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Crimcast is a virtual resource devoted to critical conversations about criminology and criminal justice issues. Our blogposts, twitter feeds, podcasts and other content provide an overview of trends, research, commentary and events of interest to criminal justice practitioners, academics and the general public. CrimCast is sponsored by The Center for Crime and Popular Culture, St. Francis College, Brooklyn, NY.

Carol Tilley on Wertham's Scholarship, Social Science, and Archival Research

Nickie Phillips

CrimCast welcomes Carol Tilley, assistant professor at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois. Professor Tilley recently published "Seducing the Innocent: Fredric Wertham and the Falsifications that Helped Condemn Comics" in Information & Culture: A Journal of History.You are one of the few scholars who have gained access to Frederic Wertham's papers and other personal archives, now housed at the Library of Congress. Can you tell us what prompted your interest in the project and how were you able to gain access to this vast amount of information?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Wertham-10.png

For the past eight years or so, I’ve been studying how librarians and other reading guidance professionals responded to comics captivating influence on young readers during the 1940s and 1950s. Even though Wertham was not the primary focus of my work, he is someone difficult to ignore when thinking about comics during these years. Anti-comics sentiment preceded Wertham’s interest in the topic by nearly a decade, but for the last few years of the 1940s and throughout the 1950s, he was the figurehead for the movement that sought to restrict the sale of comics to America’s youth.

Wertham was something of a packrat too, as there are more than two hundred boxes of his materials preserved at the Library of Congress (LOC). Although not all of these materials are related to his work on comics, many of them are. I was curious to learn about his correspondence with librarians, teachers, parents, and other folks who were interested in children’s reading and welfare. So, my initial reason for using the materials had little to do with Seduction of the Innocent (Rinehart, 1954), the book about comics for which Wertham is popularly and infamously remembered.

Although Wertham died in 1981 and his materials were transferred to the LOC soon afterwards, his papers have been open for research use since mid-2010. Before that time Wertham’s literary executor controlled access to those materials. Barty Beaty, professor of English at the University of Calgary, was the only person granted significant access to the materials. His book Fredric Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture (U of Mississippi Press, 2005) makes use of the collection. James Gilbert, professor of History at the University of Maryland, also made use of Wertham’s papers for his book A Cycle of Outrage: America’s Reaction to the Juvenile Delinquent in the 1950s (Oxford, 1988). Gilbert had access to these materials while Wertham was still alive.

You mentioned in the article that many scholars were long suspicious about Wertham's methodology. What was your most surprising finding?

Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent has hallmarks of suspicious social science. It lacks a bibliography, for instance, and contains assertions that are often grand. Take, for instance, his claim that teenage drug users were comics readers. Well, nearly all young people read comics at that time, so this claim is like stating today that teenage drug users use Facebook. One of Wertham’s contemporaries, Bertram Beck, a social worker who led the Special Juvenile Delinquency Project for the United States Children’s Bureau, wrote to the doctor a month after Seduction’s release, saying,

Your treatment of contrary evidence and, in fact, anyone who disagrees seems to me to be as unscientific as you demonstrate the defenders of the comic book have been. [April 16, 1954, Box 123, Folder 7, Wertham papers].

The comics creator and scholar Stephen Bissette more recently took issue with Wertham’s method and presentation. In Teen Angels & New Mutants: Rick Veitch’s Bratpack and the Art, Karma, and Commerce of Killing Sidekicks (Black Coat Press, 2011), Bissette points to Wertham’s “circularity of logic” (p. 67) along with the absence of context, “methods, footnotes, or attribution” (p. 68).

Despite these and other critiques, I was astounded to discover numerous instances where Wertham seemed to disregard an even more basic idea about presenting evidence—that you don’t ‘doctor’ it. Here’s a fairly typical example.

In Seduction, Wertham wrote about a girl (pp. 40-41), who according to her mother, read love comics all the time. The text in the book read,

“This girl I found to be an expert on love comics. She told me she bought some, ‘but mostly I trade them.’ I asked her about stealing in love comics. She laughed, ‘Oh, they do it often.’”

http://www.thecomicarchive.com/archives/568

Wertham’s notes [Box 109, Folder 12] portrayed a somewhat different scenario. For instance, he learned from the mother that the girl doesn’t read as many comics as she once did because they now have a television. The notes also stated,

"Patient says she reads love comics, 'if I have any.' 'I buy one once in a while, but mostly I trade them.' Titles: True Story, Superman or something like that; sometimes I see Crime Does Not Pay; Love For Two, Romance, that is all. The story where somebody steals is in Crime Does Not Pay. In the Love Comics they sometimes steal...My mother says she does not want me to read comic books because they interfere with my school work and she just don't want me to read them."

In other examples, Wertham turned a single teenage boy into several different people, borrowed phrases and ideas from colleagues and acquaintances, and exaggerated or distorted evidence. For instance, Wertham recounted the experiences of one boy: “‘I read the comic books to learn how you can get money. I read about thirty a week. I read Crime Does Not Pay, Crime and Punishment, Penalty, Wanted. That is all I can think of” (p. 73). Yet, in the original case notes [Box 109, Folder 16], the boy told Wertham he read only five comics a week.

You state that Wertham "manipulated, overstated, compromised, and fabricated evidence" to support his contention that comic books contributed to maladjustment and deviant behavior among children. Further, you describe Wertham's conclusions as being driven by a rhetorical strategy to bolster support for his position. Yet, you acknowledge in the article that you are ultimately conflicted about Wertham. Can you tell us more about that?

My dilemma is simple: as abhorrent as I find Wertham’s representations of evidence, I believe he wanted to help people who he believed were vulnerable, whether because of their age, their race, their socioeconomic status, or something else. For instance, Wertham was an early advocate for racial integration, and his testimony provided support for the overturn of school segregation in Delaware. Wertham’s testimony as part of Delaware case helped effect a positive outcome in 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education. Does his goodness excuse his errors? Certainly some comics readers, creators, and fans will say ‘no.’

Your article has received quite a bit of media attention. Were you surprised that your work would receive so much attention from the mainstream press?

I was indeed surprised! Seduction of the Innocent is nearly sixty years old and Wertham has been thoroughly lambasted in comics culture. At this point few people familiar with Wertham and his anti-comics work can feign shock that his research was troubled, but I’m pleased to offer some substantive evidence to support this long-standing assumption. Plus from a scholar’s perspective, it’s gratifying to know that not only are more than a handful of people reading your work, but that it’s getting discussed in places like the New York Times and io9.com

Can you tell us about any projects that you are currently working on? Should we look forward to more research from the Wertham archives from you?

Eventually you’ll see more from me that draws on the Wertham archives. I’ve got a chapter out soon on the use of comics in language arts classrooms during the 1940s and 1950s, a paper on early (1930s and 1940s) reading promotion efforts in National / DC comics, and a chapter forthcoming on how young comics readers responded to comics’ critics such as Wertham. My bigger ongoing project is writing a history of young people’s readership of comics from the 1930s through the 1950s. If you’re interested, you can keep up with my comics research via my webpage or via Twitter (@CarolGSLIS).

archive

This is the second of our 5-part series appearing throughout 2013 focusing on the often game-changing discoveries that come out of archival work in the realm of police, courts, and corrections.