Sunday, November 25, 2007

Dr. Fredric Wertham's 'What Parents Don't Know About Comic Books' (1953)

While working with troubled youths in the 1940's, psychiatrist and author Dr. Fredric Wertham (1895 - 1981) began turning his clinical focus towards the possible detrimental influences of mass media and popular culture.
His articles published on the subject became very influential.

By the 1950's his study was concerned almost exclusively with comic books. The height of his influence came in 1954 with the release of his book 'Seduction of the Innocent'.

The book made a big splash, and so Dr. Wertham was called upon to give testimony that year at the congressional hearings that would put many comics publishers out of business and would give rise to the formation of the
content-regulating Comics Code Authority.

The article shown below ran in the November, 1953 issue of Ladies Home Journal ("The Magazine Women Believe In").

I found a copy of the issue recently and wanted to share the opportunity to see the article in (something similar to) the manner in which America first saw it.

The magazine piece served as something of a preview to 'Seduction of the Innocent' and played a large part in paving a path to the fame and credibility Dr. Wertham was afforded.

Even as comic books became demonized at the time, so over the years has Fredric Wertham to many comics fans the world over. It's just barely possible that both reactions were a bit extreme and unfortunate...

⬆ Photo of Dr. Fredric Wertham at work. ⬆

See also:
- Transcripts of 1954 Senate Subcommittee Hearings into Juvenile Delinquency, with a special focus on Comic Books.

Specifically, you may wish to read from the afternoon session of April 21st - - Testimony of Dr. Fredric Wertham.

- 'Fredric Wertham - Anti-Comics Crusader Who Turned Advocate' - an article detailing Wertham's writings and dealings with the comics medium, and his apparent about-face in the 1970's.

In 1974, In his book 'The World of Fanzines: A Special Form of Communication', "...Dr. Wertham was praising the efforts of comic-book readers, and presenting (their) internal hobby publications as the very model of non-violent communication by bright young people."

⬆ Cover, Ladies Home Journal, November 1953

⬅ 'About The Author' inset from Table of Contents page

⬅ Click on page images to ENLARGE to a readable proportion in a new window - -

- - OR click on page numbers below... ⬇

(page 1)
(page 2)
(page 3)
(page 4)
(page 5)
(page 6)
(page 7)
(page 8)
(page 9)
(page 10)
(page 11)

ADDENDUM, 11/25/07: Many many thanks to Rogelio T for sending along a link to an archived radio broadcast from a March 2, 1948 episode of 'America's Town Meeting of the Air'.

'What's Wrong with the Comics?' featured a discussion with Al Capp, George Hecht, John Mason Brown and Marya Mannes.

It was later featured in the March 20, 1948 issue of Saturday Review of Literature as 'The Case for the Comics'.

"It's not Wertham, but the same subject", says Rogelio.

Follow the links to listen...
Reel 1 of 2
Reel 2 of 2

(Via American Voices)


Anonymous said...

It's not that Dr. Wertham doesn't make some good points, it's that his research is so sloppy and his presentation so purposely misleading. All of his evidence is anecdotal and without citation. "A boy beat up a little girl." What boy? Where? When? Under what circumstances? "A comic book featured a violent scene." Which title? What number? From which publisher?

It's way too easy to make a case when you are unencumbered by facts. Plus, he seems to purposely play fast and loose with numbers, such as blurring the distinction between titles and print runs. That there are hundreds of milions of crime comics is meaningless unless you understand he's talking about all print runs of all publishers over a period of years. One could easily make the point that horrible crimes were reported on the front pages of hundreds of millions of daily newspapers during the same period.

The problem with Wertham's approach is that he has an agenda (to prove comic books are bad) and then sets out to find examples which support his theory while discarding those that don't. If all children are reading crime comics why aren't all children delinquents? Did a child ever become a juvenile deliquent without reading crime comics? What percentage of children grew up to be decent adults despite reading comics? How many Disney readers became criminals? Without those statistics his entire argument has no merit.

Most importantly, Wertham's cause-and-effect theory doesn't hold water. There are more delinquents now than ever, so it must be because there are more comic books. What about bubble gum? Did those delinquents chew bubble gum? A case could be made that there's more gum chewing these days and delinquency is the result. Or more bicycles, more rainbows, or more ice cream cones.

When all is said and done, comics are probably better off without all the crime and torture. But the results Wertham achieved were by lying and cheating -- he, himself was a delinquent and a criminal according to his own standards.

Unknown said...

Awesome post!

He does make some points about women being tortured but I am sure his reasons are far from femminist.

Anonymous said...

I read this book years ago, it was a garage sale gift, and it made me want to rob a bank.

The Pope of Pop said...

People hate reformers, and love scoundrels, which is why Stan Lee is popular today, and Wortham is demonized, and why people would like to have a drink with Dubya and say Nader is as bad as Hitler for stealing the election from Gore.

Of course he didn't (Bush did). Wortham single-handedly did not bring about the demise of the organized crime front comic business, widespread societal repulsion did.

Wortham spent his life trying to improve the lot of the human race; Stan Lee has spent his life aggrandizing and enriching himself. And the know nothings of the comic book world endlessly reprint one panel and a few lines from Wortham's book, and ignore the rest of his life's work.

Give it up, fan boys, most of us grew up on comics code comics, and it didn't hurt us any. And aside from Charlton, as far as I know, organized crime was driven out of comics. To a generation that thinks the Supranos and Ozzie Osborne are Father Knows Best, this probably seems like a bad development, but to people that understand something about morality (both of them) it wasn't such a bad thing.

Pat said...

King of Music, I'm something of a supporter of the code, but not of Wertham, who marketed himself as an expert witness to defense lawyers looking to get young hoodlums off the hook for their crimes on the "Only a lad ruined by comics," defense.

Freshly-stirred links