Was Fredric Wertham a Villain?

Van Jensen

Van Jensen is a former crime reporter turned comic book writer. In addition to ComicMix, he contributes to Publishers Weekly and Comic Book Resources. He lives in Atlanta, and his blog can be found at graphicfiction.wordpress.com.

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18 Responses

  1. Michael H. Price says:

    Wertham's megalomania and fear-mongering appeal make it easy to peg him as a bad guy, all right, and he seems to have been more an eradicator than a reformer. Some curious additional perspective can be found in an essay by Robert Warshow called "Paul, the Horror Comics, and Dr. Wertham" (in 1957's "Mass Culture: The Popular Arts in America", and in Al Hewetson's posthumous memoir, "Skywald!: The Complete Illustrated History of the Horror-Mood," as published in 2004.

    • mike weber says:

      Wertham may well have been sincere, but he was certainly misguided and tended a tad toward hysteria (I read "Seduction of the Innocent" when i was about sixteen, thought so then and still think so).That said, i still think the best jab at Wertham in comics of the period is in Will Eisner's "Awful Book" "Spirit" section – the original, as reprinted in the Sixties by Harvey, not the more recent heavily rewritten reprint, that even changed "awful book" to "comic book" in the text – which is a parody of horror/crime comics *and* a satire of Wertham and his ilk.The narrator, a grade-school teacher, says he was leaving school one day, and passed "…the school psychiatrist, Dr Wolfgang Worry, holding his weekly book burning…"

  2. Russ Rogers says:

    Is Tipper Gore a villain for organizing the PMRC? Was Al Gore complicit? History has been kinder to Al Gore than Fredric Wertham. Maybe it's because Wertham did a better job of censoring comics than Gore did of censoring music.

    • Martha Thomases says:

      Yes, Tipper Gore was a villain for organizing the PMRC. Yes, I suspect Al Gore was complicit. Americans seem to have a taste for letting the government do the parenting — except for the parts of parenting, like health care, education, affordable housing, equal opportunity — that cost money.

  3. R. Maheras says:

    For more than fifteen years, whenever I mentioned Wertham's name, I said it with a venomous snarl.Then, in the late 1980s, I read his book, "Circle of Guilt." Then, in the late 1990s, I read another one of his books, "World of Fanzines."I have a totally different view of the man now.As a matter of fact, "World of Fanzines" is so praiseworthy of comics fan self-publishers, it's clear Wertham must have been the type who continually re-assessed his viewpoint on things, based of the evidence at hand. Either that, or one day he just woke up and "found religion," so to speak..

    • Vinnie Bartilucci says:

      Every time I hear that argument, I remember Bill Cosby's description of grandparents who were terrors when they were parents and are now loving and kind: "Someone old who's trying to get into Heaven now."World of Fanzines is generally considered to be Wertham's apology to comics fans, but it's safe to say a simple apology was too little too late. It's akin to starting a stampede, scaring a farmer's entire herd away, and then offering free coupons for milk at Stew Leonard's. (I went with Stew's because I don't think anyplace other than Long Island had Dairy Barn stores.)

  4. Chuck Fiala says:

    Well, I have to still put him in the villain column. He almost destroyed the comics industry. There is no way that I'm going to like him just because he was complimentary toward fanzines.http://www.swordandsarcasm.com/

  5. Vinnie Bartilucci says:

    Wertham was, simply stated, America's first pop psychologist. He grabbed onto a popular issue, successfully sold himself as an expert, and milked it for all it was worth. He blazed a trail that has been followed by every person since that has tried to tell America's parents what is wrong with their kids. The list has included rock music, violence on television, lurid movies, drive-ins, dungeons and dragons, video games, and each one has been "the reason" at least twice.The lesson of Harold Hill still works today.

  6. Jeremiah Avery says:

    I was at a book signing for David Hajdu tonight and it was a great time with an active discussion about the book burnings, the over 100 pieces of legislation at the state and municipal levels banning the selling and distribution of comic books and how people were swept up in the hysteria back in those days.Though Wertham made contributions to the cases brought to the Supreme Court regarding segregation in public schools, he was an opportunist who preyed on the hysteria of the public. His statement that Hitler was nothing in comparison to the comic book industry is atrocious and I'm still amazed that people actually bought into that nonsense.

  7. Michael H. Price says:

    Dr. Wertham, enlightened or not in his later years, nonetheless had refined the art of fear-mongering to his commercial advantage, in a way comparable with the Nazis' hate-mongering. Wertham's methods persist among those who will fabricate a popular bogeyman and then present themselves as the purgative remedy. (And didn't Wertham engage in some copyright infringement, as well, in presenting examples of what he considered offensive comic-book art?)The willingness to terrify one's audience for the sake of looking like a savior runs as rampant today as it did during the Cold War witch-hunts or the same period's (and more recent) campaigns to sanitize popular music. Sometimes, the practice is as seemingly innocuous as a teevee news report exaggerating the weather conditions; a newspaper in Texas runs a weekly feature on diet and health under a fear-charged heading that reads: "Do I Look Fat?" Anything to exploit the popular tendency to worry.Gave a fresh reading last evening to Wertham's "Seduction of the Innocent," along with that more level-headed parental-viewpoint essay by Robert Warshow. Yes, I believe that Wertham was a predatory monster.

  8. Russ Rogers says:

    Here is the article on Slate by Jeet Heer mentioned by Van Jensen:http://www.slate.com/id/2188156/

    • Van Jensen says:

      Thanks for linking that, Russ. I wrote the link into the article, but somehow I must've messed up the coding, because it definitely didn't make it into the final version.Another item of interest in this discussion: Douglas Wolk and Hajdu are having a discussion about comics at The New Republic: http://www.tnr.com/politics/story.html?id=7632ea1

  9. Russ Rogers says:

    Michael Chabon, the author of "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay," takes issues with Jeet Heer's article:http://fray.slate.com/discuss/forums/thread/10989

  10. Jonathan Miller says:

    It's worth noting that Jeet Heer wasn't simply expressing his own opinion in the article, he was actually comparing Hajdu's book with one written by scholar Bart Beatty that took a more systematic and sympathetic look at Wertham's work in general. In fact, the Slate article seems to have come about after a fairly lengthy debate (over various blogs and other sources, such as the Globe and Mail) between Heer and Beatty about the issues raised in Mr. Hajdu's book. If nothing else, having read the debate (though I haven't gotten the chance to read either book yet), I think a more nuanced picture of Wertham comes out as the facts come in. I'm certainly viewing him differently–I'm still unhappy with his methods and very unhappy with their results, but I don't see him as the "evil pop psychologist villain" anymore. I wish I had the links handy; I think anyone who's interested in this should track down Heer and Beatty's discussions.

    • Van Jensen says:

      I don't have any problem with Heer's characterization of Wertham. It sounds very accurate. What I have a problem with – and what Chabon responded against – was Heer's description of how Hajdu and Chabon wrote about Wertham. Heer accused both of them of dismissing Wertham as a simple villain, but both of them offered a much more full picture of the man. While reading Heer's piece, I did wonder if he had actually read The Ten-Cent Plague or if he'd just read reviews of it.

  11. Jeet Heer says:

    Did I read The Ten-Cent Plague? Yes, in fact I’ve written at length about the books. See these two essays:http://sanseverything.wordpress.com/2008/03/22/thhttp://sanseverything.wordpress.com/2008/03/29/we…Was I fair to Hajdu and Chabon? I think the quotes that Chabon himself provided from his novel while responding to my slate piece shows that Chabon in the novel does present Wertham unsympathetically (even if allowing for his good intentions). The same is true of Hajdu, who overall concludes that Wertham was sensationalistic and sloppy. That’s a pretty serious accusation to make of a scientist’s work

  12. Van Jensen says:

    Jeet – Thanks for posting and giving your thoughts. I agree with you that Chabon and Hajdu, on the whole, presented Wertham unsympathetically, but my contention with your piece on Slate was that your wording made it sound as if neither of those writers gave Wertham any credit at all. And Hajdu especially gave a fairly lengthy account of Wertham's good works.Again – all in all, I found your piece very informative and a great addendum to The Ten-Cent Plague.