Since his death in 1981, Fredric Wertham’s reputation has taken a significant hit.
In the 1950s, Wertham, a psychiatrist, was a popular author and public figure, quoted in the media and giving testimony before Congress.
His 1954 book, “Seduction of the Innocent,” was the intellectual ammunition in the moral panic of the day — the crusade against juvenile delinquency.
And Wertham placed the blame squarely on comic books.
Today his reputation is mostly that of a ridiculous crank, a puritanical moralist who tried to blame Batman and Robin for male homosexuality, Wonder Woman for lesbianism (and bondage and S&M), and crime and horror comics for every form of juvenile misbehavior imaginable.
As it happens, neither view of Wertham is strictly true. The truth, it seems, is far simpler.
Fredric Wertham was a fraud.
Carol Tilley, a librarian and professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, went through Wertham’s papers, which he left to the Library of Congress.
In the papers devoted to “Seduction of the Innocent,” she found evidence of a different seduction, evidence she details in an article published in Information and Culture: A Journal of History.
“Lots of people have suspected for years that Wertham fudged his so-called clinical evidence in arguing against comics, but there’s been no proof,” Tilley said in a university press release this week.
“My research is the first definitive indication that he misrepresented and altered children’s own words about comics.”
“Fudged” is a charitable word.
Tilley found Wertham exaggerated claims, omitted critical information and altered his subjects’ statements. In one case, that of a 13-year-old boy who sexually abused another boy, Wertham overstates the 13-year-old’s interest in Batman and, far worse, leaves out that the 13-year-old was himself sexually abused by another boy.
One might think history of sexual abuse would be more relevant than history of reading Detective Comics. Wertham thought otherwise.
The charitable reading of that is Wertham was himself seduced, possibly by the minor celebrity he attained as an anti-comics crusader, but most likely by his grand theory that one could explain juvenile delinquency just by pointing an accusing finger at that crudest and most commercial of pop art forms of the day, the lowly comic book. Nothing seduces an Ivory Tower-dweller quite like a grand theory.
Before Wertham, the moral panic he helped foment and the comics industry’s craven self-censorship under the Comics Code Authority, comics were a free for all. Unlike broadcasters, comics publishers weren’t regulated by the FCC, and unlike the movie studios they weren’t beholden to the Hays Office.
After Wertham, the vice tightened and sales plummeted. EC Comics, upstart publisher of still-influential horror titles such as Vault of Horror and Tales from the Crypt, got out of comics entirely. The Comics Code, crafted by its more-established rivals, seemed written to put EC out of business.
Wertham lied. EC died.
Science is supposed to be objective. Unfortunately, science is full of scientists, who are merely human and subject to bias, preconception, hubris and, occasionally, even corruption. Another kind of seduction is the temptation to bend facts, omit facts and, yes, “fudge” facts in the service of a supposedly noble cause. And what could be more noble than saving children?
So one moral panic follows another, some promoted by left-leaning intellectuals such as Wertham, some by social conservatives, and some by oddball alliances of the two. The targets change. One day it’s comics, the next TV, the next rock music, the next Dungeons & Dragons, the next violent movies and now video games. The “science,” however, is always suspect.
Wertham’s seduction should prompt us to think twice when faced with his successors.
Franklin Harris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column is published Thursdays in the TimesDaily.