Jason Feifer: This is Pessimists Archive, a history show about why people resist new things. I’m Jason Feifer.
In the 1940s, there was a magazine called The Natural Herald, and it was easily the most wholesome nudie mag you’ve ever seen. It described itself as, “An educational publication teaching the spiritual, moral, and practical benefits obtained by living in harmony with God and nature through local nudism.” Its pages contained, well, basically that.
Carol Tilley: They’re really fascinating. They’re just these sort of everyday, black-and-white photos of people without clothes on doing stuff.
Jason Feifer: That’s Carol Tilley, an Associate Professor in the School of Information Sciences at the University of Illinois. The Natural Herald may have been hilariously wholesome by our standards today, but in the 1940s, it was obscenity! But how much of an obscenity was it? Was it too obscene to say, be sent through the mail? That was the question the US Postal Service was wrestling with in 1947. And so it decided to hold a public hearing on the matter.
The publisher of The Natural Herald would be dragged in front of a panel, presumably while wearing clothing, and be grilled about his publication. And to defend himself, the publisher brought a witness to testify on his behalf. It was a witness named Fredric Wertham. A German psychologist who had written some books that were well-received by other psychologists, but was otherwise unknown to the general public. And that was about to change.
Carol Tilley: In the midst of this otherwise normal-ish testimony, he pulls out a bunch of comic books and starts talking about how the comics are so much more offensive, so much more problematic, than anything that could be found in this nudist magazine.
Jason Feifer: The comic book industry wouldn’t know it yet, but this was the moment when everything began to change. Right here, right now, 1947, at this hearing over the tamest nudie magazine in the world, this sets the stage for an assault on comic books that would last more than 60 years. Now, to be clear, Wertham wasn’t the first guy to criticize comic books. Many had done it before him. Here’s, for example, a 1940 article by a critic named Sterling North in the Chicago Daily News:
Voice Clip (Chi…: Badly drawn, badly written, and badly printed. A strain on young eyes and young nervous systems. The effects of these pulp paper nightmares is that of a violent stimulant.
Jason Feifer: Soon, comic books would be blamed for turning children into addicts, or worse, into murderers. For example, here’s the start of a 1948 Associated Press Story:
Voice Clip (Ass…: A jury of seven women and five men was selected today to try a pudgy, 14-year-old comic book fan on the charge of murdering a little girl.
Jason Feifer: People would gather comic books into piles and burn them. The US Senate would hold hearings about their danger. States would ban them. People worried that comic books would make their children dumber, distort their understanding of reality, and even undermine their commitment to American democracy. And what exactly was in these books?
Well, in 1944, a guy named Gabriel Lynn claimed to have read 92 comic books and more than 1,000 newspaper comic strips and here are the horrors that he counted:
Voice Clip (Gab…: 194 with gross grammatical abuses. 362 with manufactured words. And 161 showing physical monstrosities. 204 with fantastic situations or actions clearly divorced from any reasonable resemblance to reality, such as men growing 20 pairs of arms and hands and a dozen heads. And 246 with un-American vigilante activities.
Jason Feifer: So yes, lots of people had gotten in on the attacks on comic books. But that German psychologist, Fredric Wertham, became the man most famous for it. He was the man that lent the anti-comics movement its greatest authority, and who wrote the book that would become the movement’s rallying cry. He was the man who became the government’s star witness against comics and whose influence would be felt for generations. And, I have to admit something to you, I was very prepared to hate Fredric Wertham. I was prepared to see him as a finger-wagging moralist, just some guy who conned his way into the halls of power by stirring up people’s fears. But he was more complicated than that.
Unlike a lot of pessimists we cover on this show, it doesn’t seem like Wertham was just a blind reactionary. It doesn’t look like he was simply out to grab his 30 seconds of fame. He deeply, truly believe that comic books were bad. And he had very personal and considered reasons for believing so. And that’s what makes him such a compelling figure. If you can understand him enough, you just might even sympathize with him.
And so on this episode, we’re not just going to gloss over the usual chorus of pessimists who go, “No, no, no, no.” Today, we’re going to take a critical look at one particular pessimist, and ask a question that is very well worth asking: What are we to do with people who earnestly try to do what’s right, but are ultimately so wrong?
It’s Fredric Wertham verus the comic book, and it’s coming up right after this break.
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Jason Feifer: All right, we’re back. So before we get to Fredric Wertham, let’s understand where comic books came from in the first place. And the answer is, they began as newspaper comic strips. There’s a strip called The Adventures of Mr. Obadiah Oldbuck, which started in 1827 in Europe and eventually came over to the US. And it is generally credited as the first comic strip and comic book. It had a three-panel format that you’ll still find today in, like, Garfield. But the strip itself was so much weirder than a cat eating pasta. I mean, okay, let me take you through one of them so you can appreciate what was going on here.
So, all right. Imagine it: A three-panel comic strip. We start with panel one, which introduces us to Mr. Oldbuck. He’s an old man, big nose, a mop of hair that makes him look like a monk, and he’s wearing one of those aristocratic man dresses from the time. He is standing upright, but his eyes are closed, and his head is slumped forward. And there is a noose around his neck. And the captions says:
Voice Clip (Mr….: Second suicide of Mr. Oldbuck. Happily, the rope is too long.
Jason Feifer: Panel two. It looks like Mr. Oldbuck was running, but he got yanked back by the noose, like the way a dog would get yanked back by its leash. And the caption says:
Voice Clip (Mr….: Eight and 20 hours afterwards, hearing the voice of his lady love in the street, Mr. Oldbuck forgets that he is hanged and nearly strangles himself.
Jason Feifer: And finally, panel three. All we see is a wooden beam that looks like it’s in midair. And the caption says:
Voice Clip (Mr….: In his haste to reach his lady love, he drags the beam after him.
Jason Feifer: And that’s the adventure of Mr. Obadiah Oldbuck. Got to love that crazy guy. Can’t even get a suicide right.
So that’s very early comics. Fast-forward a few decades, and you’ve got comics like The Yellow Kid and Hogan’s Alley. They’re still pretty rough around the edges compared to what we know now, but they’re attracting a lot of attention from parents and children. By the early 1900s, many newspapers are publishing a bunch of them in their Sunday papers. And here we have our first alarm bells. By people who worry about what this new form of entertainment will do to our children’s minds.
For example, in 1909 a group called the International Kindergarten Union got together to condemn comics. And here’s a report from the time summarizing the talk of a guy named Percival Chubb, of the Ethical Culture School of New York City:
Voice Clip (Per…: He denounced the Sunday habit, which leads to the exaltation of the trivial and the small things in life. Thus crowding out the larger view, which fosters reverence, refinement, and the graces of life. The newspaper should be kept out of the way on Sunday, in order that the home may express the right atmosphere on a day given to the contemplation of the worthy things in life. The ragtime rhythm of screaming headlines, the glorification of the smart kid in the comic supplement, and the caricature of elders all result in a decline of reverence, and in an increase in that very vulgarity which large American cities need to shun.
Jason Feifer: Percival Chubb went on to suggest that instead of comic strips, children should be given the story of Mother Goose and some, “native English poetry”. But nobody wanted that, they wanted comic strips! So the papers kept publishing them and reader surveys eventually showed that everyone, men, women, boys, and girls, they were all reading the comic pages before anything else in the paper. There was no fighting it. Comic strips, and then comic books, became a normal part of life.
A few decades went by with nobody of substance really complaining, and then Sterling North piped up in 1940 with his objections. He wrote an anti-comics piece that went viral by 1940s standards, reprinted in newspapers and distributed to groups across the country. You heard a bit of his work a minute ago. He’s the guy who called comics “a strain on young eyes and young nervous systems”. But then, a more serious strain on young nervous systems came along in the form of World War II. And people stopped paying attention to all this griping about comics. But this, the war, would serve as a pivotal moment in comics. Because at the time, there were definitely some more mature comics with risque romance, or fantasy or horror or crime. But most of what was out there was kid stuff. And then the war ended, and consumer demand shifted. Here’s comics historian Carol Tilley again:
Carol Tilley: The GIs who were returning had been avid comics readers, both comic strips and comic books. And so when they came home, they still wanted to read comics and publishers were realizing that if they were going to keep this older, sort of war-weary audience, that they needed to do something to innovate the content.
Jason Feifer: So they started publishing grittier titles full of murder and war. And to be fair, this stuff could get kind of graphic as far as comic book depictions of murder go. Like, here’s a newscaster from the 1950s describing a particular comic on a show called Confidential File:
Voice Clip (Con…: In this comic book is a love story. A boy and girl in love. They get married, and after an offensively lurid description, illustrated of course, of the couple’s wedding night, the book shows how the bride murders her husband by chopping his head off with an ax.
Jason Feifer: Well, not the best way to start a relationship. But people loved this stuff. Through the 1940s, sales of comic books climbed to 60 million each month. And they were widely available in drugstores and newsstands. And all of this started to get people’s attention again. Religious groups got upset, as did mothers’ clubs and parent-teacher associations. They worried that their children were being corrupted. But their movement, it had not focus. Nobody to crystallize and amplify it. You know what they needed? They needed a hero! They needed a hero. A larger-than-life figure. Someone who was faster than the public’s attention span, more powerful than the average critic, and able to leap from media outlet to media outlet in a single bound. And that hero would be Fredric Wertham, the German psychologist from that post office hearing about the nudie mag, the one who would go on to become the most famous opponent of comic books. He spoke to civic and professional groups, was regularly on radio and TV, and would testify in public hearings, author articles, and even host a symposium against comics. He was seen as a man of medicine, who didn’t just observe some distasteful comics, but instead understood exactly how these comics were psychologically destructive to the innocent young minds of the day. And this would ultimately end up giving him, the hero of the day, power over the comic book industry.
Whoa, sorry. I got carried away with myself, there. So, now it’s time to understand Fredric Wertham. And here’s how we’re going to do it. First, we’ll dig into what Wertham was saying. What exactly he was opposed to. Then we’ll get into understanding why he was saying it, and why people were listening. And then, finally, we’ll puzzle over just what this guy was about, and what his legacy should be. Because like I said, he was a lot more complicated than he appears. But we’ll get to all that later. For now, I’m going to begin our inquiry this way.
What were his chief complaints?
Carol Tilley: Oh, so many.
Jason Feifer: And then, Carol spent probably the better part of an hour explaining it to me. Seriously. This guy had a lot of complaints. So let me distill it for you.
To understand the full force of Wertham’s argument against comic books, I’d like to break it up into three categories. There is sex, anti-Americanism, and violence. Let’s look at sex first.
The way Wertham saw it, women in comic books played one of two roles: They were either what he called “prizes to be pushed around and sadistically abuse”, or they were super-sexy superwomen, who promoted a very concerning gender role. For example, here’s what Wertham wrote about female superheroes:
Voice Clip (Wer…: They do not work, they are not homemakers, they do not bring up a family. Mother love is entirely absent.
Jason Feifer: What are you doing out saving the world, Wonder Woman? There are dishes in the sink that need cleaning! But worse still, these superwomen weren’t just bad homemakers, they were lesbians!
Wertham became particularly obsessed with Wonder Woman, whose homosexuality he wrote was “psychologically unmistakable”. And here’s some more of what he thought about her:
Voice Clip (Wer…: She’s physically very powerful. Tortures men, has her own female following, is the cruel, phallic woman. While she is a frightening figure for boys, she is an undesirable ideal for girls, being the exact opposite of what girls are supposed to want to be.
Jason Feifer: Male superhero relationships also worried him. For example, he was convinced that Batman and Robin were just teeming with homoeroticism. And this didn’t go unnoticed by the comic book publishers. In fact, Batman’s publisher eventually introduced a character called Batwoman as a romantic interest, and Carol thinks that was in direct response to Wertham’s writing.
So that’s sex, which I have to say was a little predictable. I mean, what moral crusader doesn’t see sex everywhere, you know? Moral crusaders are literally the horniest people in history. But this next one surprised me. So number two on the list of Wertham objections: Anti-Americanism.
Carol Tilley: All of those issues of authority and power and violence, he saw superhero comics in particular as having a very fascist tinge to them.
Jason Feifer: Wertham often compared superheroes to Nazis. He saw them motivated by the same interests. And when Carol told me this I thought, huh, I’ve always seen superhero comics as the opposite of that, actually. The superhero is often the public servant, picking up after the ineptness of the state. Like, the police can’t catch the Joker, so Batman has to do it. Or the government wrongly targets anyone with superpowers, so the X-Men have to stay in hiding and then still risk their lives to save the average person. Superheroes don’t often seem to want to do this work, but they realize they’re the last available option. They’re the backup plan for when government fails.
But dig around and you’ll find that Wertham was far from the only guy saying this. In 1940, Time Magazine even ran a piece called Are Comics Fascist? The argument seems to be this: Superheroes symbolize that might equals right, and that the status quo should be protected, and that they alone can and should decide what happens for the masses. It’s a debate that still goes on today, though now it’s mostly confined to comic book geeks. I went down the rabbit hole on this, and I have to say, it is an entertaining intellectual exercise. For example, here’s part of a video from a YouTube fan page called WatchMojo, which explores the famous work of writer Frank Miller. In case you don’t know him, he’s perhaps best known for re-imagining Batman in the 1980s, transforming him from this cartoonish character into the gritty, film-noir version that we think of today. And as you know, in today’s version, Batman goes up against the Joker, and his just gang of crazy youth psychopaths.
WatchMojo: Slice and dice. The mutants, and later the Joker, have no real motive other than violence for the sake of violence. These are not youths driven to crime because of socioeconomic conditions and bad public schools. No, no. They’re evil because they’re evil, and they like it.
Then later in the story when Batman humiliates their leader, what do they do? Step in line, and become the Dark Knight’s personal army. Don’t you see? The kids are always going to act out, so you need a strong leader to show them who’s boss, and point that energy in the right direction.
Jason Feifer: Huh. I mean, when you put it that way. So, all right. That’s sex and anti-Americanism. Now, we get to the third argument against comics, which is really the most significant one. This is the one that resonated with people, and which became the rallying cry against comic books that Wertham and other rode all the way to the halls of Congress. And that concern was violence.
So far in this episode, we’ve had an actor reading lines from Wertham, but here is a recording of the man himself:
Voice Clip (Wer…: It is my opinion, without any reasonable doubt, and without any reservation, that comic books are an important contributing factor in many cases of juvenile delinquency.
Jason Feifer: Juvenile delinquency. Those were the buzzwords of the day. In the 1940s and 50s, American was starting to panic over what was called juvenile delinquency. It was this belief that young people were becoming increasingly violent. And people wanted answers. What was causing it? What was corrupting our youth? And here was Wertham, a man of science, with a clear and logical answer. He had been treating young people at his psychology practice, and drew a straight line. Violent comics create violent children. He saw it. He diagnosed it. Period.
In 1954, Wertham published a book called Seduction of the Innocent, which became the primary text for the anti-comic-book movement. If you were a parent worried about your child, this thing was like a five-alarm fire. In page after page, Wertham details the children that he had examined in his office who were all damaged in some way from comic books. For example, Wertham wrote about a seven-year-old boy named Edward, who reported having nightmares after reading a “very violent crime comic book” called Blue Beetle. And here is what Wertham wrote:
Voice Clip (Wer…: It is not difficult to understand that a child stimulated to fantasies about violent and sadistic adventures about a man who changes into an insect gets frightened. Kafka for the kiddies.
Jason Feifer: Elsewhere in the book, Wertham wrote about an eleven-year-old boy named Richard, whose mother had brought him into the office. Richard suffered from “wild imaginations”, and was roughing up the neighborhood kids in disturbing ways. He’d scratched a child in the face and mock-threatened to hang others or gouge their eyes out.
When Wertham talked to Richard, the little boy admitted to reading violent comic books. Then, in the book, Wertham quotes the boy as saying this:
Voice Clip (Ric…: If I had a younger brother, I wouldn’t want him to read the horror comic books like Weird Science, because he might get scared. I don’t think they should read Captain Marvel. Look at this one with all the pictures of the man without his head.
Jason Feifer: These seemed like pretty open-and-shut cases. You had children coming in with nightmares and violent tendencies, living otherwise normal lives except for their interaction with comic books. It was scary.
Now, here is something people did not know at the time, that they couldn’t have known at the time. But it is something that we know now. So, I want to pause our historical tale to tell you about it. Everything in that book, Seduction of the Innocent, was treated as a work of science and medicine. But Carol Tilley, who you’ve been hearing from throughout this episode, she got ahold of all Wertham’s original research documents many years after his death, and the documents told a very different story about the one that Wertham wrote in his book.
Carol Tilley: He was, in many respects, looking very intentionally for the harm caused by comics. He had ideas about the kinds of things comics would do to young readers, and he would often ask very directive questions, he would spend sometimes what seemed like ridiculously extended amounts of time talking to kids who were coming in for reasons like bedwetting, or truancy, or because they had depression or anxiety, or because they had been abused or were being abusive towards other kids. He would talk to them a lot about their comics reading. And try in some ways to connect whatever the negative experiences they were having with the comics reading.
Jason Feifer: Here’s a good example. Let’s go back to Richard, the eleven-year-old boy I was talking about. If you’ll remember, Richard’s mother had brought him in for counseling with Dr. Wertham because he was getting violent with the neighborhood kids. So, here are some things that Carol learned from Wertham’s personal files, which documented his sessions with Richard. The actual sessions.
First of all, it wasn’t Richard’s mother that brought him in, it was his stepmother. Which means there was some kind of family disruption. Also, Richard had stolen from his stepmother. He often cried. He had a scar on his cheek from a fight, and his grandmother had once attempted suicide. So. Do you think something more complicated might have been going on in Richard’s life other than reading comic books? It certainly seems possible. But none of that is included in Seduction of the Innocent.
And it goes on like that. Remember the other kid I told you about, the seven-year-old boy named Edward who suffered from nightmares because of a comic book called Blue Beetle? Carol read through Wertham’s actual files from that session as well, and Wertham wrote this: Carol Tilley: Father says he does not read that at home. He saw it at a friend’s house. Boy says that he does not remember anything about the nightmares.
Jason Feifer: But again, that’s not in the book. It didn’t fit Wertham’s narrative in which comic books give kids nightmares. So, Wertham made a little change. Just a little tweak. A boy who didn’t have nightmares suddenly had nightmares. And it goes on like that.
So all right. Now you know something that they did not know back in 1954. Now, let’s go back to 1954, the year that Wertham’s book, Seduction of the Innocent, came out. For the prior year and a half, the United States Senate Judiciary Committee had been investigating juvenile delinquency. Remember, that was the moral panic of the day. And the committee had wanted to take a look at how mass media and comic books might be impacting the kids. So it decides to hold a hearing just around the same time that Seduction of the Innocent came out. Which of course made Wertham into a star witness and made his book the most important text of the day. So, let’s go into it. Let’s visit that moment. The Senate hearing. The big show. The day comic books go on trial. And the chairman of the committee opens up the session like this:
Voice Clip (Sen…: I wish to say emphatically that freedom of the press is not at issue.
Jason Feifer: Sure. That sounds perfectly non-threatening. Continue, Senator.
Voice Clip (Sen…: We are not a subcommittee of bluenose censors.
Jason Feifer: You know, if you actually have to clarify that you’re not pro-censorship, then I don’t know, maybe … All right, all right. I will withhold judgment. Sorry, Senator, please continue.
Voice Clip (Sen…: We had no preconceived notions as to the possible need for new legislation at this point. We want to find out what damage, if any, is being done to our children’s minds by certain types of publications which contain a substantial degree of sadism, crime, and horror.
Jason Feifer: And with that colorful list of non-preconceived notions, the committee was off to the races. Now, to be fair, the hearing did make room for some pro-comic voices. Here’s my favorite from a publisher that produced horror comics:
Senate Committe…: What are we afraid of? Are we afraid of our own children? Do we forget that they are citizens, too? And entitled to the essential freedom to read? Or do we think our children so evil, so vicious, so simple-minded, that it takes but a comic magazine story of murder to set them to murder, of robbery to set them to robbery?
Jason Feifer: Amen to that, right? But the senators easily picked this guy apart. They raised up one of his comic books showing a man holding a bloody ax and a woman’s head and they were like, “Sir, is this in good taste? And here’s another, showing a man choking a woman. Is this in good taste?” It was an easy victory for the senators, who respect freedom of the press and were definitely not bluenose censors.
And this of course only heightened Wertham’s cold, sober, scientific reasoning. He’d studied these children. He saw the damage that was done. The senators trusted him. The nation trusted him. The comic book industry feared him. So here’s a bit of him at the hearing:
Voice Clip (Wer…: I would like to point out to you one other crime comic book which we have found to be particularly injurious to the ethical development of children, and those are the Superman comic books. They arouse in children fantasies of sadistic joy in seeing other people punished, other people punished over and over again. But you yourself remain immune. We call it the Superman complex.
Jason Feifer: Now, if you’re a comic book fan, of if you read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, you know what happened next. The comics industry realized it was in trouble. It seemed that some kind of regulation was genuinely possible. And so the industry decided to self-regulate. It created this thing called the Comics Code Authority, which was basically a censorship body. Publishers would submit their work to the authority, which would reject anything that didn’t meet its long list of criteria. Such as, this is just part of the list, no nudity, profanity, unsavory illustrations, no walking dead, vampires, ghouls or werewolves, criminals in comics could not be presented in sympathetic ways and always had to be punished for their misdeeds, and good always had to triumph over evil, and policemen, judges, and government officials always had to be shown to be worthy of respect and authority.
And like I said, that’s just the start.
Paul Levitz: And that was tremendously dispiriting to a lot of the creative people.
Jason Feifer: That’s Paul Levitz, a longtime comic book writer during the Comics Code, who also served as president of DC Comics.
Paul Levitz: Because of that, it weakened the quality of creative work in general.
Jason Feifer: Comics were rewritten and redrawn. Entire genres almost disappeared. Comics were a changed medium. And you might look at this and say Wertham won. Total and complete victory. He created substantial change, and the industry bent to his will. But Wertham felt differently.
Carol Tilley: He didn’t really see those things as any kind of meaningful solution.
Jason Feifer: Why not? It’s time to dig deeper into what Wertham was really up to. And that’s we’ll do right after the break.
As this episode on comic books makes damn well clear, censorship happens. It happens every day. It happens to people who host controversial art exhibitions, or leave bad reviews online. Who stand up to their local governments. And these are some of the true stories told on a new podcast that I am absolutely obsessed with. It’s called Bleeped, and it’s a new show about censorship and the people who stand up to it. And although the stories can be infuriating, they’re ultimately uplifting because each episode relives a David and Goliath tale of an individual who triumphed over censorship from a powerful organization or government, showing that if you’ve been wronged, you can fight back and win. Seriously, for anyone who believes in free speech, there is just so much to love in this show, and frankly a lot to get you fired up. So go check it out. The show again is called Bleeped, and it’s available wherever podcasts are.
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Jason Feifer: All right, we’re back. So to recap, Wertham had published a book, promoted it in front of a senate committee, and terrified the comic book industry into strict self-regulation. But he was not satisfied. And that’s because Wertham didn’t see comic books the way that even the senate committee members saw them. These people had stressed repeatedly during the hearing that they believed the troublesome comic books were just a small part of all comic books. But not Wertham. He said this;
Voice Clip (Wer…: In my opinion, crime comic books as I define them are the overwhelming majority of all comic books at the present time.
Jason Feifer: What did that mean? That meant Donald Duck slapstick and Tarzan protecting the jungle and even historical stories about the French Revolution were just too violent, according to Wertham. They were all crime comics, and crime had to be stopped. There was no room for error.
And now this sounds exhausting, right? Unreasonable. And it makes you wonder, what’s this guy up to? I mean really, if you cannot be satisfied, then what do you really want? And okay, let’s pause for a moment to really consider this, because I think it’s important in our larger understanding of Wertham. By being a public moralist who could not be satisfied, Wertham was actually playing a very common role in our recurring public dramas. He was the moral entrepreneur, no matter the time or place or issue at hand, there is always a moral entrepreneur. It’s someone who finds a way to leverage public outrage for their own benefit. And what exactly drives this kind of person? Well, as I pondered that, I thought about who the moral entrepreneurs of today are. And I would say they’re the cable television pundits. It doesn’t matter the network or political affiliation, there is an entire class of people whose jobs are to go on camera and be outraged. And I got to wondering, who are these people really? What do they want?
And as it so happens, I know a guy who knows. His name is Bill Schulz, and today he is the host of a show Mornin’ (that’s Mornin’ with an apostrophe) on Compound Media. But for seven years, he was the cohost, head writer, and producer of an after-midnight Fox News show called Red Eye, which gave him a lot of time to get to know the professional pundit class. And so I asked Bill this question I’ve been dying to know, which is this: Are people really as crazy in real life as they are on television? Like, if someone comes on TV and says it’s time to nuke an entire country, is that them? Is that really them? And Bill said no.
Bill Schulz: Polar opposite. Yeah, it’s astonishing. Like, spend a couple years in cable news and you will lose all faith in humanity. Yeah. Complete opposites.
Jason Feifer: Here’s the thing you need to understand, Bill says. What you’re seeing on TV is a competition for airtime. Someone’s invited to be a guest on a show, and a producer says what they’re looking for from that person. And then the more intense and on-point that person can be, the more they’ll be invited back. And then, they’ll start moving up the ladder. From unpaid appearances to paid appearances to being a regular on a show to maybe getting a show themselves. And in the meantime they can write books or get paid speaking gigs or whatever else. It’s a job. The job is to be outrageous. And Bill says this changes people.
Bill Schulz: A lot of them that really did have serious alcohol and drug issues was because they were trying … That’s the only way they could deal with the fact of what they had said on-air a couple hours before.
Jason Feifer: Whoa. Do you think that they-
Bill Schulz: Yeah, there’s no way to back that up, but that was my outside observation.
Jason Feifer: Do you think that they regret what they’re doing?
Bill Schulz: At the beginning. And then you get so indoctrinated … You know, as much as I hate the cliché Stockholm syndrome, you get so used to what you’re doing and the fact that this is just a gig, and you look at it as a gig, that you do stop caring. Like, a lot of people that I know for a fact had a problem with it initially, after six months meh, didn’t care.
Jason Feifer: And this is why a moral entrepreneur can never be satisfied. It’s why change can never make them happy. Because how do you satisfy someone whose job is to be unsatisfied? The incentives, like I said, are all wrong.
So here now, I want to bring it back to Fredric Wertham. Consider it, we have an anonymous psychologist who seized upon a cause that was ripe for cultural outrage. He gained lots of media attention for it. He wrote a book. But he couldn’t find enough children who were traumatized by comic books to actually include in that book so he made a bunch of trauma up instead. And then when he actually created change in the comic book industry, he was not happy. He wanted to keep fighting. He wanted the outrage.
You can see why at first I really did not like Wertham, right? But. But. Now I want you to experience the rest of the story. Because I wonder if you, like me, will just start to feel differently about Wertham once you hear it.
So the Comics Code went into effect in September of 1954, the same year as the Senate hearing on Wertham’s book came out. And Wertham may not have been satisfied by the result, but much of America was. They felt like the comic threat had been addressed. People mostly moved on. And Wertham, well, he tried to rekindle the old spark. He spent some time criticizing television violence, and tried to put together a revised second edition of Seduction of the Innocent in the 1960s but publishers weren’t interested. Then, and this is where it gets interesting, Wertham wrote a book about comic fanzines in the 1970s. Carol read it and said it wasn’t especially well-conceived. He just never seemed to understand fanzine culture was about. But he did seem to really want fanzine makers to understand him.
Carol Tilley: He often took the time to try to remediate his image in popular culture. He wrote in to some 70s fanzines to try to right his reputation in some way. And that is intriguing to me. And with a few folks who were critical of him, he pushed, he corresponded, he tried to bring people around. And sometimes he succeeded.
Jason Feifer: Could you imagine a TV pundit doing this? I can’t. Their job is to make people upset. Collegial dialogue, it’s bad for business. But this is how Wertham spent the later years of his life. Trying to be understood. And what was there to understand? Well, to start, you have to understand where he was coming from. Wertham was born in Germany, and he was there to see the rise of Hitler.
Carol Tilley: He was horribly aware of the rise of fascism and what the Nazi party had wrought, not just in Germany but throughout Europe.
Jason Feifer: And when he came to America he became sensitive to anything that seemed to glorify violence or power. In effect, anything that looked to him like the seed of Nazism. He became part of a movement here called mental hygiene, which was all about creating the ideal environment for people to grow up in and have healthy, holistic relationships with one another. And violence just had no place in that ideal society.
Because of this, he was also really sensitive to racism. During the early days of his anti-comic stance, he was also the head of a psychiatric clinic in Harlem, which was the first to open to people of color in New York City. He also did work that was pivotal to some of the court courses that preceded Brown versus the Board of Education. And racism by the way was another reason he opposed comic books. He saw a disturbing pattern in these books, in which criminals or savages were often dark-skinned and the heroes were always white.
Carol Tilley: He didn’t want black and brown children growing up in a world where they saw these widespread depictions of people who looked like them in these destitute or subjugated ways.
Jason Feifer: In Germany, Wertham had seen the worst of humanity. So when he saw those same instincts showing up in comic books, rightly or wrongly, he pounced with the zeal of someone trying to save the world. At the Senate hearing, he even said Hitler was “a beginner” compared to comic books, because the comic books indoctrinate children far younger than Hitler did. And yet, what did Wertham get for all this? The Senate committee listened to him, but no law was passed. Violent comics, at least as he saw them, were still being published. And as time went on, and fear of comic books passed, he became the symbol of a hysterical moment in time. He became kind of a joke.
Carol Tilley: It seems that throughout his life, and there’s no really easy way to document this, I mean I can get a sense from reading lots of things that he’s written, a lot of his private notes and correspondence, that he always felt to some extent marginalized and belittled, and sort of pushed outside the mainstream of psychiatry of the mental hygiene movement with his views on comics. And at the end of the day, he really just wanted to … Okay, I’m going to use the word. He really wanted to be liked.
Jason Feifer: He was the villain who thought he was the hero.
So, compare that to the television pundits. They’re not the same. At the beginning of this, I expected Wertham to be just like those people, but he’s not. I don’t know why he fabricated the book the way he did, but it’s clear that his outrage wasn’t for the sake of outrage. His goal, at least it seems to me, was to do good. And so to go back to the question I raised at the beginning of the episode, what are we as a culture supposed to do with someone like Wertham?
I mean, I know what we’re supposed to do with the cable TV pundits. I think we should ignore them. The former CEO of Home Depot, a guy named Frank Blake, once told me this thing that stuck with me ever since. He said you can’t herd cats, but you can move their food. As in you can’t change people, but you can change their incentives. And if you’re in the outrage business, then you only profit when people are outraged. So, let’s stop being outraged. But what is the opposite of a television pundit? What is the opposite of their intellectual dishonesty? It is, I suppose, intellectual honesty. That’s what we want in our public dialogue. So long as people are genuinely trying to do good and reduce harm and make the world a better place, an honest person isn’t even necessarily a correct person, or even a person who goes about making their point in an honest way. But it’s at least someone who comes to the table in earnest.
And imagine, just imagine, if we were able to look at an honest person’s argument and pick and choose from it. Say, this is wrong, but this is actually right. We rarely do that. We so often treat people as if they’re bills in Congress. You vote yay or nay on the whole thing. But ideas don’t work like that. Wertham was wrong about a lot of things, but for example, he was pretty right about the way race was portrayed in comics. That was a problem. And seeing as it took until 2018 to make a movie like Black Panther, I’d say it’s still a problem the industry should be working on.
So what do we do with a guy like Wertham? We meet him with our own intellectual honesty. Critical, questioning, curious, honest. I don’t think that happens in Senate hearings. That’s just another performance space. But it can happen in so many other places. And here’s one other thing we could do: We could rest assured that nobody has the final say. No matter what kind of cultural power they accrue. Because the world just doesn’t work that way. The world is made up of individuals who do not just follow rules, they react to rules. Take the Comics Code, for example. Now, more than six decades after it was passed, we can see how it turned out. And the answer is, it made comics even more diverse than they were before. It spawned an underground indie comic movement that circumvented the Comics Code and produced artists like Robert Crum who’d go on to influence the next generation.
Carol Tilley: A lot of those creators were kids who grew up during this pre-Code era. They saw their comics taken away. They saw the comics shrink and change and the availability of them change. And to some extent, I think that pissed them off and motivated them and it made them want to be creative and sort of stand up against some of this idiocy.
Jason Feifer: It also spawned comic book culture in a way. Before the Code, comics were distributed to newsstands the same way that magazines and newspapers were. But then, these comic book shops started opening. Which specifically attracted fans of the form and were run by people who really understood comics and which books were right for which consumer. And once that happened, comics just seemed way less threatening to the general public.
The Comics Code began to seem pointless and it started to weaken. And also over time, creators just picked their lanes. They were either going to go do the edgy stuff, or not. For example, we called up Danny Fingeroth, the longtime editor at Marvel, who just wrote a book about Stan Lee called A Marvelous Life. And we said, hey, were you upset working under the Comics Code? And he laughed!
Danny Fingeroth: I mean, you have stories of people dressed in spandex punching each other. It would be like saying, why didn’t Dr. Seuss have more graphic sex and violence in The Cat in the Hat? We thought we were doing The Cat in the Hat. And we were. When I got into the comics business, I’d say 75% of the readership was still under 14.
Jason Feifer: We also have the Comics Code to thank for Mad Magazine, may it rest in peace. Back when the Code was first created, Mad was a fairly new comic book that responded by declaring itself a magazine. Because the Comics Code was for comics, not magazines. And it worked! Mad was on its own.
So, in the end, Fredric Wertham and his wife retired to a farm in eastern Pennsylvania, where he wrote letters back and forth with people about his views on comic books. But otherwise he was ignored and quietly faded away. The Code continued to lose its relevancy, though it stuck around in some form until 2011 when DC and Archie comics were the last publishers to leave it. And what was left was a vibrant world of comic books. Some violent, some earnest, some artistic, some subversive, and some for kids. Take your pick, or see them amplified in movie theaters. Which made me want to ask Carol one final question, which was basically what was the point of all of this?
The simple conclusion that I draw was, what an enormous waste of everybody’s time.
Carol Tilley: Yes. Yes, absolutely. I think that’s a great conclusion but I would add we should spend more time listening to kids and young people when we start getting panicked about some media or technology that they’re engaging with. I think as a whole, kids take from the text that they read, they take from their immediate experiences, the things that are important to them, that are essential, that they can understand, that they need at that moment. And the rest of it they don’t engage with, or they save it for when they’re ready.
Jason Feifer: It’s funny, isn’t it? When people say think of the children, they never think to ask the children. And we’d all go on to repeat this whole thing with video games, which never proved to make children violent. And I’m sure we’ll repeat it again. But with that answer, I think Carol adds the critical, final part of the answer to my question. What do we do with a guy like Fredric Wertham? I said earlier that we should have at least listened to him. Not amplified him in a hysterical way, but he did come at this with intellectual honesty, and I respect that. But if we’re going to take him seriously, and we need to take seriously the people he was talking about too, we need to listen. To really listen. To the people who are too often spoken for. We need a response that’s equally intellectually honest. And that was something nobody in this whole saga seemed to do. Nobody asked the kids. The Senate committee didn’t do it. And Wertham sure didn’t. I mean, he sat down with them, but then he wrote a book that totally misrepresented their lives.
So if we want an honest debate, we can’t just go speaking for people. We have to let them speak themselves. Fredric Wertham versus the kids. That’s what I want. Just imagine it. What a battle. What drama. What tension. Hell, it would have been so good, they could have made a comic book out of it.
And that’s our episode! Oh wait, you’ve listened to an entire episode about comic books and you haven’t heard Stan Lee’s voice. So I promise, that’s going to be fixed. I have a great recording of Stan Lee recalling a moment of craziness with Comics Code which I’ll share in a minute. But first, exciting news! You can now visit our newly-designed website, where we are building an actual archive of great, crazy, old pieces of written pessimism from the past, searchable by the innovation that they were arguing against. It’s super fun and it’s just the start, we’re going to be growing this thing out so check it out. Pessimists.co. Also, have you subscribed to Pessimists Archive wherever you get your podcasts? If not, please do it so you won’t miss an episode. And leave us a review, too. You can also follow us on Twitter @pessimistsarc, that is pessimists A-R-C, where we’re constantly tweeting out the ill-conceived words of pessimists throughout history.
We also love hearing from our listeners, so drop us a line at [email protected]. A huge thanks to Carol Tilley for all her help and time this episode. Thanks also to Bill Schulz, Danny Fingeroth, Paul Levitz, and Sarah Monod de Froideville. Our German-accented Wertham reader was Christopher M, and as usual, the voice of the rest of our archival material was from Brent Rose.
Brent Rose: This has been Brent Rose, and this my normal speaking voice.
Jason Feifer: You can find him at brentrose.com. Our theme music is by Caspar Babypants, learn more at babypantsmusic.com. Pessimists Archive is supported in part by the Charles Koch Foundation, learn more about the foundation at ckf.org/tech. The Pessimists Archive team this episode included Louis Anslow and Chris Kornelis. We we were recorded by Charlie [Culvert] at Degraw Sound and editing Alec Bayliss. Our webmaster is James [Stewart]. And now, let’s bring in the legendary, recently-departed Stan Lee, creator of so many beloved comic book characters.
So, we found this in a conversation that Stan did with the director Kevin Smith. Stan was talking about the time that a government agency asked him to work and anti-drug message into Spiderman. So he did it.
Stan Lee: So, I did a three-issue series, and it wasn’t preachy. But it had to do with a friend of Spidey’s, I forget it who it was, had taken too much of something. I don’t know anything about drugs, right. I just said he overdosed on something. And he was on the edge of the roof and thought he could fly. And Spiderman rescues him and says, “You’re a jerk for doing that.”
Jason Feifer: Good message! Wholesome, even. Then the book goes out to the Comics Code authority for their review, where the censors …
Stan Lee: They sent the book back and said, “You can’t publish this book!” I said, “Why not?” They said, “Well, you’re mentioning drugs.” I said, “We’re not telling kids to take drugs! [crosstalk] I was asked to do this by a branch of the federal government!” “Sorry, you can’t do it.”
Jason Feifer: Isn’t that the perfect encapsulation of censorship? It doesn’t matter whether something’s good or bad, or right or wrong, or even thought through by a human being. All that matters is that the rules are followed. Blind allegiance to the rules.
But in this case, Marvel said screw the rules, and published the comic anyway without the Comics Code stamp of approval. And the issue, Stan Lee said, it sold great.
All right. That’s all for this episode. Thanks for listening to Pessimists Archive. My name is Jason Feifer, and we’ll see you in the near future.