“Wertham was right.” For a couple of years now I have been making that joke among my comics-reading friends. For those you who don’t know, Frederic Wertham was a psychologist and author of the infamous anti-comic book book Seduction of the Innocent back in 1954. While his testimony at United States Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency hearings that same year did not lead to any direct laws restricting comic sales, the resulting public pressure was sufficient to lead to the industry-adopted comics code. (For an even-handed exploration of this history and related issues check out Amy Kiste-Nyberg’s excellent book Seal of Approval (1998).
Here is the thing, Wertham is a pretty reviled figure in the comics world, but I am not sure he should be. I most often say “Wertham was right” as a joke (like when people start trying to act like real-life superheroes or Mark Millar makes a “joke” about a 22-page Wonder Woman rape epic), but having thought (and written) about Wertham and his influence on my beloved form of media quite a bit, I have concluded that Wertham was right about all the things he wasn’t really wrong about.
And yes, he was wrong about a lot of things: Comic books don’t cause juvenile delinquency (at a time where 90% of kids read comics it just makes sense that a large number of “delinquents” would be reading them, too). Homosexuality is not a mental disorder. Nor do comics “encourage” it (in fact, identification with superheroes through their queering is probably a healthy outlet in a world of limited options for representation for gay youth). Comic-reading does not lead to illiteracy or poor eyesight. And so on and so on. . .
But where he was most wrong was in insistence that the medium itself was without value—that by their very nature comic books were simplistic, going as far as to say, “I have never come across any adult or adolescent who had outgrown comic-book reading who would ever dream of keeping any of these ‘books’ for any sentimental or other reason.” A laughable conclusion in the face of the aging demographic of comic readers and the centrality of comics as a material artifact of collection.
And yet, Wertham was right in so many ways. Leaving aside all his laudable accomplishments and efforts outside of comics, his founding of the LaFargue Clinic in Harlem, studies into the effects of segregation (used as evidence in Brown v. Board of Education), his concern with violence and children, all of which clearly were not only right, but ahead of his time, his critique of comics was spot on from a perspective of reflecting and reinforcing problematic aspects of the culture. All the troubling tropes he pinpoints about violence, race and gender representation, fascistic underpinnings and consumer predation were there and to varying degrees are still there.
The question to me is not if comics should be censored because of this—I am against censorship of all kinds—but how do we develop a dialogue about their presence? Strong arguments have been made that rather than protect kids from comics, the comics code just made sure that there would always be childish approaches to all content found in their pages, questionable or not. For example, one of the reasons that Wertham hated the code was because its prohibition against the depiction of blood just reinforced the idea of violence without consequences. Furthermore, the code insured that comics and children would always be bound together in the minds of the public, when there is nothing about the medium itself that should make it so. However, it is never that simple, as good things can still arise from cases where people are wrong.
As I argued in my paper, “Kindle a Light of Meaning: The Discursivity of Censorship in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen,” through addressing and engaging with the very troubling tropes that Wertham objected to and the Code sought to mitigate, Watchmen elevates the medium and the specific genre, while critiquing that genre. As Judith Butler writes in her seminal work, Excitable Speech “[T]he very terms of resistance and insurgency are spawned in part by the powers they oppose.” In other words, the comics code provided a blueprint of what censures to violate by the very act of censuring them.
Unfortunately, this also means that all the extreme hyperviolent racist and sexist crap that emerged post-Watchmen had that same blueprint, confusing the content with the form, creators and readers thinking they were breaking new ground by pushing those violations to absurd extremes.
So while I am not a fan of Wertham’s desire to censor comics, I can appreciate the cultural criticism that informed his position (in no small part Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment and other Frankfurt School thinkers – in fact, my new joke should not be “Wertham was right,” but rather “Wertham was left“). I think that willingness to criticize is crucial to being an informed, engaged and critical participant in mass culture. Furthermore, I can also appreciate the positive influence of such attempts to censor in pushing creators to “aggressively reappropriate” (to use Butler’s term) those problematic aspects in order to prove that the fundamental problem with both Wertham and the comic companies of the 50s and beyond, was the assumption that comics are just for kids.
So if comics are increasingly for adults, let’s talk about them that way. . .