The Caped Crusader
Frederic Wertham and the campaign against comic books.
Finally, Beaty notes, Wertham actually never advocated censorship: He wanted a rating system to keep the most violent of comics away from kids. (Although it's worth remembering that Wertham's rating proposal was extremely draconian: Under his plan, it would be illegal to sell or display any comic book to anyone under 15.) The comic-book crackdown, according to Beaty, was caused by unscrupulous publishers who were unwilling to regulate themselves until forced to by a huge public backlash. Wertham, by his account, was the most reasonable voice during this sordid debate.
So, who is right, Hajdu or Beaty? Did Wertham have a point? Beaty's revisionism is valuable in forcing us to see Wertham as a complex historical figure, not an easy-to-dismiss cardboard crank. Still, Hajdu is right to point out that Wertham's ideas of proof were extremely primitive, more forensic than scientific. (Wertham had often testified in court cases, which skewed his sense of evidence.) Wertham thought he could prove his point by stringing together many anecdotes collected from his clinical research, making his claims virtually unverifiable.
More to the point, much of what Wertham thought was harmful could be seen as nurturing. Take Wertham's contention that stories about Batman and Robin have an unhealthy homoerotic subtext. Wertham noted, "Sometimes Batman ends up in bed injured and young Robin is shown sitting next to him. At home they lead an idyllic life. They are Bruce Wayne and 'Dick' Grayson. Bruce is described as a 'socialite' and the official relationship is that Dick is Bruce's ward. They live in sumptuous quarters, with beautiful flowers in large vases, and have a butler, Alfred. Batman is sometimes shown in a dressing gown. … [I]t is like a wish dream of two homosexuals living together." For this reason, "only someone ignorant of the fundamentals of psychiatry and psychopathology of sex can fail to realize the subtle atmosphere of homoeroticism which pervades the adventures of the mature 'Batman' and his younger friend 'Robin.' " Wertham's fear was that the Caped Crusader and Boy Wonder would pervert the sexuality of young readers.
Wertham was half-right on this point: There is something "campy" about Batman and Robin. As numerous gay writers (notably, novelist and book designer Chip Kidd) fondly recall, the Caped Crusader was irresistibly attractive to young readers whose sexuality was already inclined away from heterosexuality. But for many of us today, that's an argument in favor of Batman. Isn't it good for gay kids to have a role model like the Dark Knight? And the element of causality is worth keeping in mind: Batman didn't make readers gay; gayness made Batman attractive to readers.
Wertham shouldn't be mocked as a simpleton or censor, but he was rather prissy and uptight. As terrible as many comics were, they had a wildness and vitality that he couldn't appreciate. Comics had a raw, visceral power, reflecting the plebian underside of American culture. To put it another way, it's a racist and sexist culture that makes racist and sexist comics, not the other way around. And however wretched these comics were, they spoke to real psychological needs in children and teenagers. Kids need monsters and ghouls, supervillains and superfoes, as much as they need parents and teachers. The guardians of childhood face a difficult balancing act: They have to let kids give imaginative rein to their more destructive emotions while also protecting the young from genuinely harmful words and images. With his blunt language and crude simplifications, Fredric Wertham made this balancing act harder, not easier. If he had paid more attention to comic books, Wertham would have realized that he was following down the path of villains like Lex Luthor and Dr. Doom, who start off with good intentions only to become prisoners of their own blind arrogance.
Jeet Heer, a Canadian cultural journalist, is co-editor, with Kent Worcester, of Arguing Comics. With Chris Ware and Chris Oliveros, he is editing a series of volumes reprinting Frank King's Gasoline Alley comic strips. His writings can be found on the blog Sans Everything.
Illustration by Rob Donnelly.