If there is anyone whom comic fans see as a real-life supervillain, it’s Fredric Wertham. He is viewed, generally, as a reactionary demagogue akin to (and roughly contemporaneous with) Joe McCarthy, a zealot whose polemics against comics nearly destroyed an entire industry and art form.
This is an understandable, if not entirely accurate, view. What Wertham actually was is much more complex.
A few basic facts: Wertham was a psychiatrist, founder and head of the Lafargue Clinic in Harlem, which provided psychiatric and psychological services for what we would today call at-risk children. He was a crusader against comic books, and wrote the bestselling Seduction of the Innocent as a polemic against them. Shortly thereafter Wertham testified (not for the first time) at Congressional hearings, where he advocated for a law banning the sale of violent comics to children under fifteen. No such law came to a vote, but the hearings did result in a stern warning to comic book companies to start regulating themselves, which led to the creation of the Comics Code Authority by the leading comics companies. The Code, in turn, made crime and horror comics—the most popular genres at the time—nearly impossible, resulting in a return of superheroes to dominance.
The degree to which Wertham is personally responsible for these changes has probably been exaggerated; Wertham was far from the only anti-comics crusader, and the general shape of the anti-comics movement fits the pattern of new-media moral panics that gripped the U.S. repeatedly in the 20th Century, having happened with movies prior to comics, and rock music, rap, role-playing games, and video games later on.
It is also worth noting that Seduction of the Innocent was a product of quite shoddy research. Carol Tilley, an assistant professor at the University of Illinois, studied Wertham’s personal papers while looking for correspondence between him and teachers and librarians of the time. In 2013, she published an article in the journal Information & Culture detailing some alarming discrepancies between what he recorded in his case notes and what he later reported in his book and Congressional testimony, including that he drastically exaggerated the number of children he’d seen in his practice and downplayed the number of them who had experienced violence or trauma in their own lives, giving the false impression that his sample was larger and more representative than it actually was; that he claimed testimony from one child came from several to make particular reactions seem more common; and that possibly his most famous claim, about a young man who began having fantasies about being Robin and in a gay relationship with Batman, was actually two young men who were in a long-standing romantic relationship and emphasized fantasies over other characters more than Batman.
Wertham, in short, was so convinced that comic books were a menace that he was willing to fudge and fake his research to convince people of it. But what was it that drove him to this? That’s where Seduction of the Innocent comes in: its questionable value as a study of the effects of comics on children aside, it’s a portrait of what a leading anti-comics crusader of the 1950s believed that comics did to children, and hence gives us insight into what motivated that crusade.
So what does the book reveal? First, yes, Wertham is spectacularly biased against comic books. His disdain for them drips from every page, as he peppers his analysis with sarcastic asides mocking comics and their defenders. Extreme negative positions displayed early on—for example, equating Superman to Nazi ideology by tying both to the Nietzschean ubermensch, and then spending the rest of the book sarcastically referring to Nazi and fascist individuals and characters as “supermen,” the same term Wertham uses for superheroes—make even his more reasonable later criticisms difficult to take seriously, such as when he makes the case that the ads for body-building, breast-expanding, and skin-care regimens in comics can cause body image issues and anxiety in pubescent children.
Those kinds of arguments—where he talks about the harm media violence, sexual objectification, and racism can do to children—give greater insight into Wertham’s motivations than the juicier and more gonzo tirades about the content of the books themselves. Wertham pretty clearly cared profoundly about children, and argues repeatedly in the book that behavioral problems aren’t necessarily a sign that the child is broken, but could be a response to a problematic environment. Of course he’s convinced that comic books are that environment, but putting that aside, he makes the point repeatedly that we as a society place children into unhealthy situations they cannot handle, and then punish the children for being unable to handle them.
In short, Wertham is a social reformer. He is trying to help reduce the barriers to health and success faced by poor children, children of color, abused children, mentally ill and disabled children. But he is blinded by his own prejudices, and not just against comics. His criticisms of Wonder Woman are particularly ridiculous, that her strength and dominance make her the opposite of “what girls are supposed to want to be.” Which is, of course, exactly the point of Wonder Woman, to point girls toward something better than they were supposed to want to be in 1954!
But that is a disruption of the social order, just as are the crimes Wertham decries in the comics he attacks, the grotesque creatures, the violations of and focus on the body. Wertham, despite being a reformer, is also very much committed to reproductive futurism, queer theorist Lee Edelman’s term for the underlying assumption in political systems that the goal is to build a better future “for the children.” This in turn leads to the uncritical acceptance of the figure of the Child (not any particular child, but an idealized, almost archetypal figure), who is fragile, innocent, and must be protected. This is, besides being a tremendously heteronormative construction—hence “oppose comics because Batman turns kids gay”—also inherently reactionary and regressive. Any true disruption of the social order, any real attempt to tear down extent power relations, can be rejected as dangerous for the children—“How could I explain it to my children if they saw two men kissing?” Any time a normally unheard voice finds a way to speak out, it can be silenced as dangerous to children—see the crusades against rock and rap music for countless examples.
Wertham, in short, is caught between wanting to change the world and wanting to keep it as it is, between wanting to build a better future for the children and an intense unwillingness to disrupt the present. So he picks a target and launches a crusade, defending the social order and all the little children with every bit of fury and passion at his disposal.
So no, he’s not a supervillain. He’s something much more complex: a superhero.
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