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Papers of Comic-Book ‘Villain’ Open at Library

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My colleague Erin Allen wrote the following for the Library’s in-house letter, The Gazette, and I thought it worth sharing with a wider audience:

The late psychiatrist Fredric Wertham examines a comic book in his office. (Photo by E.B. Bratner)

Among comic-book aficionados, psy­chiatrist Fredric Wertham (1895–1981) is considered as much of a villain as those he assailed in the crime and horror comics he criticized. However, Wer­tham was more than just an outspoken crusader against comic books. He was dedicated to protecting children from harmful material in all mass media. His research about the detrimental effects of segregation was used in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education court case. In addition, Wertham founded a clinic in Harlem, providing mental-health services to the underprivileged African American community.

The Library of Congress acquired his papers in 1987, through the estate of his wife, Florence Hesketh Wertham. In May of this year, all 222 containers were opened to public research access. Previ­ously, they were sealed except to people approved by the estate.

“We realize that donors have certain interests they want to respect,” said Len Bruno of the Library’s Manuscript Divi­sion, which houses the collection. “Of course, things can’t stay closed forever,” he added, saying that the Library often agrees to reasonable restrictions in order to acquire materials.

Bruno said that since access became unrestricted, interest in Wertham’s papers has increased. His papers add another component to the Library’s collections, which include comic books in the Serials and Government Publications Division, about 128,000 works of cartoon art in the Prints and Photographs Division and the papers of Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung and the International Psycho-Analytical Association in the Manuscript Division.

Wertham was born Fredric Wertheimer in Munich, Germany, on March 20, 1895. He received a medical degree in 1921 and moved to the United States to teach at Johns Hopkins University and practice at the university’s Phipps Psychiatric Clinic a year later. In 1932, he moved to New York City to serve as the head of the Court of General Sessions psychiatric clinic, which examined every convicted felon in the city. In 1936, he was named director of Bel­levue’s Mental Hygiene Clinic in New York and later became director of psychiatric services at Queens Hospital Center.

Patient notes by psychiatrist Fredric Wertham describe the effects of a “Superman” comic book on a young boy. (Library of Congress/Abby Brack photo)

“One of the things he did was create a clinic in Harlem to serve the underprivi­leged community,” said Bruno. In 1946, the Lafargue Mental Hygiene Clinic – a small outpatient facility run by volunteers – opened, providing care to the poor for almost 13 years.

“He was also a highly respected wit­ness in high-profile criminal court cases,” Bruno added.

In 1935, he testified for the defense in the trial of serial child-killer Albert Fish, whom he had examined at length, declar­ing him insane. Wertham also testified on behalf of convicted spy Ethel Rosenberg, despite never having questioned her, in order to offer his expertise on her condi­tion of “prison psychoses” while she was imprisoned at Sing Sing.

According to Wertham, he believed his testimony helped with Julius Rosenberg’s transfer to Sing Sing and the warden’s allowance for visitation rights between the married couple.

Wertham also provided his expertise as a forensic psychiatrist in a number of cases involving teenagers. This involve­ment was the basis for his book “Dark Legend: A Study of Murder” (1941).

Despite his humane interests and broader concerns with violence and protecting children from psychological harm, Wertham is best known for his book “Seduction of the Innocent” (1954) and its resulting fallout. The book was the culmination of a decade-long campaign against comic books.

Wertham’s notes on this 1967 “Kid Colt Outlaw,” comic book: “111 pictures; 62 scenes of violence = more than half.” (Library of Congress/Abby Brack photo)

“The book presents his research on the negative impact of violence in comics on impressionable youth,” said Bruno. “He was for censorship as it pertained to children.”

In “Seduction” Wertham wrote, “There seems to be a widely held belief that democracy demands leaving the regula­tion of children’s reading to the individual. Leaving everything to the individual is actually … anarchy. And it is a pity that children should suffer from the anarchistic trends in our society.”

Among the items in the Library’s col­lection of Wertham’s papers is a selection of comics he deemed offensive, with notations he wrote inside.

His copy of “Kid Colt, Outlaw” (1967) includes a note that of the 111 pictures, 69 were scenes of violence. An issue of “Justice League of America” (1966) includes markings calling attention to the sounds of violence like “thudd,” “whapp” and “poww.”

“Guns Against Gangsters,” 1948. Fredric Wertham papers. (Library of Congress/Abby Brack photo)

In addition, Wertham’s papers include patient drawings and his analy­sis of those sketches. He writes of a young patient: “This case demonstrates the confusion created by comic books between fan­tasy and reality … cruelty in children’s play especially directed against girls.”

Wertham testified six times under oath on the harmfulness of comic books, including provid­ing testimony before the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency. Though the committee’s final report did not blame comics for crime, it recom­mended that the comics industry tone down its content voluntarily, thus resulting in the Comics Code Authority.

According to comic book historian and blogger Mike Rhode, Wertham’s research would likely not be accepted by most today as it relied on anecdotal evidence of children he saw in his Harlem clinic. Still, his legacy reverberates among comic-book fandom with his objection to even the most beloved heroes like Super­man, Batman and Wonder Woman.

“I think he was part of a movement that is uniquely American – this need to protect children from adult life – that started in the 1950s. It was the same movement that said every child ought to graduate from high school and have the opportunity to go to college,” said Sara Duke, curator of the Library’s comic arts collections in P&P. “Until we can synthesize Wertham in his time, he will be demonized by historians for changing the comic-book industry and affecting the way generations of adults see comic books.”

Comments (15)

  1. Will these papers be posted online?

  2. Very interesting indeed. The song remains the same though don’t you think – with the gaming industry now and the need to protect the children from violence in games. These days we are also in the business of protecting children from idiocy like protection from Intelligent Design kinda stuff. The poor children. Although, I feel that kids are harmed most just by being around “adults” who are violent, rude, mean, etc…

  3. Truth be told, Seduction of the Innocent was taught as an example of how not to do research when I was in undergrad.

  4. For Seduction of the Innocent, Wertham only interviewed problem children. There was no similar group of untroubled children who also read comics that he studied. Since 95% of children in the 1940s read comic books (unlike today where the number is probably 10%) and all of the children with anti-social behavior he studied read comic books, therefore he judged comic books as the common factor. That’s why it is a flawed study. The Senate hearings were a political publicity stunt which failed to achieve the goal of advancing the career of the chairman of the hearing.

  5. I remember looking desperately for information, books, ANYTHING on comic books in the mid to late 1960s in my hometown library.

    What I found was multiple copies of some thick book that reprinted grotesque panels of zombies, intestines strung out like baselines, and a curious picture of Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson in smoking jackets lounging at home.

    Yes, the sole volume on comics as late as 1968 in most libraries was “Seduction of the Innocent.” Ironically, this volume was my FIRST exposure to horror and crime comics, which were totally unavailable in my community, except in this lurid volume. Imagine!

  6. At some point, maybe even before you begin your book, you will want to look for a writer’s group in your area, or you may find one on the internet. You may also want to consider a critique group specific to children’s books. Research the group and make sure they offer constructive feedback and will support you through the many drafts you will write. A critique group can be a valuable tool in producing a quality book.

  7. Great read and informative, thanks. You’re right we don’t hear very much at all about the violence in comic book . This will be something which helps to protect the children from violence in games

  8. Chief among Wertham’s errors was to assume that he comics medium was read solely by children. This was never true. The industry, protectors of an art form as American as Jazz, took a generation to recover. Wertham’s policies, today, would be laughed out of the marketplace of ideas. Then, he was able to engineer a disaster.

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