Doctor Frederick Wertham, the man who is most responsible for the mass censorship of American comics in the 1950s, the Comics Code and 50 years of mainstream American comics being constrained, was a liar. Don’t take my word for it, take the word of an academic who has viewed his research as a mass of made-up data designed to support his theory that comic books were corrupting children in the ’50s. If Wertham had been honest we’d have a totally different comic industry in America – and probably the UK as well, who also suffered fallout from the witch-hunts of the 1950s. So who was Wertham and what was the ‘”Seduction of the Innocent’’?
Firstly, we have to go back to just after the Second World War. American comics had seen their big superheroes like Superman, Batman and Captain America fight the menace of the Axis powers and win, but in a post-war world where people were tired of fighting, superheroes were no longer needed as a propaganda tool, so barring a few, the superhero fell upon tough times as other genres rose to prominence. In these post-war years there was a varied amount of genres from highly successful romance comics, to comedy and then there were the crime comics. Crime comics were often sordid and sensational affairs that tapped into post-war noir fiction. These comics often had gory denouements, and although most would end with the baddies getting their just desserts, some of these comics are still extraordinary. In the midst of this new breed of comics was a nationwide scandal of ‘juvenile delinquents’ sweeping the USA after the war, as a generation was blamed for the problems of the post-war American boom.
As this was all fermenting, William Gaines saw a gap in the market as his crime comics published by his company, EC Comics, started experimenting with horror, which although often tongue in cheek (sometimes literally) is a logical development of the crime comic, choosing instead to cloak ‘realistic’ crime comics with a more fantastical set of stories where sometimes the baddie won and morality was, at best, grey. Readers lapped these titles up with brilliant – and sometimes lurid – art up. EC’s output maintained a quality but as is usual when the market sees a success story, imitators sprung up quickly which were more interested in gore for gore’s sake instead of the social commentary Gaines’ work contained. It’s also worth noting that comics were selling millions. A poorly selling comic would be still selling beyond the wildest dreams of a best selling title today in 2017.
In the middle of this was Dr. Frederick Wertham, a psychiatrist who believed that the reason children were rebelling and getting into crime wasn’t anything to do with a complex socio-economic understanding of people’s lives, poverty, or a democratic deficit – as this was an era where children are still preferred to be seen but not heard – but instead he lumped the blame of delinquency on comics. His crusade saw him accuse Batman comics of suppressed homosexuality, or that comics had a set of recurring gruesome images (the injury to the eye for example), that Wonder Woman was a BDSM fantasy (which was actually true but Wertham wasn’t aware of creator William Moulton’s intentions) and that, because 95% of kids in reform schools read comics, that meant the only reason they were in there was because they read comics. Any scientist will tell you this is a fallacy, and is in fact the sort of thing you see in junk tabloids such as the Daily Mail today where X is responsible for Y because there’s lots of X living in the country. It’s a logical fallacy which any respectable scientist would never have allowed attach their name to, but Wertham was on a moral crusade and as we know now, he falsified his data to build up a case to support his theory; however there was no real evidence to support it. Children were becoming criminals for a variety of reasons, so one could easily build up a case on children becoming criminals because most children eat chocolate as one could comics. If you were willing to alter the data to support your case of course.
By 1954 Wertham was at the centre of the American senate’s hearing into whether comic books caused juvenile delinquency. Publishers and creators were hauled over the coals with EC’s William Gaines suffering especially badly at the hands of the committee after trying to make an artistic case for the lurid cover of Crime SuspenStories #22 featuring the severed head of a young woman. Gaines put forth a case defending EC’s output (including mentioning the fact the company printed Bible stories as well as crime and horror comics) as well as defending himself, his company and his fellow creators against Wertham’s accusations. He lost.
Wertham ensured that the publicity from the hearings, as well as his book The Seduction of the Innocent, created such a scandal across America that the Comics Code was brought in during 1954 to effectively censor all comics sold across America. In the UK we had legislation too with The Children and Young Persons (Harmful Publications) Act 1955 (also known as the Horror Comics Act) which is remarkably still a piece of legislation still in effect, though it hasn’t been put into practice since 2004.
In years since we’ve seen similar scares. In the 1980s with Video Nasties, which resulted in the censorship or banning of movies deemed too extreme or corruptible (which also had a case built upon lies and spurious data), and now with the internet – but nothing has had the effect on any art that Wertham’s moral crusade had. American comics were effectively neutered. The socially aware tales that Gaines produced which dealt with racism, sexism, rape, social injustice, poverty, as well as gory thrills, were gone to be replaced by safe, impotent stories of pirates, doctors. As for superheroes, they retreated into childish fantasy with Superman and Batman meeting multi-coloured aliens while presenting a solid All-American role model. Gone was any darkness in Batman’s world, while Superman’s early history as a crusader for social justice was whitewashed out of existence, though there was still a hint of Wonder Woman’s kinky origins occasionally.
American comics were held back. The rise of Marvel Comics in the early 1960s gave these one-dimensional characters a second dimension as their creator’s tried to push the Comics Code with some issues which tried to deal with current social problems, as did DC – but they were held back by a piece of censorship designed to emasculate comics. Once retreated into fantasy, American comics were dominated by the superhero, though that didn’t stop the Underground Comix revolution of the 1960s where people like Robert Crumb were unleashing tales which were more than just spandex-clad musclemen hitting each other.
Frederick Wertham’s legacy is not a good one. Discredited and despised, he managed to perpetrate a fraud which stunted a medium. The horror comic would have burned out as there were too many publishers printing too much sub-standard work which lessened the impact of better work. Gaines knew this as he tried to evolve with his science fiction comics, as well as Shock SuspenStories which were trying something fresh and new which is where Mad came from as something totally unseen before. Mad evolved into a magazine as Gaines noticed a loophole in the Comics Code which meant it didn’t apply to comics published in a magazine format which is where it thrived. Comic books suffered as creators tried to push the Code as much as possible until finally, it ended in 2011 when DC and Archie were the last two publishers to drop out of the Code, rendering the legislation obsolete over half a century after its creation.
And that’s Wertham’s legacy; as a censor who used comics to hide the very real problems of America that were never solved, and instead festered through the generations. Wertham is not the only villain here, but he spearheaded the crudade and he was proud to have his name associated with the largest act of mass censorship on an art post-WWII.