Fredric Wertham

Fredric Wertham
Fredric Wertham

Fredric Wertham reads EC Comics' Shock Illustrated
Born March 20, 1895 (1895-03-20)
Munich, Germany
Died November 18, 1981 (1981-11-19) (aged 86)
Kempton, Pennsylvania
Occupation Psychiatry
Spouse Florence Hesketh (1902-1987)

Fredric Wertham (March 20, 1895  – November 18, 1981) was a Jewish[1] German-American psychiatrist and crusading author who protested the purportedly harmful effects of violent imagery in mass media and comic books on the development of children.[2] His best-known book was Seduction of the Innocent (1954), which purported that comic books are dangerous to children. Wertham's criticisms of comic books helped spark a U.S. Congressional inquiry into the comic book industry and the creation of the Comics Code. He called television "a school for violence," and said "If I should meet an unruly youngster in a dark alley, I prefer it to be one who has not seen Bonnie and Clyde."[3]


Early life

Fredric Wertham was born on March 20, 1895 in Munich.[2][3] He studied medicine in Germany and England and after corresponding with Sigmund Freud chose psychiatry as his specialty.


In 1922 he was invited to come to the United States and to join the Phipps Psychiatric Clinic at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. He became a United States citizen in 1927.[2] He moved to New York City in 1932 to direct the psychiatric clinic connected with the New York Court of General Sessions in which all convicted felons received a psychiatric examination that was used in court.[2] In 1935 he testified for the defense in the trial of Albert Fish, declaring him insane.[4]

Seduction of the Innocent and Senate hearings

Seduction of the Innocent described overt or covert depictions of violence, sex, drug use, and other adult fare within "crime comics"—a term Wertham used to describe not only the popular gangster/murder-oriented titles of the time but also superhero and horror comics as well—and asserted, based largely on undocumented anecdotes, that reading this material encouraged similar behavior in children.

Comics, especially the crime/horror titles pioneered by EC Comics, were not lacking in gruesome images; Wertham reproduced these extensively, pointing out what he saw as recurring morbid themes such as "injury to the eye" (as depicted in Plastic Man creator Jack Cole's "Murder, Morphine and Me", which he illustrated and probably wrote for publisher Magazine Village's True Crime Comics Vol. 1, #2 (May 1947); it involved dope-dealing protagonist Mary Kennedy nearly getting stabbed in the eye "by a junkie with a hypothermic needle" in her dream sequence[5]). Many of his other conjectures, particularly about hidden sexual themes (e.g. images of female nudity concealed in drawings of muscles and tree bark, or Batman and Robin as gay partners), were met with derision within the comics industry. (Wertham's claim that Wonder Woman had a bondage subtext was somewhat better documented, as her creator William Moulton Marston had admitted as much; however, Wertham also claimed that Wonder Woman's strength and independence made her a lesbian.)

Given the subsequent emergence of organized fandom for comic books among adults who grew up reading them during Comics' Golden Age, it is ironic Wertham at one point in Seduction (pp. 89–90) asserts "I have known many adults who have treasured throughout their lives some of the books they read as children. I have never come across any adult or adolescent who had outgrown comic-book reading who would ever dream of keeping any of these 'books' for any sentimental or other reason."

What is often overlooked in discussions of Seduction of the Innocent is Wertham's analysis of the advertisements that appeared in 1950s comic books and the commercial context in which these publications existed. Wertham objected to not only the violence in the stories but also the fact that air rifles and knives were advertised alongside them. Also rarely mentioned in summaries or reviews of Seduction of the Innocent are Wertham's claims that retailers who did not want to sell material with which they were uncomfortable, such as horror comics, were essentially held to ransom by the distributors. According to Wertham, news vendors were told by the distributors that if they did not sell the objectionable comic books, they would not be allowed to sell any of the other publications being distributed.

The splash made by this book and Wertham's previous credentials as an expert witness, made it inevitable that he would appear before the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency led by anti-crime crusader Estes Kefauver. In extensive testimony before the committee, Wertham restated arguments from his book and pointed to comics as a major cause of juvenile crime. Beaty notes "Wertham repeated his call ... [for] national legislation based on the public health ideal that would prohibit the circulation and display of comic books to children under the age of fifteen." The committee's questioning of their next witness, EC publisher William Gaines, focused on violent scenes of the type Wertham had decried. Though the committee's final report did not blame comics for crime, it recommended that the comics industry tone down its content voluntarily; possibly taking this as a veiled threat of potential censorship, publishers developed the Comics Code Authority to censor their own content. The Code banned not only violent images but also entire words and concepts (e.g. "terror" and "zombies") and dictated that criminals must always be punished—thus destroying most EC-style titles, and leaving a sanitized subset of superhero comics as the chief remaining genre. Wertham described the Comics Code as inadequate, while most in the industry found it draconian.

Later career

Wertham's views on mass media have largely overshadowed his broader concerns with violence and with protecting children from psychological harm. His writings about the effects of racial segregation were used as evidence in the landmark Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education, and part of his 1966 book A Sign for Cain dealt with the involvement of medical professionals in the Holocaust. To promote this book Wertham made two memorable appearances on the Mike Douglas Show where he ended up debating his theories with the co-hosts, Barbara Feldon (April 10, 1967) and Vincent Price (June 19, 1967). Excerpts were shown at the 2003 Comic-Con International: San Diego[6]

Beaty reveals in 1959 Wertham tried to sell a follow-up to Seduction on the effects of television on Children, to be titled The War on Children. Much to Wertham's frustration, no publishers were interested in publishing it.

Wertham always denied that he favored censorship or had anything against comic books in principle, and in the 1970s he focused his interest on the benign aspects of the comic fandom subculture; in his last book, The World of Fanzines (1974), he concluded that fanzines were "a constructive and healthy exercise of creative drives". This led to an invitation for Wertham to address the New York Comic Art Convention. Still infamous to most comics fans of the time, Wertham encountered suspicion and heckling at the convention, and stopped writing about comics thereafter.

Before retirement he became a professor of psychiatry at New York University, a senior psychiatrist in the New York City Department of Hospitals, and a psychiatrist and the director of the Mental Hygiene Clinic at the Bellevue Hospital Center.[2]

He died on November 18, 1981 at his retirement home in Kempton, Pennsylvania. He was 86 years old.[2][3]


Wertham's papers (including the manuscript to the unpublished The War on Children) were donated to the Library of Congress and are held by the Manuscript Division. They were made available for use by scholars for research on May 20, 2010.[7] A register of the papers has been prepared that displays the eclectic reach of Wertham's interests.[8]

His activism was cited in 2011 U. S. Supreme Court decision Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association.

Selected bibliography

  • 1948: "The Comics, Very Funny", Saturday Review of Literature, May 29, 1948, p. 6. (condensed version in Reader's Digest, August 1948, p. 15)
  • 1953: "What Parents Don't Know About Comic Books". Ladies' Home Journal, Nov. 1953, p. 50.
  • 1954: "Blueprints to Delinquency". Reader's Digest, May 1954, p. 24.
  • 1954: Seduction of the Innocent. Amereon Ltd. ISBN 0-8488-1657-9
  • 1955: "It's Still Murder". Saturday Review of Literature, April 9, 1955, p. 11.
  • 1956: The Circle of Guilt. Rinehart & Company.
  • 1968: A Sign for Cain: An Exploration of Human Violence. Hale. ISBN 0-7091-0232-1
  • 1973: The World of Fanzines: A Special Form of Communication. Southern Illinois University Press. ISBN 0-8093-0619-0
  • 1973: "Doctor Wertham Strikes Back!" The Monster Times no. 22, May 1973, p. 6.

Further reading

  • (1954). "Are Comics Horrible?" Newsweek, May 3, 1954, p. 60.
  • Decker, Dwight. (1987). "The Strange Case of Dr. Wertham" Amazing Heroes #123 (August 15, 1987); "The Return of Dr. Wertham" Amazing Heroes #124 (Sept. 1, 1987); "From Dr. Wertham With Love" Amazing Heroes #125 (Sept. 15, 1987) [three part series, see below for link to condensed version posted online under title "Fredric Wertham - Anti-Comics Crusader Who Turned Advocate"].
  • Gibbs, Wolcott. (1954). "Keep Those Paws to Yourself, Space Rat!" The New Yorker, May 8, 1954.
  • Beaty, Bart. (2005). Fredric Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture.
  • Bart Beaty. Fredric Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture. University Press of Mississippi, 2005. ISBN 1578068193
  • David Hajdu. The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008. ISBN 0374187673
  • James Bowman. "In Defense of Snobbery." August 26, 2008. [1]
  • Amy Kiste Nyberg. "Seal of Approval: The History of the Comics Code." University Press of Mississippi, 1998. ISBN 087805975X


  1. ^ "Jews and American Comics from Another Angle"
  2. ^ a b c d e f Webster, Bayard (December 1, 1981). "Fredric Wertham, 86, Dies. Foe of Violent TV and Comics". New York Times. Retrieved 2010-03-29. "Dr. Fredric Wertham, an internationally known psychiatrist who believed that comic books, movies and television shows that featured crime, violence and horror exerted a damaging influence on many juveniles and young adults, died November 18 at his retirement home in Kempton, Pennsylvania. He was 86 years old." 
  3. ^ a b c "Death Revealed". Time magazine. December 14, 1981.,9171,925122,00.html#ixzz0jYgn3682. Retrieved 2010-03-29. "Fredric Wertham, 86, author and psychiatrist who crusaded against violence in comic books, movies and television; on Nov. 18; in Kempton, Pa. Wertham, a Munich-born authority on criminal psychology, argued that violence is a product of cultural influences." 
  4. ^ "Fish Held Insane By Three Experts. Defense Alienists Say Budd Girl's Murderer Was And Is Mentally Irresponsible". New York Times. May 21, 1935. Retrieved 2010-03-29. "Three psychiatrists testified in Supreme Court today that Albert H. Fish, on trial for the murder of Grace Budd in June, 1928, was legally insane when he committed the murder and has been insane since that date." 
  5. ^ Spiegelman, Art and Kidd, Chip (2001). Jack Cole and Plastic Man: Forms Stretched to their Limits, p.91. Retrieved on 2008-12-31.
  6. ^ News From Me
  7. ^ "Wertham's Locked Vault"
  8. ^ Fredric Wertham: A Register of His Papers at the Library of Congress

External links

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