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Scholar Finds Flaws in Work by Archenemy of Comics

February 20, 2013 By DAVE ITZKOFF

For all the colorful adversaries that comic books have yielded, perhaps no figure in the history of that industry is as vilified as Dr. Fredric Wertham.

Wertham, a German-born American psychiatrist, stirred a national furor and helped create a blueprint for contemporary cultural panics in 1954 with the publication of his book “Seduction of the Innocent,” which attacked comic books for corrupting the minds of young readers.

While the findings of Wertham (who died in 1981) have long been questioned by the comics industry and its advocates, a recent study of the materials he used to write “Seduction of the Innocent” suggests that Wertham misrepresented his research and falsified his results.

Carol L. Tilley, an assistant professor at the University of Illinois’s Graduate School of Library and Information Science, reviewed Wertham’s papers, housed in the Library of Congress, starting at the end of 2010, shortly after they were made available to the public.

In a new article in Information & Culture: A Journal of History, Dr. Tilley offers numerous examples in which she says Wertham “manipulated, overstated, compromised and fabricated evidence,” particularly in the interviews he conducted with his young subjects.

Drawing from his own clinical research and pointed interpretations of comic-book story lines, Wertham argued in the book that comics were harming American children, leading them to juvenile delinquency and to lives of violence, drugs and crime.

“Seduction of the Innocent” was released to a public already teeming with anti-comics sentiment, and Wertham was embraced by millions of citizens who feared for America’s moral sanctity; he even testified in televised hearings.

Yet according to Dr. Tilley, he may have exaggerated the number of youths he worked with at the low-cost mental-health clinic he established in Harlem, who might have totaled in the hundreds instead of the “many thousands” he claimed. Dr. Tilley said he misstated their ages, combined quotations taken from many children to appear as if they came from one speaker and attributed remarks said by a single speaker to larger groups.

Other examples show how Wertham omitted extenuating circumstances in the lives of his patients, who often came from families marred by violence and substance abuse, or invented details outright.

In “Seduction of the Innocent” Wertham discusses a 7-year-old boy, Edward, who he says has been having nightmares after reading Blue Beetle comics, about a hero who supposedly “changes into a beetle.” (“Kafka for the kiddies!” Wertham wrote.)

But, according to Dr. Tilley’s research, Wertham wrote in his original case notes on Edward, “Boy says he does not remember anything about the nightmares.” And the Blue Beetle character does not transform into an insect in the comic.

Elsewhere in the book Wertham argues that the superheroes Batman and Robin represent “a wish dream of two homosexuals living together,” and cited a young gay man who says that he put himself “in the position of Robin” and “did want to have relations with Batman.”

But in Wertham’s original notes, Dr. Tilley writes, these quotations actually come from two young men, ages 16 and 17, who were in a sexual relationship with each other, and who told Wertham they were more likely to fantasize about heroes like Tarzan or the Sub-Mariner, rather than Batman and Robin.

Dr. Tilley said in a telephone interview that she had initially reviewed Wertham’s papers looking for correspondence he might have had with educators and librarians of his day.

While Wertham has been criticized for decades by scholars and authors who say he vastly overstated the connection between comic books and criminal behavior, Dr. Tilley said, “I don’t want to join the people who are trying to heap him onto some bonfire of how awful he was.”

Still, she said she was concerned to see Wertham getting “carried away with his own preconceptions, his own agenda, that became perhaps disconnected from the kids that he was treating and observing.”

Michael Chabon, who researched the early history of comics for his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” said that while Wertham had been viewed as “this almost McCarthyite witch hunter,” he was actually “an extremely well-intentioned liberal, progressive man in many ways,” providing mental health services to minorities and the poor.

But of “Seduction of the Innocent,” Mr. Chabon said: “You read the book, it just smells wrong. It’s clear he got completely carried away with his obsession, in an almost Ahab-like way.”

Wertham’s influence was indisputable. Comic magazines that focused on horror, crime or shock and suspense stories were shut down by the dozens. An industry trade group, the Comics Magazine Association of America, and its regulatory body, the Comics Code Authority, were established to enforce strict guidelines of morality, decency and good prevailing over evil.

This code held sway for decades, intimidating writers and illustrators and making them ashamed of their own work.

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