Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

Home > Commentary and Features

Let’s You and Him Fight: Fredric Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture Day Two
posted December 13, 2005

imageThe following is a the second day in a week-long exchange of e-mail about issues raised in and around the new book Fredric Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture Day One (University Press of Mississippi, $20, paperback, 1578068193) by its author Bart Beaty and a colleague of Beaty's in comics academia, Craig Fischer.

Dr. Beaty is a member of the faculty of Communication and Culture at the University of Calgary. He is the author of the "Euro-Comics For Beginners" column at The Comics Journal and the "Conversational Euro-Comics" column here at The Comics Reporter.

Dr. Craig Fischer teaches in the English Department at Appalachian State University. He is a member of the Executive Committee of the International Comic Arts Festival, and his articles have appeared in The Comics Journal and The International Journal of Comic Art. He is currently working on a book titled Worlds Within Worlds: Storytelling in Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's Fantastic Four.

CR is pleased to host their conversation this week and hope it is a model for many more discussions in the future. For more information on the book, click through the above cover image.


Day Two

Craig Fischer to Bart Beaty

Dear Bart,

You've made my job easy. You've brought up so many provocative issues in your first-day comments that I can easily spend the rest of the week just surfing on your ideas.

Today, I'd like to talk about Wertham and EC. I like your "forest for the trees" comment, and it's worth noting that some fans agree with you. In the letters page of the long-running EC fanzine
Squa Tront #9 (2002), Landon Chesney wrote:
"As a rule, I've abstained from the debate over Wertham because, frankly, I thought EC's position was indefensible. One might almost go as far as to say, given the climate at the time, that they were asking for it. Muddled though Wertham's thinking might have been, I could understand, and share, his reservations. Heresy, perhaps, but there it is."

Squa Tront editor John Benson responded to Chesney with the following:
"Your comment about EC 'asking for it' is very similar to something that Wally Wood once said to me, to the effect that 'they knew they were going too far and were going to bring trouble down on them, but it was like they couldn't help themselves.'"

I'm no EC expert, but it seems to me that Gaines and Feldstein did "ask for it" in various ways, not only through the salacious and gory content of the comics (how the hell did they expect parents to respond to "Foul Play," anyway?) but also through stunts like the "Are You a Red Dupe?" ad. Has anyone written about the unwise choices Gaines himself made that led him to defend the cover of
Crime Suspenstories #22 in front of a congressional subcommittee?

That said, Bart, I
do think that EC fans have some cause to be angry with Wertham, and my reasoning connects with your argument about Wertham's belief that "reading is an active process and that texts are polysemic" (204). Wertham based his conclusions in Seduction of the Innocent on interviews with his patients, and he readily acknowledged that not all his interviewees interpreted the same stories in the same ways. (Bart, were there a lot of interview notes and transcripts in Wertham's papers that reveal just how different these readings could be? I'd love to hear more about them.) You also cite Amy Kiste Nyberg's reading of "The Whipping," a Crime Suspenstories tale about racism and the Ku Klux Klan, as a scholarly explication of a polysemic EC text. As Nyberg writes, the progressive social message in "The Whipping" is "conveyed by the omniscient narrator through the use of captions. But if a reader skips the captions and skims the dialogue, a much different story is told, where the racism seemingly is justified" by an attempted rape (Seal of Approval 64). And as you point out, Bart, Wertham "argued that many children read these books in unexpected ways, so that introducing a culture of racism, however satirically or ironically, in books marketed to children was fundamentally unhealthy" (204). Some subjects are inherently appropriate for kids, and others are inherently inappropriate, and EC stepped over the line.

It might seem like Wertham's position is contradictory and untenable. Is censorship or regulation justified when it might only be a small percentage of readers who interpret "The Whipping" as an
apologia for race hatred? This is, of course, where Wertham would fall back on his disease metaphor: not every child exposed to tuberculosis will contract the disease, but that doesn't make TB any less dangerous or less worthy of eradication. Ditto for media violence.

But there's polysemy and then there's polysemy. My favorite paradigm for charting the multiple ways a text (a book, a film, a comic) can be interpreted is Janet Staiger's notion of reading strategies. Bart, I'm sure you're familiar with Staiger's work, but let me take a brief detour and describe it to our readers. Staiger, a film historian and theorist, advocates what she calls an "historical materialist approach to reception studies," where scholars would collect evidence--reviews, interviews, surveys, any other pertinent stuff--to figure out the various dominant and marginalized ways audiences can "read" a film through history. (Staiger's key example is
Rear Window, which in the 1950s served as a primary illustration of Hitchcock's status as a Cahiers du cinema auteur; which in the 1970s exemplified Laura Mulvey's theory of the male gaze; and which in the 1980s was David Bordwell's textbook illustration of his neoformalist film criticism.) Staiger further argues that (a.) more than one powerful reading strategy sluices through a culture at any given moment, and (b.) an individual spectator can have competing reading strategies ringing through his/her head simultaneously, creating all kinds of jingle-jangle cognitive dissonance. As Staiger writes of one of her own jingle-jangle moments: "As a student of Hollywood cinema, I find Raiders of the Lost Ark a masterpiece of filmmaking, but as a feminist I am appalled" (Interpreting Films 96).

I've always loved Staiger's line about
Raiders because it so neatly translates to the dissonances I experience when reading underground and alternative comics: as a student of comic art, I love Robert Crumb's work, but as a feminist/homosexualist I am appalled. My aesthetic love for Crumb's crosshatching wrestles with my ideological aversion to images like Flakey Foont fondling the breasts of a headless Devil Girl. Here we return to Wertham: in Seduction, he acknowledges his patients' various readings of comic books, but he never entertains the notion that these same comics might have aesthetic value. If a patient says he or she enjoys a comic, Wertham interprets the enjoyment as unhealthy stimulation. Wertham is blind to the beauty of an Al Williamson or Harvey Kurtzman page, and as a result his analysis of these comics is less faithful to the polysemic experiences of his patients and other real-life readers than it could be.

You discuss the reasons for Wertham's aesthetic blindness in your book, Bart. One is his belief, expressed in
Seduction, that panel breakdown, word balloons, etc. teach kids faulty, erratic reading habits. (Even the most beautifully drawn comic in the world would ruin a child's ability to read meaningful prose.) Second is your own biggest problem with Wertham, his unqualified acceptance of the high art / low art distinction. Robert Warshow, in "Paul, the Horror Comics, and Dr. Wertham," at least admits to reading Mad with "a kind of irritated pleasure" (The Immediate Experience, 84), but for Wertham, comic books were by definition aesthetic wipeouts.

So is there a contradiction between Wertham the polysemic critic and Wertham the elitist?



Bart Beaty to Craig Fischer

Hi Craig,

Though I'm an agnostic, sometimes I long to believe in Heaven and aspire to reach it simply so that I can sit down with Fredric Wertham and discuss some issues with him. Despite the fact that there are more than 200,000 pages of documents in his files at the Library of Congress (the vast majority of which I have read) and several thousand pages of published writing that is on-the-record (so to speak), I still have a lot of questions about the man and his views, and some of these questions still vex me. Some are things that most would find minor (did he vote for Henry Wallace in the 1948 Presidential election?), but a few are more substantive.

One of these would be the aesthetics of comics. I often find myself wondering: Did Wertham see no value in comics at all, or was is it merely a rhetorical ploy? It's not hard to imagine the former. Even the intellectuals who most strongly defended comics (Gilbert Seldes, for example) defended only the narrowest range of comics (Krazy Kat, um....) and there are virtually no important writers in the public sphere standing up for comic books at that time (you note Warshow, which is about as close as anyone comes). Remember, at the Hendrickson-Kefauver hearings even the comic strip creators showed up to bury the comic book industry. Milton Caniff, appearing with Walt Kelly, said that they were "attempting not to debate with Dr. Wertham, whose opinion we value very highly" but rather seeking to remind the public that newspaper strips were vetted by very responsible newspaper editors, not like crass opportunists like Bill Gaines. So, even if Wertham did see something in them, there might not have been a discursive space to say so.

That said, I don't think he saw anything in them.

One common trope in critiques of Wertham is that he went looking for stuff to find objection to. I don't buy that at all. The objectionable stuff was all brought to him. There are thousands upon thousands of pages of patient files in Wertham's papers. Much of this material is heartbreaking. Wertham's brief on behalf of a 28 year old white woman condemned to an asylum by her parents for dating a black man, for example. But in the files relating to Seduction of the Innocent, it's all there. Batman and Robin are gay? Not according to Wertham, but according to no less than three of his patients. Racism in EC comics? Not according to Wertham, but according to the participants of his "hooky club", troubled teens in group therapy sessions. One of the things that is amazing about reading Wertham's source material is that there is an argument to be made that he went easy on comics publishers because there was so much more damning material that he could have used. Some of this was excised by Holt-Rinehart's lawyers. The deletions from Seduction were numerous, and sometimes led to a stranger book. For instance, Wertham often uses the phrase "superhero type" comic book. This is because the lawyers feared, on grounds I'm not so sure of, that "superhero comic book" was actionable. And, of course, most of the largest comic book publishers of the day had already threatened lawsuits before the book was even published, so they had good reason to fear.

One of the interesting things about Wertham's approach, particularly in light of Staiger's research, is the fact that these jingle-jangles are exactly what he was getting at in his sessions. Wertham and his associates were seeking to help their patients work through anxieties and other psychological issues, and would discuss, at great length, the way that the patients interpreted various media. Because the patients would sometimes arrive with the comics in hand, some of the discussions were extremely specific. Wertham and his assistants could literally walk through a comic book story with a patient panel by panel, inquiring about the patient's reaction to the work and the psychological issues that it raised, where, if they were discussing film or a radio show, it would be based more on recollection. In this way, comics provided a good tool for analysis.

So, Wertham didn't just wake up one day and say "Hmm, I think I'll investigate comic books". Rather, the material was brought to him by his patients, and it grew naturally from those encounters. The conclusions stem from close observation. When Wertham argues that comics lead to a poor form of reading, that's because he followed along with young readers and was able to see the phenomenon with his own eyes.

Of course, this brings us to the key issue of censorship. I'm pretty emphatic in the book that I don't see Wertham as a censor. Yesterday I said he was a man out-of-time, but he was really ahead of his time insofar as his suggestion of age-appropriate ratings is now widely seen as a good thing. Wertham specifically opposed the Comics Code and called for a law which would have banned the sale and display of comics to any child under fifteen. If, as EC claims, their comics were for adult readers, they might have welcomed such a suggestion. But, of course, they weren't, and they didn't. Still, under Wertham's suggestion, publishers could have done whatever they wanted - except sell to young kids. It would have created a situation very similar to the NC-17 rating for contemporary American movies. Could the industry have survived like that? Probably not. Is it censorship? I'm not convinced that it is.

My take on the question is probably rooted in my own upbringing in Canada. Canada, which has a far more collective sense of shared rights and obligations than the United States (which, in a nutshell, is why your county has handguns and mine has health care) puts constitutional limits on free expression. That is, we have a constitutional guarantee of free expression, but that guarantee is secondary to other provisions regarding the health of the nation. I am a strong supporter of Canada's version of free expression, and I am strongly critical of the American first amendment, which I think is overly conservative and individualistic. Wertham should have been a Canadian. Anyway, the version of free expression that I favor (and I'm pretty close to Stanley Fish on this subject) is one that places these questions in the political realm. Wertham's position is a little under-nuanced for me, but I'm also not a free speech absolutist, which is a position that I find less appealing than Wertham's. I'll get mail calling me on the carpet for this paragraph, just as I'm sure you're already getting mail for going too easy on me!

You suggest, and I think that many will side with you, that Wertham's position was contradictory and untenable. Wertham's response would be: School segregation did not cause psychological harm to all American blacks, nor was it the sole cause of the problems that many did face. But it was still right to end the practice. Smoking does not cause all smokers to develop lung cancer, but it is still right to act towards ending the process. Racist, sexist, and violent media do not alone cause racism, sexism and violence in our culture, but isn't it still worthwhile to work to minimize their influence?

Like Janet Staiger, I believe things that are contradictory. On the one hand, I believe that the things we read, watch, hear are important (indeed, are worthy of study) because communication shapes the world in which we live. On the other hand, I believe (like Staiger) that people understand different texts in different ways. The first conclusion leads me to believe that citizens need to be actively involved with media to help shape the world in which they live. The second leads me to bear in mind the fact that there is no one-size-fits-all solutions to questions like these, which is why I like the idea of maintaining free speech as an actively debated issue. Wertham's solution, by the way, seems to me to be an attempt to bridge this divide. As he himself told Congress: "You see, if a father wants to go to a store and says, "I have a little boy of seven. He doesn't know how to rape a girl; he doesn't know how to rob a store. Please sell me one of the comic books," let the man sell him one, but I don't think the boy should be able to go see this rape on the cover and buy the comic book." I think that's just about the best line Wertham ever wrote, by the way.

As for whether EC asked for it, I really think that they were delusional about their audience. They heard from some G.I.s and thought that a their audience was significantly adult. Maybe it was, but they were still targeting an audience of six-year-olds, and very little of that material was suitable for that audience. In March 1948, Wertham hosted a conference on The Psychopathology of Comic Books. The papers were published, but the discussion exists only in notes taken by one of Wertham's associates. Harvey Kurtzman was there and seemed to argue that EC had gone too far, but that there were good comics out there (presumably by Kurtzman!). But I'd hate to come to a strong conclusion based on some point form notes from almost sixty years ago. Certainly by the time of the hearings, they had gone well over the edge. And to respond to your question: The criticisms of Gaines from within comics are very mild and sympathetic to him, and most people accept his "I was hopped up on bennies" excuse-making.

Incidentally, I hope Wertham voted for Wallace, who was the last American Presidential candidate I would have felt good about supporting.


.(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

Day One
Day Three
Day Four (Today)