by The Old Maid
Anyone can say anything. Does that make it true? Anyone can say, for example, that Batman is gay and turns his fans gay. In fact someone did say it. Does saying it make it true?
Why does our civilization give to the child not its best but its worst, in paper, in language, in art, in ideas? Fredric Wertham
Every comic-book reader has been influenced by Dr. Wertham whether or not they know his name. It was Wertham who wrote Seduction of the Innocent (1954) and testified in the Senate that comic books should be outlawed. The Comic Code seal of approval was the industrys attempt to placate the government. Wertham remained unimpressed. He insisted that the new comics were as bad as the old, and they still sold age-inappropriate advertisements for patent medicines (body-builder or diet potions, breast-enhancement products) and weapons, including switchblades and guns. Hence his crusade for a legal ban.
Popular history tends to dismiss Dr. Wertham as a quixotic figure who didnt "get" the comic industry. In fact, he was one of the unsung heroes of the early Civil Rights movement:
Like Herbert Hoover, Wertham was a man whose successes changed the world. Yet when popular history mentions his name, that one failure is all it remembers.
What the Internet was (and is) without filters and parental supervision, the comics were in Werthams day. Lazy parents lazy parents are the same now as always. Just as parents nowadays assume that animation equals child-friendly, so the parents of yesteryear assumed that comic books meant comic strips (a very different and heavily censored medium) or coloring books. They were wrong. Anyone could print anything, and did:
Wertham challenged lazy parents to wake up and join his cause. Parents didnt read comic books. Almost all children read them. Comic books were a new medium, financed primarily by children, and those children were unsupervised. While all of Werthams examples were true, the ones he published were chosen for shock value, to force lazy parents to re-examine their assumptions and their actions.
Finally, Wertham expressed frustration with a child-welfare system he viewed as outdated and indifferent. "I have gone over many psychiatric charts of children taken in hospitals, in clinics and by consultants of private agencies. And I have often been astonished how few quotes, if any, they contain, of what the children themselves actually say" (Wertham p. 52). He interviewed children. Many times he was the first or only professional who listened to them. Without a second opinion, though, this meant that if he ever made a mistake, he would not necessarily know it.
Wertham himself admitted there were good comics, and that comic books alone had not turned an entire generation of children into delinquents. He did believe they tipped the scales. Comic books introduced new ideas; they normalized those ideas; they rationalized those ideas. Wertham believed that parents and governments who let their children read comic books were probably neglecting those children in other ways. Even superhero comics were suspect: Wertham stated that children wouldnt have been attracted to escapist fantasies if they had a better life at home.
Those readers interested in learning more about Fredric Wertham and the comic industry may wish to read Seal of Approval: The History of the Comics Code, by Amy Kiste Nyberg. Werthams book is harder to obtain but worth the effort. Wertham was a brain physiologist; a writer of medical textbooks (his The Brain as an Organ set the standard for its day); a medical anthropologist; a forensic psychiatrist; a social reformer; and an outspoken critic of all media. It is a snapshot of the mind of a relentless and complicated man.
Superhero comics were among the most wholesome entertainment of the genre. Yet Wertham (and the unnamed California doctor from whom he obtained the rest of his research) concluded that the superheroes contributed heavily to the emotional problems of his underage patients. Why? Because the patients said it. That, or Wertham believed they said it, which is not quite the same thing.
Superman, for example, supposedly promoted violence. Complaints about Superman are scattered throughout the book, but in total complaints he earned more ink than any other superhero. (Admit it. You thought Batman held that distinction.) Superman attacked the same people again and again, while he himself remained immune to pain or punishment. The more "super" he was, the better the crowd liked it. The message Wertham got from Superman is that bullying is fun and socially acceptable. Also, the Kryptonian was identified and adored as the rightful heir of his superior race, a term Wertham found chilling.
Werthams four pages on Batman is his longest single diatribe on any superhero, and anchors the chapter listed as "I want to be a sex maniac!" Batfans may have heard the charges: that Batman turned Robin gay and would turn readers gay. No one was more surprised than the Batman creators themselves. Surely they would know what was going on in Bruce Waynes mind, but they didnt know this. How did Wertham come to this conclusion? He based it on the following items. (All quotes are from Seduction.)
(There was another thing they had not anticipated -- Robins name, which has been used in modern times to "prove" the previous point. Shouldnt a hetero boy have been given a male name? Well, he was. "Robin" is a nickname for Robert, as in Robin Hood. It was not a girls name in Werthams day. Thank goodness for small favors. I dont think his heart could have taken it.)
Lets look at one case study in particular (p. 192), proof that theres no substitute for going back to the source:
Excuse me? Batman or Superman? We know the speaker did not propose that Superman turned him gay. But if Batman and Robin had never existed, could the speaker have had the same feelings and problems? Its possible this interview included "leading" questions and answers of which we are unaware. The speaker may have been struggling with his sexual orientation, but it does not follow that the superheroes have changed theirs.
Loneliness, fear, and a desire to feel safe and loved are not gender-based or gender-defining characteristics. The problem is the introduction of sexual attraction into the caregiver-and-child context. Any such contact, under any circumstances, is unacceptable. This is why Wertham argued that Batman had turned Robin gay instead of, say, choosing a lover of consenting age who was already homosexual (though Wertham wouldnt have liked that either). He proposed that the Bat selected an impoverished youth, enticed him with wealth and adventures, and then seduced him with sensual behavior. Batman had taught him that it was normal for caregivers to behave in a seductive manner. Only after Robin internalized this lesson would Robin reciprocate. Therefore if Robin could be taught, so could the audience.
In one sense Wertham was correct: the comics may have helped patients find words for their troubles. He then argued that comic books caused such troubles. However, this meant Wertham had to convince people that if comic books did not exist, more of his patients could have grown up heterosexual.
Werthams case against non-superhero comics was surprisingly strong, but his case against Batman was weak. (The opposite of public perception.) Even so, the charges stuck. How could the Bat mythos respond to this attack? Well, it could take the direct approach. (More on this later.) Instead it took the indirect approach and dug such a deep hole for itself that Bats still struggles to climb out to this day.