Please note: All files marked with a copyright notice are subject to normal copyright restrictions. These files may, however, be downloaded for personal use. Electronically distributed texts may easily be corrupted, deliberately or by technical causes. When you base other works on such texts, double-check with a printed source if possible.

Fredric Wertham - Anti-Comics Crusader Who Turned Advocate

by Dwight Decker

  Illustration: Åsa Harvard.

IN THE LATE 1940s and early 1950s, a distinguished psychiatrist named Dr. Fredric Wertham made a name for himself in the United States by leading a crusade against violent comic books. His 1954 book exposing the comic-book industry, Seduction of the Innocent , is still remembered in American comics fandom as a wildly exaggerated and overwrought polemic and has gone on to become a collector's item in its own right. Even the comic books mentioned in the text or used as source illustrations have also become collector's items because of their association with him and the book. Facing a public relations nightmare and hearings by the US Senate subcommittee on juvenile delinquency, fearful publishers either went out of business or banded together to form a Comics Code Authority that would censor comic books before some outside body did it for them.
  American comics fans have no cause to love Dr. Wertham. They remember him as the man who attacked comics with his hysterical book, helped kill EC Comics (the one publisher doing anything like adult-level material), and brought on the Comics Code that reduced American comics to a childish mentality. Many fans have associated Dr. Wertham with Senator Joseph McCarthy, well-known for his anti-Communist crusade at about the same time, and legends circulate of Dr. Wertham accusing comic books of being a Communist plot or some such.

"Seduction of the Innocent - the influence of comic books on today's youth." On the book's inner flap you could read: "90,000,000 comic books are read each month. You think they are mostly about floppy-eared bunnies, attractive little mice and chipmunks? Go take a look." 

  The actual story is somewhat different, and much more complicated. As an indicator of the general trend of Dr. Wertham's thinking, consider these three quotes from his various books:
I have known many adults who have treasured throughout their lives some of the books they read as children. I have never come across any adult or adolescent who had outgrown comic-book reading who would ever dream of keeping any of these 'books' for any sentimental or other reason. - Seduction of the Innocent  (1954)

When Seduction of the Innocent  appeared in the middle fifties, it started a grass-roots social reaction... A change occurred. Murder in comic books decreased, and so did the number of crime-comic-book publishers. Within a few years after the publication of Seduction of the Innocent , twenty-four out of twenty-nine crime-comic- book publishers went out of business. But it was only a partial victory. We now meet some of the child comic-book readers as parents of the 'battered child' or in similar roles. Moreover, very many of the old comic books are still around at reduced prices. - A Sign for Cain  (1966)

Comic-book collecting which started as a nice nostalgic hobby is in some danger of becoming an overpriced, overcommercialized transaction ... - The World of Fanzines  (1974)

  A man probably has a right to change his mind over the course of twenty years, but did Dr. Wertham really change his? How did a prominent psychiatrist and author get mixed up with comic books in the first place?

Fredric Wertham, 1895-1981.

  According to his obituary in the New York Times (December 1, 1981), Fredric Wertham was born in Munich, Germany, in 1895. He studied at Kings College in London and at the Universities of Munich and Erlangen, and received his MD from the University of Würzburg in 1921. He did post-graduate study in London, Vienna, and Paris, and correspondence with Sigmund Freud led him to take up psychiatry as his life's work. He settled in the United States in 1922, becoming a citizen in 1927.
  Wertham's subsequent career was impressive. He held the posts of senior psychiatrist for the New York City Department of Hospitals and director of the mental hygiene clinics at Bellevue Hospital and later Queens General Hospital. He was also director of the Lafargue Clinic in Harlem, a mental hygiene clinic for the poor in a mostly black section of New York City. His article for the American Journal of Psychotherapy , "Psychological Effects of School Segregation," was submitted to the United States Supreme Court as an important piece of evidence in the legal case that led to the 1954 ruling that declared racial segregation in schools to be unconstitutional.
  Where Dr. Wertham made his name was as a consulting psychiatrist for the court system. The psychiatric clinic he directed for the New York City court was probably the first clinic in the United States in which all convicted felons received a psychiatric examination. His recommendations led to the modernization of facilities and methodology at many mental and criminal holding institutions.
  Dr. Wertham was also an author. His first book was The Brain as an Organ  (1934), a straightforward scientific work. Dark Legend,  however, was a psychological case history of a 17-year-old boy who murdered his mother, written for a more general audience and with literary allusions. The reviews were mostly favorable, though an MD referred to "slips and inconsistencies which definitely mar the book as a scientific study." Criticisms of sloppy writing would dog every book Wertham wrote. His 1949 book, Show of Violence,  is a general study of murder in which he discusses some of the major murder cases he was involved with as either a court witness or a consultant.
  Parents and educators had been complaining about comic books for years. As early as December, 1940, when comic books were still in their infancy, the National Education Association Journal  ran an article discussing "An Antidote to the Comic Magazine Poison." Dr. Wertham ran into comic books in the course of his work with juvenile offenders, and noting that many of the delinquents read them avidly, concluded that they were important environmental factors leading the kids to crime and violence. He presented his case in an article published in the May 29, 1947 issue of the Saturday Review of Literature,  and after that he was off and running in his crusade against violent comic books. Over the next seven years, he would give lectures, write articles, and testify as an expert witness before legislative committees investigating the comic-book menace, culminating in the publication of his book Seduction of the Innocent  in 1954.
  Latterday American comics fans, who look back at the anti-comics crusade with fear and loathing, and fret nervously over whether it might happen again, tend to ignore the point that comics publishers of the early '50s virtually cut their own throats. While Dr. Wertham overstated his case to a sometimes ludicrous degree, he didn't have to: comics really were as crude, violent, and tasteless as he claimed, as any parent or legislator could easily confirm. With the postwar eclipse of costume heroes, comic books moved into increasingly violent and graphic crime and horror. Parents and legislators were worried enough about children seeing pictures of endless murders and mutilations and severed body parts in comics that were anything but fuzzy bunny books; then a distinguished psychiatrist came along and told them exactly what they had suspected all along - yes, children who read crime comic books became hardened to violence, and even accepted it as a useful probelm-solving device. Comic books taught children to be cruel, sexually warped, dishonest, and contemptuous of soft virtues like pity or love. Comic books were still relatively mild in 1947 when Dr. Wertham began his crusade, but some publishers lost all restraint into the 1950s, running increasingly violent and gory stories that only confirmed everything he said.

One of Dr. Wertham's samples from the book, with his own caption.

  Seduction of the Innocent  is a remarkable book. Like most of Dr. Wertham's publications, it is short on proof of its assertions and long on polemics, anecdotes related without any sources cited, and literary quotations or allusions crowbarred into the text. Several generations of comics fans have had a chance to discover the book and react to it now, and everything you've heard about it is probably true. Dr. Wertham does accuse Superman of being a fascist, Batman and Robin of being a homosexual fantasy of a man and a boy living together, and Wonder Woman of being just plain kinky (judging from the early years of that strip, with all the downright astonishing emphasis on bondage and submission, I'd have to say he called that one pretty well). He does make the claim that comic-book drawings contain "pictures within pictures" for "those who know how to look," his Exhibit A being the shading of a man's shoulder muscles that supposedly evoke a woman's naked torso when squinted at right. Dr. Wertham does badly misinterpret a few stories, notably an EC one in which some overly patriotic citizens beat a man to death for not saluting the flag, only to discover at the end that he was blind and couldn't see it; Wertham claimed that the story favored  rough treatment of insufficiently patriotic individuals, somehow missing the point of a fairly heavyhanded story.
  Seduction  is in large part a dreary recital of one juvenile crime after another, juxtaposed with descriptions of horrible examples of the "crime comic books" that supposedly led to such behavior. "Crime comic book" is Dr. Wertham's blanket term for any  book that dealt with the theme of good guys and bad guys - superhero, western, science fiction - while modern usage of the term would restrict it to just the now-extinct genre of cops-and-gangster comic books of the pre-Code era. To him, just about all comic books were "crime" comic books.
  Dr. Wertham's concrete suggestions for what to do  about comic books were a little skimpy. Besides increased parental vigilance at home, he seemed to have in mind legally prohibiting the sale of violent comic books to minors. In a sense, he can be seen as one of the first proponents of some kind of comic-book rating system. Although fans later remembered him as the man responsible for bringing on the Comics Code Authority, he never supported or endorsed the Code, and had no faith in comic-book publishers to police their own ranks.
  Excerpts from Seduction of the Innocent  appeared in two of the biggest-selling American magazines of the day, Reader's Digest  and the Ladies' Home Journal,  where it probably had its maximum impact on parents. The book itself appeared to generally favorable reviews, though many reviewers thought Wertham had presented his arguments poorly, or that while comic books were as bad as he said, they were too trivial to worry about.

Another example from Dr. Wertham's book.

  Dr. Wertham claimed in private correspondence years later that comic-book publishers did everything they could to squelch him and his book, from hiring private detectives to tail him in the hope of getting something on him to exerting muscle to kill an important book-club deal for Seduction . One thing that is definitely known is that after the book was published, the publisher had second thoughts about the two-page bibliography of comic-book publishers at the end, apparently fearing lawsuits, and ordered it razor-bladed out of the printed copies. A few intact copies slipped through, however, and fans who have seen the biblography say its omissions and mistakes just prove that Wertham had little understanding as to who actually published what in the '50s comic-book industry.
  Besides Wertham's book, comic-book publishers were also confronted with the U.S. Senate and New York State Legislature hearings on juvenile delinquency in 1954. Alarmed, the publishers formed the Comics Magazine Association of America, which went into operation in early September, and the first books bearing the Comics Code seal were appearing on the stands shortly thereafter. And wouldn't you know it: in early February of 1955, Dr. Wertham was already testifying before a New York State Legislature committee hearing that the comic books were no better under the Code. As proof, he exhibited a whip and a knife that he had obtained through advertisements in a Code-approved book.
  Still, whether Dr. Wertham cared to admit it or not, there had been some changes. Thanks to the Code's restrictive rules, violent and gory comic books disappeared from the newsstands. Crime comics and horror comics largely vanished. Many publishers left the field, notably EC Comics, which killed its regular comic-book line and concentrated on a humor title called Mad.  The heat was off a considerably shrunken comic-book industry, though the memories and the scars remain to this day.

Swedish Donald Duck magazine number 36, 1961, with a special note to parents and teachers: "How should a comic book be? It must be funny, exciting, colorful, say the children. And what do parents and teachers think? Nothing unsound or thrilling, but high morals, good humour and first class illustrations [...] Lecturer Per-Anders Westrin, Licentiate of Philosophy, distinguished psychologist and pedagogue, is responsible for the Swedish edition. Therefore, you may with greatest confidence let your children read Walt Disney's Donald Duck." (© Walt Disney Prod.)

  The year 1956 saw publication of another book by Dr. Wertham, Circle of Guilt , a study of juvenile delinquency that focused on a well-publicized murder case. Curiously, Saturday Review,  the magazine where the comic-book crusade could be said to have begun nearly a decade before, ran a review that neatly sums up Dr. Wertham's entire professional career as well as this particular book:
When he gets off his comic-book kick, Dr. Wertham makes some trenchant remarks on racial segregation and other social problems, Yet even these points are vitiated by the author's perplexing bent for truculence and bellicosity. Which is a pity, since Dr. Wertham is undoubtably a man with sensitive social conscience, deeply concerned about the well-being of children.

  And so we find Dr. Fredric Wertham at the end of his long and generally successful career. If he hadn't won a total victory over "crime comic books," he had certainly helped tame the beast and he could retire with the satisfaction of a job well done. However, deep within the pages of Seduction of the Innocent,  a time bomb lay ticking that would go off during what should have been his quiet retirement years.
  After his retirement, Dr. Wertham devoted some of his golden years to writing his magnum opus on the violence question, A Sign for Cain.  It was first published in 1966, with a paperback edition and a new forword appearing in 1968. Quite simply, A Sign for Cain  is an incredible book. It is abominably written, a rambling collection of descriptions of violent acts, usually without any dates or sources given, amplifed by Wertham's often eccentric commentary and spiced with only barely relevant literary quotations. The impression left by this dreary tome is that human beings can be beastly to one another and Dr. Wertham deplores the fact. He also blames violence almost completely on environment, and it's clear that Wertham wanted to purge the mass media of violence, starting with comic books, which come under heavy attack in the book even though they were a negligible factor by the mid-'60s, and proceed to movies and TV.
  Anticipating that he might be accused of favoring censorship, Dr. Wertham wrote that he rejects the claim "that critique of mass-media violence may lead to censorship and interfere with civil liberties. Social control for the protection of children has nothing to do with censorship for adults. Children have the right to grow up healthy and uncorrupted. The battle for civil liberties should not be fought on the backs of children. Those who fight for freedom of expression would be in a stronger position if they conceded that outspoken sadism should be withheld from children."
  When comic books come up for discussion in A Sign for Cain,  Dr. Wertham seems almost otherworldly. Even in the mid-'60s, that line about old comic books being around in large numbers at "reduced prices" was a joke for anyone familiar with the field. The claim that the readers of old comics were turning up as the parents of battered children - presented without proof or sources - is beyond astonishing. He also charged that "the mass-media Superman is the symbol of power, force, and violence," and compared Supes with Lee Harvey Oswald - during an era when the comic-book Superman was at its most endearingly silly and absurd.
  He summed up comic books with a grudging concession:

It is true that straight crime titles  (not stories) have decreased and are not displayed on the cover any more. (One is tempted to say they have gone undercover.) And murder stories in realistic urban settings have become less frequent. Now the setting is more apt to be science fictional, with superman and superwoman types and interplanetary, outer-space, superhuman creatures. The motives are the same: revenge, money, lust for power, destruction. Westerns have changed least, and are as brutal as ever. Girls' necklines have been raised, but sadistic women in tight-fitting garments abound, as hateful and destructive as ever. Crime and violence still reign supreme, though often in disguise.

  "Comic books," Dr. Wertham said, "are cheap, shoddy, anonymous. Children spend their good money for bad paper, bad English, and more often than not, bad drawing."

"So, you're reading science fiction again!" Bad vs. good reading for children as dealt with by the comics authors themselves. By Carl Barks 1960. (© Walt Disney Prod.)

  That was thirty years ago. A Sign for Cain  is out of print and forgotten today. When Dr. Wertham died in 1981, his New York Times  obituary emphasized his work as a court psychiatrist and his opposition to racial segregation, and mentioned that he was "credited...with causing the comic book industry to soften its emphasis on horror and crime." But any influence his ideas may have had on the course of events was long gone  -  even A Sign for Cain  is clearly the work of a man no longer quite in touch with things  -  and he died in obscurity.
  In the end, only the comics fans remembered him.
  In 1969, I was a 17-year-old high-school student. I had been in comics fandom for a couple of years, and was making plans to publish my own fanzine. In those days, amateur publications were how comics fans communicated with each other, following the lead of fans in the older science-fiction fandom. Strictly speaking, the purpose of comics fanzines was to exchange information, with articles describing old comics, checklists showing issues and character appearances, interviews with creators - getting into print everything possible about a branch of publishing and/or art that had been neglected up to then, and collecting information so it could be preserved. For those of us who didn't have the collections or the scholarly interest to do that kind of work, fanzines incidentally and almost accidentally turned into a vehicle for personal expression.
  Comics fans in the '60s and early '70s hated  Dr. Wertham. They blamed him for killing EC and the institution of the Comics Code, and for leading a nationwide witchhunt against a defenseless artform. (His view was that he was trying to protect children from rapacious big-business interests.) In fan publications, Dr. Wertham had become an all but legendary being in his own right. He was the symbol of parental or social authority, the archetype of every parent or teacher who had ever tried to take your comic books away from you for your own good. He had disappeared from the scene in the mid-'50s, but 15 years later comics fans were still throwing mud at his memory.
  As I had been writing for other people's fanzines for some two years, I decided to go the whole route and publish one of my own. While I was calling in old favors to get people to write for me, inspiration struck.
  Earlier, I had looked for books about comics in the public library and turned up Seduction of the Innocent.  Between that and fanzine articles lamenting the passing of EC Comics, I knew who Dr. Wertham was and what a ruckus he had caused some 15 years before. Out of curiosity, I checked the current Who's Who  and discovered that he was still alive, with an address I could write to him at. Wouldn't it be a coup, I thought, if I could interview the terrible, the legendary Dr. Wertham for my fanzine?
  Filled with the brashness of youth, I sent him a few sample copies of fanzines along with a fairly lengthy letter describing fandom and what it was all about, and asking him a number of questions about various statements he had made in Seduction  and whether he still agreed with them.
  Somewhat to my surprise, Dr. Wertham wrote back. While not responding directly to my questions, he made a number of points he thought were important:

My main interest is not in comic books or even mass media, but in children and young people. Over the years I have been director of large mental hygiene clinics... And I have done a great deal of work - sometimes with great difficulty - to prevent young people from being sent to reformatories where they are often very badly treated. I have also helped a number of young people so they were not sent to the electric chair.
  Seeing that so many immature people have troubles and get into trouble, I tried to find out all the sources that contributed to their difficulties. In the course of that work I came across crime comic books.
  I had nothing whatever to do directly with the comics code. Nor have I ever endorsed it. Nor do I believe in it. My scientific findings had something to do with it only because the crime comic book publishers, some of them multi-millionaires, were afraid laws or statutes would be passed against their worst productions. To guard against that the code was established.
  Controlling the excess of brutality in crime comic books has nothing to do with censorship. Protecting children is not censorship. I was the first American psychiatrist admitted in a Federal Court in a book censorship case - and I testified against  censorship.

  Dr. Wertham then expressed curiosity about fanzines and fandom. I wrote back answering his questions - and the next thing I knew, I was hearing that he was writing to fanzine publishers and requesting copies of their publications. Dr. Wertham's letters even began appearing in fanzine letter columns, often politely justifying his views on violence and the media to unsympathetic fan editors, often just participating in the conversation and commenting amiably about unrelated matters brought up in a previous issue. In his own way, he was getting involved in fandom. Still, there was always an element of suspicion and distrust on the part of comics fans. No one was quite sure what he was really after. Some people, fearing a Seduction -style hatchet job on fandom, flatly refused to send him their fanzines; others did so reluctantly.
  What Dr. Wertham was up to turned out to be his last book, published by Southern Illinois University Press in 1974: The World of Fanzines: A Special Form of Communication. It wasn't a hatchet job at all. Quite the opposite: it was a love letter to comics fandom. This was the man who had blasted comic books in Seduction of the Innocent  and A Sign for Cain,  accusing them of every sin he could think of, including making their readers into moral monsters - now Dr. Wertham was praising the efforts of comic-book readers, and presenting our internal hobby publications as the very model of non-violent communication by bright young people.
  It was also a very strange book, with wide margins and scant text. One whole chapter was nothing but a one-column list of fanzine titles and the places they were published. One reviewer called the book "repetitious, belaboring the obvious, and poorly organized." Reading it, one gets the impression of a man very much out of touch with the world, and making a great deal out of very little. His choices of artwork for reproductions in the book seem limited to what he had on hand in his drawer rather than to any systematic purpose. More to the point, Dr. Wertham had completely misunderstood the nature and purpose of comics fandom. Apparently, after spending so many years as a practicing psychiatrist working with the New York City criminal court system, seeing a never-ending stream of violent psychopaths and disturbed juveniles, he was evidently charmed when he tripped across a little subculture of young people spontaneously communicating peacefully among themselves without adult supervision or encouragement.

Mr. Decker's own fanzine "Torch".

  Dr. Wertham's account in the introductory chapter of how he got involved with fanzines is interesting, as he doesn't mention Seduction of the Innocent  or his anti-comic book work in the '50s. The unknowing reader is left with the impression that Wertham is simply a public figure known for his "writings or talks on such subjects as mass media, youth problems, or violence," and fanzine editors sent him their publications just to communicate pleasantly with the nice gentleman in response. Wertham gives no hint of his personal position in the world of fanzines as a near-legendary bogeyman, regarded by many of their editors and contributors as incarnate evil walking the earth.
  He seemed to only reluctantly acknowledge comic books and science fiction as the source of fanzines and fandom, and gave a couple of the most skewed capsule histories of the genres I've ever seen, concentrating on their anti-war and non-violent aspects. In discussing the comics fanzines' emphasis on superheroes, he offered the remark that "the creative imagination of fanzine writers and artists, especially the younger ones, tends in the direction of heroes, maybe in that lies a message for our unheroic age." This is more than a little remarkable coming from the man who in Seduction  classified superheroes as a bizarre variant of "crime comics" and thought Superman in particular was a fascist avatar. Mostly, he glosses over the comic-book connection of comics fandom, treating it puzzledly or condescendingly when he can't avoid it, and seems to proceed on the premise that fandom just spontaneously organized itself as a communications vehicle for teenagers, with comic books only an incidental, even accidental aspect of it all. As usual, Dr. Wertham concentrates on violence and is delighted to report that there isn't any in the world of fanzines.
  The World of Fanzines  is a masterpiece of scholarship gone off the track. It's the only book you'll find about its subject in most libraries even though the author never quite understood what he was writing about. He never said as much - he couldn't admit it for the sake of professional pride, perhaps - but The World of Fanzines  contradicts everything Dr. Wertham wrote about comic books and their readers in his previous books.
  In the end, he decided, we'd turned out pretty much all right.

Note: This is a re-written version of an article that appeared in the magazine Amazing Heroes  in 1987. Also available in Swedish. © Dwight Decker, 1987, 1997.

About the author. 
[English Homepage]
[Svensk bassida]
[Articles menu]