David Hadju’s "The Ten-Cent Plague" has revived interest in the comic book wars of the 1950s and the contribution of Fredric Wertham, M.D. to the abolitionist surge. As a survivor of one of the bloodiest of these campaigns, I feel a duty to chime in.
The most vilified comics of that era were those published by EC – "Tales from the Crypt," "Haunt of Fear" – that abominable lot. I read my first in 1952, when I was ten. I continued to read as many ECs as my paws could grab through 1954, when the Comic Book Code, which Wertham’s writings and testimony had helped birth, gutted them of everything of interest. I have written before – See: Levin. "Outlaws, Rebels..." – of EC’s excellence in art and prose, while not overlooking that the key to its greatness was the HORROR and the SEX. Since it was HORROR and SEX which turned Wertham and the U.S. Senate and concerned librarians everywhere against EC, and since this appalled view is again gaining respect, I decided to revisit "Seduction of the Innocent," Wertham’s magnum opus and see if my judgment, which had always regarded him about as highly as flies on dog poop, may have been askew.
Wertham’s strongest defender is Bart Beaty, a professor at Calgary University, whose views were recently disseminated in Louis Menand’s review of "Plague" in "The New Yorker." Beaty's case has two aspects. First, Wertham was not, as his critics have portrayed him, some bone-headed thug, but a pure-hearted progressive. He aided the poor, fought segregation, and, we are reassured, "collected modern art" – as if sticking such merit badges on his chest innoculated him against any form of idiocy. Second, Wertham was no blue-nosed censor but a free speech advocate deeply concerned about the damage comics inflicted upon children. This damage came, in Menand’s words, from "racist-sexist image(s)...on almost every page of crime and horror comics," as well as a "fantastic proliferation... (of) men beating, torturing and killing women." But my own independent research – a random dip into four pages of each of EC’s three horror comics – found no racist images, unless you consider apparently deeming no one but Caucasians to be of interest to ghouls, vampires and ax murderers to be racist. I did find a woman in a bathing suit, but she was balanced by a man in one beside her. And while EC had no compunction about beheading, boiling or butcher kniving women, it seemed equally comfortable doing the same to men.
In actuality, Wertham’s beliefs were far more off-the-rubber-walls than Beaty and Menand let on. He considered comics a "contributing" factor to a childhood "maladjustment" which could manifest itself in crimes of violence, including murder; heroin addiction; prejudice against Negroes, Jews, Italians, Slavs, and Asians; prostition; homosexuality; lesbianism; frigidity; masturbation; and the inability to enjoy art, literature and meaningful relationships. Now saying that Event A contributes to the occurrence of Event B casts a wide net. It can cover everything from genes and family income to deciding to get out of bed in the morning. Wertham’s thesis seems to have been based primarily on anecdotal evidence derived from children he treated. They were maladjusted; they read comic books; therefore, comic books caused maladjustment. To one who knew another class of comic readers, this thesis seems no more convincing that one that posits that a prolonged exposure of social scientists to severely disturbed children will contribute to these scientists promulgating theories that are hogwash. It seems no more persuasive to me to say that children should be deprived of comics to prevent their becoming masturbating lesbian heroin addicts than to say children should be force-fed comics in order to trigger the artistic output of my fellow EC fans Steven King, Robert Crumb, and Jerry Garcia.
And Wertham clearly called for the censorship of comics. (See: SOTI pp. 326 et seq.) He wanted to forbid "the sale and display of crime comic books to children under fifteen" – not, as Beaty says, to allow their purchase in the presence of their parents. And Wertham defined "crime comic" broadly enough to include western, adventure, romance, sci-fi, and superhero comics, as well as illustrated "classic" novels. (He also took his shots at funny animals.) It is, at best, a questionable social policy to restrict what an entire segment of a population may read or watch or listen to by how its least balanced and most vulnerable members may react. But the fires of repression, which Wertham fed, prevailed, and coics were scorched clean of all that attracted me and my peers. Benefitting from this protection, we were left to forge our way into adolescence with only readings in Mickey Spillane and "Playboy," viewings of "Blackboard Jungle" and "House of Wax," and spinnings of "Annie Had a Baby" to guide us.
Causes Bob Levin Supports
Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, ACLU, PEN, Berkeley Emergency Food & Housing Project.