Monday, August 16, 2010

The Man Who Hated Comics: Inside The Secret Files

Despite The Lurid Cover, Hal Ellson's Tomboy
Was Based On His Work With Teens At Bellvue Hospital.
Dr. Fredric Wertham Provided The Introduction.
(Bantam 1950)

In a move of great importance to an influential group book collectors and scholars, the Library of Congress (LC) has opened its archive of the papers Dr. Fredric Wertham. The papers were donated to the library in 1987, but their use was limited to those researchers who could obtain written permission to view them from the executors of Wertham's estate. This embargo was in effect until mid-2010, and during the last 25 years only two outsiders have seen this highly restricted collection (.pdf file) of correspondence, memoranda, writings, speeches and lectures, reports, research notes, case files, transcripts of court proceedings, biographical information, newspaper clippings, drawings, and photographs. What secrets are contained in these files? And why were they closed for all these years?

A Caricature From Ladies Home Journal,
November 1953.

(Image Courtesy of Official Seduction of the Innocent Site.)

Archive files are restricted for any number of reasons, and sometimes even the library holding the papers can't say for sure why a collection is off-limits. Libraries would rather not have to house files that take up shelf space, yet are unavailable to researchers. But rather than risk losing an important piece of history, the archive will agree to mark a collection: "Restricted Per: Donor's Wishes." Researcher Michael Barrier received this reply from Library of Congress staffer Leonard C. Bruno, when he inquired as to why his request to see the Wertham papers was denied:

For quite some time now, the Wertham executor has consistently rejected any and all requests for access. These are rejected outright, with no explanation, and apparently without consideration of the requestor's intent, affiliation, explanation, supplication, or anything else. Even requests that have been limited or targeted to only certain containers, rather than for total access, have failed. Unfortunately, you have joined a growing group of scholars unable to gain access.

An Exhibit At the 1954 Senate Hearings
On Juvenile Delinquency.

(Image Courtesy of Official Seduction of the Innocent Site.)

Unless you're already familiar with Fredric Wertham's work, you might be speculating as to what we're talking about here. Espionage? Top Secret Intelligence? Deep cover CIA operations? The Inner workings of the Mafia? The secret formula for Coca-Cola? Nope, Dr. Wertham AKA "The Man Who Hated Comics," was a prominent psychiatrist who became convinced that violent popular culture created violent children. Although Wertham was equally concerned with the detrimental effects of violence on television and in the movies, the area in which his work was most influential was the world of comic books. According to historian Jeet Heer, "For comic-book fans, Fredric Wertham is the biggest villain of all time, a real-life bad guy worse than the Joker, Lex Luthor, and Magneto combined."

First UK Printing of
Seduction of the Innocent.

By Dr. Fredric Wertham.
(Museum Press, 1955.)

(Image Courtesy of Wikipedia.)

Through his publication of the irresistibly entitled 1954 book, Seduction of the Innocent, Wertham crushed the genre known as "Crime Comics," and caused over a dozen comic-book publishers to close up shop. As a direct result, the industry chose to police itself by creating the Comics Code Authority in late 1954, rather than risk government censorship. The code mandated that "excessive violence; lurid, unsavory, gruesome illustrations; sex perversion and "all elements... considered violations of good taste or decency;" no longer debase the pages of American comic-books. Pop culture historian, Catherine Yronwode, believes Wertham's chilling effect on the comics cannot be overstated: "He and he alone virtually brought about the collapse of the comic book industry in the 1950s."

Panic #1
An EC Comic From February 1954.

(Image Courtesy of Wikipedia.)

Wertham has been demonized as a right-wing McCarthyite hell bent on censoring literature that violated his own priggish moral code. But the truth is more complicated than that. He was an extremely progressive voice in the psychiatric world from the 1930's onwards. He founded Harlem's famed Lafargue Clinic in 1946, with support and advice from such notables as Paul Robeson, Ralph Ellison, and Richard Wright, delivering low-cost mental health services to the poor for decades. Wertham's casework with his mostly African-American patients was even used as evidence of the psychological damage caused by racism in the landmark case against "separate but equal" schools, Brown v. Board of Education. The following year, he established the Quaker Emergency Service Readjustment Center in New York, a pioneering effort to treat sex offenders.

Shock SuspenStories #6
An EC Comic From Dec/Jan 1953

(Image Courtesy of Wikipedia.)

Michael Chabon, who featured Wertham as a minor character in his 2001 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay wrote: "No one who does even the most rudimentary research into Wertham's career and accomplishments can fail to admire him for his compassion, his intelligence, his desire to help children, and his fairly snappy prose style. But Chabon continues, "It was Wertham's boneheaded inferences about the direct causal connection between...comics and 'deviance' in children, [and] the hysteria his inferences helped to foster (along with a counter-hysteria among comics fans) that have tarnished his admirable legacy."

Dr. Fredric Wertham Shocked At Shock
(Image Courtesy of Official Seduction of the Innocent Site.)

The opening of Fredric Wertham's archive by the Library of Congress will allow both detractors and defenders of "The Man Who Hated Comics," to get the straight dope direct from the man himself. There may or may not be any deep, dark secrets hiding in the 222 containers of the doctor's archive, but researchers at last have the opportunity to find out. A tantalizing tidbit from LC Curator Sara W. Duke, makes looking into the collection a must for anyone interested in either comic books or censorship: "The Manuscript Division is keeping the comic books [Wertham used] because he made notations on onion skin paper and inserted them in his comic books." A more direct pipeline into the mind of this complex figure, at least short of Superman's X-ray vision, is hard to imagine.

Note: For those unable to visit the Library of Congress, the Official Seduction of the Innocent Site offers an excellent overview of Fredric Wertham and his influence on popular culture.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, I learned a lot! I only knew a little about Wertham from the aforementioned Chabon book. Great post!


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