In this festive season, as village halls throughout the country are filled with cross dressing performers and hyper stimulated children, it seems appropriate to examine the comic industry’s own pantomime villain. The psychiatrist Dr Fredric Wertham published Seduction of the innocent in 1954, outlining his theories that the comics of that time were a destructive and immoral influence on the nation’s children. His work had huge ramifications, among which were the instigation of a congressional hearing about the effects comics had on children, inspiring the creation of the comics code authority and causing publishers – including EC – to move away from horror and crime comics and focus on titles and subjects deemed less controversial. Some of Wertham’s assertions – such as the implication that Batman and Robin’s relationship was a homosexual wish dream – have caused his work to be derided, with recent claims that he misinterpreted his research and falsified his results being seized upon by his detractors. But beneath the headline assertions and hyperbole, did Wertham have a point?
The cries of moral panic about forms of entertainment affecting the nation’s youth are now commonplace, often calling to mind Helen Lovejoy and her repeated refrain of “won’t somebody please think of the children.” Whether it’s Grand Theft Auto, Harry Potter or South Park, there remains a recurring fear that children are susceptible to having their views and actions shaped by forms of entertainment. The debate about comic books in 1950s America is perhaps best understood through this prism when we consider the extent of their link with the youth of that time. Far from being the adult orientated collector market of today, comics of the time were affordable, accessible and plentiful. Millions of American children were routinely buying, swapping and lending comics and, unlike today, had a choice that extended far beyond superheroes. Westerns, horror, crime, romance, funny animals and, of course, superheroes – there was a dizzying choice to choose from.
The effect of comics on impressionable minds had long been recognised – the industry had utilised a savvy PR campaign during the Second World War, helping to shape popular perceptions of the Axis forces and encouraging children to contribute to the war effort through schemes such as buying war bonds, watching for spies and recycling material. The most surprising thing about Wertham’s work, then, is perhaps not that it appeared at all, but that it took so long for the impact of comics on children to be analysed in detail.
Although Wertham’s book is long out of print aside from some recent limited edition runs, it’s well worth tracking down for anyone that has an interest in seeing how he set out his arguments against the comics industry. While there were many strands to his case, the main thread was that comics were a negative influence on the nation’s youth, being a prime cause behind juvenile delinquency. In short, children were repeatedly being exposed to examples of sex, violence, drug use and horror, often culminating in scenarios where there was no moral lesson and the ‘hero’ did not triumph. This claim about the content of some comics of the time is difficult to argue with; it’s undeniable that regardless of the quality of their offerings, many publications from this period – particularly crime and horror comics – featured graphic images guaranteed to horrify most parents. Where Wertham’s argument is less successful, however, is where he attempts to link the content of these comics to examples of negative behaviour in children.
Leaving aside recent claims that Wertham falsified much of his evidence and case studies, his basic argument is vastly overstated, being a classic example of correlation not implying causation. One of his stand out findings was that 95% of children in reform school read comic books. Pretty convincing, isn’t it? These nasty comic books had obviously corrupted these innocent youths and turned them into tearaway ne’er-do-wells. But this ignores the basic fact that the overwhelming majority of American children read comics, and the proportion of children outwith reform school reading comics was therefore also likely to be 95%+.
Arguments such as these were at the root of my problems with Wertham’s argument. While I had sympathy with his basic goal and found some of his illustrations to be convincing, all too often he stretched his argument too far, turning what could have been a focused attack into a generalised attack against comic books as a whole. For every example of a crime comic or horror comic that would have received an 18 certificate if its events were depicted in films, there were spurious allegations about superhero sexual orientation, or bizarre conspiracy theories about breasts hidden within shadowed parts of other drawings.
Wertham’s comments about superheroes have been well documented in the past. While Marvel superheroes got off more lightly, largely due to the decline of their superhero publishing line after the late 1940s, DC’s major characters came in for much criticism. Superman was derided for being an impossible character who gave children the wrong idea about basic physical laws; Wonder Woman was judged to promote bondage themes and have a strong lesbian subtext (Points which Jill Lepore’s new book The Secret History of Wonder Woman touches upon); famously, Batman was targeted for his relationship with Robin, with the notorious quote that the strip “was like a wish dream of two homosexuals living together.” It appears that in the 1950s, communism was not the greatest threat that faced the USA. Instead, it was an epidemic of children attempting to outrun speeding bullets, experimenting with bondage and sharing cosy nights in with their special chum.
Some of the archival footage from this time is revealing. While footage from 1950s Britain shows teeming crowds outside newsagents as children wait for the arrival of new editions of the Beano or Dandy, footage from the USA in the same period shows mass burnings and confiscation of comic books. Showing the scale of the popular concern about this issue, a US Congressional inquiry was set up into the comic book industry, taken forward through the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency. The minutes of this inquiry are fascinating, highlighting not only the range of titles and stories examined but recounting examples from countless publishers who vanished in the wake of this purge, never to be heard from again. The committee’s findings were catastrophic for the comics industry, the final report stating that “this country cannot afford the calculated risk involved in feeding its children, through comic books, a concentrated diet of crime, horror and violence.”
In the wake of this public shaming the comic companies were faced with a stark choice: adapt or die. Realising that public censorship was inevitable the major comic publishers decided to pre-empt such actions by forming their own standard body, with a guiding code of practice over what material could be depicted within comics. While the strictness and use of the code slowly dwindled from the 1990s onwards, the initial guidelines were comprehensive: criminals were always to be punished, crime must certainly not pay, and horror comics were a veritable no-no. The huge number of publishers producing crime comics slowly dwindled as their new emphasis failed to catch on; horror publishers also reduced, with EC abandoning horror and the company focusing its efforts on developing its Mad magazine. While the guidelines of the code were strict (Stan Lee giving one such example that an alteration was once requested because the puff of smoke from a gun was too large), it’s likely that this badge of authenticity was a vital part in restoring some public confidence in comics and their content.
So, Wertham’s work was responsible for the public shaming of the entire comic industry, the loss of countless publishers and the sanitisation of what remained. He’s obviously the pantomime villain of the piece.
Or is he?
If you’re a fan of Batwoman or Bat-Girl, you may not know that these characters were introduced to the Bat titles in 1957 and 1961, as love interests for Batman and Robin. As this was done to counter any accusations of a homosexual relationship between Batman and Robin, we can give Wertham a large part of the credit for their creation. However, there’s an even larger development that Wertham can be credited with. In the wake of the senate hearings, publishers were desperate to produce material that was deemed safe and non-controversial, leading to old characters being revamped and new concepts being tried. DC launched its Showcase title in 1956, with each issue featuring a try-out for a new character. Issue 4 saw the debut of Barry Allan, the Flash, with his success being the Launchpad for a new line of superheroes from DC, setting in motion the Silver age of comics and Marvel’s revitalisation in the 1960s. We all know what happened next. Success followed success, bringing us to today when superheroes appear to have taken over the world.
So, it turns out that Wertham does have a strong link with the festive season but he’s not the pantomime villain of the comic industry, he’s their Santa Claus. Who would have thought it?