A Wertham Reader for Comic Nerds

A Wertham Reader for Comic Nerds

January 25, 2021 0 By The Ideal Comics Team

Capn Cummings, internet provocateur, comic commentator, veteran, and historian made a name online examining modern comics with his own acerbic style; but in the last year, he has turned his attention to the stories, books and comic culture of the past. Rhys has had “The Super-Villain of the Internet” on his YouTube show to discuss some of these issues and others.

The Capn adapted this from a larger scholastic work analyzing comic-culture bogey-man Frederic Wertham and forgotten National Comics‘ consultant psychiatrist Lauretta Bender in the midst of the 1954 Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency. This was originally slated to be part of a comic fanzine, but that fizzled; and we offered him a place here.

This is a [platform] celebrating the comic book medium, so in true contrarian style, Capn Cummings is going to advocate that we all study the “boogieman of the 1950s” Doctor Fredric Wertham book Seduction of the Innocent. Of course, Dr. Wertham advocated against children under the teenage years from reading comic books because he theorized that a small portion of the children would succumb to a criminal lifestyle. He was also perfectly fine with adults reading “mature” material and even advocated for pornography under the jurisdiction of the First Amendment as a character witness in court. This complicated man perfectly explained his arguments regarding the usage of rhetoric and the arguments always followed a logical path. My purpose for this essay is for everyone to study this man’s impeccable argument style. This breakdown is from a section of Fredric Wertham’s testimony during the 1954 Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency Hearings dealing with the effects of crime and horror comic books on children.

Doctor Fredric Wertham was an effective advocate against comic books raising children because he could compellingly present his claims while sometimes having little evidence to support his positions. Like most great social influencers, he loves hyperbole to increase the effectiveness of his ideas. He would use those statements routinely to grab parents’ attention like pulling the hook into a big mouth-bass and reeling them in with his easy to understand explanations. Next would be a believable story or real-life anecdote to make the entire idea believable for anyone that is listening. He effectively makes even what appears to be absurd statements hard to disprove after including the whole context. This an important aspect to understand because Doctor Wertham worked medically with many children and had practical ideas on raising children that many postwar parents might not think about. Here is an example of a hyperbolic quote from Frederic Wertham that the general public has used numerous times as being absurd and how the entire context is a real logical argument.

Doctor Wertham starts with an attention-grabbing statement that is routinely hyperbolic. During the testimony in the Senate hearings, he proclaimed, “…I think Hitler was a beginner compared to the comic-book industry.” Fredric Wertham compares comic books to one of history’s most notorious villains, Adolph Hitler, to illustrate the comic book’s dangerous influence. It is good to remember that America had just finished fighting in World War II, and this was at the forefront of everyone’s minds. Therefore, this opening statement for his argument would have a strong emotional impact due to the negative connotation attached to this evil man. He goes on to explain his rationale for using this dramatic comparison to make his point in the explanation.

Fredric Wertham‘s next step is to explain his argument. He describes how comic books are worse than Adolph Hilter by stating, “They get the children much younger. They teach them race hatred at the age of four before they can read.” This statement is correct because Nazi German recruited for a group called the “Hitler Youth” targeting children from ages 10 to 14 years old, which is much older than four years old. The Hitler Youth’s school’s ultimate goal for the school was to nurture future Nazi Party leaders. So Wertham is right to point out that comic books are providing hatred and racism in stories to children at younger ages then the Hitler Youth would even enlist. Historian Bart Beaty explains that Frederic Wertham had a world view that violent media that contained murder reflected society and meant that Post-war American’s accepted murder. The doctor asserted that comic books indoctrinate children at a younger age then Nazi Germany and promoted Fascist American Nationalism through Superman and violence through crime comic books. His rationality shows that he was nervous that the American people might fall into fascism in the same way that the German’s did in a previous generation. He follows this powerful statement with the next part of his argument format, which is the lived anecdote from his clinical method.

Doctor Fredric Wertham provided anecdotes from his clinical practice to increase his credibility by showcasing his firsthand accounts that create a sympathetic response to his argument. In the tale relating to his discussion about comic books being worse than Hitler, he describes the tremendous societal problems that immigrant Puerto Ricans are having in New York City and elsewhere in the United States of America. His concern is establishing peace in their neighborhoods. Fredric Wertham attacks the comic book industry using an unnamed comic book story that uses anti-Hispanic epithets twelve times within eight pages and describes a woman physically assaulted to death at the end of the story. He makes the point that this unnamed story from an unknown comic book could be interpreted as promoting violence and racism. EC Comics publisher William Gaines later in the day testified in defense of this unnamed story titled The Whipping and described a different message with full context.

By Wally Wood from Shock SuspenStories #14

William Gaines owned a famous golden age comic book company called EC Comics that was known for telling stories relating to the horror and science fiction genre. Quina Whitted pointed out in EC Comics: Race, Shock, & Social Protest that the comic book publisher wrote progressive messages [and] themes against racism and bigotry. These comic books were a mass consumer product that has more meaning than the regular golden age comic book story. Because of this fact, EC Comics has a significant fanbase decades after going out of business that stated the stories made them reconsider bigotry towards other people. The EC Comic story The Whipping [by Wally Wood] uses racial slurs in the same manner that Mark Twain uses language in his book. The Adventure of Huckleberry Finn is one of the most popular and controversial anti-racist stories of all time. There are many accounts of the book being banned and censored even though this book fights racism. Both writers use racial slurs and violence to create an authentic setting in the white supremacist south, while the message is that racism, prejudice, and bigotry is evil. William Gaines proclaims that “this is one of the most brilliantly written stories that I have ever had the pleasure to publish.” William Gaines‘s masterpiece was taken out of context in the same manner that other works like the Bible routinely.

Biblical scripture provides an excellent example of people misconstruing the point by taking the bible verses out of context from the message of the parables. In the Gospel Matthew 19:24, Jesus explains, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone rich to enter the kingdom of God.” People commonly use this in arguments to mean that the task of rich people entering heaven is impossible. People should read the entire chapter to get the full context and true meaning. Humans cannot serve two masters, which in this example is “Jesus and wealth;” and the route to heaven is through Jesus Christ, which becomes clear in the next few verses. His disciples ask Jesus, “Who then can be saved?” with him answering “with man this is impossible, but with God, all things are possible.” The scripture provides a clear context that people cannot be saved without the grace of God. The Biblical example shows that art can be viewed with numerous interpretations, and not all of them include all the context within a story. Fredric Wertham‘s argument is correct because people commonly misinterpret basic stories, and this can give people many absurd and dangerous points of view. The doctor used this format for every debate within the testimony. This easy to follow formula makes it easy to understand Fredric Wertham in the next segment of the testimony and his understanding of raising children in the post-war period.