So, Fredric Wertham was a liar. In the 1950s, Wertham nearly destroyed the comic book industry, leading an overzealous attack on the whole medium based on his claims that crime comics caused juvenile delinquency. Understand that, in his usage, crime comics referred to any comic containing a criminal act, so all of the superhero comics were included in his criticism. At the time, he managed to rally enough angry parents through his fervor to lead the Crusade Against Comics, nearly crushing the comics industry with his testimony before the United States Senate’s Judiciary Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency. Recently, Carol L. Tilley, an assistant professor at the University of Illinois, revealed that Wertham grossly overstated his evidence.
I am not surprised by this, really. In my book, Superheroes: An Analysis of Popular Culture’s Modern Myths, I acknowledge the bias in Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent, his laughably overzealous attack on the comics medium. However laughable it may have been, the book’s publication is commonly regarded as the event signalling the end of the Golden Age of Comics.
Tilley’s findings, having scoured Wertham’s vast depository of notes at the Library of Congress, indicate the differences between his research and his testimony. In her article, “Seducing the Innocent: Fredric Wertham and the Falsifications that Helped Condemn Comics,” Tilley reveals many discrepancies, some of which paint Wertham as even more conservative and homophobic than one would have previously thought. Wertham completely misconstrued his evidence in his testimony to the Subcommittee. He did this in a number of ways, such as by combining accounts from multiple cases into a singular, more convincing case, as if the many were just one patient. At times, he would omit evidence that was inconvenient for or contrary to his argument. Furthermore, Wertham would pass off hearsay as if he witnessed the events himself. Clearly, Tilley’s paper discredits Wertham’s worth as an expert.
So, how do these revelations affect how I have covered Wertham in Superheroes? Ultimately, I think it has little bearing on my own arguments regarding Wertham’s work. I readily acknowledge that his argument was overzealous, and it’s not a big step to accept that he exaggerated his findings beyond what can be acceptable. I write in Superheroes that “The soundest portion of Wertham’s heated criticism is that art is a mode of communication. As we take in art as entertainment, we take in its messages constantly and the content of art’s messages may influence us.” I stand by that interpretation. My argument really only acknowledges the validity of the most basic foundation of Wertham’s position. Beyond that, his testimony has lost whatever credibility it may have clung to over the years.