Comic books, psychiatrist Fredric Wertham argued in a 1953 Ladies Home Journal article that preceded his 1954 best-seller, Seduction of the Innocent, were instruction manuals for everything from shoplifting in department stores to tween lust-murder.
“If one were to set out how to teach children to steal, rob, lie, cheat, assault, and break into candy stores, no more insistent method could be devised,” he wrote. And they were so perniciously persuasive, they were corrupting the nation’s youth with startling speed, even making bad seeds worse. “Even psychotic children did not act like this fifteen years ago,” he concluded after listing a series of gruesome crimes allegedly inspired by comic books.
The evil spell that comic books were capable of casting apparently got to Werthem as well. While his campaign against brightly inked mayhem inspired a U.S. Senate hearing that led to industry self-regulation and the demise of hundreds of crime and horror titles, Carol Tilley, an assistant professor at the University of Illinois Graduate School of Library and Information Science, has discovered evidence that suggests Dr. Wertham bent the truth to fit his theories in Seduction of the Innocent.
Tilley details her finding in the November/December 2012 issue of Information & Culture. Comparing the actual transcripts of the cases studies that Wertham purported to describe in his book—involving youth he’d counseled in a Harlem clinic he founded—Tilley found that he frequently omitted, amended, and recontexualized information in ways that “change[d] the kids’ arguments or change[d] their viewpoints.”
In light of Tilley’s revelations, one can’t help but wonder: Why didn’t the senators who were giving the third degree to comic industry bigwigs like Bill Gaines question Dr. Wertham a little more assiduously about his work habits?
Government Issue: Comics for the People, a 2011 anthology compiled by Richard Graham, an associate professor and media services librarian at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, suggests an answer: If there was any entity that believed in the power of comic books to indoctrinate and instruct as Wertham did, it was the U.S. government.
In 1931, Graham notes, media research pioneer George Gallup published an analysis of newspaper readers in Des Moines, Iowa, that “showed that the least popular comic strip in the Sunday funnies was more widely read than the lead news story in the paper, and that adults as well as children were avid readers of the Sunday comics section.”
In short order, advertisers began presenting their pitches in the form of comic strips. A decade later, in the wake of an Advertising Research Foundation study that echoed Gallup’s findings, the U.S. Army started publishing comic books designed to impart various lessons to its troops.
Over the next decade, as critics like Wertham ramped up their campaign against the increasingly popular medium of comic books, the U.S. government itself published dozens of comics, a practice it continues to engage in, even today. (The most recent comic that Graham highlights, Squeaks Discovers Type, was published in 2010.)