Comics Bogeyman: A Look Back At ‘Seduction of the Innocent’
April 19, 1954 is a date that has lived in infamy for comics fans.
That's the day psychiatrist Fredric Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent, a book that changed the comics landscape for decades to come, was first published. Wertham's book led to a moral panic over the content of comic books that ultimately resulted in the founding of the Comics Code Authority and the eventual folding of one of the major publishers of the era, EC Comics.
Originally from Munich, Germany, Wertham worked at New York City's Bellevue Mental Hygiene Clinic and worked closely with the state courts, testifying in a few high-profile cases on the mental state of defendants. He wrote several studies about the harms of racial segregation, to the point that his writings were used as evidence in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case, which declared school segregation unconstitutional. In general, he was a respected member of the psychiatric medicine community.
In 1948, while he was working in a Harlem clinic for teenagers, Wertham began speaking widely about the dangers he perceived in comic book content. In 1954, Wertham published Seduction of the Innocent, codifying those arguments.
In brief, Wertham argued that "crime" comics --- which not only included the sometimes-graphic horror and gangster comics of the day, but also superhero comics --- were overtly violent and had oblique and overt references to sex and drug use. He argued that the depictions of such behavior in comics led children to act out in similar ways. He also attempted to link comics to illiteracy.
Perhaps most famously, Wertham wrote at length about what he saw as a gay subtext in Batman and Robin stories, and how that might be a bad influence on kids. Likewise, Wertham claimed Superman was a fascist, and Wonder Woman was a lesbian. Wertham also made arguments that might sound familiar to comics readers today. For instance, he disapproved of the oversexualized depictions of women in many books.
(Later examinations of the book, and of Wertham, suggest that the subtext he identified in Batman stories may have been suggested to him in interviews with gay youths. Wertham notably avoided the language of the time that referred to homosexuality as a "disease." Rather, he argued against children being exposed to sexuality of any kind.)
Perhaps the biggest misconception about the book is the notion that it is nothing more than a moral screed. Wertham did have moral objections to comics, but he attempted to make his arguments in the form of academic critiques of particular comic panels. In his essay re-examining the book, comic creator and scholar A. David Lewis described Wertham's arguments this way:
He does not take the position of a narrow-minded zealot, deaf to all criticism or opposition. Instead, he presents the contentions of his rivals and attempts to refute them, one by one. Regardless, Wertham withholds from condemning his dissenters; in fact, it is only disinterested "neutrality, that is the devil's ally."
If anything, that position led more credence to Wertham's arguments, which led to Wertham being called as a key witness in the Senate Subcommitte on Juvenile Delinquency hearings on the impact of comics. Seduction of the Innocent wasn't the only catalyst for the hearings (a few public burnings of comics had occurred in years prior), but it's worth noting that they were called within a few days of its publication. By September of 1954, comics publishers came together to effectively self-censor with the formation of the Comics Code Authority.
The Comics Code specifically banned many of the violent acts (such as "injury to the eye") that Wertham pointed out in his book. It also went so far as to ban the use of certain words such as "terror" in comic titles. Particularly hard-hit was publisher William Gaines' EC Comics, which published some of the more graphic horror comics of the time. Though EC continued to publish Mad magazine, it folded as a comics publisher in 1956.
Beyond the end of EC, the Comics Code also changed the landscape of comics, which was expanding into a wide array of genres by the early 1950s as the popularity of superheroes waned. It was impossible to publish many of those genre comics under the Comics Code, so superhero comics returned with renewed vigor, launching the Silver Age.
Wertham's original research for Seduction of the Innocent was released in 2010, and in in her book Seducing the Innocent: Fredric Wertham and the Falsifications That Helped Condemn Comics, library scientist Carol Tilley found that Wertham "manipulated, overstated, compromised, and fabricated evidence" for his book. According to Tilley, Wertham misrepresented stories, used misrepresentative samples of young readers --- they all had delinquency backgrounds --- and manipulated statements.
Because of Seduction of the Innocent, Wertham has become the purest real-life villain for comics fans. In his book Reinventing Comics, Scott McCloud calls Wertham comics' "very own bogeyman," and depicts Wertham's spirit presiding over a book burning.
Of course, comics wouldn't be what they are today if it weren't for Wertham and his book. Fans who idolize superheroes above all else have him to thank, strangely enough. Most likely, mainstream comics would broadly encompass far more genres without the creation of the Comics Code.
By all accounts, Wertham's aim was to change the content of comics rather than destroy them. But in creating a moral panic he nearly did just that. And he became a "bogeyman" in the process.