The Strange Case of Doctor Fredric Wertham
In 1954 an obscure psychiatrist penned a book called Seduction of the Innocent which almost put paid to the entire comic book industry in the United States. The whole incident is almost forgotten today, but it is highly instructive over how “fire-storms” and cultural wars can break out. It is also reasonably true to say that–unlike the parallel film industry–it took American comics about three decades to fully ingest and recover from Doctor Wertham’s assault.
Fredric Wertham was an Ashkenazic psychiatrist who basically applied half-digested ideas from social anthropology into the cultural realm. He definitely believed that many of the tear-aways and juvenile delinquents that he had to deal with in the late 1940s and early 1950s were the products of bad culture.
It’s instructive to point out that Wertham doesn’t seem to import any information from other disciplines or clusters of ideas. Like Boas and Margaret Mead, he believes that Man is totally socially conditioned when almost the opposite is true. Strongly influenced by real criminal cases, Wertham believed that young louts and hoodlums were the actual product of their violent “reading” material.
This is almost completely base about apex. It was true that reform school types majored on pulps, irregular ‘zines–the subliminal pornography of that era–and violent comic books. Many of the latter were published by Entertainment Comics (EC), owned by William Gaines, whose firm was virtually forced out of business as a result of Wertham’s fiat.
It is important to realize that a small proportion of Wertham’s assertions were true, at least from a socially conservative perspective. About five percent of these comics or graphic novels depicted quite considerable sadism (eye gouging, etc.) and tacitly sexual imagery. It is also true that such material was unashamedly targeted at minors, children, and young adults. Most parents instinctively believe that the escapist material which the young like to peruse is harmful–and a small proportion of it doubtless is.
But what Wertham doesn’t understand (on largely ideological grounds) is that mankind’s nature proves to be biologically grounded–the social and environmental attributes of which are themselves tributaries of genetics. Goaty youths want to peruse violent, forceful, imaginative, masculinist, and heroic material in order to escape from an often hum-drum existence. It is doubtless correct, however, that those with a psychopathic personality will be attracted to material that ramifies with their deepest urges.
The publication of Doctor Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent led to his appearance before the Senate Sub-committee on Juvenile Delinquency and the decimation of the comics industry thereafter. Many of these comics were completely harmless, in my view–the majority of their themes were Gothic staples akin to Isak Dinesen’s Seven Gothic Tales, or the works of Ambrose Bierce, Arthur Machen, and Edgar Allan Poe. The bulk of them would quite easily have provided scripts or (more accurately) story boards for The Twilight Zone and other series in the ’50s.
Nonetheless, due to the overwhelming ethnicity of those who founded the comics industry, a subtle “liberal” bias pervades. The touch (at this historical period) is extremely light, but anti-racism, a trace of anti-McCarthy feeling, anti-anti-Semitism, hostility to any type of color bar, a certain anti-police rhetoric, and an unheroic attitude to military service all prevail.
The latter point is quite interesting. In contrast to the virulent patriotism of Sergeants Fury and Rock at Marvel and DC later on, EC comics were pacifist, dead-beat, and cynical. It’s almost as if there attitude was more redolent of an anti-Vietnam war comic like War is Hell—even an ultra-cynical piece like Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun. (This piece of agit-prop, in artistic guise, goes right back to early Communist anti-war art, on the German side, after the Great War. This involved brochures or picture books which depicted soldiers who had been dreadfully maimed at the front. The Nietzschean response would be to commit suicide; the Leftist one to exhibit the maimed.)
Wertham’s views were subtly different from all of this, however. Despite sharing the “soft Left” or Jewish humanist mind-set of EC (up to a point), he saw things in a much wider way. After all, his intervention led to the self-imposed Comics Code (for fear of state intervention), as well as the destruction of hundreds of thousands of comics by state troopers in the ’50s. Some grainy black-and-white photos from this decade still survive.
It is interesting to note that much of the indictment of one particular government in the 20th century—book burning; persecution of modernist art; eugenics and dysgenics in psychiatric hospitals, etc.—all occurred in virtually every Western society. This includes Sweden, Britain, and the United States, where far Right movements were all conspicuously unsuccessful.
Bloated with success, Wertham attempted to “clean up” early television in the same way. But he was picking on a much larger, better financed, and more resilient industry here. It also possessed much more influential political backers and friends. His anti-televisual thesis, War on Children (1959) couldn’t find a publisher, and Wertham’s cultural influence subsequently waned.
His response was to become even more hysterical and side-lined, however. In his fringe published book in 1966, A Sign for Cain, Wertham declared that the increasing violence, grotesquerie, desensitization, and commercial “paganism” of mass media was laying the grounds for a new Holocaust. This was an extraordinary claim when taken at face value!
Yet Wertham was tapping into something—like Christian evangelicals and puritan campaigners of the time—who realized that generic media is a factor of 20 to 50 times more violent, explicit, sensual, sub-pornographic, and “uncensored” now than when I was born in 1962. Despite having campaigned for this “liberation,” many liberals are secretly uneasy about what they have unleashed—particularly if they settle down to have children in mid-life. But it’s too late now!
Put rather tritely, what Wertham and Co. misunderstand is Man’s dual nature. Most normal or well-adjusted people instinctively feel that children should be protected from low-grade material. Nonetheless, when it comes to adolescent and adult works, there is then a cultural war over the meaning of fare that oscillates between Eros and Thanatos. Humans are violent and erotic beings—this will manifest itself in culture.
You either have Shakespeare’s King Lear, replete with Gloucester’s blinding scene with Cornwall, or you have the Marxist equivalent of the play, Edward Bond’s Lear, containing, as it does, Bond’s eye-removing machine. The latter is a counter-cultural testament to the utilitarianism of cruelty. The struggle is to decide whether you have one variant or the other; and what it means.
At a much lower cultural level, does a Marvel comic like the Black Panther subliminally preach what Obama’s wife really thinks about the American Union; or does the revolutionary English Puritan Solomon Kane, another Marvel title from Robert E. Howard touched up by Roy Thomas, exemplify the glories of an Aryan warrior? Howard’s own words in one of his stories—a language use which was excised from a version printed in the late ’60s in Czechoslovakia.
Wertham himself declined later to a stumbling apologia for comics fandom, at least in terms of the fanzines which they produced themselves. These obviously didn’t contain the violent, mastodonic, and sensual material of which he disapproved. This work, The World of Fanzines (1974), attempted to reconcile him with a middle-aged clientele for graphic novels that viewed him with considerable hostility. There was even a revenge against him from within the community of fandom, Doctor Wirtham’s Comix and Stories (1979), which admitted that he was right.
An age of Horror awaits us all . . .?
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