Comic Book Censorship Got Shaped By Faked Research
If you ask a comic fan from the 20th century to pick their ultimate comic book villain, they may quite possibly flash a wry smile and drop a name you've never heard of — Dr. Fredric Wertham. This real-life psychiatrist was the face of anti-comics for many years, thanks to his 1954 book Seduction of the Innocent, claiming a correlation between violence in comics and juvenile delinquency. His book caused consternation and a comic book witch hunt, leading to horror comics all but disappearing for the next decade. It was the Satanic Panic of the comic book world, so of course, it was all based on bullshit.
Wertham was a controversial figure because, even though his claims led to the censorship of many a comic, he was also genuinely concerned about the well-being of children and even helped prove that racial segregation was unconstitutional in a court of law, most notably in the Brown v. Board of Education case. In addition, he tricked right-wing conservatives into funding a Mental Health clinic in Harlem that was actually catering to the needs of Black U.S. citizens, especially troubled teens. Too bad, then, that the findings in his book against horror and violence in comics were based on falsified and fabricated evidence.
This all came to light in 2013 after Dr. Carol L. Tilley started researching Wertham's work simply to find correspondence he might have had with other experts in those days. What she found was way more disturbing. Wertham not only embellished numbers and made-up quotes from the mouths of the babes he was studying, but he also frequently omitted the impact of the children's environmental circumstances. Violence at home can have devastating effects on kids. But no, let's blame evil comic books.
In one part of Seduction of the Innocent, Wertham talks about "Kafka for the kiddies!" when mentioning little Edward (7), who has nightmares from reading Blue Beetle comics about a hero who changes into a beetle. Only, the character doesn't change into an insect in the comic, and in the original case notes, Wertham writes that the boy doesn't remember any nightmares. Kafkaesque, indeed.
Wertham also alleged that comics seduce kids into having "homosexual tendencies" because back in the '50s, people didn't know shit. He claimed that Wonder Woman enticed girls to become lesbians because the Amazonians lived together, and his book talks about a young man who fantasized about a gay relationship thanks to Batman and Robin. However, Wertham's original notes show it was actually two teenage boys in a relationship who told him that they simply fantasized more about characters like Tarzan and the Sub-Mariner than they did about Batman and Robin.
Wertham left no comic unturned in his quest for the preservation of children's innocence and even pointed out how sounds like "poww," "thudd" and "whapp" were markers for violence. Honestly, we're low-key jealous of how the man got to spend so much time reading all the comics, ever. Of course, his work led to public outcry, moral hysteria, and the forming of the Comics Code Authority that immediately started enforcing strict guidelines on what comics were allowed to publish. This is how we got the "good prevailing over evil" trope and bizarre characters like the Matter-Eater Lad.
To be fair, even Wertham didn't approve of the CCA's guidelines, arguing that he didn't want comics banned but that he only thought certain comics shouldn't be sold to minors. Either way, his work and whatever his motivations were caused others with their own motivations to regulate comics for years to come — proving that the whole good prevailing over evil thing is and will forever be subjective.
All of this, of course, led to underground comics and Stan Lee famously giving the finger to the CCA, so there's that.
Zanandi has a comic story coming out soon that would’ve made the CCA pretty damn mad. Follow her on Twitter.