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Manifesto: Fredric Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture

A column article, Manifesto by: Jason Sacks

"Hitler was a beginner compared to the comic industry. They get the children much younger. They teach them race hatred at the age of 4 before they can learn to read."
- Dr. Fredric Wertham, before the Congressional Committee on Juvenile Delinquency; April 21, 1954

For anyone who has studied the history of American comics at all, there is one real-life villain who stands out against the rest of the pack of nefarious nemeses: Fredric Wertham. Like the Joker or Doctor Doom, Wertham is portrayed as pure evil, a malevolently minded crusader whose malicious and singleminded pursuit of the destruction of the comics industry resulted in a dark age for the industry, pushing away progressive material and bowdlerizing comics as bland stuff for kids.

At least that's the story that we comics fans have told ourselves over the last few decades, our collective myth of oppression from a single-minded destructive force whose main intention was to destroy the artform that we love. But as any of us who love comics know, sometimes the most interesting villains are also the most complex.

Fredric Wertham

Bart Beaty's 2005 book Fredric Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture aims to deepen readers' understanding of the life and career of the man that most fans think of as comics' greatest villain by providing a context and setting in which to explain the man's attitudes and approaches to the material he discusses. Beaty's book not a biography so much as a discussion of the man's ideas and the context of the world in which he lived. As such, it's as much a history of Intellectualism and mass culture in the postwar period as it is a biography of an individual man.

Beaty sets Wertham as a very well educated man whose views were very much outside of those of his peers at the time –not because of his approaches to comics but rather because of his approaches to children and the then pervasive problem of juvenile delinquency – a "problem" that was perhaps more a reflection of the paranoia and social tensions of the time than an actual problem with society.

Here's an excerpt from an upcoming film about Wertham to set a perspective on him:

Wertham was deeply committed to helping to solve what he saw as the twin problems of juvenile delinquency and racial discrimination, and crusaded all his life, as part of the "mental hygiene" movement, to work to eliminate those problems to the extent possible. Before becoming a crusader about the comics, Wertham was a commited reformer. He opened the famed Lafargue Clinic in Harlem, the first psychoanalytic clinic devoted to helping African-Americans with the societal problems that surrounded, and in his mind, strongly influenced their lives. That was a radically different idea at the time; in part because psychoanalysis was seen as somewhat on the fringe, and in part because the institutional racism of the time (which Wertham despised) led to a belief that mental health care wasn't as important for people in those neighborhoods.

Wertham had a more holistic approach to psychology than many of his peers at that time, believing that a constellation of influences helped to shape and distort young minds. As such, he rejected the then-prevalent concept that children were influenced to become good or evil due to internal motivations; instead, his approach to mental health was more holistic and took such areas as family, social pressures and the media that the child consumed into account when assessing a child's mental health – in other words, he was working to determine the nature of the balance between nature and nurture.

Beaty spends considerable time discussing that point in his book, and for good reason. Critics who have not studied Seduction of the Innocent closely assume that Wertham is monomaniacal in his assignment of juvenile delinquency to comics; instead, he attributes it as just one of the causes of the breakdown of societal norms. Poverty and poor family life were also influences. As well, he rejected much of the mass culture of the era, particularly the more elevated artforms that his fellow intellectuals praised. Wertham was very much a maverick for his time in nearly every way.

That said, however, it's also clear that Wertham was on a crusade about comics and was obsessed with both their pervasiveness and their perceived pernicious effect on children. He began preaching against comics as early as 1948, sometimes allying with those who believed that comics caused illiteracy because they kept kids from reading classic literature, other times standing alone while decrying what he called "crime comics" (which essentially was any comic, no matter how benign, that contained virtually any confrontation between characters).

The man simply hated comics, and it's in the implied sincerity of Wertham's crusade that this book really has teeth for me. Wertham was a well-known Intellectual of his time, the equivalent perhaps to a media pundit that we're used to seeing on the cable news channels bloviating about a topic for which he asserts deep knowledge and insight. Wertham was published broadly, in popular magazines of the era as well as in middlebrow and highbrow journals. His anti-comics screeds were widely read and reprinted – at least one was reprinted in the Reader's Digest, the most popular magazine of its time – and Wertham was widely seen by the general public as an authority on the corrupting influence of comics.

And while his intellectual and emotional commitments to Seduction of the Innocent can't be questioned, there's also an element of commerce involved in Wertham's career. He was looking to sell a lot of copies of SOTI and used his famous appearance before the Committee on Juvenile Delinquency in part to help promote himself. There's nothing wrong in the American tradition of getting rich by criticizing society's problems – writers as diverse as Upton Sinclair, Al Franken and Sean Hannity have done exactly that – but this feels somehow more unseemly when applied to someone who crusaded to have Congress ban all "crime comics" from the readership of young children. The censorious nature of his arguments combined with the all-American greed that's connected to this approach make Wertham's arguments feel more self-serving than prescriptive.

That presents a fascinating dichotomy for readers of this book as well: it's hard to reconcile some of Wertham's thoughts about commercial and free speech with his frankly censorious ideas. As Beaty states, "Wertham repeated his call to isolate the single factor of comic books with national legislation that would prohibit the circulation and display of comic books to children under the age of fifteen." This from a man whose career was built on crusading communications and the idea that children could be moved from the negative paths in their lives through positive therapy. This reveals a blind spot (possibly deliberately chosen to emphasize the clarity of his point) which implies that comics could only ever have a negative effect on children; even the squeaky clean Dell Comics and Classics Illustrated (both of which he criticized) are beyond the pale in Wertham's world.

As television grew as a social force in society, the concerns of educators and social scientists shifted from comic books to television. By the early 1960s, television was seen as the most pervasive force affecting American children, and there was no shortage of critics springing up to complain about the quality of television broadcasting during that era. (In fact, one of the most intriguing implications of this section of the book is the idea that the leading intellectuals and pundits of each era will complain about that era's media, no matter how favorably future generations will look upon it. Change is always scary and disruptive to those with conservative bents.

In that era, Wertham's influenced waned. He proposed a book that was never published for several reasons, including a perception that it was somewhat out of step with its era. But he did get one book published through a University press. The World of Fanzines was a short, informal study of the fan press of the 1960s and '70s. Strange as it may seem, the "Greatest Villain in Comics History" was fond of sending quarters taped to pieces of cardboard and in return receiving copies of mimeographed fanzines. Wertham's interest in zines was sincere; he praises them in his book for being almost entirely free from commercial considerations and thus as pure a form of art as anybody could create. He even occasionally wrote for zines and sat for interviews, strange as that image sounds.

The important thing for Wertham when considering the fanzines was that element of freedom, of creations being separate from commerce and thus "purer" or more pristine than other media. As Steve Bissette points out in his excellent Teen Angels & New Mutants, these views were self-contradictory and neglected his own malignant role in the formation of fan culture; much of comics fandom formed around the deification of the same E.C Comics that Wertham forced to close down. He also failed to consider the fact that a creator in mass culture can create work that's just as idiosyncratic and personal as any published in fanzines – in fact, the underground comix of the 1960s and '70s were founded in that idea, something that Wertham seems to have overlooked in World of Fanzines. Finally, and maybe most damningly, the very people who were doing "free" work for the fanzines soon turned around and did professional work in the industry. Their freedom didn't disappear; in fact, the era in which this book was published was arguably the era of the most personal freedom for professional comics creators.

 

One shudders to consider what Wertham would think of the media of 2014, much more diverse, violent and complex than the world of 1954. Indeed, maybe the most intriguing idea of all that emerges from this book is how old-fashioned Wertham's ideas seem, and how grounded they are in the world of sixty years ago, before over-the-air television even became commonplace. It seems almost charmingly naïve that comics' greatest villain emerged from an era when he could assign most of his wrath to one cause.

Seen in that light, Fredric Wertham isn't the equivalent of the Joker or Lex Luthor. Seen in that light, he's more like the old Captain Marvel villain Mister Mind, a worm who communicated through a giant radio. He's intriguing in an odd sort of retro light, but everything about him seems like a relic of a scarcely remembered time.

But the ultimate irony may be that the ideas that led Wertham to open the Lafargue Clinic, and that provided the underpinning for his beliefs, are so much accepted knowledge now. Everybody believes now, as Wertham did then, that society and the media have an important influence on shaping young minds, only now the professional concerned class worries about violent video games and the Internet. Whaddya know? At least in some ways, Wertham was right.


SeductionOfTheInnocent.org is an outstanding resource for those curious about Wertham and SOTI.

For information on the documentary Diagram for Delinquents, about Wertham and from which these video clips are excerpted, visit the Sequart site.

Please join the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund to help battle future Werthams!

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