Remember the Comics Code Authority?
It was that little, outdated white stamp at the top corner of your comic books circa 1954 until just a couple of years ago. It made sure your favourite characters didn’t do anything too real – like curse, or have sex, or deal with the myriad of issues most people face on a daily basis.
It held the industry back for decades, all predicated on one man’s judgement – Fredric Wertham and his book, Seduction of the Innocent.
And it was all based on lies.
Holding a medium hostage
Seduction of the Innocent was released in 1954, and blamed comics for much of the “undesirable” behaviour affecting the youth of the day – like violence, masturbation, nightmares and homosexuality. Wertham argued that what youngsters saw on the page directly affected the way they acted. He took issue with Superman as an “un-American” fascist symbol, and ripped on Batman and Robin’s homosexual tendencies and Wonder Woman’s attachment to bondage (okay, maybe the last two aren’t so far out there.)
Predictably, parents got very antsy after the book was released, and quickly thereafter a congressional inquiry was launched examining the comic book industry as a whole. Not long after, the Comics Code was established to regulate adult themes in comics. It also crippled horror and crime publisher EC Comics.
Wertham was a psychiatrist, and claimed his evidence was based on thousands of interviews and case studies he had conducted while working with children.
Turns out that might be a bit of a stretch.
According to a recent report in the academic journal Information and Culture, Wertham lied, exaggerated his data and selectively edited his findings to suit his prefabricated opinion on the industry.
Wertham’s background research was under lock and key at the Library of Congress until 2010, when information studies professor Carol Tilley from the University of Illinois started studying it. According to Tilley, Wertham exaggerated the number of kids he interviewed for the book, who seemingly totaled in the hundreds instead of the “many thousands” he claimed. Tilley also says he changed their ages, attributed quotes from one person to a large group and mashed up quotes taken from many children to make it seem as if they came from one person.
In short – he lied.
In one section of Seduction of the Innocent, Wertham claims that Batman and Robin – particularly Robin – inspire homosexual tendencies in young readers. To prove his point, Wertham recounts the story of a teen who reads Batman and essentially “becomes gay.” In actual fact, that anecdote was a mashup of stories told by two young gay men, one of whom who stated, “I think I put myself in the position of Robin. I did want to have relations with Batman.” Considering rampant teenage hormones and the fact that both young men already identified as gay, it seems unlikely that Batman or Robin “made them” gay. In actuality, their reaction is no different than straight men lusting after Wonder Woman – which is a staple reaction for any man who reads Wonder Woman.
Since between 84 per cent and 92 per cent of all American children read comic books in Wertham’s time, you could just as easily draw a link between delinquency and oxygen.” –Fred Van Lente, comic creator
Tilley says Wertham also split up the testimony from one young gang member – and in doing so, created fictional characters for his book, no less – to spread the young man’s comments about violence out amongst them to make it seem like a more widespread issue.
This, alongside secondhand information he passed off as his own and a gross overstatement of how many people he interviewed illustrates two things:
- His findings are just about useless
- The comics industry was shackled for decades by a man trying to further his own agenda and personal vendetta
Some comic creators, predictably, were happy to see much of Wertham’s research debunked. Fred Van Lente, writer of a bunch of Marvel properties including Incredible Hercules and Marvel Zombies, told me in an email that he thinks Tilley has done a great job documenting Wertham’s fabrications.
“But I also think it’s important to note even if all of Dr. Wertham’s anecdotes were absolutely true, it still proves no causal link between comic books and ‘juvenile delinquency,’ which was his entire project,” Van Lente said. “Since between 84 per cent and 92 per cent of all American children read comic books in Wertham’s time, you could just as easily draw a link between delinquency and oxygen.”
“The issue isn’t the accuracy of Wertham’s individual case studies, but the unscientific conclusions he drew from them.”
But thanks to those unscientific conclusions, the industry was largely held hostage for decades. “The older guys who had lived through the witch hunt were enormously beaten down by it,” former president of DC Comics Paul Levitz told the New York Times.
Levitz represented DC on the board of the Comics Magazine Association of America, which oversaw the Comics code. “[Creators] were uncomfortable acknowledging publicly that the way they made their living was comics, and they certainly were not going to take any chances,” Levitz said.
And as any creative type is well aware, “not taking chances” translates to “really frigging boring” pretty quickly. Predictable, safe superhero stories can largely be attributed to Wertham’s influence. That, and lazy writing.
The power of bias
The esteemed doctor wasn’t available to comment on these findings as, well, he’s been dead since 1981. But Tilley’s work illustrates how much research practices should be questioned – especially research in industries that are a magnet for controversy, like comic books, music and increasingly – video games.
Wertham’s work on Seduction of the Innocent displays a clear confirmation bias – which people display when they gather information selectively, and/or interpret it in a biased way. And when people are hopped up emotionally on an issue, they tend to prefer sources that affirm their preexisting attitudes and interpret ambiguous evidence as supporting their original hypothesis. Sound familiar?
True neutrality is difficult for anyone to achieve – but when something as subjective as art is involved, getting as close as possible is a necessity. But seemingly, Wertham did the exact opposite – and that, my friends, is why you should always question research and authority.
And to illustrate that point better than anything else ever could – here’s Rage Against the Machine. (Sure, it’s a stretch – but this song rules.)