So what have we learned after some four months of plowing through Seduction of the Innocent? Hopefully more than Dr. Fredric Wertham learned before he wrote it, though that’s an extremely low bar.
First off, I would like to note that I won my bet—Wertham never says the word “kids.” He says children, and he says teenagers, though he says both after insisting that people shouldn’t use such imprecise terminology, given that even just the word “teenager” covers a wide range of both age and maturity, including two years of actual adulthood. He almost never used the words with any kind of precision, frequently without any internal clues to tell you how old the kids are.
I’ve mostly been avoiding discussion of the known . . . let’s be blunt and call them lies in his research. That’s mostly because I haven’t looked into the details. On the other hand, there have been a few points in the book where the known facts easily accessible from period newspapers contradict his version, or at very least suggest that there’s more to the story than he’s admitting. In at least one case, the evidence strongly suggests that someone was falsely convicted of a crime, and no one has noticed for about seventy years. That’s worrying, as is the moment where he mentions a girl’s sexual assault almost without noticing it and instead follows up on her friend’s comic reading.
Realistically, I’ve been picking up on the same things over and over every week. It’s gotten a little tiring. If I were doing a drinking game, possibly it would be to take a shot every time Wertham picked on DC’s Big Three, calling Superman a Nazi, Batman gay, Wonder Woman an emasculating lesbian. If this series were a Wikipedia article, it would also have been full of “citation needed” after essentially everything Wertham said.
But why does Wertham matter? His book was published more than sixty years ago, and most people haven’t even heard of it, aren’t aware that Dr. Fredric Wertham existed. Wertham’s mentor, Sigmund Freud, has fallen out of fashion, for all his teachings continue to have a serious impact on popular thought about mental health and illness. The Lafargue Clinic is long closed, mostly forgotten. Many of the biggest movies in the world are about superheroes, and plenty of graphic novels have critical acclaim.
For one thing, there are countries that still have anti-comic laws on the books passed in the great panic Wertham was manipulating. Including Canada. Technically, most comic books are illegal there, though the law is unenforced. The US has just in the last few years finally shed the last vestiges of the Comics Code, which at its height prevented even condemnatory stories about drug usage, because drugs weren’t allowed to be mentioned at all.
And, of course, MAD Magazine exists because of the Code. Though he never mentions the publisher by name in his text—never mentions any publisher other than Disney by name—EC was Wertham’s biggest target. When the Code was written, it was clearly aimed at making a scapegoat of EC, as though driving them out of business would make everything go away. Because MAD wasn’t a comic, it wasn’t covered by the Code, and eventually, it became the only title they had left. This should be chilling to people, and not just because EC has since been acknowledged as the artistic and indeed ethical force that it was.
The fact is, Wertham matters because Wertham has not really left us. Yes, he’s dead. Thirty-five years ago come November. But of course, he’s still in the background every time someone talks of banning video games for causing violence. Wertham and Joe Breen, prime mover of the Production Code, had much in common. (At least I believe Wertham would be horrified if he knew how his work was used to set back racial equality; I have no such belief of Breen.) Moral panics have more weight because men like Wertham and Breen and Comstock have succeeded in the past. Comstock was the only one who I think would have embraced the label of censorship, but they were all censors regardless.
I hope that, by looking into Fredric Wertham and seeing how his work is deeply flawed, we can be better prepared for future attempts to drive us to fear full of Wertham’s same logical and scientific failings, better prepared to point them out to those who are swayed by them. It’s perhaps easy to pick on a book from 1954, but with very few changes, could it not have been written today?
I’ll also confess a certain amount of concern for the children with whom Wertham worked, the ones whose very real psychological problems—whether they were genetic or situational—were brushed aside as merely being the result of reading too many comics. Obviously, those children are adults now, and who knows how many of them are dead, but still, who knows how many of them could have lived better, more productive lives if they’d gotten real help?
Throughout this whole series, I have been scrupulous about limiting myself to article images that Wertham himself would have had possible access to when writing the book. Whenever possible, they were images of direct relevance to his work that he clearly ignored for whatever reason. I am not doing that today, choosing instead an image from 2016. Captain America as played by Chris Evans.
Why? For one thing, Wertham would have been aware of Cap’s existence, I’m sure, though his Nazi-punching from before the US entered World War II suspiciously never comes up. Cap went away for a long time, subject to changing whims in his readers, but he’s back now. He is, in fact, arguably the moral polestar of the Marvel universe, be it comics or cinematic. He has clearly delineated values, and he fights for them—even when they’re not popular. Rather than striving for what is safe, he strives for what is right, even when he has to fight people he loves for it.
And not only is Cap still here when Wertham is long forgotten, Cap is more powerful than ever. Not in the “punching people” sense, where he still is who he is, but in the sense of his place in broader culture. You don’t have to read comics to know who he is. Everyone is paying attention to comics now and no one is paying attention to Wertham. History has spoken. Captain America is a box office star, and EC Comics are printed in sought-after anthologies. Good bye, Dr. Fredric Wertham.