Cultural warrior Wertham

The Village Voice has an extensive profile Dr. Fredric Wertham, the German-born American psychiatrist who played an enormous role in a feverish morality campaign against comic books that eventually crippled the industry and killed jobs for lots of people. Wertham “was after more than notoriety even as he achieved infamy,” writes the Voice‘s R.C. Baker, whose researched piece includes an in-depth look at the doctor’s since discredited 1954 bookSeduction of the Innocent, as well as the Senate subcommittee hearings on the purported link between comics and juvenile delinquency.

Baker explores Wertham’s motives in his article, sharing absolute “howlers” from Seduction, while citing its very valid warnings about racist writing in comics back then as well as what were in some books irresponsible and blatantly bigoted depictions of people of color. (“He wasn’t wrong on this point,” wrote Jeet Heer for Slate in 2008.) I liked Baker’s notes on how off-base Wertham was in his attempt to dismiss comics as an art form:

Wertham’s anecdotes do evince a real concern for children’s welfare, but at heart he is more a cultural warrior. A product of some of Europe’s finest universities, he simply cannot stomach this audacious new art form. “By no stretch of critical standards can the text in crime comics qualify as literature, or their drawings as art,” Wertham railed, calling them “an inartistic assembly-line product…. Even if the drawings were good, which they are not, their numbers would kill their artistic effect.” Perhaps he was unaware of art critic Clement Greenberg’s dictum, “All profoundly original art looks ugly at first.” It’s certainly the case that Bob Kane’s Batman drawings feel absurdly stiff compared to the flowing figuration of classic European art, but the young Bronx-born artist was creating something else entirely. The black chevrons of Batman’s cape bisecting a flat yellow moon; the bold, contorted stripes of a flailing gunsel’s suit; the vertiginous perspectives of rooftop battles amid dark urban grids; the contrasting color blocks necessitated by cheap printing—all these add up to something new, a gothic cubism, a New York dynamism.

fredric wertham comics village voiceThe whole thing is worth a look, and I wish the Voice had remained in print at least for a few more weeks so this would make for easier reading. Print is my preferred medium for longform stuff (and in general!).

Earlier this year, my feature-length review of two newish archival collections of banned horror comics ran at Hyperallergic. I wrote about Wertham’s ideas, of course, but the larger focus was on those particularly violent and graphic early 1950s-era pulp anthology comics and the broader effort to keep comics out of the hands of kids back then. Before the doctor’s books and articles were even pinned to the fight, there had already been a concerted American effort to yank comics from newsstands. A national panic had materialized, and for what? What kind of monster would deprive kids of this good old fashioned fun, anyway?

Images: Chamber of Chills (Harvey Comics, 1953). Black Magic (Prize Comics Group, 1951).