Was Fredric Wertham a Villain?
In David Hajdu’s The Ten-Cent Plague, as well as in most other books about the golden age of comics, Fredric Wertham is used as an antagonist, that stuffy pseudo-psychologist who decided comic books made kids do evil things and helped topple the industry.
Wetham wrote the best-selling Seduction of the Innocent, which purportedly proved that the violence in comic books pushed some children toward misbehavior. He later testified against comics in the senate hearings that served as a tipping point in the crusade against funny books.
In a new article on Slate, Jeet Heer argues that the treatment of Wertham as "a real-life bad guy worse than the Joker, Lex Luthor, and Magneto combined" isn’t completely true, and doesn’t give enough credit to the good work Wertham did with children and minorities.
It’s a good companion piece to The Ten-Cent Plague (my review of David Hajdu’s book can be found here), but there are a couple of unfair jabs at Hajdu for demonizing Wertham, though Hajdu actually did a pretty thorough job of showing Wertham’s benevolent history. And, for that matter, Hajdu didn’t treat comics as blameless and innocent, which Heer insinuates.
Those minor points aside, Heer’s piece summarizes the crux of the battle over comics and gives a fitting assessment of Wertham’s role. Heer writes:
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.