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April 23, 2008

CR Review Special: Bart Beaty On David Hajdu’s The Ten-Cent Plague, Part Two


By Bart Beaty

In an almost every way, David Hajdu's The Ten-Cent Plague is a simple morality tale. In his story, the hero, William Gaines, acting on behalf of noble comic book artists everywhere, is tragically laid low by a cabal of politicians and blue-nosed book-burners and moral crusaders, embodied by Dr. Fredric Wertham, whom Hajdu terms "the face" of the anti-comics movement. It's a simple legend, with the main players assigned their key roles. But is it true?

One thing that I'm happy to see come out of the discussion of Hajdu's recent book is a fairly wide acknowledgement that Wertham was not the villain that he is so often caricatured as. When I started researching Wertham in 1996 as the subject of my dissertation (published in 2005 as Fredric Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture), having not yet read most of his work, my image of him was extremely negative. By the time I'd finished reading his many books, and several hundred articles, I realized that he was a far better human being than I am. Today, that reality is becoming more widely known.

Sadly, Hajdu's book falls back on all the stereotypes of Wertham as a self-promoting menace. Hajdu even goes so far as to caricature his speaking style (which at least has some novelty).

During the course of his career Wertham established or re-organized three major psychiatric wards. He ran not one but two volunteer clinics in his evening hours. He worked diligently for civil rights, and his testimony was central to the Supreme Court's decision to desegregate American schools. He stood up for important, if unpopular, values -- against racism and violence, against the death penalty, for the Rosenbergs -- at a time when others remained silent. History has vindicated his principles on these, and other, important issues, yet he is still frequently vilified today. "Yes, yes," his critics say, "He was a great liberal and social reformer during a time of conservative values, but he criticized comic books -- and for that we can't stand him".

Fair enough. Those who value comic books more highly than civil rights can persist in their lopsided worldview. Those who see them in their proper relation can admit a more nuanced view, as Hajdu does in the best moments of his book.

But still, the old myths are powerful myths. The image that Hajdu paints in his book is of a hapless little cottage industry beset by outside forces. It would be a lovely notion were it not for the power wielded by comic books and newsstand distributors at that time. Wertham, whose 'powerful friends' were to be found running a free clinic in Harlem, took on an enormously wealthy industry long-rumored to be connected to organized crime. It's not a coincidence that the Senate committee spent the third day of their investigation on issues of distribution and the 'pressures' brought to bear on magazine dealers to stock magazines that they might otherwise opt not to. Sadly, aside from the occasional passing reference to the garment industry, this is not a line that Hajdu chooses to investigate.

Yet the pressure brought on Wertham by the comics industry was immense. Virtually every major player in the industry threatened to sue Holt-Rinehart before Seduction of the Innocent was published. A signed promotion with the Book-of-the-Month Club was mysteriously canceled. No paperback edition, which would have been distributed to newsstands, was ever produced. Wertham and his colleagues repeatedly reported to the police that they were followed from the Lafargue Clinic by mysterious and threatening men. And, in a bizarre reversal worthy of the history of the cigarette industry, it is Wertham that is painted the villain?

Well, sure, I suppose so. After all, one can still find fault with his findings or his methods. Hajdu is extremely critical of Wertham's methods, insinuating at one point that they are confused, and at others that they are not scientific. If one doesn't believe that psychiatry is a valid method and that nothing is to be learned from it, well, I suppose that is a point-of-view. Fortunately, it is one that is not widely shared. Hajdu, and others, suggest that Wertham had no "control group," and that he should have conducted experiments more in keeping with the behavioral science methodologies that came into fashion in the decade after he published Seduction and of which he was highly critical.

The suggestion is that Wertham simply treated delinquent children, and therefore saw all children as delinquent. Nothing could be further from the truth. Wertham was, first of all, not a child psychiatrist by specialty, although children were part (and only part) of his volunteer practice. Second, Wertham saw all kinds of children for all sorts of reasons, ranging from chronic school absentees to children who needed a doctor's note to qualify for college scholarships.

The suggestion that Wertham dealt predominantly with delinquents is tied to the bigger lie about his work, one that Hajdu makes on a number of occasions: That Wertham argued comics "caused" delinquency. This is the straw man that critics build in place of actually dealing with what Wertham said. It's an easy argument to refute. Wertham says comics cause children to become delinquent. Not all children are delinquent. Therefore, Wertham is wrong. QED. Hajdu, who puts the word "cause" in Wertham's mouth on pages 6, 98 and elsewhere plays this game himself. Unfortunately, it's a fabrication.

Here's Wertham from three different sources in 1954 alone: "Of course there are other evil influences to which we expose children" (Wilson Library Bulletin); "Crime comics are certainly not the only factor, nor in many cases are they even the most important one, but there can be no doubt that they are the most unnecessary and least excusable one" (Seduction). "Juvenile delinquency has only one cause: adults. We adults sow the seeds of delinquent behavior" (Cincinnati Enquirer).

imageWertham is exceptionally clear on this. As early as page 10 of Seduction, he states his belief that comics are but one of a "constellation of many factors" and a "contributing factor" in delinquency. Further, he is clear to point out that, just as not everyone who is exposed to tubercle bacilli will not develop tuberculosis, not everyone who reads comics will become delinquent. But apparently that's not clear enough for Hajdu.

On page 101 of his book, Hajdu deliberately misquotes Wertham to misrepresent his argument. Hajdu has Wertham say: "We found that comic-book reading was a distinct influencing factor in the case of every single delinquent or disturbed child we studied". That sounds pretty damning. But what Wertham actually said, in Judith Crist's article, was presaged by this qualifying sentence: "We do not maintain that comic books automatically cause delinquency in every child reader," Dr Wertham explains, "But we found that..." A world of difference.

It's funny to me that Wertham, who Hajdu finds unscientific, shoddy and biased, is attacked not for what he said, but for what he explicitly did not say. He is held up for ridicule for reporting the obvious -- that, for example, there is a subtext in the relationship between Batman and Robin that can be read as homoerotic. And that is attached to suggestions that his method is questionable and lacking verifiable data.

It is true that Wertham's work often suffered from the fact that he was a psychiatrist and that he respected the confidentiality of his patients. I have read Wertham's notes where his gay teen-aged patients talk about Batman and Robin (and Tarzan), and I even know their names. Ethically, Wertham could not, and did not, reveal the details of their situation and violate the confidentiality of his patients. Sadly, it is precisely that scrupulous attention to ethical behavior that allows him to be castigated by many as a fabricator of ideas, and derided as the boogeyman.

It's an easy argument because, as I will suggest tomorrow, comics need boogeymen since it is always simpler to blame the outsider for one's own failings than face the truth that is right in front of you.
posted 11:00 am PST | Permalink

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