Where Do I Stand on Fredric Wertham?

First, let me say that I was raised in the south, so there are several ‘rules’ that have been drilled into my very being: 1) respect your elders (which Wertham would have been), and 2) NEVER speak ill of the dead (which Wertham certainly is, since 1981).  With that being said, I will attempt to convey what I think about the role he has played, and yes, continues to play, in the comics industry.

For those who may not be sure of who Fredric Wertham is, he is most famous for his book entitled Seduction of the Innocent: The InfluencePicture of the cover of Fredick Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent book of Comic Books on Today’s Youth, published in 1954.  But you do not have to pick this book up to learn about Wertham’s role in attempting to ban comic books in the late 1940s and 50s. Read any book dealing with the history of the golden and silver age comics and you will get your share of Wertham.

To be fair and not judge just on what others have said about Wertham, I bought Seduction and have been reading it, along with three other books dealing with comics history, over the past week or so. I’m about a third of the way through the book, and to be honest, I’m wondering how I will survive the final two-thirds. The reading is repetitive and lacks any type of documentation or bibliography. Wertham bashes comics relentlessly and provides his “case studies” as evidence of the damage that comics were doing to the youth of his day, responsible for creating, almost single-handedly it would seem, juvenile delinquency.

While reading all of these texts, I ran across a piece from 2012 by Carol L. Tilley entitled “Seducing the Innocent: Fredric Wertham and the Falsifications That Helped Condemn Comics”. Tilley gained access to Wertham’s case files that were donated to the Library of Congress at the time of his death, and after sifting through boxes of notes, she has managed to prove that Wertham did indeed take ‘liberties’ with his research.

All of this is simply background information, but not the point of this post. The question still remains of “Where Do I stand” with regards to Wertham’s claims in Seduction? First, let me say that I am not just a researcher of comics, but also an avid comics reader. Superheroes to fantasy to paranormal/supernatural, I read ALL kinds of comics.  I also have two great-nieces, ages 8 & 9, that I’ve introduced to comics. Would I hand them one of DC’s New 52  Animal Man comics dealing with the Rot and tell them to have fun? Probably not. The comics in this story line can be extremely gruesome, and I know the older one would have nightmares. Do I think she would also be prone to juvenile delinquency based on the gruesomeness and violence in these comics? NO. But as a somewhat responsible aunt, I would not subject her to those comics.

Now I have to ask myself what I’d do if I learned she was reading them because someone at school had lent them to her. That all depends. If she’s reading them without any adverse effects like nightmares, then I would not stop her, but I would continue to monitor her reactions to those comics and I would talk to her about them.  If she were having nightmares, I would also talk to her about the comics and suggest she stop reading them for a couple of weeks to see if her nightmares go away.  I could take them away, but what good would that do? If she really loves them, she’s just going to find a way to read them whether I take them away or not.

In the same way that I would be concerned about my nieces’ reactions to certain comics, I think Wertham had a very real interest in and concern for his juvenile patients. And the comics of the 40s and 50s could be extremely gruesome and violent. I think, however, that his attack on comics was somewhat misplaced. I get the sense from his book as well as everything else I’ve read that he truly hated comics (and that’s not a word I use often or lightly). In his strong feelings against comics, however, I think he failed to factor in other issues that were perhaps more telling of his young patients’ conditions. Regardless of how you feel about Fredric Wertham and his work, the fact remains he had a huge impact on comics in the 40s and 50s, and continues to do so today.

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