Denver Comic Con 2013: Was Censorship Advocate Fredric Wertham Right?


Years after his death, years after the debunking of his Seduction of the Innocent," Dr. Fredric Wertham remains a figure who consistently draws the derision of modern comics fans thanks to his all-out call for censorship of the four-color industry of the 50's.

But teacher and comics historian Jim Vacca, during a panel at Denver Comic Con, argues that if you look at Wertham, you'll see a very human thinker whose good intentions were at odds with a need to be in the spotlight.

Vaccca teaches a comic book reading class at Boulder High School (five credits, kids--look it up), talked about his own comic book fandom, coming up in the 50's and 60's as a kid whose only access to comics at the time was picking up yellowing E.C. horror comics and classic books in three-for-a-dime bins at his local bookstore. While his own parents were permissive of his reading habits, he was aware that his friends' parents remained wary of comics as a subversive, possibly Communist-led influence on America's youth.

This lead him to discover Wertham's controversial book, which, at the time of its publication, pilloried the comic industry as a toxic influence on young readers (in the same way that video games are today held up as bad influences on kids). The copy of "Seduction" that Vacca found sometime in the mid-70's drew him to Wertham, whose correspondence and research materials were only recently made available at the Library of Congress.

It was this research into Wertham's own work and words that caused Vacca to see the man behind the comic industry boogeyman. What he found as a left-leaning academic who was socially aware, who advocated for gun control, who was friends with Langston Hughes (and we know that he spent time providing psychological assistance to minority teens and children). Vacca sees Wertham now as someone who continues to "divide us socially and divide [him] personally."

Vacca presented us with a copy of a letter from J. Edgar Hoover and Wertham, where the FBI Director responded to the psychiatrist's request for crime statistics for offenders 12 and under. Wertham's research involved a great deal of cherry picking of resources, but Vacca saw this type of correspondence as proof that Wertham was nonetheless a fascinating figure whose "humane politics" allowed him access to important figures from the era.

Maybe the most interesting piece of correspondence was a letter from Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel to Wertham--begging for help. At the time, Siegel was in poverty, cut out from any profits from his most famous creation and plagued by health issues, supplementing his meager income with S&M comics (check out Craig Yoe's "Secret Identity" for more about this sad chapter in Siegel's life). Siegel wrote to Wertham begging for help in bringing down the comic book industry that had treated him so shabbily. Siegel, in his impassioned letter, called the publishers everything from pornographers to con artists, to gangsters, going so far as to provide individual publishers' home addresses.

Drawing on the idea of division--how Wertham's work divided the community and the comics publishing industry--Vacca sees the researcher as being likewise being divided. Discussing Wertham's "Seduction" and its followup, "Circle of Guilt," he sees two books that are as salacious and scintillating as the lurid comics they take aim at--the work of a man torn between his need to "be the go-to guy about social ills" and a genuine desire to keep children away socially toxic influences.

Vacca sees this "childless protector of children" as victim of the same kind of dual identities of the nefarious publishers he sought to battle. Consider the comic industry of the period where Wertham was forming his theories: capes and tights comics were nestled on the same shelves as the most gruesome E.C. comics alongside the casual racism of titles like "Jungle Comics" in the local candy shop. Honestly, would you be concerned about letting a young reader get their hands on a copy of "Crime SupsenStories" without the proper context (or even the knowledge that those kinds of books would be available to them so easily).

It's easy to vilify Wertham because his methods were less-than-honest and as a fandom, we're resistant to having someone come in from the outside telling us what to do with our art. Here's the thing: some of this stuff was pretty noxious. Vacca is right in saying that almost none of us have the capacity to be an Aurora Shooter, haunted by the voices of media or the past, but there is something to swimming in a culture of glorified and intellectually empty violence. Comics, films, and games are easy targets for society's ills and as fans, we rightly reject that, but at the same time, we should always ask what it means that we spend so much time on the gruesome and the cruel.