Wertham wrote the influential book, Seduction of the Innocent, which claimed that the comics of the time caused juvenile delinquency.
He listed themes that supposedly ran through various popular story lines, highlighting homosexual themes (Batman and Robin), bondage (Wonder Woman) and numerous examples of what he considered to be extreme violence.
It became a best-seller and eventually led to a Congressional inquiry into the morality and effect of comic book industry on young people.
Fearing state censorship, the comics book industry imposed their own code which, for years afterwards, virtually eliminated depictions of violence, gore, most supernatural themes, or anything that might be considered to hint at sexuality.
As a side-effect, it did lead to some curious titles that were deliberately intended to be more ‘wholesome’. As we discussed previously on Mind Hacks, one of these was the ‘Psychoanalysis’ series of comics.
The New Yorker article is so interesting because it looks at a new book which suggests that Wertham was not some sort of crazed censorship-fiend, as he’s sometimes depicted, and notes that he was actually against the subsequent censorship of comics.
Despite his concerns about delinquency and homosexuality, which seem a little odd in modern light, he had other more laudable aims which seem equally as relevant today and may have been hijacked by others:
He was against the code. He did not want to censor comic books, only to restrict their sale so that kids could not buy them without a parent present. He wanted to give them the equivalent of an R rating. Bart Beaty’s “Fredric Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture” ($22, paper; University Press of Mississippi) makes a strong case for the revisionist position. As Beaty points out, Wertham was not a philistine; he was a progressive intellectual. His Harlem clinic was named for Paul Lafargue, Marx’s son-in-law. He collected modern art, helped produce an anthology of modernist writers, and opposed censorship. He believed that people’s behavior was partly determined by their environment, in this respect dissenting from orthodox Freudianism, and some of his work, on the psychological effects of segregation on African-Americans, was used in the Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education.
Wertham thought that representations make a difference—that how people see themselves and others reflected in the media affects the way they think and behave. As Beaty says, racist (particularly concerning Asians) and sexist images and remarks can be found on almost every page of crime and horror comics. What especially strikes a reader today is the fantastic proliferation of images of violence against women, almost always depicted in highly sexualized forms. If one believes that pervasive negative images of black people are harmful, why would one not believe the same thing about images of men beating, torturing, and killing women?
Interestingly, Wertham was not the only mind doctor involved in comics.
Psychologist William Moulton Marston was the creator of Wonder Woman and a lot of his personal and scientific interests appear in the stories.
He lived in a polyamorous relationship with two women (one, Elizabeth Marston, a noted psychologist herself) and was particularly interested in using blood pressure as part of lie detection technology (his ideas are still used in the polygraph test today).
Consequently, William and Elizabeth created Wonder Woman to be a strong, liberated female character who had a Lasso of Truth which would wrap itself around villains and prevent them from lying.