Category Archives: Wertham & Censoring

David Wigransky for the Defense

Frederic Wertham

The May 29, 1948 issue of the Saturday Review of Literature included an article “The Comics…Very Funny” by Dr. Fredric Wertham. Yes the very same Wertham whose 1954 book “The Seduction of the Innocent” initiated the events that crippled and nearly destroyed the comic book industry (The Real Reason for the Decline of Comics). The article was written in the same style used in his later book and likewise condemned the reading of comic books by children. Much of the article’s beginning is devoted to numerous descriptions of crimes perpetrated by children. As an example:

Think of the many recent violent crimes committed by young boys and girls. A twelve-year-old boy who kills his older sister; a thirteen-year-old burglar who operates with a shotgun; a seventeen-year-old boy who kills a thirteen-year-old boy a leaves a note signed “The Devil”…

The supposed links between the children’s’ crime and the reading of comics is provided in only a very few places but otherwise the connection between the crime and comics is largely ignored except for this rather surprising statement:

All these manifestations of brutality, cruelty, and violence and the manner in which they are committed–that is the folklore of the comic books.

In the article Wertham provided 17 points that he claimed supporters of comic books make and the arguments that can be made against them. For example:

7) That the children don’t imitate these stories. (But the increase of violence in juvenile delinquency has gone hand in hand with the increase in the distribution of comics books.)

(You can read the entire article at Seduction of the

“The Comics…Very Funny” certainly provide critics of comic books with useful ammunition. Frederic Wertham’s status as an authority and scientist carried much weight with the public. Wertham was effective in disarming his critics by pointing out that they were paid by comic book publishers. What was needed was someone independent from the comic book industry who could provide an articulate challenge to Wertham. Unexpectedly the most successful rebuttal was made by a 14 year old boy, David Wigransky.

David Pace Wigransky

Wigransky’s defense of comic books was published in the July 24th issue of the Saturday Review of Literature, the same periodical that published Wertham’s article. Wigransky’s letter was published under the title “Cain Before Comics” but the biblical reference that seemed more appropriate was David and Goliath. On the face of it, it would seem unlikely that a boy could offer very much of an intellectual challenge to an authority figure like Wertham. However of the two, Wigransky’s is the much more thought out discussion. When I read Wertham’s “Seduction of the Innocent” I was greatly bothered why everyone from that time did not see through his badly argued and poorly supported attach on comic books. Well David Wigransky did see right through it.

Wigransky pointed out that violence proceeded the creation of comic books. Further that good upbringing and reading good books were not proof against the adoption of murderous behavior in the young. While there were numerous readers of comic books, there were comparatively few delinquents. Wigransky noted that Wertham’s strong antipathy to comic books colored his investigations and reports. David suspected, correctly in my opinion, that Wertham manipulated his children patients to provide the evidence against comics that he, Wertham, expected. That the crusade against comic books was actually not really new; 1896 saw a crusade against the syndication comic strip “The Yellow Kid”. Crime and violence were looked at by comic book readers as adventure and excitement, not a something to experience. Wigransky predicted that generation of comic book readers would in the end turn out all right.

My summation of Wigransky’s article hardly does it justice. The reader can find the entire letter reprinted in “Mr. Monster’s Comic Crypt” by Michael Gilbert (Alter Ego 90, December 2009).

David Wigransky did a fabulous job of defending comic books against Frederic Wertham’s critical article. Wertham’s response was to totally ignore him. Wigransky is not once mentioned in “Seduction of the Innocent” nor were his arguments every addressed by Wertham.

But not everyone ignored Wigransky’s defense. An editorial piece, probably written by Stan Lee, appeared in some Atlas Comics. The editorial not only mentions David Wigransky by name but includes quotes from his letter. Comic artists gratefully noted Wigransky as well. Alfred Andriola sent David the original art for a Kerry Drake strip titles “There’s your case against D.D.T., Mr. D.A.!”. The strip is dated December 26, 1947. It was signed “best wishes to David Wigransky from Kerry Drake and Alfred Andriola” (Cartoon Drawings: Swann Collection of Caricature and Cartoon).

Headline #25
Headline #25 (July 1947), pencils by Jack Kirby, inks by Joe Simon, letters by Joe Simon?

More pertinent to this blog is that Joe Simon and Jack Kirby also recognized Wigransky’s contribution by presenting his with original art, the cover for Headline #25 (July 1947). The inscription was by Joe but Jack signed it as well. The cover is an early one from the start of Simon and Kirby’s work for Prize Comics after the war. Simon and Kirby had only produced two previous issues of Headline while Justice Traps the Guilty and Young Romance had yet to be launched. This cover was an apt choice to give to Wigransky considering that at this time it was the crime comics that were receiving the most negative criticism. Headline #25 was certainly the most graphic crime cover that Simon and Kirby had done to date. While there were some later covers that depicted dead or dying figures, this was the only one that showed the victim’s wound.


The cover featured the black humor that often accompanied Simon and Kirby’s crime covers. The female protagonist’s name was not random but was modeled on that of Barbara Stanwyck. Not that long previously Stanwyck had starred in “Double Indemnity” (released April 24, 1944). However in the movie it is Stanwyck’s husband that was murdered for the insurance, while for the cover it was the step-father.

Joe and Jack’s gift to David Wigransky was rather fortunate. Very little original art remains for Simon and Kirby’s early work on the crime genre. Today there is much more art for the earlier Stuntman and that only lasted two issues. The only other original art from Simon and Kirby’s early crime comics that I am aware of is one splash panel (“The Case of the Floating Corpse”, Headline #24, May 1947 that originally came from Joe Simon’s collection) and one unfinished cover (intended for Headline #44, November 1950 that had been kept by Jack Kirby).

The four corners of the original art for Headline #25 shows the imprint left by thumb tacks which can be seen even in the low resolution image I have provided. I like to think that they were used by Wigransky to fasten the art to his bedroom wall.

David Wigransky kept his interest in comic books at least for a couple of years. The December 1949 issue of Popular Mechanics includes an advertisement he ran looking for old comic books or original art. As an adult he wrote a book on the singer Al Jolson (“Jolsonography”, 1974). That rare work (a copy is being offered for $400) must have been published posthumously as David died in 1969 at what must have been about the age of 36.

“Fredric Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture” by B. Beaty

“Fredric Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture” by Bart Beaty (2005) is out of print but still easily found in the used book market. I do not remember where I heard of this book before, but I understood it was a defense of Fredric Wertham’s “Seduction of the Innocent”. By the time I finished reading that book I simply could not understand how anybody took Wertham’s seriously. So I proceeded to read Beaty’s book with much interest.

Beaty had a specific audience in mind when he wrote “Fredric Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture” but it was not comic book fans. Rather it was for the field of media studies. I fully admit I know nothing about media studies but Beaty provides enough background material that I had no trouble understanding what he is writing about. According to Beaty media studies has two basic approaches to perform their investigations; surveys and laboratory studies. Wertham’s method of using clinical studies occupied neither of these methodologies. Consequently Wertham and “Seduction of the Innocent” has been ignored by those involved in the media field. On page 5 of the introduction Beaty quotes Joseph Klapper (“The Effects of Mass Communications”, 1960):

Wertham is not generally regarded, however, as having substantiated his very extreme views. Thrasher (1949), for example is typical of the critics in pointing out that Wertham provides no description of his samples of comic books or of human cases, apparently deals only with a small and highly deviant minority of both, provides no description of his case study techniques, uses no control groups, and, in short, provides no acceptable scientific evidence for his ascription of comic book influence.

(I have added the emphasis to the word “apparently”). Beaty’s comment about Klapper’s statement was (page 5):

While the substantive disagreement between Frederic M. Thrasher and Wertham on the nature and quality of Wertham’s proof cited by Klapper will be addressed specifically in Chapter 4, of greater importance at this point is the use of the term apparently in reference to “Seduction of the Innocent”. It suggests that Klapper had not read Wertham’s text and used Thrashers’s denunciation of it as the basis of his opinion.

I think Beaty has completely misread Klapper. If Klapper truly had not read SOTI then I would expect the word “apparently” to be associated with Wertham and thereby cover all the following items. Instead “apparently” is found in the middle of a list of comments indicating that it is “deals only with a small and highly deviant minority of both” that is apparent. In SOTI Wertham only gave a cursory description of where his subjects (the children) of his clinical studies came from. From my reading of SOTI I had concluded that it was not a balanced sample but it is hard to be sure given what little information Wertham provides and so the use of the word “apparently” is appropriate. The same can be said of Wertham’s study of the comics themselves. I do not know if in fact Klapper had read SOTI, but nothing in his statement convinces me he has not. More importantly Beaty’s misreading had led him to ignore concerns raised about Wertham’s data.

Beaty reviews a number of his opponents who were critical about Wertham’s data. For example according to Beaty Norbert Muhlen wrote (page 153):

…despite the lack of reliable data as to their circulation and influence on youthful minds…

But Beaty was more interested in comparing Muhlen’s politics with that of Wertham and does not discuss Muhlen’s questioning of Wertham’s data. This seems to be a recurring pattern throughout Beaty’s book. A number of Wertham’s critics had voiced reservations about the validity of Wertham’s data but Beaty repeatedly does not address the issue. In his introduction Beaty promised that “the nature and quality of Wertham’s proof … will be addressed specifically in Chapter 4.” Chapter 4 does include a careful review of SOTI but in fact Beaty does not show that Wertham’s data was scientifically valid.

Beaty provides some historical background in this book both on Wertham. This information was particular interesting as it answered some questions that arose from my reading of SOTI. Since the Comic Code Authority was established after Wertham’s book was published I had wondered how Wertham felt about it. As I suspected Wertham was not very pleased with the Comic Code. Towards the end of SOTI, Wertham had some favorable things to say about the then new media television. In Wertham’s view there were some deficiencies but he blamed that on the influence of comic books. Knowing that even after the Comic Code violence on television did not substantially decrease, I originally suspected that Wertham would end up critical of TV as well. Sure enough Beaty confirms this and Wertham even wrote a book condemning television that was never published. When I completed my reading of SOTI I felt that Wertham’s book was so obviously flawed and poorly written that I was amazed that people were taken in by him. I knew that the book received lots of publicity and reviews but I could not help but wonder whether anybody had actually read it. Well according to Beaty, Wertham’s agent reported that despite lots of good reviews sales were low. The agent surmised that most people felt that they already knew the contents and did not need to read it.

The conclusion of this book is rather surprising. A conclusion should take what has been discussed in the book (perhaps even summarize it) and reach some general observations. What is not expected are discussions that extend beyond the subject matter presented previously in the book. Unfortunately the admirable objective writing of the rest of the book is abandoned in the conclusion. Criticism of Wertham by comic book fans was not discussed previously but occupies much of the conclusion. It is not just that I disagree with many of his observations found there, it is that they are not as thoroughly discussed nor as well argued as the rest of the book. As I remarked earlier, comic fans were not the intended audience for this book and much of what Beaty writes consists of little more then attacks. For example this comment by Beaty (page 197):

In what is possibly the most horrendously inappropriate overstatement ever made on this subject, comic book writer Mark Evanier has called Wertham “the Joseph Mengele of funnybooks”.

Evanier remark was from “Wertham Was Right” a book collecting essays most of which were originally written for The Comic Book Buyer’s Guide. All the essays have an element of humor to them and it is hard to believe that any reader could miss that. I am sure that Evanier does not seriously believe that Wertham’s misdeeds were truly the equivalent of Dr Mengele’s. More importantly I also believe that Beaty was wrong to describe this as “the most horrendously inappropriate overstatement”. That dubious distinction surely belongs to the following:

What in a few words is the essential ethical teaching of crime comics for children? I find it well and accurately summarized in this brief quotation:

It is not a question of right, but of winning. Close your heart against compassion. Brutality does it. The stronger is in the right. Greatest hardness. Follow your opponent till he is crushed.

These words were the instructions given on August 22, 1939, by a superman in his home in Berchtesgaden to his generals, to serve as guiding lines for the treatment of the population in the impending war on Poland.

This was written by Wertham in SOTI (pages 95 – 96) and was clearly made without a trace of humor. Apparently Bart Beaty had no problem with Wertham’s statement as it is never mentioned in his book.

For me, and it would seem for those in media studies, the greatest difficulty in repairing Wertham’s image centers on questions about his data. Unless it can be shown that Wertham’s use of clinical studies was sound in both theory and practice, there have been no reason to accept his conclusions let alone act on them. That Beaty realized this is shown by his statement (page 136):

To make the argument that action against comic books was necessary, however, Wertham necessarily had to demonstrate that they were, like the tubercle bacilli, a harmful factor and not simply a scapegoat.

Beaty’s primary means of attempting to do this is the review of previous commentary by Wertham and his critics. The problem with this approach is that if the original discussions ended with the general neglect of Wertham’s “Seduction of the Innocent” why should a new review, however well presented, come to any other conclusion? Beaty also gives much significance to the fact that Wertham’s critics never provided scientific evidence to disprove Wertham. This is an argument that Wertham also makes in SOTI. Both Wertham and Beaty have got this wrong, the onus is on Wertham to scientifically prove his position, which he never did. At most, Wertham and his critics were equally unscientific and there is no reason to accept any of their arguments as persuasive. In the conclusion, Beaty remarks that comic fans are just not qualified to evaluate whether Wertham’s data is scientific. This is wrong on two accounts. Many, including myself, as laypeople, could easily be fooled into accepting, as scientific, evidence that an expert could equally easily dismiss. That does not, however, imply that we laypeople are unable to recognize the absence of scientific data. But even if it is assumed that laypeople are not qualified, not all Wertham’s critics would be described as laypeople. Beaty’s own account in this book provides a number of critics who concluded that Wertham had not presented scientific evidence. Beaty has failed to shown them wrong. Wertham never presented his studies in a scientific journal or publication so the data was never subjected to any peer review. Under these conditions how could Wertham’s analysis possibly be called scientific?

I do not believe it is necessary that I agree with an author in order to find a book rewarding. Provide a well thought out argument along with a good presentation and I will be pleased even if unconvinced. Beaty certainly has done that throughout this book with the exception of the conclusion. While I found “Fredric Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture” very engaging I believe Bart Beaty completely failed in his objective of repairing Wertham’s image. There seems no justification for accepting “Seduction of the Innocent” as a useful resource. Therefore Fredric Wertham’s book should remain discredited and nothing more then a cautionary footnote to history.

Fredric Wertham’s “Seduction of the Innocent”

In a recent post I showed that data suggested that the cause of the decline of comics in the mid 50’s could be attributed to the effects of Fredric Wertham’s book “Seduction of the Innocent” (1954). This issue is of importance not only to the history of comics in general but also to the break up of the Simon and Kirby collaboration. I had also previously reviewed David Hajdu’s book “The Ten Cent Plague” which traced the history of the anti-comic campaign. Historical books are important but I also felt that a reading of the seminal “Seduction of the Innocent” itself was in order.

I really had no idea what to expect. Of course I knew about how down right silly some of his conclusions sounded such as that Batman and Robin projected a homosexual relationship. I had also understood from second hand sources that Wertham really did not have scientific evidence to backup his claim about the link between comic books and juvenile delinquency. But the whole idea of reading this book was to allow Wertham to in effect plead his own case and so I tried to keep an open mind while I read it.

As I said I really did not know what to expect but I never thought I would find this book so poorly written. Wertham was a psychiatrist some of whose writings were included in medical and scholarly journals. I knew that “Seduction of the Innocent” was written for the general public but I still expected a well ordered and reasoned presentation. Instead I found it filled with histrionics and that Wertham’s train of thought seemed to wander erratically. There was an overall structure provided by the chapters but within a paragraph it could frequently seem like a stream of consciousness. Let me provide an example paragraph (pages 33 and 34):

This Superman-Batman-Wonder Woman group is a special form of crime comics. The gun advertisements are elaborate and realistic. In one story a foreign-looking scientist starts a green-shirt movement. Several boys told me that they thought he looked like Einstein. No person and no democratic agency can stop him. In requires the female superman, Wonder Woman. One picture shows the scientist addressing a public meeting:
“So my fellow Americans, it is time to give America back to Americans! Don’t let foreigners take your jobs!”

Admittedly this is a particularly egregious example in that each sentence seems to take the reader in a different direction. However disjointed paragraphs are found in great abundance throughout the book. As for the histrionics here is an example of the extremes he could go (pages 95 and 96):

What in a few words is the essential ethical teaching of crime comics for children? I find it well and accurately summarized in this brief quotation:

It is not a question of right, but of winning. Close your heart against compassion. Brutality does it. The stronger is in the right. Greatest hardness. Follow your opponent till he is crushed.

These words were the instructions given on August 22, 1939, by a superman in his home in Berchtesgaden to his generals, to serve as guiding lines for the treatment of the population in the impending war on Poland.

Literary criticism aside, what matters most is what points was Wertham trying to make, how well did he support his arguments and how creditable was he? My summary of the primary views found in “Seduction of the Innocent” would be:

  1. Comic books promote violence and crime in children.
  2. Comic books promote racism.
  3. Comic book can lead to impaired reading ability.
  4. Comic books desensitize their readers to good literature.

I am not saying these were the only issues but I feel they were the most important. For instance Wertham does raise the concern that romance comics may adversely affect sexual morals. But that occupies only a small portion of his writing and he seems much more concerned that the types of violence shown in comics toward women may lead readers to become sexually aberrant.

Undoubtedly for Wertham the most important criticism against comic books was the first, the connection between comic books and juvenile delinquency. Wertham believed that crime comic books promoted the criminals as the real heroes of their stories. That in particular the violence portrayed in the stories influenced the behavior of many youngsters. Further that crime comics gave instructions on how to actually commit crimes. Also that advertisements found in comics even provided the source from which youngsters could obtain weapons. Wertham’s classification of comics was not the same as commonly used today. For Wertham the crime comics also included westerns and superheroes. Any story that included a crime would be classified as a crime comic. For other reasons Wertham also criticized romance and horror comics as well. “Seduction of the Innocent” was not just a critique of comic books it was also a call for legislation action to ban all objectionable comics. As far as I can tell no category of comics completely escaped Wertham’s wrath. He even had complaints about some from the funny animal genre.

Wertham’s charges against comics were serious and, if true, a justifiable cause for action. So where did Wertham get the evidence to support his claims? Wertham placed much emphasis on his clinical studies. Wertham was a psychiatrist who did work in various clinics and hospitals. He also worked with children caught and subjected to the legal system. Wertham felt that clinical studies were the best method to determine the underlying reasons for the problems suffered by children and he was very critical of other study techniques. Another much used source of evidence could be considered as part of his clinical studies. It was the Hookey Club. This was something akin to group therapy where various children were brought together to discuss the individual member’s problems and come up with suggestions to help. The Hookey club acted as a sort of judge and jury and so it might be considered distinct from a more typical therapy group. Wertham would be present as well but he makes it sound like his actual participation was limited. The final important source of evidence was a study of the comics themselves.

So how creditable was Wertham’s arguments and, most importantly, his evidence? Although Wertham spends some pages describing various means of testing children (such as Rorschach Test) he does not explain how they were used to address the supposed connection between comic books and juvenile crime. Nor does he explain precisely what he means by clinical studies. Perhaps this lack is understandable in a publication for the general public However he does not supply any references for papers on the subject that he had written for some technical journal. As far as I have been able to determine Wertham never published any articles on his study of the comic book and juvenile delinquency in any journal of psychiatry or psychology. This is troublesome because while I might not understand his research methods well enough, I am also unable to see how his peers felt about his methodology either. In the end Wertham only has his authority as an expert to support his claim that his clinic studies prove the connection between comic books and juvenile delinquency. It bothered me while I was reading this book that time and time again when writing about others who disagreed with his findings Wertham would call for the scientific evidence that supported his critic’s position. Yet Wertham never truly supplied the evidence to back up his own claims.

Now I am far from an expert in Wertham’s field but I am going to hazard some observations nonetheless. I believe that what Wertham calls clinical studies is the understandings that he gained while treating patients. Now this might not be a bad approach for studying physical illnesses but for me it poses serious issues when it comes to mental problems. Treatment of mental problems does not go in one direction. It is not the patient supplying all the information nor is it the doctor doing the treatment based on his examination alone. Both the patient and the doctor take part in the process. With such give and take between the patient and the doctor how is it possible to be certain what is learned from the patient and what comes from the doctor’s preconceived notions? This does not seem like an objective methodology to me.

This concerns me because the comments that he reports coming from young patients often sound suspiciously like Wertham’s own views. I find the following statement by a member of the Hookey Club particularly suspicious (page 71):

You don’t have to think of it, it is in the back of your mind, in your subconscious mind.

May be I am wrong, but talking about “subconscious mind” does not sound like the terms that a youngster would normally use to me. This suggests that Wertham was more then just an observer at the meetings of the Hookey Club. If Wertham had influenced the Hookey Club in this way what other statements by Hookey Club members might what have actually been influenced by Wertham? Here is another example (page 192):

Like many other homoerotically inclined children, he was a special devotee of Batman: “Sometimes I read them over and over again. They show off a lot. I don’t remember Batman’s name…”

How creditable is it that someone who really so wrapped up in Batman would not remember his secret identity? More probable is that this member really was not that much of a fan but was saying what he thought Wertham wanted to hear.

The other area of evidence that Wertham used was from the comics themselves. Wertham said he made a careful and detailed study of comics and berated his critics for not having done so. Unfortunately Wertham frequently cited information about comics without identifying what comics the information was based on. This makes verifying some of his statements difficult if not impossible. And I do wonder how careful his studies of comic books were. For instance (page 106):

“You know,” the boy said, “what I really like is the Blue Beetle [a figure in a very violent crime comic book]. I read that many times. That’s what I dreamed about. I don’t have it at home; I get it at another boy’s house.”

“Who is the Blue Beetle?”

“He is like Superman. He is a beetle, but he changes into Superman and afterwards he changes into a beetle again. When he’s Superman he knocks them out. Superman knocks them out with his fist. They fall down on the floor.”

“If you say it is like Superman, how do you know it is?”

“I read the Superman stories. He catches them. Superman knocks the guys out.”

It is not difficult to understand that a child stimulated to fantasies about violent and sadistic adventures and about a man who changes into an insect gets frightened. Kafka for the kiddies!

But the boy’s description of the Blue Beetle turning back into a real beetle is completely inaccurate. Sure it is a child’s mistake but Wertham acceptance of it indicates he really was not that familiar with the character and therefore casts doubt as to how thorough his study of the original comic books was. Here is another (page 257):

This I am told has something to do with the Post Office regulations according to which they may change the name but must keep the number, to keep some sort of connection with the former product. So Crime may become Love; Outer Space, the Jungle; Perfect Crime, War; Romance, Science Fiction; Young Love, Horror; while the numbers remain consecutive.

Wertham’s book was published his book in 1954 at which time Young Love was still a running comic and one that never changed its name to Horror as he claims. If Wertham is so loose with his facts when trying to make this unimportant point how can he be trusted about other claims he makes about the actual comic books?

Wertham repeatedly claims that comic books provide instructions to youngsters on how to commit crimes. Note how the above comic book image taken from his book is titled by Wertham “Diagram for housebreakers”. Is it really? A careful reading shows that without a doubt it is showing how to lock a window not how to break in. As usual Wertham does not supply what comic he got this from. However I am pretty certain that this panel was from a murder mystery. The story would have been about a dead victim that had been found in a locked room; a not too uncommon plot device and not just found in comic books. The diagram would have been used at the end of the story to explain how the murder managed exit the room while leaving it locked. This technique would have been of no help to anyone wanting to commit breaking and entry.

Having finished “Seduction of the Innocent” I cannot help but wonder about the postscript. The Comic Code Authority completely changed comics. Crime comics did not last long. Horror comics became so innocuous that it seems strange to apply that name to them. I wonder what Wertham felt about the Comic Code? I suspect he was not happy. I believe that he wanted the elimination of all violence from comics and would have not approved of even the mild form that remained. That Superman could continue would probably been enough for Wertham to condemn the Code. Wertham believed that characters like Superman advanced racism and supported an almost fascist like view.

I also wonder what he would have felt about television. At the end of “Seduction of the Innocent” he does discuss the then new media. After his complete condemnation of comic books, it is surprising to read his glowing opinion of TV. Not that he thought it did not problems, but like so many other things he blamed that on the influence of comic books. Wertham felt that if that comic book influence could be removed that television would have a great positive affect. It must have been a bitter disappointment that after the Comic Code television did not flower as he predicted.

In summary there is reason to question what Wertham wrote in “Seduction of the Innocent”. My reading of this book leads me to my own prognosis of Wertham himself. I have full confidence in the intelligence of my readers and so I have no doubt that all will understand the technical term that should be applied to Wertham. He was a quack. There is no question that “Seduction of the Innocent” had a great impact at the time it was released. I just do not understand why. It got lots of reviews but did anybody actually read it? This book is so seriously and obviously flawed I am amazed that people were taken in by it. I can only surmise that people were so impressed by Wertham’s credentials that they were willing to believe what he had to say based on his authority as an expert.

Fortunately Fredric Wertham’s “Seduction of the Innocent” has become nothing more then a cautionary footnote in the pages of history. Wertham is fully discredited even by those who do not share my view that he was responsible for the decline of comic books. Or is he? Next on my reading list is “Fredric Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture” by Bart Beaty (2005). My understanding is that this book attempts to restore Wertham’s image. I am sure I will have something to write about when I have finished that book.

The Real Reason for the Decline of Comics

When I reviewed Michelle Nolan’s recent book, “Love on the Racks”, I mentioned that I sometimes had trouble keeping track of the numbers that she would cite to illustrate the ups and downs of romance comics. I therefore resolved to try to make a graphic presentation. I used the data collected by Dan Stevenson found in “All the Romance Comics Ever Published (?)”. As I previously described, what I have done was followed the time during which each romance title appeared and counted up the number of titles that could be expected to be out each month. Bimonthlies were treated as being out in the in-between months (it is not an unreasonable assumption that they would actually stayed on the racks for a couple of months).

Tracking the number of titles provides an indirect indication of the popularity of the romance genre over time. After all if a title sells well enough a publisher is likely to introduce a new one in the same genre, while if sales are poor the title is likely to be cancelled. Thus in such a free market the number of titles is a fair reflection of the popularity of romance comics. There is one important caveat to this statement and that has to do with response time. With comic books it took one to two months to prepare the art, a month for the printing, and another month for the distribution. Comic books were released on assignment and profits were based on the comics actually sold. The publisher would not know how well a particular issue sold for at least a couple of months, if not more. This means that by the time the first indications reached a publisher of how successful a new title was there already may have been as many as four issues released (assuming it is a monthly). Further a publisher might want to give a new title a chance to gain its audience so even further issues might be issued before a poorly selling title might be cancelled.

Romance Titles
Romance Titles over Time

The lag between release of a new title and the cancellation if it sold poorly is the explanation for the love glut. I previously showed the graph just for the glut itself but the above chart for the entire history of romance comics puts it into a better perspective. The rapidness of the ascent, the height achieved, and the quickness of the decline are unmatched in any other period. Probably unmatched by any other comic book genre as well.

As interesting and distinct as the love glut is revealed in this graph, there are other features that call for explanation. Initially I thought to divide up the chart into three distinct periods. The first period would begin with the love glut and last until early in 1957. The ending for the second period is not as distinct but could be placed between 1963 and early 1965. The final period lasted until late 1977 when the romance genre disappeared. The two small blips (1979/80 and 1982/83) are nothing more then failed revival attempts.

Romance Titles by Individual Publishers
Romance Titles for All Publishers
Different colors are used for the graphs of the individual publishers

I also plotted the number of romance titles for each publisher. Now the reader should not strain themselves trying to understand the ups and downs of the individual publishers. Even with a much larger image then the one I provide above I could never truly distinguish what was going on. This chart does reveal some interesting features. One is how distinct the love glut was even when broken down into the individual publishers. This is because of overzealous actions of four in particular (Timely, Fox, Fawcett and Quality) who combined contributed to about two thirds of the love glut.

Although part of the chart is pure confusion it becomes more understandable from 1957 on. Initially there were a lot of different publishers pursuing the romance comic market but after 1957 their number became drastically reduced. For much of the ending period there were only two or three publishers of romance comics. I will be returning to phenomena below where I will present another way of examining it.

Perhaps the most unusual feature of the chart is the dominance of one publisher from 1957 on. This publisher released romance titles at levels that was only exceeded by Timely, Fox, Fawcett and Quality during the love glut and at one point (1963) was only surpassed by Timely’s peak. Who was the successful publisher? Well it was Charlton. In a free market the number of romance title was supposed to reflect their popularity. Does this mean during the later period Charlton love comics became the most popular of the genre even more successful then any other publisher throughout the history of the romance comics? Not really. Charlton was unique among the romance publishers in that they printed their own comics as well. Charlton would actual save money by keeping the print press continually running. Therefore the company had an incentive to publish comics that had low profits providing they were not actually losing money. Unfortunately that means Charlton is not running under quite the same version of the free market that the other publishers who would be less willing to put effort into titles that produced low profit. Therefore Charlton distorts the picture provided by the first chart.

Romance Titles by Charlton and All Other Publisers
Romance Titles by Charlton and All Other Publishers
Charlton in red, all other publishers in blue

To judge how Charlton was distorting the data, I graphed Charlton separately from all other publishers. This graph shows that what I originally thought was a middle period was actually due to affects of one publisher, Charlton. It might be interesting to determine the meaning of Charlton’s downturn from 1963 to 1965 but that explanation would only enlighten Charlton’s history not to the history of romance comics in general. Therefore I now divide the history of love comics into two periods; an early or flourishing period and a final or waning period. The transition between the two periods is very sharp and that feature is unchanged whether the Charlton data is included or not.

The early period begins with the love glut and last until early in 1957. This is the heyday of romance comics. I would love to call it their golden age but that would only cause confusion as that term is often used among comics in general for an earlier period. It certainly was a good period for publishers of romance comics. Although we can see a lot of fluctuations in the number of titles there were about 50 toward the end of the prime period which is a respectable number for any genre. There are features in this period I would like to understand in particular the two mini-peaks that occurred after the love glut. Were they a similar, but more reduced, version of a phenomenon like the love glut? That is could they have been caused by publishers trying to cash into the popularity of romance comics, albeit with more caution then previously? Or was the popularity of romance comics at that time being influenced by something else as for example the general state of the economy (the trickle down effect)? At this time I have not drawn any conclusions on the matter but the subject deserves more investigation.

Romance Publishers
Romance Publishers and Titles
Number of romance publishers in blue, compared with a scaled version of the number of romance titles in red

When I charted the romance titles for each publisher (the second graph) there seemed to be a decline in the number of publishers at approximately the end of the flourishing period. Because that graph was much too confusing to make out the details I decided to chart the number of romance publishers which is shown just above. To help relate the variations in romance publishers to that of romance titles I included the romance titles graph scaled to approximately fit the chart of the romance publishers during the early period. As can be seen there is some good correspondence between the two charts. In particular both graphs show a rapid decline at the end of the flourishing period which terminates at the same February 1957 date. This is not too surprising because a free market affects both the number of publishers as well as the number of titles. Note however that when the number of romance titles was scaled to match the number of publishers during the flourishing period, there are proportionally more titles then publishers during the waning period. One explanation for this divergence is that those publishers who continued to do romance comics were able to increase the number of romance titles they released because of the decrease in the number of competing romance publishers. However remembering how Charlton’s desire to keep their presses running had distorted the romance title graph during the waning period I decided to compare the two graphs with Charlton removed.

Romance Publishers Excluding Charlton
Romance Publishers and Titles Excluding Charlton
Number of romance publishers in blue, compared with a scaled version of the number of romance titles in red

Once Charlton is removed from the picture, the graphs of the number of romance publishers and the scaled version of the number of titles has become remarkably similar. Thus the number of romance publishers and the number of love titles they released both seem to be subject to a free market and both are good indicators of the popularity of love comics.

Either of the charts, including or excluding Charlton, says pretty much the same thing. In the discussion below I will be using the graphs that include Charlton. The most interesting thing about the early period is the rapid decline that ended it. From a local high of 23 romance publishers with 70 titles at June 1954 the number of publishers steadily declined until February 1957 when there were only 7 romance publishers with a total of 29 titles. While the decline in romance publisher was continuous, the decline in titles hovered around the 50 titles mark for much of this period.

It was not just romance, instead there was a decline in comics of all genre at approximately this same time. I have heard two explanations for this. One is that the blame falls on the Comic Code. The idea being that with the heavy censuring of the comic code the quality of the stories declines and many readers lost interest and stopped buying comics. The problem with this explanation is that the Comic Code stamp started appearing on comics on or about March 1955. However the rapid decline had actually started many months before.

Another explanation advanced for the decline of comics of all genres is the rise of televisions. I have two problems with this explanation. One is this presumes that entertainment is a zero sum game. That is the audience for television could not grow without taking readership away from comics. I am not convinced that is true. Secondly the American public did not suddenly buy televisions. TV’s began to appear in the late ’40s however the public’s response was not immediate but was spread out over many years. The end of the prime period occurs over much too short a time to be due to the increased dominance of televisions. So I am unsatisfied with this explanation as well.

Is there any other candidate for the decline that started after June 1954? Well actually there was. June 1954 was the peak but that meant the actual first decline started in July. The dates I have been using are cover dates, which are actually a couple of months later then the true colander date of their release. So the first decline was really in May. April 23 and 23 marked the dates for the Kefauver Senate hearings about the supposed effect of comic books on the youth of America. But the Senate hearings did not come out of the blue; they were part of the response to the public outcry brought on by the book “Seduction of the Innocents” of Dr. Frederick Wertham. There were anti-comic sentiments prior to Wertham’s book, as shown in the recent book “The Ten Cent Plague” by David Hajdu. In fact Wertham had played a part in the earlier anti-comic feelings as well. But using his status as an expert (and without any real scientific evidence) Wertham and his book incited a reaction against comic books greater then ever seen before. As I said his book led to the Kefauver Senate hearings but it had an even more immediate result. There were newsstands and other sellers of comic books that began to refuse comics they considered objectionable. This decrease in sales in turn lead to the failure of the distributor Leading News which in turn lead to the decline of some comic publishers most importantly EC. A later result was the creation of the Comic Code Authority which only made matters worse. All of this started with “Seduction of the Innocent” so the ultimate case of the collapse of comic books can be traced to one supposed expert Dr. Frederick Wertham.

But what if there was no Wertham and “Seduction of the Innocents”? Well such questions can never be answered with complete assurance. Anti-comic sentiments did exist and there were other public figures to promote them. If the previous history of comic criticism was any example then there is no reason to believe that the publishers would ever been faced with much difficulty. What seemed to be needed to bring anti-comic feelings to a significant level was some spokesman like Wirtham. There is no way of knowing whether without Wirtham some other spokesman would have arisen. But it would seem that without Wirtham at least the timing would have been altered and history would have played out differently. How different cannot be guessed.

Another question is that if comics were a free market system, why did not the publishers remaining during the waning period just increase their number of romance titles to bring the number of titles up to levels more closely approximately that of the flourishing period? The answer to that is that not all publishers and their comic titles are alike. This should not be surprising as even today collectors tend to focus on particular comics. Readers were not satisfied to read any comic on the racks but each had their own favorite titles and publishers. When particular publishers disappeared their fans were less satisfied with what remained and less likely to switch to another publisher. The drop in story quality with the Comic Code did not help matters either.

“The Ten-Cent Plague” by David Hajdu

I have just finished reading David Hajdu’s new book “The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America”. Hajdu is not a comic book historian; most of his previous writings have concerned music. I have always meant to read his “Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Farina and Richard Farina” which as I remember got great reviews. I think I should correct myself, David may not have previously been a comic historian but he certainly is one now. This is a great book describing the rise and affect of the anti-comic book sentiment. Most comic fans awareness of this subject is limited to Dr. Wertham’s “Seduction of the Innocent” and the effect of the Comic Code but Hajdu probes much more deeply. I did notice a couple of small errors, for instance he mentions Bullseye and Western Scout as titles for Simon and Kirby’s Mainline Publications but Western Scout was used as a description for Bullseye and was never an independent title. As far as I can tell such errors are few and very minor, they never affect the subject of the book. The book has an appendix of comic artists who abandoned or were abandoned by the industry because of all the negative reaction and the drop in comic book sales that resulted. This list is impressively long and chilling in effect. In the serial post The Art of Romance I have already noted the presence in that list of some artists who had worked for Simon and Kirby.

I got a big kick out of some of the photographs in this book. One shows two young boys trading “bad” comics for “good” ones. The comic at the top of the pile held by one of the boys was “Justice Traps the Guilty”. Right next to that photo is another of a woman taping a small sign onto a store window identifying it as one that sells only “good” comics. You can see the comic book rack through the window and one of the titles being sold was “Fighting American”. Both titles were originally Simon and Kirby creations although they may not have been producing Justice Traps the Guilty at the time the photograph was taken. So Joe and Jack were both a corrupting and a beneficial influence on youngsters. Go figure.

I am sure that not only comic book fans will appreciate this book but certainly anyone interested in comics of the late ’40s and ’50s should read it. Is this book a one time entry by David Hajdu into the field of comic history? I hope not as he provides a great perspective on comics.