With every generation, a new kind of media comes along that “threatens to destroy the moral fiber of the youth”. Today, it is social media. In the mid-’90s to early 2000s, it was video games and before that, rock music and television. In the 1940’s it was comic books.
During the late 1930s and into the ’40s and ’50s, the comic book medium was at its height. Due to the Great Depression, cheap entertainment for children was in demand. Comics provided that. Originally appearing in newspapers as strips, they proved to be among – if not the – most popular section for many papers.
Publishers caught on to this and in 1933 Famous Funnies: A Carnival of Comics printed. It was a collection of newspaper strip reprints rather than original material. Famous Funnies was 36-pages and printed in a magazine-style format. It is considered by many comic historians to be the first comic book as we know them today. At US10c (approximately US$1.50 by today’s value) it was a massive hit with Depression-era children. It sold 90% of its 200,000 print run. By issue #12 it was making a profit of US$30,000 (approximately $US460,045 by today’s value) each issue.
Of course, other publishers copied this success, and the market quickly flooded with funny animal comics, Westerns, sci-fi dramas, and more. Then, DC released Action Comics #1 in 1938 and the age of the superhero began. However, as with all popular media, comics had their detractors.
Psychiatrist Frederic Wertham was a well-respected individual. He was a senior psychiatrist for the New York City Department of Hospitals and director of the Lafargue Clinic in Harlem. The Lafargue Clinic was a mental hygiene clinic for the poor in a section of New York City. The population in the area was mostly black. One of his articles, Psychological Effects of School Segregation, was instrumental in the ruling that found segregation in schools as unconstitutional.
For a time, Wortham worked at Bellevue Mental Hygienics Clinic. Bellevue focused on making psychiatric evaluations of criminals for use in court. Wertham evaluated everyone from robbers to murderers and rapists. It is not an exaggeration to say that he saw the worst that society had to offer.
One of the criminals Wertham came across was Albert Fish, AKA The Grey Man. At the time in his 60s, Fish had had a long, violent career of murder, mutilation, rape, and cannibalism. The murderer recounted all the horrid details of his crimes to Wertham during his examination.
It was during this time that Wertham learned that extreme religious views and hallucinations drove Fish to these heinous acts. Fish had suffered so much physical abuse as a child that he normalized it and then began to enjoy it. When asked about Fish’s state of mind, Wertham replied: “he is insane”. They sentenced Fish to death by electrocution.
After this, Wertham returned to working mostly with children, which had been his focus before Bellevue. He had a new mission; to do whatever he could to ensure that the world would not have to suffer another monster like Fish. He saw that children can be corrupted and he wanted to ensure that bad influences were removed. His focus, as we know, was comics.
Throughout his work, Wertham evaluated many juvenile offenders. He noticed that the majority of them were avid readers of comic books. To Wertham, this indicated that comics were the leading influencer in the child’s behavior. If left unchecked, exposure to the – as Wertham saw it – vile acts displayed in comics could normalize these actions for the children. He assumed that just as had happened with Fish, comics could create another monster. Wertham published an article to this effect in 1947 and after he declared war on comic books.
He focused much of his attention on the crime and horror comics of publisher EC Comics, but no comic escaped Wertham’s critique. The violence and terror-inducing images were indeed front and center in EC’s comic books. Though EC claimed their comics were for adult readers. Some of Wertham’s other claims were more obscure.
He claimed that Batman and Robin’s relationship promoted homosexuality. Wertham felt that Wonder Woman’s strength and independence could inspire young women to become lesbians and would cause boys to seek domination by the opposite sex. He claimed that romance comics promoted pre-marital and underage sex. Wertham thought that crime comics (even if the villain is caught by the end) taught children to “steal, rob, lie, cheat, assault, and break into houses.”
Eventually, in 1954, Wertham took all of this and published it in a book, The Seduction of the Innocent. In an America still reeling from the Second World War and trying to figure out how to deal with its changing culture, Seduction was the answer to many a parent, teacher, and law-abiding citizen’s questions of “why aren’t our kids like us?” The book was a huge hit; given his background as a respected psychiatrist, people were more than willing to believe his claims.
The backlash against the comics industry was enormous. Cities passed laws that made the sale of comic books illegal and mass comic book burnings took place throughout the country. The most significant effect, however, came when Wertham appeared before a Senate Subcommittee hearing on juvenile delinquency. He reiterated the points he made in his book and called for legislation preventing the sale of comics to those under the age of fifteen.
Though the Senate did not find comics to at blame for juvenile delinquency, they did suggest that comics needed to reconsider the amount of violence, sex and other objectional content they included. Concerned that this would result in external bodies censoring their comics, the industry decided to set up its own
The Comics Code banned all kinds of content. Anything that could be related to horror was out, essentially shutting down EC Comics overnight. The Code banned anything supernatural related, such as vampires, werewolves, and zombies. Police and other figures of authority could not be depicted in a way that questioned their moral fiber, and could not die due to the actions of a criminal. The Code explicitly forbid depictions of kidnappings and concealed weapons. So were any allusions to “sex perversion,” “sexual abnormalities,” or “illicit sex relations”. Basically, homosexuality and, in some cases, love affairs between those of different races became banned.
These bans resulted in ridiculous demands from the Code. Writer Marv Wolfman had to use another name when being credited for his work because “Wolfman” sounded like the monster. Another example of the disgusting overreach of the Code was when a story almost didn’t see print because the lead character was black.
While the Code did not have any direct authority over publishers, but a comic could not carry the Comic Code Stamp of Approval without the approval. The Code had to authorize the use of their logo, and without it, very few retailers would carry a comic. Thus anyone who refused to submit their comics for approval was putting themselves out of business. During this time twenty-plus comic publishers closed down for good and hundreds of comics industry workers – all the way from writers and artists, to secretaries – lost their jobs.
However, during the 1970s they revised the Code and the importance it once held began to wane. By the ’90s depictions of violence were not as heavily policed and the rise of interest in comics for adults, such as those from DC’s Vertigo line, further strayed away from the importance of the Code.
In 2001 Marvel Comics stopped using the Code in favor of their own rating system. By then many new publishers didn’t bother with it at all. In January of
As for Frederic Wertham, he continued his crusade against depictions of violence and tried to sell a follow-up book, entitled The War on Children about the effect of television on young minds, to publishers. He did not find anyone interested. He passed away In November of 1981 at the age of 86.
In 2010, the Library of Congress unsealed Wertham’s research notes. Carol Tilley, an information science professor, studied them at length. She found that the majority of claims Wertham had made in Seduction of the Innocent were baseless. She wrote, “Wertham manipulated, overstated, compromised, and fabricated evidence—especially that evidence he attributed to personal clinical research with young people—for rhetorical gain.”
There was no scientific evidence for Wertham’s claims. He had used anecdotal evidence, mostly stemming from a “correlation implies causation” theory. He believed if delinquent children read comics, then comics must cause delinquency.
While Wertham’s actions may no longer have an impact on comics, it is still incredible to think that one man almost destroyed an entire industry. The effects of Wertham’s book lasted an astounding 57 years. The negative opinion of comics that still prevails can almost solely be attributed to him. Hundreds lost their livelihoods, and many creative voices were muted due to his misleading book.
Still, we must remember why Wertham chose this crusade. He saw the worst of human nature, how children can be twisted and influenced into becoming monsters. His mission was an admirable one; he simply chose to focus his attention in the wrong place.
Like the best comic book villains, he was not so much evil as passionate and, sadly, misguided.
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