Know thy enemy.
It is a long-standing idiom and one that is well-practiced by mainstream comics, most specifically the super-hero genre. Reed Richards and Victor Von Doom share a mutual past of promise and ambition; Professor X and Magneto walk their respective paths down a common political street; both Batman and the Joker experience the effects of a scarred psyche; and Spawn is the product of the very damned he fights against. Even in more independent titles bearing less spandex, this duality can be found, be it Katchoo of Strangers in Paradise or Dick Burger of Hicksville. (And dare I mention my own Mortal Coils?) Both thematically and narratively, it is a point that has been made repeatedly in all storytelling media including comics, but nonetheless holds true: an understanding and respect for one’s nemesis often reflects both self-awareness and wisdom.
If the comic-book industry can isolate one individual enemy over the last century, it would most likely be Frederic Wertham. In 1953, the psychiatrist and children’s advocate published Seduction of the Innocent, a book-length discussion of the link between juvenile delinquency and comics that soon became a manifesto against the medium. Taken from Wertham’s own counseling experience, Seduction crystallized twenty years of anti-comic-book sentiment and helped bring about the Senate sub-committee meeting that, in turn, led to the Comics Code Authority, the death of E.C. Comics, and the gravestone on the Golden Age. Scott McCloud, in his book Reinventing Comics, calls Wertham the comics community’s “very own bogeyman” and shows the good doctor’s head looming large over a book-burning. Wertham was our Joseph McCartney. Our Torquemada. Our Cassius. But do we know Frederic Wertham?
McCloud’s illustration — adjacent to a panel depicting a gay Batman and Robin as well as a Ku Klux Klan member — is one of the few depictions I have ever seen of Wertham in modern comics. Strange, I think, considering the visual nature of the medium. What is even more peculiar about the image is that it is absolutely wrong. “But Cassius is a noble man,” hissed Shakespeare through Marcus Antonius’s gritted teeth, and I am not about to praise or redeem Wertham for his destructive crusade. My argument is neither with McCloud nor the hundreds of other summaries on Seduction as a catalyst for comics’ downturn and continuing perception problem. However, I am not going to further vilify and demonize Wertham, either. Instead, I would like to try setting the record straight on just what Seduction actually says — on some of the more positive points that can be salvaged from its anti-comic message. I want to look inside the cover at the content of a man who certainly judged ours.
First, Wertham would never have endorsed book burning; in fact, he would more likely have supported McCloud’s text rather than ignite it. Wertham’s argument was with the content of comics, not the form, similar to the distinction McCloud himself makes in the original Understanding Comics. The doctor readily admits that every medium has something rare and special to it — a potential to be realized. However, in his time, he determined that comics, specifically the umbrella category of “crime comics,” fell so short of that promise, that they were actually harming children’s development. Even so, Wertham never called for the mass destruction of the books. He even notes how unhelpful and damaging in itself it was for parents to withhold or destroy their children’s collections. This would not be a solution.
And unlike the current litigation against which the CBLDF is fighting, Wertham did not blame vendors either. Nor artists. Nor children. In fact, he had a very apparent appreciation and concern for children. Like legendary psychologists Piaget and Vygotsky, Wertham thought creative play and adventurous entertainment essential to the development of a child. “To make a sharp distinction between entertainment and learning is poor pedagogy, and even worse psychology,” he wrote. Further, he treated children with a sort of respect that was atypical for his time: “Children do not like doctor’s offices any more than adults do. Nor do they like being asked embarrassing questions in front of their parents. The way to gain their confidence is to treat them as persons in their own right.”
In order to help and guide children, one must also “take their side in their struggle for self-expression, for recognition, for emancipation.” He felt delinquency was not the sign of a bad child but of an insecure and fearful one. Wertham talks of his patients in the same language as we talk of Columbine, only 35 years earlier. No, if Wertham blamed anyone, he blamed the parents — ignorant of what their children were reading and altogether disengaged in their son or daughter’s tumultuous life.
Along those lines, it is worth noting that Wertham never considered comics (nor delinquency) strictly a boy’s problem. He found the impact of crime comics equally problematic and degrading for both genders, particularly the advertisements they chose to accept. In addition to the “ultrabosomy girls” featured in the “headlight comics,” there were ads asking the female readership if they were “self-conscious about [their] flat-looking bust line” or “ashamed of [their] skinny, scrawny figure.” Further, there were the ads with sexual overtones aimed at boys: “‘Those ugly blackheads give others such a wrong impression of you!’ [which] some boys take this as a reference to masturbation and react with worry, guilt feelings and withdrawal.” All this is to say nothing of the weaponry ads for air rifles, guns, knives, handcuffs, and whips. In all, his concerns over comic books’ content applied just as much if not more to the non-narrative, promotional matter.
Next, not that this is a saving grace, but Wertham’s stance on homosexuality fares a little better than one might expect from a man of his time. He admits: more has been printed on the subject of homosexuality than on any other sexual phenomenon. This would indicate not only a preoccupation with the subject, but also that our understanding of it is still incomplete.
That is, Wertham does fear that Batman & Robin’s relationship — as well as Wonder Woman & Wonder Girl’s pairing — depict irregular households, less so because of any homoerotic subtext but because of what he felt was a lack of real family. However, he does stay away from the more popular habit of time for calling homosexuality a sickness, a disease, or deviant behavior. And though he does seem to say that homosexual tendencies can be adopted from the environment, Wertham fears children being exposed to any sort of sexuality rather than decrying one orientation for another.
I have to wonder if McCloud isn’t intentionally blurring the line on Wertham when he includes the picture of a white-hooded figure bearing a flaming torch: Why should we object to Wertham opposing racism? Perhaps we are supposed to take offense that Wertham would accuse comics of having racist overtones to them. But truth be told, they did! Long before the current Arab adversaries displayed in any number of comics or the seventies jive of Luke Cage, there were the Invaders, inviting readers to “Slap a Jap” for democracy or “Captain America: Commie-Basher!” Superman’s assaults on ethnic-looking underworld members became so common, said Wertham, that when his patients were told to identify the villain in a title with which they were unfamiliar, they would “unhesitatingly pick out types according to stereotyped conceptions of race prejudice, and tell you the reason for his choice, ‘Is he an American?’ ‘No!’” Some argument could, of course, be made against this accusation, but of all his arguments, my 21st-century sensibilities take the least offense with Wertham’s being sensitive to race relations.
Interestingly enough, Wertham allows for that sort of counter-argument all throughout his book. He does not take the position of a narrow-minded zealot, deaf to all criticism or opposition. Instead, he presents the contentions of his rivals and attempts to refute them, one by one. Regardless, Wertham withholds from condemning his dissenters; in fact, it is only disinterested “neutrality, that is the devil’s ally.”
A number of Wertham’s other, secondary points merit modern consideration: that comics sometimes employ sensational covers to sell unrelated content, that the collection of comics can lead to a social obsession with them (“extreme avidity”), that comics-as-products serve as American ambassadors and representatives when exported internationally; that comics have a special responsibility by being able to “transcend all class lines, all intelligence levels, all differences in home conditions.” This doesn’t come from a man with a blind hatred for an inanimate object or a culture of readers; it comes from a well-meaning psychiatrist who did his research, who feared for his patients, and who started something he could or would not stop. Fredric Wertham died in 1981, so he cannot speak on his own behalf. It is entirely possible that, given all the advances comics have made over the years — in production, in aesthetics, in topic, in storytelling, etc. — as well as its shift in consumerism, he may have rethought its affects on children. Or, perhaps he would have thrown his voice behind challengers of television, Internet, or video-game material. I don’t know, and I’m really not here to make guesses or apologies for him. There’s just one last thought in Seduction from comics’ “very own bogeyman” that sticks with me: In his assessment of the comic-book establishment, he concluded that there was no one mastermind, no solely culpable individual. “In this story,” he said, “there are no single villains whose character would explain the picture as a whole.”
Our enemy. Our bogeyman.
This article first appeared as “Redirected Male” January 2003, © Sequential Tart 2003.