CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Behavioral problems among teenagers and preteens can be blamed on the violence, sex and gore portrayed in the media marketed to them – that was the topic of televised public hearings held by the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency in 1954 to address the scourge of comic books. The hearings, which resulted in the decimation of what was an enormous comic book industry, had been inspired in large part by the book “Seduction of the Innocent,” by psychiatrist Fredric Wertham, based on his own case studies.
Wertham’s personal archives, however, show that the doctor revised children’s ages, distorted their quotes, omitted other causal factors and in general “played fast and loose with the data he gathered on comics,” according to an article by Carol Tilley, published in a recent issue of Information and Culture: A Journal of History.
“Lots of people have suspected for years that Wertham fudged his so-called clinical evidence in arguing against comics, but there’s been no proof,” Tilley said. “My research is the first definitive indication that he misrepresented and altered children’s own words about comics.”
Wertham died in 1981. His archives, at the Library of Congress, weren’t made widely available to researchers until the spring of 2010. Within a few months, Tilley, who teaches media literacy, youth services librarianship and a readers’ advisory course on comics at the University of Illinois Graduate School of Library and Information Science, was digging through the dozens of boxes of “Seduction” files.
“From a contemporary standpoint, ‘Seduction’ is horribly written because it’s not documented,” she said. “There are no citations, no bibliography. He quotes a lot of people, refers to lots of things, but there’s no really good way of knowing what his basis is for any of this.”
She initially went in search of letters from librarians complaining about comics, alluded to in his book, but found only a few. “If I’m being generous, there were maybe a dozen letters from librarians in all those boxes,” Tilley said. “So there is a little bit of that, but not the multitude of librarians he seemed to indicate had written to him.”
As she pored over his files, she began to recognize the case notes of children referred to in “Seduction,” and typing their quotes into her laptop computer. But when she returned to her hotel room and compared her notes to Wertham’s book, she found numerous inconsistencies. “I thought well maybe I’ve missed something, maybe I typed incorrectly,” Tilley said. So she began photocopying portions of Wertham’s files and comparing them closely to his book. “That’s when I realized the extent of the changes.”
For example, in “Seduction,” Wertham links “Batman” comic books to the case of a 13-year-old boy on probation and receiving counseling for sexual abuse of another boy: “Like many other homo-erotically inclined children, he was a special devotee of Batman: ‘Sometimes I read them over and over again. … It could be that Batman did something with Robin like I did with the younger boy.’ ”
What Tilley found in Wertham’s notes, however, was that the boy preferred “Superman,” “Crime Does Not Pay” and “war comics” over “Batman,” and that he had previously been sexually assaulted by the other boy – all information that Wertham left out.
He had an extensive case file on a 15-year-old boy named Carlisle, whom he was counseling for truancy, petty thievery and gang membership. Carlisle brought three comic books to one counseling session, and the transcript in Wertham’s file shows that Carlisle said one of the comic books, called “Crime Must Pay the Penalty,” was instructive on ways to commit burglaries and holdups. However, in “Seduction,” Carlisle’s quotes appear to come from five different boys, ranging in age from 13 to 15, in different settings and contexts.
And Tilley found one quote from Carlisle’s transcripts that Wertham chose not to use, in which the boy described learning about robbery “in the movies. Movies help a lot.”
Tilley’s article also cites the case of Dorothy, a 13-year-old whose chronic truancy Wertham ascribed to her admiration for the comic book heroine Sheena and “crime comics,” omitting any mention of other factors listed in her case notes, such as her low intelligence, her reading disability, her gang membership, her sexual activity and her status as a runaway. Wertham also didn’t reveal that he never personally met or observed Dorothy; she was the patient of his associate, Dr. Hilde Mosse.
“He does take some things verbatim from the transcript,” Tilley said, “but then he also would take things from different days, from different parts of a transcript, reorganize them, omit words, make small changes that, in effect, change the kids’ arguments or change their viewpoints. He did this in so many instances that it’s hard to overlook.”
Despite these problems, “Seduction” was critically acclaimed when it was published in 1954. The New York Times called it “a most commendable use of the professional mind in the service of the public,” and the National Education Association selected it as book of the year, according to Tilley’s article.
Wertham was not the only critic of comics. As early as the 1940s, educators, juvenile court judges, librarians and literary critics had been railing against the cheap books that were collected, read and traded obsessively among kids. Yet this colorful visual medium also was adopted by business and government. Tilley said she has found examples of the steel industry, the rail industry and corporations such as General Electric using comic books; the U.S. Army hired famed comic book artist Will Eisner to create a series of comics called Joe Dope, demonstrating equipment repair and maintenance.
“For a couple of years, 1950 and ’51, the state of Louisiana put out its annual report as a comic book,” Tilley said. “People recognized that comics were powerful. It wasn’t just kids reading them; grown-ups were reading them too. There was something to be said for that combination of text and image that could be a powerful communication tool.”
She has found sales figures showing that, in 1953, there were 6.5 comic books sold for every person in the U.S., and most books were swapped, resold and reread. “Market surveys indicated that more than 90 percent of children and more than 80 percent of teens in the United States read comics, often avidly,” according to Tilley’s article.
The major consumers, after kids, were military men, Tilley said. In the late 1940s, comic book publishers began creating new storylines designed to appeal to young men returning from World War II. With no rating system, and with a well-established tradition of trading, comic books depicting crime, violence and sex were readily available to youngsters, much to the dismay of some adults.
“Women’s groups, teachers’ groups – all sorts of civic and professional organizations – were lobbying against comics,” Tilley said. “Everybody from juvenile judges to pharmacists to the national PTA – they all felt that comics had become debauched and were leading kids to lives of ruin and depravity.
“And Wertham’s book wasn’t the only reason, but it certainly was influential,” Tilley said. “He was the loudest and most prominent critic of comics at that time.”
Her research turned up a few other surprises: about 30 letters written to Wertham and another 200 or so sent to the Senate subcommittee by children trying to save their access to comic books. Other researchers have mentioned the missives sent to the subcommittee, but Tilley decided the young writers’ arguments deserved more attention. “Some of them talked about fairy tales and folk tales, Poe and Shakespeare, and said this stuff has murder and sex and traumatic events too, but you call that good literature,” Tilley said. She is in the process of locating as many of these letter-writers as she can find, for her research on how kids related to comics over time. “For most of them, my contact is the first acknowledgement they’ve had in 60 years that anybody read their letter.”
The Young Adult Library Services Association jury selected Tilley to present her research at the 2013 ALA Midwinter Meeting in January. Although it’s formally titled “Comics: A Once-Missed Opportunity,” Tilley calls her talk “How Libraries Screwed Up.” The paper will be published in a future issue of the Journal of Research on Libraries and Young Adults.