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. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Wertham was the intellectual spearhead of the anti-comics crusade, arguing in many articles and his 1954 best-seller, Seduction of the Innocent, that comic books stultified the imagination of normal kids (giving them a taste for blood and gore that would prevent them from ever appreciating literature and fine art) and severely damaged the socially vulnerable, contributing to juvenile delinquency. For Wertham, even the most beloved comic-book heroes were suspect: Superman reminded him of Nazi Germany's SS (a cadre of self-styled supermen), the adventures of Batman and Robin had homoerotic overtones, and Wonder Woman threatened to turn healthy young girls into lesbians. At the time Wertham made his attack on comics, the medium was at the height of its popularity, selling between 80 million and 100 million copies every week in scores of genres, ranging from funny animals and superheroes (for kids) to romance and horror (for teenagers and young adults).
As David Hajdu reminds us in his new book, The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America, Wertham's ideas had remarkably wide currency in postwar America. Countless religious and patriotic organizations organized book burnings to set comics aflame, and leading politicians held congressional hearings where William Gaines, the owner of EC Comics, publisher of the gory Tales From the Crypt and the satiric Mad comic book (later retooled as a magazine),was grilled as if he were a mobster.
As a result of this moral panic, the once-thriving comic-book industry went into a severe decline. In the two years after Wertham's book came out, more than a dozen publishers and hundreds of cartoonists left the field. Those publishers that remained were severely restricted by a self-imposed code that prevented comics from publishing anything but the most anodyne kiddies' fare. Only with the rise of graphic novels in the last few years have comics recovered from the stigma of the Wertham years. For Hajdu, the comic-book crackdown was a "purge," a precursor to later panics over rock music and video games.
No wonder Wertham has often been caricatured by fans as a prissy, cold Germanic elitist who wanted to deprive American kids of their entertaining reading material. Catherine Yronwode, a popular historian and comic-book fan, spoke for many when she wrote, in 1983, "We hate [Wertham], despise him. He and he alone virtually brought about the collapse of the comic book industry in the 1950s." Easy enough to mock, Wertham showed up in a brief and unsympathetic cameo in Michael Chabon's prize-winning book The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.
And yet Wertham is not without his defenders, primarily scholars who argue that the view promulgated by authors like Hajdu and Chabon is pure calumny. Chief among these academic defenders is Bart Beaty, a Canadian communications theorist whose 2005 book Fredric Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture argues that the psychiatrist's work has been unfairly dismissed. Wertham, Beaty notes, is often libeled as a pop-culture McCarthyite, when he was in fact a progressive scholar who ran a clinic in Harlem, and his research on black children was used in the legal challenges to segregation. Beaty contends that Wertham had legitimate questions about the social impact of art on socially vulnerable children.
Wertham was particularly concerned about the violence, misogyny, and racism that were endemic in comics (and other popular art forms). He wasn't wrong on this point. Many of the comics now nostalgically celebrated by Hajdu and Chabon were extremely unsavory in their social attitudes. EC comics regularly featured husbands and wives ending marital spats with knives, axes, and poison. On the racial front, Will Eisner's much-loved Spirit featured a Sambo-like sidekick named Ebony White, who was childish, had thick lips, and spoke in an illiterate minstrel dialect.