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March 20: “Seduction of the Innocent”

March 19, 2016

Approved_by_the_Comics_Code_AuthorityPsychiatrist Fredric Wertham (Wertheimer), whose 1954 book, Seduction of the Innocent, sparked a U.S. Congressional inquiry into comic books’ impact on the moral fibre of American youth, was born in Germany on this date in 1895. Wertham, who had corresponded and visited with Sigmund Freud, came to America in 1922 to work at the Phipps Psychiatric Clinic at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. In 1932 he moved to Bellevue in New York, where all convicted state felons received a psychiatric examination. In 1946, Wertham opened the Lafargue Clinic in a Harlem church basement. Soon after he began the cultural analysis of mass media that would make his reputation. Yet his more important work included writings about the effects of racial segregation, which were used as evidence in the Supreme Court Brown v. Board of Education desegregation case, and an early investigation of doctors’ role in the Holocaust, which resulted in his 1966 book, A Sign for Cain. Wertham appeared as an expert witness before Estes Kefauver’s Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency in 1954, for which he testified that comic books were a major cause of juvenile delinquency and sexual “deviation,” and called for restrictions on the sale of comics to anyone under 15. The committee also grilled William Gaines, the publisher of EC Comics, which were particularly graphic (EC was soon publishing MAD), as though he were a major mobster. To forestall any censoring legislation, the comic industry adopted the Comics Code, which banned graphic depictions of violence and gore as well as sexual innuendo. The code drove numerous publishers out of business and shaped the classic superhero storyline in which the good guy always wins. It endured until 2011.

“For Wertham, even the most beloved comic-book heroes were suspect: Superman reminded him of Nazi Germany’s SS (a cadre of self-styled supermen), the adventures of Batman and Robin had homoerotic overtones, and Wonder Woman threatened to turn healthy young girls into lesbians. At the time Wertham made his attack on comics, the medium was at the height of its popularity, selling between 80 million and 100 million copies every week in scores of genres...” —Jeet Heer, Slate