I promised a history lesson a few days back, so I hope you're sitting comfortably. Unlike a lot of history lessons that I had at school, though, this one's actually interesting, and it involves political drama and comic books. It also involves scaremongering, paranoia, lapses in logic and denial of the First Amendment. Mostly, though, it involves a German-born psychiatrist by the name of Doctor Fredric Wertham.
Wertham was originally from Munich, but after qualifying as a psychiatrist had moved to the US and settled in New York, where he had become a specialist in the treatment of juvenile delinquents and disturbed and troubled children. He had also written a book called Dark Legend, which dealt with a young man who had turned to murder at the age of 17. Wertham picked up on the kinds of things that this boy had done in his free time, such as enjoy movies and comic books. Comic books were clearly the thing which stuck in Wertham's mind, and he began to formulate a theory that young people could be led down a bad path by the media which they consumed, comic books being foremost among these from Wertham's persepctive, mainly due to the fact that comic books were created to be entertainment for children. We can get very high-faluting about comic books nowadays, but the fact remains that they originated as colourful and disposable distractions for young kids, and many would say that most of them have never quite risen above that (not that they necessarily should have to, but I digress). He wrote several articles for noted psychiatric publications, one of which was entitled "Horror in the Nursery". This kind of sensationalism might not have been very appropriate for a supposedly professional doctor, but it was to be an indicator of the kind of rabble-rousing that Wertham would later embrace wholeheartedly.
Wertham became quite notorious on the juvenile delinquency criminal court circuit, frequently being called as an expert witness to testify to what he saw as the fact that comic books turned kids bad. For Wertham, there were no two ways about it - there was no greater threat to the morality of America's youth than American media, and no more pernicious corner of that same media than comic books. He believed that they weren't conducive to good "mental hygiene", and that they led children into criminal activity, mainly based on the fact that the majority of his young patients read them. This was what led him to publish the work for which he is most famous, and which causes his shadow still to be cast over the American comic book industry today - Seduction of the Innocent.
This book was inflammatory, from its title - which, consciously or not, echoed the very same lurid comic books that Wertham himself sought to do away with - to its content. In this book, Wertham put forward the position that there was no such thing as a comic which did not corrupt children. To give him the tiny bit of credit which he is due, his main targets were the horror and crime comics published by companies like EC, who are best known today for being the birthplace of the Tales from the Crypt brand and the original publishers of Mad Magazine. These were, in fairness, not suitable for younger kids, even though there was nothing spectacularly traumatising contained within their pages. To Wertham, though, every single comic was a crime comic. He believed that the Western genre was another branch of the crime genre, in that Western comic books "describe every kind of crime". War comics were "just another setting for comic book violence" and even the patently daft funny animal comics depicted crime in the form of ducks attempting to do in rabbits. It seemed that Wertham wasn't down on comics because they depicted violence and led children to crime, but that he believed that comics led children to crime and he saw violence in all of them because he was down on comic books. His lack of favour towards crime and horror comics had become a monomania.
In any other set of circumstances, Wertham could have been a Pat Pulling for the 1950s - a ranting kook whose views stayed on the fringes where they belonged. Unfortunately, they came at a time when McCarthyism was at its height. America had been at war for so long that its power blocs had forgotten that not everyone was their enemy, and had turned their attentions inward and begun to attack their own people. The Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency, led by one-time Democratic Presidential hopeful Estes Kefauver (he was defeated for the nomination by Adlai Stevenson in 1952), had been established in an attempt to root out criminal elements of America's youth. Kefauver himself was a staunch anti-crime crusader, having held televised hearings investigating organised crime. Kefauver, together with chairman William Langer and executive director Richard Clendenen, decided that they had to have Wertham testify before them, and bring his experience to bear.
When Wertham took the stand, he found out that he had an ally in Clendenen, who was all too willing to let him push his half-baked theories as scientific fact (Wertham had evidently never considered that although many of his patients were comic book readers, it was likely that the majority of well-adjusted kids whom he never encountered in his work also read the same books without any noticeable ill-effects). Wertham gave a great deal of testimony to the Subcommittee, including such gems as his belief that romance comics led to child prostitution, that comedy characters such as Millie the Model would encourage young girls to stuff their blouses with tissue paper in order to emulate the "protruding breasts" of the actually none-more-wholesome lead characters, and that any expert whose opinion differed from his own was taking a bung from the comic book publishers.
Perhaps his most famous bit of barely-believable hokum concerned Batman and Robin, and he's famously quoted as identifying them as "corrupting" children into homosexuality. The most notorious passage from Seduction of the Innocent is almost amusing: "At home they lead an idyllic life. They are Bruce Wayne and 'Dick' Grayson. Bruce Wayne is described as a "socialite" and the official relationship is that Dick is Bruce's ward. They live in sumptuous quarters, with beautiful flowers in large vases, and have a butler, Alfred. Bruce is sometimes shown in a dressing gown. As they sit by the fireplace the young boy sometimes worries about his partner... it is like a wish dream of two homosexuals living together". While this has to be read in the context of the prevailing mores of a 1950s American society which was prone to suspicion of itself with little provocation, it's not beyond the bounds of sensibility to say that Wertham was reaching more than just a little here.
The findings of the Subcommittee were never finalised. The hearings were adjourned and never reconvened, with Kefauver and Langer evidently finding them more than a little preposterous, and a waste of time when faced with genuinely pressing criminal influences. The damage had been done, though. A large number of comics creators had been investigated by the Subcommittee (as fictionalised in Michael Chabon's Pulitzer-winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay), and the industry was running scared, as the public were making their concerns known. Retailers boycotted comics, books were burned, and plenty of smaller companies went bankrupt. In order to try to combat this, the industry (or what was left of it) instituted a self-regulatory body - the Comics Code Authority. The Code put in place a draconian self-censorship programme which, for instance, disallowed the presentation of "policemen, judges, government officials, and respected institutions ... in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority." It also completely banned several words, such as "zombie", "crime" and "terror", from use in comics. Comics were not allowed to refer to homosexuality at all until 1989 if they wanted Code approval. Rather than establish a more morally sound comics industry, it drove it practically to extinction, and left what little remained a neutered shadow of what it previously was.
Even today, the Comics Code Authority stamp of approval on the front of a comic is looked on by some retail outlets as the only guide to whether a comic book is suitable for sale. Never mind the fact that most comics companies no longer submit to the Code (although this took until 2001 for Marvel Comics, and DC still submits most of its line for approval), of course - we appear to have grown out of it, thankfully. It might not be the case, looking around at so much of the pabulum pushed by the major publishers, that the comics industry is actually maturing and producing entertainment primarily for adults, but at the very least it appears to be accepting responsibility for itself and its own material. What Doctor Wertham would have made of all this, it's not for me to speculate, although I imagine he probably wouldn't have been a massive fan of Hellboy.
That's the end of the lesson. Hand in your homework as you leave, and everyone remember to bring in their field trip permission slips tomorrow.