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Or, seen a different way, the library shed light on one of the first psychologists to be concerned with pop culture’s effects on children’s mental health. Opinions vary, and people of good faith disagree, but for the few Americans who know who Fredric Wertham is, the ability to read through his letters is a big deal. That’s because Wertham wrote a book about comic books and juvenile delinquency, Seduction of the Innocent, which came out in 1954 as a culmination of a decade-long campaign against comic books, and it quickly became a rallying point for Cold War-era concerns about teenage culture. Although the library has had the records since 1987 (Wertham died in 1981), they’ve been sealed except to people approved by Wertham’s estate. In that time, only two—one who was explicitly friendly to Wertham’s legacy, the other accidently when restrictions briefly lapsed—were allowed to use them.
You might have missed the news, though: A librarian at the institution, Sara Duke, mentioned the opening of the collection on the Comix-Scholar e-mail list, but the library itself didn’t announce it on its blog until Aug. 27, a few weeks after I wrote about it on Arts Desk.
One oft-repeated notion is that Wertham was the comic book industry’s real-life villain—seen as “worse than the Joker, Lex Luthor, and Magneto combined,” comics historian Jeet Heer writes in a Slate review of David Hajdu’s book The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America. Heer writes: “For Wertham, even the most beloved comic-book heroes were suspect: Superman reminded him of Nazi Germany’s SS (a cadre of self-styled supermen), the adventures of Batman and Robin had homoerotic overtones, and Wonder Woman threatened to turn healthy young girls into lesbians.” Many collectors believe that Wertham almost destroyed comics—after being hauled to U.S. Senate hearings at which Wertham testified, publishers created the Comics Code Authority to police themselves, and began selling the bland superheroes that the 1960s Batman television show would mock. Amy Nyberg, the author of Seal Of Approval: The History Of The Comics Code (1998), places a good bit of the blame on Wertham. At the Senate hearings, she writes, “he took the position that comic books were harmful, and he pressed for legislation restricting the sale of comic books to children under age sixteen.”
But Nyberg’s view was still nuanced, and she was one of the first scholars to begin rehabilitating Wertham’s reputation. “Wertham’s argument was much more complex than the idea he was often accused of perpetrating: that there was a direct causal link between comic book reading and juvenile delinquency,” she writes. “The problem of juvenile delinquency, he believed, stemmed from the fact that society was trapped in a ‘cult of violence’ of which comic books were simply a manifestation.”
The Canadian writer Bart Beaty is one of the two people permitted (he was accidentally let in) to use the collection before this summer, and he has probably done the most to rehab the reputation of Wertham. With his 2005 book Fredric Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture, Beaty agrees that Wertham was right and comic books should have been regulated. Wertham’s research wouldn’t be accepted by most today, as it relied on anecdotal evidence from youngsters he saw in his Harlem practice, where he ran the Lafargue Psychiatric Clinic. However, in an online debate with Craig Fischer at The Comic Reporter, Beaty wrote, “When comic book fans tell me that Wertham should rot in hell for criticizing EC Comics I am mystified. Here’s a man who opened a free psychiatric clinic in Harlem at a time when he was one of a small handful of doctors who would even treat black psychiatric patients, working there no less then two nights each week as a volunteer, and providing testimony that was important to overturning American school segregation, and we’re worried about the fact that he didn’t like EC? Talk about missing the forest for the trees.”
The 88,000 items in Wertham’s papers include “notes, drafts, and related materials for Wertham’s major works, including Seduction of the Innocent,” according to the library. As for the other scholar allowed by Wertham’s family to access them? That was James Reibman.
Charles Hatfield, the author of Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature, says he had “never heard or read a defense of [Wertham’s] work until 1995, when I attended a conference panel in comics studies that happened to include Wertham scholar James Reibman. To say that I was surprised to hear Reibman defend Wertham, and endorse some of the findings of Seduction, would be a pitiful understatement. I was shocked, frankly, and I remember discussing that panel with my wife and others afterward and trying to grapple with the possibility that there could be a reading of Wertham other than the comic fan’s usual demonization.”
Hatfield found himself torn: “I would soon learn that Wertham was a progressive intellectual, that his expert testimony played a part in dismantling legal segregation in this country, and that he provided low-cost or free mental health care to the disenfranchised and neglected,” he says. “I still believe that Wertham was wrong about comics: not necessarily about the content of the most retrograde and vicious of the comics of that era…but about the supposed impact of the form on literacy and reading habits, which he saw as uniformly detrimental.”
For comic fans and scholars, it’s hard to reconcile Wertham as a good man who nearly killed an art form (in later Wertham works, he expressed admiration for some comic books). Now more will get the chance—in fact, Beaty’s sympathetic reading of Wertham, in contrast to much else written about him, was likely a factor in the estate’s changing of its terms of access.
“There have been a number of users already,” says Len Bruno, a manuscript historian at the library. “I thought there would be a waiting line, and fortunately there weren’t.” Bruno says he no special plans for the collection.
Expect more scholars to examine the papers soon. “After more than 50 years we are still obliged to reference Seduction in much of our comics scholarship, and so the opening of Wertham’s papers to more researchers should be celebrated,” Hatfield says. “This is a very important resource.”
I talked to a wide swath of people in the comics world for this article, and they had a number of fascinating thoughts relevant to Wertham and the Library of Congress. Here are a few:
Sara Duke, says the Wertham papers won’t be kept in the library’s main collection. “The Manuscript Division is keeping the comic books [Wertham used] because he made notations on onion skin paper and inserted them in his comic books,” she says. Wertham’s papers add another important component to the library’s comic-art collection, which includes comic books in the Serials Department and original comic art in the Prints and Photographs Division (including the original artwork to the first Spider-Man appearance).
From the the third day of his debate with Fischer, Beaty discusses whether Wertham’s opinion of comics evolved:
I]n Seduction Wertham sees absolutely no value in comic books. It’s hard to find a single approving thing he has to say about comics in the entire manuscript (whatever exceptions exist are sarcastic). On the other hand, he does seem to find some value in them in The World of Fanzines, his last book. I sometimes wonder if this is a drastic late career shift in belief (as many argue) or a natural continuation and logical extension of his existing thinking. It seems to me that Wertham did recognize some value in comics – particularly comic strips. He was friendly with people like Milton Caniff (and owned a Caniff original) and Al Capp, for example. I think that The World of Fanzines sheds some light on the reasons: Wertham didn’t hate the form so much as the industry (though, clearly, he was no fan of the form). Some of the excised material from Seduction would have made this even more clear. Wertham spoke with a number of cartoonists who told him that it was the publishers who required more blood, guts and gore in the book, and many of these whistleblowers saw Wertham as someone who could help end a practice that they themselves were uneasy with. The draft that Wertham sent to the publisher, for example, contained revelations about DC’s treatment of Siegel and Shuster that came right from the source, and would have blown the lid off the shoddy treatment that they received decades before it became a cause celebre in fandom. The lawyers, however, thought it would be actionable and that entire chapter becomes a series of unnamed sources, which considerably dampens its impact (it’s so gutted and toothless that I sometimes wonder why he even bothered to retain it).
Joseph Witek, the author of the groundbreaking study Comic Books as History: The Narrative Art of Jack Jackson, Art Spiegelman, and Harvey Pekar,has now undertaken a project for which he he is now reading a lot of pre-Comics Code books:
One thing that gets lost in the demonization of Wertham is something that has become clear now that digital scans of pre-Code comics are becoming widely available: his characterization of those comics is often absolutely accurate. To a large extent, later comics readers have been misled by the narrow selection of reprinted crime and horror comics that were previously available—-EC comics were not “average” in taste or quality by a very long shot. You don’t have to agree with Wertham’s ideas about the social or moral consequences of reading such comics to see that many of them contain depictions of violence, sex, and to some extent, racism that go far beyond anything shown in most other media of the day. Many comics were available to anyone big enough to put a dime on the counter that certainly would have “Mature readers” or other content warnings today.
Joel Pollack, owner of the local Big Planet Comics store, on the Wertham legacy:
I discovered comic fandom (and Wertham) at the age of 14. I assumed the popular belief that Wertham had tainted comics, and peoples’ opinions of comics, in an irreparable manner. I regularly borrowed Seduction of the Innocent from the Silver Spring Public Library, but never read it fully cover-to-cover. Nonetheless, I felt Wertham was wrong, and that he never recognized comics as an art form. Of course, by the time I discovered Wertham, TV was established as the dominant corrupter of youth, and comics were already becoming a very minor player in youth media. However, I believe the CCA did stifle creativity. Seeing what EC Comics accomplished, even with all of their excesses, made me realize how soporific comics became once the code was installed. As a retailer, I like to know what to expect in the comics I sell, but I’m not sure a ratings system is necessary, as they tend to be inconsistent and often unpredictable.
LoC Manuscript Historian Len Bruno, a specialist in the science and technology collections on why the library didn’t collect Wertham’s papers for his comic work. He and nine others split up the library’s special collections. When one left,
I got all the Shrinks. Sigmund Freud’s papers are a magnet that bring in other collections. Having the Freud papers here is the lodestone, the foundation for other collections to come in and build upon. The library documents any and all aspects of American life.
Bruno, on why the opening of the collection comes 23 years after Wertham’s death: “It’s not an unusual situation. A lot of collections come with “10 years after my death” provisos. It’s business as usual for us.” But first, Bruno says:
It was processed and put in some kind of order. We’re really blessed that we have a bunch of archivists that are schooled on how to do this and follow classical and traditional ways and respect original order. They look at every piece of paper and spread everything out and once they understand the person and his or her career and why it’s here, they put like with like. To them it’s business as usual. It’s amazing what they do. It takes a certain type of person who can see both the forest and the trees. You see just one and you’re unable to do the job. The average person would look at it and just throw up their hands. They have to respect the details, but not get overwhelmed by them. And once they do it all, the finding aid really is literally that – it tells you need to go to a box to find a particular thing without wasting your time. They prepare the finding aid, right a biography of the person, and a little scope note. They produce a complete package when they’re done—-really essential when you want to use a big collection like that. To use it, you register with the library, and get a reader card, and then show up, and be over 18, and behave yourself. You can have four boxes at a time, and check with us before photocopying. It’s stored offsite and we’ve been calling in boxes so there’s next-day service.
Bruno, on the one restriction still affecting Wertham’s papers:
We’re required to segregate patient records. There were the equivalent of four boxes of obvious patient records so they were physically removed and put in a closed box at the end of the collection. We had the feeling that Wertham, the way he did things, may havepatient information that didn’t jump out at you so there’s a requirement that researchers agree that they not disclose patient information or names they come across.
Georgia M. Higley, head of the Newspaper Section of the Serial & Government Publications Division, on the library’s comic books:
The comic book collection is one of the largest in the United States, comprising over 120,000 issues. It is mainly, but not exclusively, a product of copyright deposit over the decades. We have original print issues as well as color microfiche comprising several thousand issues. Also, the library recently acquired the Underground and Independent Comics, Comix, and Graphic Novels database produced by Alexander Street Press. Over the past seven years or so there has been increased interest in comic books by both the Library and researchers. The Library has invested considerable resources to inventory, deacidify, rehouse, and preserve the comic book collection—they are stored in acid free containers in a climate controlled facility. In part due to our inventory efforts as well as increased interest in popular culture by researchers, our comic book collection is being used in greater numbers and with a diversity of titles and subject interests. It is my hope that we will have more interest in the collection, especially since holdings are available through the library catalog giving researchers a good idea of what they can expect to find when they get here
Sara Duke is in charge of another big collection. She says:
The Prints and Photographs Division has about 128,000 works of cartoon art on paper, dating back to the 16th century. We have some exceptional comic book works that have come in by gift—-an R. Crumb page, the Steve Ditko art for Spider-Man’s first appearance in Amazing Fantasy No. 15, and works produced in reaction to 9/11. However, the library never had a full-scale collecting effort, soliciting works from individual creators, the way it did with editorial cartoons, comic strips, New Yorker cartoons and illustration.
I asked Duke why not. She responded:
I have never seen any written record of any decision-making regarding comic book illustrations. In my personal opinion, it would be easy to draw the conclusion that the library was affected by Wertham. Perhaps it was because the artists who worked for the comics publishers were treated like work-for-hire and their original art was retained by the publishers. Now, we’re preparing for a collecting effort, but of course we’re not in the forefront and so it’s harder to collect. We can’t hope to compete with private collectors at auction. Everyone thinks the library has deep pockets, but because we’re collecting in so many different directions—-even within Prints & Photographs we’re acquiring architectural and engineering works, photographs, fine prints, posters, illustration and cartoon art. For me, it doesn’t make sense to spend my portion of the budget on one comic book page—-because I’m not serving researchers well. So I have to think about all the ways researchers approach the collection and look to fill in gaps the best I am able. However, I do approach comic artists for gifts and so far have been well received. Perhaps someone who has collected comic book illustration will feel moved, as Erwin Swann, Art Wood and the Herb Block Foundation have done, to make their collection part of the Library of Congress in the future.
Martha H. Kennedy, also a curator in Popular & Applied Graphic Art, says:
The release of Wertham’s papers will make possible careful study of the questionable research methods on which he based his publications, which had such a devastating impact on the comic book industry. This material will hopefully generate much needed reassessment of Wertham’s motivations underlying his work on comic books, the child-rearing climate in which he produced it, and his place in the cultural and social landscape of 1950s America.
Duke, on the impact of opening the Wertham papers:
Comics haven’t been “just” about superheroes for a long time, but now they have an impact on almost every field of study imaginable. We are in the process of developing a game plan so that we may collect more systematically. I hope the opening of the papers has a huge impact on my department – that researchers will be drawn into the Library to access the Wertham papers and then avail themselves of the opportunity to look at original cartoon art. The mission of the Library is to make its collections available to researchers, both via the Internet and in person, and if the Wertham papers increase scholarship here, it’s all to the good.