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This May, the Library of Congress quietly opened 222 containers of psychiatrist Fredric Wertham‘s papers. While the great majority of Americans haven’t heard of the man, for a select few, the ability to read through his letters will be a big deal. That’s because Fredric Wertham wrote a book about comic books and juvenile delinquency. Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent came out in 1954 as a culmination of a decade-long campaign against comic books, and quickly became a rallying point for Cold War concerns about teenage culture. Although the Library has had the records since 1987, they’ve been sealed except to people approved by Wertham’s estate—-and in that time, only two people were allowed to use them.
“For comic-book fans, Fredric Wertham is the biggest villain of all time, a real-life bad guy worse than the Joker, Lex Luthor, and Magneto combined,” comics historian Jeet 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 comic book collectors believe that Wertham almost destroyed comics, as publishers created a Comic Code Authority to self-police themselves and began selling the bland superheroes that the 1960s Batman television show would mock. On the positive side, William Gaines may have had to stop selling horror comics, but he and Harvey Kurtzman created Mad Magazine instead.
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. Among the 88,000 items in Wertham’s papers are “notes, drafts, and related materials for Wertham’s major works including Seduction of the Innocent (1954).” In Seduction, Wertham showed multiple examples of disturbing scenes reprinted from comics, including torture and murder. According to Sara Duke, the librarian who mentioned the opening of the collection on the Comix-Scholar’s e-mail list, rather than sending the comics to be housed with the rest of the library’s 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.” 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).
Like most Library of Congress collections, the Fredric Wertham papers are open by appointment, and a list of what they include is online. I’ll be following up.