Fair Trial: Dr. Fredric Wertham

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I’m Jesse Blume, and this…is Most Heroic.

Let me welcome you to the first-ever Fair Trial series, where we shall examine the careers and influence of the greatest heroes and villains in media, and then discuss how they should be judged. While I do intend on keeping Most Heroic a very positively-themed column, it is important to recognize the good and bad people who have made pop culture what it is.

Our subject today is a man who was once referred as the greatest threat that the comic book industry ever faced, and considering that he’s been in the news quite a bit over the last few weeks, url-3I thought that this would be the most appropriate person to start with. The subject in question is Dr. Fredric Wertham, a noted psychiatrist and author.

Why Is He Important?

Dr. Wertham is known best for his book, Seduction of the Innocent, which was based on the premise that comic books actually caused juvenile delinquency. In the book, Wertham notes that superhero comics confuse children since Superman defies the law of gravity. (How stupid does he think kids are?) He also specifically mentions how Robin is implied to be in a homosexual relationship with Batman, (Yes, he’s the one that actually started that idea) and that Wonder Woman gave young girls the wrong idea about a woman’s place in society.

I don’t know about you, but I already don’t like this guy. “A woman’s place in society?” What an ass!

url-2Seduction became a very prominent book, and it eventually inspired a series of Congressional hearings about the content that was found in comic books. Unfortunately for the publishers, their own witnesses were no match for Wertham’s testimony, who at this time was regarded as a professional witness. Due to the bad publicity, there were many different comic book publishers and companies who went out of business. All kinds of different books were actually harmed by these hearings.

Wertham was criticized by publishers because he only studied juvenile delinquents and not just the average kids. Wertham responded by saying “that the kids who didn’t become delinquents may be worse off.” I have no idea how that could be possible.

Little did those publishers know just how right they were. Which leads us to….

PROSECUTION

Wertham died in 1981, and his notes were given to the Library of Congress, but they were not made available to the public until 2010. Eventually, a University of Illinois professor named Carol Tilley decided to study those notes, and in doing so, she found definitive proof that he misrepresented facts and altered the testimony of the children he interviewed to suit his own purpose.

Carol Tilley - professor, library and information science

She mentioned in an article that:

 “‘Seduction’ is horribly written because it’s not documented,” she said. “There are no citations, no bibliography. He quotes a lot of people, refers to lots of things, but there’s no really good way of knowing what his basis is for any of this.'”

Throughout his book, Wertham changes details about the subjects he interviewed, changes their own words, and blames everything they do on comic books.

Here’s some specific examples, courtesy of Bleeding Cool.

  • “He had an extensive case file on a 15-year-old boy named Carlisle, whom he was counseling for truancy, petty thievery and gang membership. Carlisle brought three comic books to one counseling session, and the transcript in Wertham’s file shows that Carlisle said one of the comic books, called Crime Must Pay the Penalty, was instructive on ways to commit burglaries and holdups. However, in Seduction, Carlisle’s quotes appear to come from five different boys, ranging in age from 13 to 15, in different settings and contexts.” It also omitted that Carlisle actually found more instruction from movies than comic books, but why tackle Hollywood, when you can attack comic books?
  • There was also ‘Dorothy, a 13-year-old whose chronic truancy Wertham ascribed to her admiration for the comic book heroine Sheena and ‘crime comics.’ Wertham decided to omit any other factors that could have affected her, like her “low intelligence, her reading disability, her gang membership, her sexual activity and her status as a runaway.” Oh, and here’s the kicker. She wasn’t even his patient.

DEFENSE

Was there any merit to what Wertham had to say?

My god, they actually put that on the cover?

My god, they actually put that on the cover?! What were they thinking?

Only a little.

After children, the largest demographic of comic book readers at the time were grown men in the military. Granted, they weren’t interested in the exploits of Superman or Batman, they preferred crime comics. Now those were much more explicit in the content of sex and violence. Keep in mind that there was no ratings system back then, and the practice of trading comics was pretty common. It’s not a stretch to see how a kid could end up with a pretty graphic issue, like the one pictured here.

The publishing of Seduction did eventually lead to the creation of the Comics Code Authority. While I despise censorship, I do recognize the need for different classifications and reading levels. A six-year-old shouldn’t have to run the risk of picking up Neonomicon or Wanted by accident when he’s just looking for Spider-Man. You shouldn’t punish the good guys just because some other guys are being too graphic.

However, that particular acknowledgement is tainted by the fact that Wertham didn’t approve of the Comics Code Authority. Even after putting several different companies out of business and a new governing body approving comics, he still felt that they were unsavory enough to cause harm. Despite not agreeing with the CCA, he actually did write a book called The World of Fanzines, where he actually spoke very positively about them.

VERDICT

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In the context of comic books, is there really any way that this man could ever be called anything other than a villain? He manipulated and outright lied about his studies so that the final result reflected what he wanted, and not the actual truth.

Thankfully, the damage that Wertham did to the industry wasn’t permanent. The advent of stories like Watchmen, Animal Man, and Sandman did eventually prove that comics were an art form to be taken seriously, despite having some more adult content. In fact, I think that Jack Thompson, the disbarred attorney who has been actively campaigning against violent video games for years, is Wertham’s modern-day equivalent. The only difference is that Thompson seems to be paying for it during his lifetime.

I’ll admit my own bias here. Hell, the only way I’ll call Wertham a doctor is when I refer to him as “Dr. $#!+bag.

In the realm of comics, Dr. Wertham was every bit a villain as he was led to be. There is absolutely no excuse for him to do what he did. If he were alive today, he could very well be sued  for liable and/or fraud.

Don't I wish.

Don’t I wish….

However, we should all take the time to thank Carol Tilley for proving this fact to the world.

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Thank you Professor Tilley, you prove yourself to be MOST HEROIC.

Next Week on Most Heroic: We will examine the premature and unfair cancellation of one of the finest superhero cartoons in years.

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About the Author

Jesse Blume
is obsessed with stories. He received a Bachelor of Arts in the field of Mass Communication from Midwestern State University. He enjoys long walks on the beach, cheesecake, yoga, and a tall glass of sweet tea.
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