Wertham: Progressive Scholar or Repressive Bluenose?

Dr. Fredric Wertham: not too pleased to be reading a horror comic.

Last week in the Globe and Mail,  I wrote about David Hajdu’s entertaining new history of the post World War II anti-comics crusade, The Ten-Cent Plague, in which Dr. Fredric Wertham, an intellectual leader of the anti-comics crowd, is portrayed as a prissy, humourless scold.  Bart Beaty, a leading comics scholar and also a very fine critic, is the author of an intelligent and sympathetic intellectual biography of Wertham. Not surprisingly, Beaty had problems with Hajdu’s book and my review. We thrash things out in today Globe and Mail, in a back-and-forth that can be found here.

Here’s an excerpt from Beaty’s rejoinder:

Hajdu’s portrayal of Wertham substitutes a stereotype of the uptight German intellectual in place of the facts. In order to portray Wertham as a censor, the author ignores his long history as an anti-censorship expert witness. To present him as a dilettante obsessed with comic books, he has to mask his accomplishments as one of the foremost psychiatrists of his day. Most important, to depict him as a foe of children, he has to entirely ignore the monumental role Wertham’s research played in public education reforms, in particular desegregating U.S. schools in the 1950s.

And here is a bit of my counterthrust:

Alas, Beaty’s apologia is not completely convincing. True, Wertham didn’t favour censorship and the rating system he advocated was eminently sensible. Still, Wertham used language so inflammatory as to give aid and comfort to censors and book-burners. “I think Hitler was a beginner compared to the comic-book industry,” Wertham argued. If Superman and Tales from the Crypt were more dangerous than Mein Kampf or Triumph of the Will, then it might make sense to have comic-book burnings, as happened in the Wertham era.

6 thoughts on “Wertham: Progressive Scholar or Repressive Bluenose?

  1. Hey there,

    I do find this recent analysis of Wertham’s work quite fascinating and I’m certainly willing to be reevaluate my own biases when it comes to “Seduction of the Innocent.” However, there is one thing I’m not clear on and I’d certainly appreciate it if someone could shed some light on it.

    When the anti-comic hysteria really went into full swing (with the various comic book burnings and the like), did Wertham vocally denounce this activity? In other words, did he use his fairly significant media profile to speak out against this type of behaviour, condemning those who went to such extreme actions?

    This is the part of the “Wertham puzzle” that I find somewhat confusing. If he did not speak out against the hysteria, particularly in what I think is fair to say was his leading position at the time, it would seem that his very silence was endorsing the extremist behaviour. So simply put: what was Wertham’s reaction when the public backlash against comics began?

    In the interest of full disclosure: I haven’t read Professor Beaty’s book so I wouldn’t know if he touches on this aspect of it. I’m just not seeing it mentioned in the various ruminations on Wertham’s work.

  2. Very good question. Wertham consistently opposed censorship throughout his life and was opposed to the comics code (he wanted a rating system, not a general list of no-nos).

    But I don’t recall him ever condemning the over-the-top reaction to comics. But I could be wrong. I’m going to ask Bart Beaty to comment.

  3. Where did Wertham say he wanted a rating system?

    I’ve yet to read Wertham say anything about a rating system. He wrote repeatedly that he wanted an outright ban of display or sale of comic books to anybody under the age of 15. This could be found in a few different written works, including in SOTI.

  4. Jamie, I just responded to your question by email and then noticed that you left it here as well! Quickly, again, that sentence mentioning ratings was an attempt to bring the issue forward to areas that the G&M felt would be more current for their readers, but the specific term “ratings” likely muddies the waters for knowledgeable readers more than it helps. I was comparing the idea to Canada’s film restrictions, but I can see where the term “ratings” doesn’t help. Sorry for the confusion

    Specifically on the question of ratings in another media (film), he was critical of the introduction of film classifications in the 1960s because he felt that would enable an “anything goes” atmosphere (he was right about that – it did, for good or ill).

    Von: I don’t recall anything published by FW condemning the comic book burnings off the top of my head. The best known of those, Binghamton and Cincinnati, were in 1948 when FW’s first public comments were beginning to circulate (the Crist article was March 1948 and the SRL article was in May, and then subsequently condensed in Reader’s Digest). I’m not sure that he really had the public platform on the topic in 1948.

    Further, I’m not sure that a lot of the other burnings that Hajdu identifies received the sort of national attention that the earlier ones did. I didn’t really research comic book burnings because FW was not directly involved and it was a tangent that I didn’t pursue. I was interested to read Hajdu’s material on the question, most of which was new to me.

    I have a really strong mental image of FW writing on this topic in a letter, but I can’t turn up anything in my notes on this computer. He was privately disdainful of a lot of other anti-comic book people in his correspondence with them, but he never condemned them publicly. You can certainly make a case that that was a moral failing on his part, or you could see it as the work of a political realist.

  5. Using the Pure Food & Drug Act as an example Wertham advocated legislation which would prevent the sale of crime comics to children below aged fifteen.

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