than it is scientific and illustrates a dangerous habit of projecting our social frustrations upon some specific trait of our culture, which becomes a sort of ‘whipping boy’ for our failure to control the whole gamut of social breakdown. […] Wertham’s attitude and arguments in condemning the comics are very similar to those of the earlier critics of the movies. Reduced to their simplest terms, these arguments are that since the movies and comics are enjoyed by a very large number of children, and since a large component of their movie and comics diet is made up of crime, violence, horror, and sex, the children who see the movies and read the comics are necessarily stimulated to the performance of delinquent acts, cruelty, violence and undesirable sex behavior. This of course is the same type of argument that has been one of the major fallacies of all our monistic errors in attempting to explain crime and delinquency in the past. Wertham’s reasoning is a bit more complicated and pretentious. His disclaims the belief that delinquency can have a single cause and claims to adhere to the concept of multiple and complex causation of delinquent behavior. But in effect his arguments do attribute a large portion of juvenile offenses to the comics. More pointedly he maintains that the comics in a complex maze of other factors are frequently the precipitating cause of delinquency. We may criticize Wertham’s conclusions on many grounds, but the major weakness of his position is that it is not supported by research data. His findings presented for the first time in Collier’s magazine are said to be the result of two years’ study conducted by him and eleven other psychiatrists and social workers at the Lafargue Clinic in New York’s Negro Harlem. In this article the claim is made that numerous children both delinquent and non-delinquent, rich and poor were studied and that the results of these studies led to the major conclusion that the effect of comic books is “definitely and completely harmful.” That Wertham’s approach to his problem is forensic rather than scientific is illustrated by the way in which his findings are presented in the Collier’s article. Countering his claim that the effect of comics is definitely and completely harmful are statements in this article that comics do not automatically cause delinquency in every reader, that comic books alone cannot cause a child to become delinquent, that there are books of well-known comics which ‘make life better by making it merrier’ and others ‘which make it clear even to the dullest mind, that crime never pays,’ and that there are ‘seemingly harmless comic books,’ but ‘nobody knows with any degree of exactness what their percentage is.’ A further illustration of this forensic technique is the way in which he introduces extraneous facts and statements which by implication he links with his thesis that the comics are a major factor in causing delinquency and emotional disturbance in children.

    An example is New York’s Deputy Police Commissioner Nolan’s statement that ‘the anti-social acts of the juvenile delinquents of today are in many instances more serious and even of a more violent nature than those committed by youth in the past.’ Even if this statement could be proved, there is not the slightest evidence, except Wertham’s unsupported opinion, that the increase is due to the reading of comic books. Wertham then cites a series of sensational child crimes headlined in the press (not his own cases), which he imputes to the comics without any evidence at all that the juvenile offenders involved ever read or were interested in comic books. A final example of the improper use of extraneous material is the statement in the Collier’s article that ‘Children’s Court records show that delinquent youngsters are almost five years retarded in reading ability,’ and Wertham is quoted as saying that ‘Children who don’t read well tend to delinquency.’ These statements are unsupported, but even if true, there is not a scintilla of evidence that the reading retardation or disability of delinquents is due to reading comics. It is quite likely that the percentage of reading disability among delinquents was equally high or higher before the comic book was invented. As a matter of fact there are in this article no data which could be accepted by any person trained in research without documentation. Wertham asserts that the content of the comics is almost universally one of crime, violence, horror, ‘emphasis of sexual characteristics’ which ‘can lead to erotic fixations of all kinds,’ and ‘sadistic-masochistic mixture of pleasure and violence.’ Of the millions of comic books which Wertham claims deal with crime and brutality, he is content to rest his case on the selection of a few extreme and offensive examples which he makes no attempt to prove are typical. No systematic inventory of comic book content is presented, such as that compiled by Edgar Dale for the movies. Without such an inventory these conjectures are prejudiced and worthless. Wertham’s major claims rest only on a few selected and extreme cases of children’s deviate behavior where it is said the comics have played an important role in producing delinquency. Although Wertham has claimed in his various writings that he and his associates have studied thousands of children, normal and deviate, rich and poor, gifted and mediocre, he presents no statistical summary of his investigations. He makes no attempt to substantiate that his illustrative cases are in any way typical of all delinquents who read comics, or that the delinquents who do not read the comics do not commit similar types of offenses. He claims to use control groups, (non-delinquents) but he does not describe these controls, how they were set up, how they were equated with his experimental groups (delinquents) to assure that the difference in incidence of comic book-reading, if any, was due to anything more than a selective process brought about by the particular area in which he was working.

    The way in which Wertham and his associates studied his cases is also open to question. The development of case-studies as scientific data is a highly technical procedure and is based on long experience among social scientists in anthropology, psychology, and sociology. An adequate case study, which involves much more than a few interviews, gives a complete perspective of the subject’s biological, psychological and social development, for only in this manner can a single factor such as comic book-reading be put in its proper place in the interacting complex of behavior-determining factors. On the basis of the materials presented by Wertham with reference to children’s experience with the comics, it is doubtful if he has met the requirements of scientific case-study or the criteria for handling life history materials. He does not describe his techniques or show how they were set up so as to safeguard his findings against invalid conclusions […] The behavior scientist has learned that the causes of anti-social behavior – like the causes of all behavior – are complex. Delinquent and criminal careers can be understood only in terms of the interaction of many factors. Evaluation of their relative influence demands research based upon the most rigorous sampling and control, and requires the utmost objectivity in the interpretation of the data the research yields. Let us now turn to researches dealing with the influence of comics. After surveying the literature we are forced to conclude such researches do not exist. The current alarm over the evil effects of comic books rests upon nothing more substantial than the opinion and conjecture of a number of psychiatrists, lawyers and judges. True, there is a large broadside of criticism from parents who resent the comics in one way or another or whose adult tastes are offended by comics stories and the ways in which they are presented. These are the same types of parents who were once offended by the dime novel, and later by the movies and the radio. Each of these scapegoats for parental and community failures to educate and socialize children has in turn given way to another as reformers have had their interest diverted to new fields in the face of facts that could not be gainsaid.”

    Perhaps for your next project, Jeff, you can organize a panel on the insights and overlooked legacy of Anthony Comstock.

  18. george says:

    A lot of people lump Wertham and Kefauver with right-wingers like McCarthy, even they were actually LIBERALS. A lot of the people who crusaded against comics were concerned liberals who saw the comics industry as an example of capitalism run amok, without concern for its effects on children.

    That’s who was attacking superheroes in the ’40s and ’50s — liberals for whom masked and hooded vigilantes conjured up memories of the KKK (and its Northern version, the Black Legion).

  19. Jeff Trexler says:

    Actually, Scott, I’ve read a lot of Anthony Comstock and am planning on writing about his significance in another forum.

    As plenty of folks have noted, Wertham did indeed have contemporary critics. Research on the effects of environment on behavior & cognition has advanced significantly since 1949.

    As for accepting the possibility that someone could have genuine insight without a scientific basis for his observations, well, that would rule out a lot of folks whose work provides the basis of many professors’ tenure today. Jung, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard–to borrow from Harlan Ellison, these folks are exponentially more bugfu*k than Wertham ever was, but at the same time they made some interesting observations that were far more insightful than long forgotten Taylorites researching with clipboards and stopwatches. The same goes for more acceptably rational writers–for instance, Reinhold Niebuhr barely footnoted, spoke in generalities, got not a few details wrong, and yet is one of the most influential social theorists of the past century. Again, to quote McLuhan, “The specialist is one who never makes small mistakes while moving towards the grand fallacy.”

    As for the repeated mentions of Wertham’s effects + critical perspective, I’d recommend mulling over what I’m actually saying here. As someone reminded me at the Wertham event last night, there’s a tendency in the comics community to see things in good and evil terms, and this can get in the way of more nuanced arguments. Just because Wertham’s right doesn’t mean he’s right–Lenin had some truly astute observations regarding capitalism, but conceding that doesn’t mean I’m rah-rah for starving peasants in the steppes.

  20. I think what bothers me is that Wertham expressed his opinions as science. Doesn’t that bother you? I also don’t find his observations all that impressive: he noted that an powerful uber-man could have fascist overtones; that the binding and paddling of women could imply S & M. Perhaps those insights make it worth reevaluating Wertham’s legacy. I am more impressed he wrote his final book on the positives of fan-fiction and fanzines. But if you’re talking about his influence on thinking about comics, it should be considered purely as one man’s opinion.

  21. george says:

    Wertham may have expressed his views as science, but his book was sold to a large mainstream audience via ads in daily newspapers and popular women’s magazines — the kind of promotion few (if any) scientific books got in the ’50s. Critics of the time took Wertham to task for the lack of any real science in his book. It was basically a collection of anecdotes.

    David Hajdu’s book “The Ten-Cent Plague” has plenty about the sales campaign for “Seduction.” As Hajdu points out, the book’s title may have been chosen because it had the ring of hard-boiled fiction (“Street of the Lost,” “Dagger of the Mind”). “Seduction” was what would now be called a “crossover” success, designed to appeal way beyond the audience for scientific books.

  22. Yes, Wertham’s book (or his Collier’s article, which is what Dr. Thrasher is addressing) should be thought of as popular culture, just as much as the comics he critiqued.

    What was it, though, that Wertham did get right? Because the part that talks about how kids reading comics is influencing their behavior in a negative way is just Plato all over. His opinion: “Now early life is very impressible, and children ought not to learn what they will have to unlearn when they grow up; we must therefore have a censorship of nursery tales, banishing some and keeping others. Some of them are very improper [...] Shall our youth be encouraged to beat their fathers by the example of Zeus ….the young are incapable of understanding allegory.” Now we know the cause of all that teen father-beating back in 380 B.C.

    It seems to me all Wertham was expressing was a common fear that adults have about what kids hear, read and see. The only difference was he said it was science and it’s not. That, and that Zeus wore tights.

  23. Jeff Trexler says:

    @Scott There’s an old saying that all ideas go back to either Plato or Aristotle, and mimesis would certainly qualify as exhibit #1. (FWIW, I actually did my Classics honors thesis on Plato, poetry & mimetic behavior, based on reading all of Plato in Greek, except the $#@!?! Laws. It’s still somewhere in storage, in all its dot-matrix paper MacWrite nostalgic glory.)

    I’m thinking of putting together more on this in a separate post, but a couple quick notes.

    –Being a fraud and not being considered impressively original are two different things. The distinction is important for our purposes.

    –There are multiple modes of persuasion, and there valence can vary depending on the context. Numbers work in one situation; anecdotes that illustrate a resonant pattern in another.

    –Let’s assume that Wertham wasn’t a fraud, just banal. Yet for a decade or so his arguments helped bring about conspicuous joint action & they continue to resonate in adapted forms today. In trying to advance our own POV, are we better served by pretending this doesn’t matter or trying to understand how it works and how that could help us?

    –Re the previous point, recent developments in the Superman case illustrate the limited utility of assuming that everything an influential opponent says is just preposterous BS.

    –As we speak, scientists are studying how sound and actions expressed in video game can be designed to fire neurons and induce empathic/mimetic responses. These scientists are Plato’s heirs–and Wertham’s. If there’s any utility in trashing the rep of a researcher from 60 years ago who wrote about the potential for fictional representation to spark mimetic behavior, it is at best limited.

  24. Jeff Trexler says:

    Lest anyone in the future write an article about my functional illiteracy discrediting everything I say, that’s supposed to be “their valence.”

  25. Jeff Trexler says:

    One more quick note: Wertham on multiple occasions emphasizes that his argument is not linear direct mimesis. As I suggest in the post, he’s more of a transitional form between what McLuhan would say was a Platonic text culture POV and today’s more holistic systems approach. Which shouldn’t come as a surprise, given the era’s obsession with cybernetics and society.

    Sorry I don’t have time for quotes, cites, etc. Read Seduction + his testimony carefully; as for other ideas, Google is our friend!

  26. Bad science and rhetorically gobblegook seem to go hand in hand.

  27. Jeff Trexler says:
  28. george says:

    “If there’s any utility in trashing the rep of a researcher from 60 years ago who wrote about the potential for fictional representation to spark mimetic behavior, it is at best limited.”

    I have to admit that a lot of EC’s material was not suitable for children, any more than Mickey Spillane’s novels were ideal reading material for little kids.

    As others have pointed out elsewhere, EC got some letters from soldiers and assumed they had a substantial adult audience. They probably DID have more adult readers than the other companies, but the majority of their readers were kids. That’s how it was in the early ’50s.

    In later years, some EC artists (like Jack Davis) were ashamed of the gory horror comics, and didn’t like talking about them. (Graham Ingles seems to have vanished!) EC and Lev Gleason’s crime comics are worthwhile reading for people 13 and up. But not for small children.

    Or, as Frank Miller said a few decades ago: “I can’t say I object to comics being cleaned up a bit. I don’t like playing baseball with people’s heads.”

    Of course, that was before Sin City …

  29. Jeff: look forward to reading the link. Need I point out that they include actual data.
    George: I think Wertham was also ashamed, many years later, for lying and faking his data.

  30. george says:

    “George: I think Wertham was also ashamed, many years later, for lying and faking his data.”

    Could be. He certainly tried to make nice with comics fans in his book on fanzines.

  31. Thomas Baumbidell says:

    This article presents a binary argument that I don’t think anyone is making, particularly Tilley.

    It is very common, when discussing Wertham, to understand that he did an awful lot of good in his career. Had he not crusaded against comics (and he did crusade- when you hear the recordings of his testimonies, he is as emphatic as a street preacher), he would be regarded as a hero. But he tainted his career by being the catalytic figure that almost destroyed an industry, and ruined plenty of careers and lives in pursuit of book sales and fame.

    He was a complex man. I think people understand that.

  32. Jeff Trexler says:

    @Thomas I disagree. Tilley makes a nod in this direction, but the article repeatedly characterizes him as a fraud and insinuates that his “spurious” bad faith dealing pollutes his “entire” professional career. I’ve also read multiple responses to her article, and time and again the fraud meme is unqualified.

    YMMV, but in the academic world, asserting that someone is a lying fraud who manipulates evidence, distorts facts, misrepresents marginalized minorities, and is an academic analogue to Jason Blair & James Frey does not convey a nuanced respect for the human complexity. It’s a reputation killer, and for those who are more familiar with Wertham’s entire body of work it no doubt seems like character assassination.

    Again, my aim here is not to defend Wertham’s opposition to comics, nor is it to endorse the campaign against comics as a source of crime. It’s about strategic empathy. From a tactical point of view, every time I see a celebration of how Wertham’s been confirmed as a fraud it feels like this:

    “Dazzlingly marvellous! Perfect! Flawless! Staggering!” exclaimed Bilbo aloud, but what he thought inside was: “Old fool! Why there is a large patch in the hollow of his left breast as bare as a snail out of its shell!”

  33. David Hajdu’s novel The Ten Cent Plague clarified much of this “meme” for me a few years ago. But I think the overall point of this article is fallible.

    As Rand said, “Those who deny Reason cannot be conquered by Reason.” Understanding the other side’s perspective is by no definition a certain route to victory. Look at the current arguments over gun legislation.

  34. Jeff Trexler said:

    “Disagreeing with one perspective or sphere of action doesn’t mean I can’t respect the good a person does in other areas.”

    That’s a valid viewpoint. The only thing wrong with it is that you have failed to see that Wertham exemplified the inverse of this viewpoint. You’ve said that you “disagree” with his conclusions, but you’ve grossly under-represented the way in which he loaded his arguments in the text of SEDUCTION to state that there was absolutely nothing good about the comic book medium. No one needed Tilley to point out that his argument against EC misrepresents one story (I forget the title) as inculcating racism rather than protesting it. Wertham does not prove his contention logically; he simply states it as The Truth.

    “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

  35. Jeff,
    Define “strategic empathy.” I assume it applies to us moderns. It certainly did not apply to Wertham.

  36. “What’s more important for us today, however, is understanding why he was right.”

    Okay, I’ve read your essay, and I still don’t see where you think that anything in SEDUCTION was right, aside from comparing his advocacy of “indirect effects” to modern theories of dynamic systems. But is that something he was actually “right” about? Being “right” would seem to imply that the matter under discussion is not one up to debate, and modern theories of dynamic systems may have as many flaws as Wertham’s methodology.

  37. Today I can’t find anything in the CBLDF essay by Betsy Gomez that states or implies that FW was a “lying racist pig.” The only mention of race in the short essay is a quote from Tilley, and it doesn’t call anybody anything. Did Jeff see something in the essay that has since been edited?

  38. (In voice of Ben Stein):

    Trexler?

    Trexler?

  39. Jeff Trexler says:

    @Gene Still here! Been thinking of taking this back to the front page with a new post. Wertham’s empathy; insinuations re racism; the deeper significance of how he was right & what it means today–good questions, excellent discussion and more to come!

    On a side note, I’ve been partial to the notion that Ferris Bueller was actually a projected fictional alter ego of Cameron Frye, so your last comment has me pondering whether I truly exist.

  40. McEwen says:

    Skipping over this piece and the comments to it, I have the strange impression that McLuhan’s own review of Wertham (‘Seduction of the Innocent’, Shenandoah, 6:2, 53-57 1955) is unknown or ignored. Seems like it would be helpful actually to have a look where MM agreed with Wertham and where not. Surprisingly often he agreed.

    But the idea that we have in Wertham in 1954 “McLuhan before he became McLuhan” is way off base. MM published “Dagwood’s America” in 1944 and “Comics as Culture” in 1953. Discussions of Pogo and Li’l Abner and Superman are common in his early texts. The idea is always that interesting and important matters can be seen by looking *through* these figures.

    McLuhan describes the essential difference between his approach and that of Wertham at the end of his review: “it is typical of Dr Wertham’s approach that the immediate concern with morals acts to obscure many large issues, to the ultimate detriment of a grasp of the moral issues. That is why in going straight for the moral problem I think Dr Wertham has tended to provide the crime comic industry with an alibi and with a red herring wherewith to distract attention from certain revolutionary realities. The vestiges of traditional life and education can now, at best, only become centers of resistance and analysis. But they cannot afford to be less than this.”

  41. Jeff Trexler says:

    @McEwan, thanks for the reference. I’ll have to track down a copy of that.

    In regard to before McLuhan was McLuhan, a point of explanation as to why I said that. McLuhan went through a substantial evolution of his views on media from the 1940s through his landmark 1960 “Medium is the Message” Forum article. As any number of McLuhan scholars have noted–and feel free to disagree!–the McLuhan of the Mechanical Bride was in certain key respects not yet the McLuhan of Explorations 8, the NAEB report or the Gutenberg Galaxy, let alone Understanding Media. Although core elements were there, his analytical framework + cultural assessment were not yet fully formed. McLuhan himself later critiqued his interpretive strategy in his first book, the 1951 Mechanical Bride (which contained an early study of Superman and other comics, as you note), as “wrong” due to his “obsession with literary values.”
    http://books.google.com/books?id=U_gY5HXZSP8C&pg=PA375&lpg=PA375&dq=mcluhan+%22negated+by+tv%22&source=bl&ots=03rfi03Kaa&sig=_26jTlvpPKjc_Iqw8rh_tLSje8o&hl=en&sa=X&ei=x5FUUY6pM9Ko4AP274CAAw&ved=0CDMQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q=mcluhan%20%22negated%20by%20tv%22&f=false

  42. McEwen says:

    Jeff, If you give me your email, I’ll be happy to send the Wertham review to you. Very interesting in this context, I believe.

    You are correct that McLuhan saw the need to alter his views from Mechanical Bride and before. But this is a complicated subject related more in my estimation to his religious convictions than to a change in the way he proposed to analyze culture and cultural phenomena. In any case, this self-critique was explicit in 1954 in his Commonweal article ‘Sight, Sound, and the Fury’ (4/9)
    (http://googlebordello.crushhumanity.org/sightsoundandthefury.html):

    “When I wrote The Mechanical Bride some years ago I did not realize that I was attempting a defense of book-culture against the new media. I can now see that I was trying to bring some of the critical awareness fostered by literary training to bear on the new media of sight and sound. My strategy was wrong, because my obsession with literary values blinded me to much that was actually happening for good and ill. What we have to defend today is not the values developed in any particular culture or by any one mode of communication. Modern technology presumes to attempt a total transformation of man and his environment. This calls in turn for an inspection and defense of all human values.”

    What McLuhan regretted in his earlier stuff was his valuation of what was going on in (eg) advertising and comics, not the way in which he had interrogated them. Note that this is exactly what he similarly regretted in Wertham’s book in the concluding paragraph of his review which I gave in my previous comment above.

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