- The History of Comic Books  

The Comic Book Villain, Dr. Fredric Wertham, M.D.

The 'arrival' of Dr. Fredric Werthham was the scariest thing to ever happen to comic books. He was a highly distinguished psychologist who thought comic books were bad for kids, and his efforts to have them censored had a horrible and lasting impact that still affect comic books to this day. Click here to read the biography of Dr. Fredric Wertham.

Once the popularity of comic books shot up through the introduction of Superman, they gained media attention, some of it bad. Here is an excerpt of an editorial from the Chicago Daily News book reviewer Sterling North that was printed in May 8th, 1940.

"Badly drawn, badly written, and badly printed - a strain on the young eyes and young nervous systems - the effects of these pulp-paper nightmares is that of a violent stimulant. Their crude blacks and reds spoils a child's natural sense of colour; their hypodermic injection of sex and murder make the child impatient with better, though quieter, stories. Unless we want a coming generation even more ferocious than the present one, parents and teachers throughout America must band together to break the `comic' magazine."

These kind of backlashes against the comic industry caused companies like DC (the biggest publisher at the time) to put together their own editorial boards in 1941, to show citizens that comic books were being held up to standards of wholesome entertainment. These editorial boards were formed with psychiatrists, child welfare experts, and some famous, well respected citizens. The board members' names were printed on the inside cover of all DC books. This action did help to relieve some of the criticism that comic books had come under, but not for long.

Five years later, Dr. Wertham set up a clinic for underprivileged people. After opening it he soon got interested in the "effects" that comic books had on children. In 1948, Dr. Wertham came out against comic books publicly in an interview in Collier's Magazine titled "Horror in the Nursery." This interview would be the start of Dr. Wertham's seven-year study of comic books' effects on children. In this interview, Dr. Wertham would state that:

"The number of `good' comics is not worth discussing, but the great number that masquerade as `good' certainly deserve close scrutiny."

A few weeks later Dr. Wertham attended a symposium in New York City called "The Psychopathology of Comic Books". The reaction to Dr. Wertham's views was immediate. One month later, in the April issue of Time magazine, a story appeared about Detroit Police Commissioner Harry S. Toy, who examined all the comic books available in his community, and then stated they were; "Loaded with communist teachings, sex, and racial discrimination." In May of 1948 he also presented his views in an article for the Saturday Review of Literature.

Henry E. Shultz talked about the conditions in the December, 1949 issue of the Journal of Educational Society:

In towns, villages, and municipalities throughout the country.. law makers were goaded and prodded into action, and many did their best to please and appease the angry torment which had been unleashed. Laws and ordinances, committees on legislation, censors, indeed every device to bedevil and confuse dealers, wholesalers, and publishers of comics, were created and enacted - books were banned, and finally, to cap the climax, mass burnings of comic books were publicly held in several communities."

The mass burning of comic books did happen. On December 20th, in 1948, Time magazine reported and printed pictures of Binghamton, New York residents, after a house to house collection of comic books, having a mass public comic book burning (with a bunch of kids in the background watching).

In 1948, some of the comic publishers formed the Association of Comic Magazine Publishers (ACMP). It's goal was to set out guidelines under which comic books would be published. They did this hoping that it would reduce the amount of criticism they were under. The ACMP set up a board of people that had to approve a comic before it would see print. But because some big companies like DC and Dell comics had their own internal approval boards, they didn't join the ACMP. As well, some of the partners involved had disagreements over parts of the approval guidelines, which caused them to quit the ACMP.

Some people were a little more extreme in their views against comic books. In 1949, Gershon Legman wrote a book called Love and Death, where he claimed that comic books train kids like animals, by breaking their spirit. He also claimed that comic books distort real life, and give kids violent images (or as he puts it, "blood") to "feed" upon.

Also in 1949, The Canadian Government enacted a broad law that sought to control 'crime' comics (any comics that dealt with crime, which included Superhero comics). Here is the law as it stands today in the Criminal Code:


163. (1) Every one commits an offense who

(b) makes, prints, publishes, distributes, sells or has in his possession
for the purposes of publication, distribution or circulation a crime comic.

(7) In this section, "crime comic" means a magazine, periodical or book
that exclusively or substantially comprises matter depicting pictorially
(a) the commission or crimes, real or fictitious; or
(b) events connected with the commission or crimes, real or fictitious,
whether occurring before or after the commission of the crime.

In 1950, the Cincinnati Parents Committee began rating almost all comic books published on their own criteria of art, writing, printing, and objectional content. Their ratings were published annually in Parents Magazine.

The U.S. Federal Government jumped into the fray in 1950. A U.S. Senate special committee was doing an investigation into organized crime. A part of this investigation looked into the 'effects' that crime comics had. One judge on the committee stated that he had cases where boys had committed a crime that was patterned after one depicted in a comic book. Blaming comic books for their crimes suddenly became an easy way out for kids. The kids would be given sympathy, for it was the comic book that "made them do it."

Even though there were a number of people in the media who were critical of comic books, Dr. Wertham's book Seduction of the Innocent, published in 1954, had the most devastating effects. In this book Dr. Wertham stated that in his studies with children, he found comic books to be a major cause of juvenile delinquency. This assertion was based mostly on guilt by association. The vast majority of kids in those days read comic books, including the ones who became delinquents. But according to Dr. Wertham, comic books caused the children to become delinquents.

But comics went much further than just turning kids into juvenile delinquents. According to Wertham, comic books were giving kids wrong ideas about the laws of physics, because Superman could fly! He also charged that comic books were implementing and re-enforcing homosexual thoughts because Robin was drawn with bare legs, that were often wide open, and that Robin seemed devoted and attached to only Batman. Dr. Wertham also stated that Wonder Woman was giving little girls the "wrong ideas" about a woman's place in society.

The comic industry and others who believed that comic books were not all bad fought back. Some attacked Dr. Wertham's study by pointing out that Wertham studied only juvenile delinquents, without comparing them to other kids. Wertham responded that the kids who didn't become delinquents may be worse off(!)

At the time, there were a lot of horror comic books on the market showing some pretty gruesome things. But what Dr. Wertham wouldn't admit was that kids were not reading those books, adults were. While fighting in WWII, many soldiers read comic books for morale and entertainment. Upon coming back, these men continued reading comic books. It was mainly for this audience that horror comics were written. Even today, those comic books are being redone into Tales of the Crypt shows, being aired late at night for adult audiences.

Comic companies flexed their corporate muscles against Dr. Wertham's book. First, a deal to make Seduction of the Innocent the selection for the Book of the Month Club was somehow killed. In Seduction of the Innocent, Dr. Wertham showed the gruesome covers and pictures of some books. But the bibliography that listed which comic companies produced those pictures was cut out after publication. There are no details as to why this happened, but it is suspected that the comic companies put pressure on Seduction's publisher Rinehart & Co. to get rid of the bibliography.

The Comics Code Authority

Seduction of the Innocent caused a U.S. Senate Investigation into the relationship between comic books and juvenile delinquents. Dr. Wertham was called to testify at the hearings, as were other juvenile delinquent experts, representatives of the major comic companies, some of their advertisers and distributors, and the representatives from National Cartoonist Society.

Dr. Wertham came out on top. He had a lot of experience testifying in front of government committees (read his biography for more information). Most of the representatives from the comic companies were business men who knew very little about the editorial content of the comic books, so their answers about those topics were vague and seemed evasive. But they did know about the complex workings of their companies, and for that reason they were sent. The one exception to this was William Gaines, publisher of E.C. (who published most of the horror comics). William Gaines had a teaching degree, and was able to answer the questions clearly and state his side rather well. The National Cartoonist Society representatives, Walt Kelly, Milton Caniff, and Joe Musial all distanced themselves from comic books and gave a general condemnation of them (traitors!).

The result of these hearings was the Senate committee advised comic companies that "A competent job of self-policing within the industry will achieve much."

So then the comic companies took this message and created the Comic Magazine Association of America (CMAA) and then they created the Comics Code Authority (CCA) on October 26th, 1954. Click to see the guidelines. In 1955, the Senate committee gave its final report, stating that it approved the CCA, and thought it represented "steps in the right direction."

The Senate committee did not fully endorse Dr. Wertham's theories about the effect of comic books on children, since his studies were not done on the "complete environment", but only on juvenile delinquents. But the Senate committee did agree that comic books might have an unhealthy effect on those kids that were already emotionally disturbed or morally delinquent. But because they didn't know whether comics had this effect or not, the committee decided in favour of self-policing by the comic publishers. The Senate committee's final report also issued a warning to comic companies that if their self-policing didn't work that they would re-visit the issue again, and use whatever means necessary to "prevent our nation's young from being harmed from crime and horror comic books."

The Senate Interim report is now online for all those to read. It is a big report, but it will give you an excellent idea of the kind of mentality that comic book publishers were facing back in 1954. Click here to read the 1954 Senate Interim Report on Comic Books and Juvenile Delinquency.

So the CCA put a stamp on every comic book that met it's guidelines. The problem was the horror books didn't. Stores or newsstands simply would not accept comic books without the stamp, so some of the horror comic publishers went out of business. Others adapted and became 'magazines', something that the CCA had no authority over. But for the most part, those still producing horror comics toned them down quite a bit. Marvel Comics was one of the companies still producing horror comics as well as 'sci-fi' comics.

Today, the CCA has lost their importance. Once their stamp was large and easy for all to see on a comic book. Over the years the stamp has become smaller and smaller, now readers sometimes have to squint and search for it. If a comic company wants to publish a book that doesn't meet CCA standards, they just publish it anyway. Sometimes even if they can get CCA approval, they don't bother with it. Often you'll see a "Suggested for Mature Readers" written on the comic book to warn those still concerned.

It should be known that Dr. Fredric Wertham did not approve of the CCA. He felt the industry would not to a correct job of policing themselves. Even after several comic companies went out of business and the industry was brought to it's knees, Dr. Fredric Wertham still complained that comic books still had most of the unsavory elements to them.

Restarting the Superhero Genre

In 1953, Marvel tried to bring back superheroes. In Young Men #24 the three big Marvel heroes made their return. Captain America, The Human Torch, and Prince Namor the Sub-Mariner all had stories that explained what they were doing since World War II. It told that Captain America had become a history teacher and he had his young sidekick Bucky as a student. But then his old arch-enemy The Red Skull re-appeared and was now teaming up with the Commies. So Captain America and his sidekick sprung back into action to stop his evil plans.

The Human Torch was captured by gangsters and buried underground in the Navada Desert. Once America started testing the A-bombs there, the radiation made him more powerful than before. The Human Torch then freed himself and tried to find his sidekick Toro. He found out that the gangsters had sold Toro to the Commies. The Human Torch then had to re-capture his young sidekick Toro and free him from the brainwashing that the Commies gave him.

Prince Namor had nothing happen to him after the war. He simply went back to his underwater kingdom until America called for him once again. The American Navy had a problem with some of their ships mysteriously vanishing. They suspected the Commies were up to no good again. They called upon The Sub-Mariner to investigate. He found out the cause of the sinking ships was not the Commies, but were sunk by robots from the planet Venus! After the Sub-Mariner defeated their commander the robots went back to Venus, promising never to return to earth.

Sadly, Marvels attempt to bring back superheroes was not successful. Shortly after this DC tried to bring back superheroes too and they were a success. This event is called the 'Silver Age' and you'll read about it in the next section.

Read the next section!