Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Dr. Fredric Wertham (March 20, 1895–November 29, 1981) was a German-American psychiatrist and crusading author who protested the purportedly harmful effects of mass media—comic books in particular—on the development of children. His best-known book was Seduction of the Innocent (1954), which led to a U.S. Congressional inquiry into the comic book industry and the creation of the Comics Code.
Wertham was born in Munich, Germany, studied in Munich, Erlangen, and London, and graduated from the University of Wurzburg in 1921. Major influences on his psychiatric career included Sigmund Freud, with whom he corresponded, and Emil Kraepelin; in his work at the Kraepelin Clinic, Wertham absorbed the then-novel idea that environment and social background had major effects on psychological development. In 1922 he moved to the United States, working originally at Johns Hopkins University. In 1932 he moved to New York City, where he became the senior psychiatrist for the city's Department of Hospitals.
His first book, The Brain as an Organ (1934) was a general study of mental illness based on the theories of Kraepalin. But Wertham's work with troubled youth, and a clinical interest in popular culture, soon turned his focus to the negative influences of mass media. His 1941 book Dark Legend, later adapted into a play, was based on the true story of a 17-year-old murderer who, according to Wertham, had a dark fantasy life based on movies, radio plays and comic books. Comics were extremely popular among all youth at the time, so it was not surprising that young criminals also consumed them in large quantities, but Wertham increasingly saw a sinister connection.
Wertham's writing, in books and magazine articles, turned exclusively to the unwholesome effects of the media, and comic books in particular. He was not alone in these criticisms, but as a respected clinician who had been called to testify in trials and government hearings, he was particularly influential. Seduction of the Innocent (1954), and Wertham's subsequent public testimony about comic books, represented the peak of this influence.
Seduction of the Innocent and Senate hearings
Seduction of the Innocent described overt or covert depictions of violence, sex, drug use, and other adult fare within "crime comics"—a term Wertham used to describe not only the popular gangster/murder-oriented titles of the time, but superhero and horror comics as well—and asserted, largely based on undocumented anecdotes, that reading this material encouraged similar behavior in children.
Comics, especially the crime/horror titles pioneered by EC, were not lacking in gruesome images; Wertham reproduced these extensively, pointing out what he saw as recurring morbid themes such as "injury to the eye". Many of his other conjectures, particularly about hidden sexual themes (e.g. images of female nudity concealed in drawings of muscles and tree bark, or Batman and Robin as homosexual lovers), were met with derision within the comics industry. (Wertham's claim that Wonder Woman had a bondage subtext was somewhat better documented, as her creator William Moulton Marston had admitted as much; however, Wertham also claimed Wonder Woman's strength and independence made her a lesbian.)
The splash made by this book, and Wertham's previous credentials as an expert witness, made it inevitable that he would appear before the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency led by anti-crime crusader Estes Kefauver. In extensive testimony before the committee, Wertham restated arguments from his book and pointed to comics as a major cause of juvenile crime. The committee's questioning of their next witness, EC publisher William Gaines, focused on violent scenes of the type Wertham had decried. Though the committee's final report did not blame comics for crime, it recommended that the comics industry tone down its content voluntarily; possibly taking this as a veiled threat of potential censorship, publishers developed the Comics Code Authority to censor their own content. The Code not only banned violent images, but entire words and concepts (e.g. "terror" and "zombies"), and dictated that criminals must always be punished—thus destroying most EC-style titles, and leaving a sanitized subset of superhero comics as the chief remaining genre. Wertham described the Comics Code as inadequate.
Wertham's views on mass media have largely overshadowed his broader concerns with violence and with protecting children from psychological harm. His writings about the effects of racial segregation were used as evidence in the landmark Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education, and part of his 1966 book A Sign for Cain dealt with the involvement of medical professionals in the Holocaust.
Wertham always denied that he favored censorship or had anything against comic books in principle, and in the 1970s he focused his interest on the benign aspects of the comic fandom subculture; in his last book, The World of Fanzines (1974), he concluded that fanzines were "a constructive and healthy exercise of creative drives". This led to an invitation for Wertham to address the New York Comic Art Convention . Still infamous to most comics fans of the time, Wertham encountered suspicion and heckling at the convention, and stopped writing about comics thereafter. He died at the end of 1981.
Wertham in fiction
A fictional depiction of the Wertham-inspired attacks on the comics industry comprises part of the novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. Wertham and the Kefauver hearings have been extensively parodied in comics themselves, notably in the 1977 underground comic Dr. Wirtham's Comix & Stories [sic] and in Rick Veitch's The Maximortal.
- 1953: "What Parents Don't Know". Ladies' Home Journal, Nov. 1953, p. 50.
- 1954: "Blueprints to Delinquency". Reader's Digest, May 1954, p. 24.
- 1954: Seduction of the Innocent. Amereon Ltd. ISBN 0848816579
- 1955: "It's Still Murder". Saturday Review of Literature, April 9, 1955, p. 11.
- 1968: A Sign for Cain: An Exploration of Human Violence. Hale. ISBN 0709102321
- 1973: The World of Fanzines: A Special Form of Communication. Southern Illinois University Press. ISBN 0809306190
- (1954). "Are Comics Horrible?". Newsweek, May 3, 1954, p. 60.
- Decker, Dwight. (1987). "Fredric Wertham - Anti-Comics Crusader Who Turned Advocate". Amazing Heroes, 1987.
- Gibbs, Wolcott. (1954). "Keep Those Paws to Yourself, Space Rat!" The New Yorker, May 8, 1954.
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