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.’”