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Dr. Fedric Wertham and the Seduction of the Innocent

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Dr. Fedric Wertham and the "Seduction of the Innocent"

First UK Printing of Seduction of the Innocent

In 1954, Rinehart & Company, Inc. published Seduction of the Innocent, a book by German-born American psychiatrist Fredric Wertham, a critique of the comic book industry and its alleged negative effects on children. Wertham argued that comic books, particularly those featuring crime and horror themes, were responsible for juvenile delinquency and indoctrinated children into Homosexuality and Sadism.

Wertham had been speaking and writing about the dangers of comics since 1948. So his book was the culmination of his work on the subject, not new material.

Here are a collection of some of Werthan's most entertaining arguments that comics promoted of sadism:

  • The scenes of sadism, sex and crime in comic books arouse the child’s emotions, but leave him only a limited scope of release in action. These actions can only be masturbatory or delinquent.
  • The keynote of the comic books’ sexual message, drummed into children from a tender age on, is the admixture of sensuality with cruelty. The illustrations are, as the Art Digest called them, 'perverted.' It is a special perversion that they cultivate most of all, sadism.
  • Homosexual childhood prostitution, especially in boys, is often associated with stealing and with violence. For all these activities children are softened up by comic books. Their superego formation with regard to sex is interfered with in a subtle way: everything is permitted to men in comic books and there is constant sex stimulation.
  • As our work went on we established the basic ingredients of the most numerous and widely read comic books: violence; sadism and cruelty; the superman philosophy, an offshoot of Nietzsche’s superman who said, 'When you go to women, don’t forget the whip.'
Image and caption from the book

Here are a collection of some of Werthan's most entertaining arguments that comics would turn children homosexual as well:

  • In other run-of-the-mill comic books, as was first pointed out to me by adolescents who collected them, special emphasis is given in whole series of illustrations to girls’ buttocks. This is a kind of fetichism and in some individuals leads to rigid fetichistic tendencies either in fantasy or in actual life later. Such preoccupations, as we know from psychoanalytic and Rorschach studies, may have a relationship also to early homosexual attitudes.
  • Several years ago a California psychiatrist pointed out that the Batman stories are psychologically homosexual. Our researehes confirm this entirely. Only someone ignorant of the fundamentals of psychiatry and of the psychopathology of sex can fail to reahze a subtle atmosphere of homoerotism which pervades the adventures of the mature “Batman” and his young friend “Robin.”
  • The Lesbian counterpart of Batman may be found in the stories of Wonder Woman and Black Cat. The homosexual connotation of the Wonder Woman type of story is psychologically unmistakable. The Psychiatric Quarterly deplored in an editorial the 'appearance of an eminent child therapist as the implied endorser of a series . . . which portrays extremely sadistic hatred of all males in a framework which is plainly Lesbian.'
  • Wonder Woman scaring nazis Wonder Woman is always a horror type. She is 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.
  • For boys, Wonder Woman is a frightening image. For girls she is a morbid ideal. Where Batman is anti-feminine, the attractive Wonder Woman and her counterparts are definitely anti-masculine. Wonder Woman has her own female following. They are all continuously being threatened, captured, almost put to death. There is a great deal of mutual rescuing, the same type of rescue fantasies as in Batman. ... In a typical story, Wonder Woman is involved in adventures with another girl, a princess, who talks repeatedly about “those wicked men.”
  • As to the 'advanced femininity,' what are the activities in comic books which women 'indulge in on an equal footing with men'? They do not work. They are not homemakers. They do not bring up a family. Mother-love is entirely absent. Even when Wonder Woman adopts a girl there are Lesbian overtones. ... In no other literature for children has the image of womanhood been so degraded.
  • Wonder Woman is not the natural daughter of a natural mother, nor was she born like Athena from the head of Zeus. She was concocted on a sales formula. Her originator, a psychologist retained by the industry, has described it: 'ho wants to be a girl? And that’s the point. Not even girls want to be girls. . . . The obvious remedy is to create a feminine character with all the strength of Superman. . . . Give (men) an alluring woman stronger than themselves to submit to and they’ll be proud to become her willing slaves.'
  • I have never seen in any of the crime, superman, adventure, space, horror, etc., comic books a normal family sitting down at a meal. I have seen an elaborate, charming breakfast scene, but it was between Batman and his boy, complete with checkered tablecloth, milk, cereal, fruit juice, dressing-gown and newspaper. And I have seen a parallel scene with the same implications when Wonder Woman had breakfast with an admiring young girl, with cheekered table cloth, cereal, milk, toast and the kitchen sink filled with dishes draining in the background.
Wonder Woman at the breakfast table explaining the importance of a healthy breakfast to a little girl.

I haven't yet found the comic panel of Bruce Wayne enjoying breakfast with his ward, Dick Grayson. But Dr. Wertham might approve of this panel showing them waking up together in separate beds in the same bedroom.

Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson waking up togther in separate beds in the same bedroom.

Surprising, Werthanm doesn't have much to write about bondage, except in one caption for the cover of The Phantom Lady. She is tied to post in her standard uniform (revealing by 1940s standards) staring provocatively at the reader. Wertham's caption defines the image as Sexual stimulation by combining 'headlights' with the sadist's dream of tying up a woman.

And finally, here are Wertham's observations of the Fascism hidden in Superman comics:

The Superman type of comic books tends to force and superforce. Dr. Paul A. Witty, professor of education at Northwestern University, has well described these comics when he said that they 'present our world in a kind of Fascist setting of violence and hate and destruction. I think it is bad for children,' he goes on, 'to get that kind of recurring diet . . . [they] place too much emphasis on a Fascist society. Therefore the democratic ideals that we should seek are likely to be overlooked.'

Actually, Superman (with the big S on his uniform—we should, I suppose, be thankful that it is not an S.S.) needs an endless stream of ever new submen, criminals and “foreign-looking” people not only to justify his existence but even to make it possible. It is this feature that engenders in children either one or the other of two attitudes: either they fantasy themselves as supermen, with the attendant prejudices against the submen, or it makes them submissive and receptive to the blandishments of strong men who will solve all their social problems for them—by force.

On that note, it's worth noting the Superman's creators were Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, two young Jewish men from Cleveland, OH. Also, Harry Donenfeld, the owner of National Allied Publications, which distributed the comics containing Superman's adventures, was also Jewish. It seems unlikely, in light of Nazi antisemistism, that any of them would be sympathetic to Fascism.

Wertham also came from a Jewish family, so he might have been very sensitive about the possible influence of anything resembling Fasicism or Nazism. Or he might have been sensitive about how frequently the villians in these comics (particularly the superhero comics) were foreigners or foreign-looking. And he might have encountered a lot of suspicion and hostility in his personal and professional life as an imigrant from Germany. It would have been understandable if he used anti-fascist talking points in order to distant himself from the Nazies and demonstrate his American patriotism and loyality to Democratic ideals.

The Seal of the Comics Code Authority

After the publication of the book, Wertham appeared before the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency chaired by Senator Estes Kefauver. The hearing was broadcast on television and received media attention. In the months following, 15 comic book publishers went out of business and the industry adopted the Comics Code Authority, a self-regulatory organization widely blamed for a period of creative stagnation for the industry.

Today, Wertham's theories and methodology have been discredited and he is reviled by milions of comic book fans. It's understandable but unfortunate that his more positive contributions and laudable efforts have been overlooked. He worked with disadvantaged and marginalized communities such as African Americans and Puerto Ricans. He argued that mental illness was influenced by social and cultural factors such as poverty, racism, and oppression and not solely the result of biological factors. It's a shame that he is remembered more for the moral panic he encourgaged than for his progressive theories and his work on behalf of minority populations.

Image and caption from the book

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Moral panic about comic books in the '50s

Length: 08:18

This video excerpt from a comic-book documentary highlights the ridiculous moral panic that overtook the U.S. in the 1950s about comic books. The utter absurdity of the concern is identical to the hysteria going on today about the nonexistent so-called "childhood weight epidemic."

Every few decades, it seems, the public needs to create a fictional crisis about youth, then start behaving like witch-hunters of the Middle Ages in trying to address it


CITE: Proekuls Moral panic about comic books in the '50s YouTube

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Confidential File: Horror Comic Books!

Length: 25:29

A report by Paul Coates. Produced by Jim Peck. Directed by Irvin Kershner. Aired October 9, 1955. A KTTV Production, Los Angeles, for Times-Mirror.

"Confidential File" was aired in 1955, after the senate hearings and the formation of the Comics Code, but it serves as a perfect example of how the media reacted to the comic book industry, and sought a scape goat by blaming the comic book publications for society's own lack of responsibility in raising its children. A blame game that would later manifest itself when later TV cartoons, rock and roll music, Dungeons & Dragons, videogames, and so on would become the new whipping boy for those that didn't want to look to themselves for the state of their own children and society's sad state.

CITE: MattHawes Confidential File: Horror Comic Books! YouTube.

This video is popular. The same video is posted to YouTube multiple times by different posters:

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Dr. Fredric Wertham's Attacks on Wonder Woman | Robert Kirkman’s Secret History of Comics

Length: 02:53

Learn how one psychiatrist, Dr. Fredric Wertham, used his perceptions of sexual deviance in Wonder Woman and Batman to derail the comic book industry.

CITE: AMC+ Dr. Fredric Wertham's Attacks on Wonder Woman | Robert Kirkman’s Secret History of Comics YouTube

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Fredric Wetham on WNBC Radio, Author Meets The Critic - August 1948 - Comic Book Criticism & Defense

Length: 28:38

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