Wertham's Ghost
Posted: February 5, 2002; Revised: April 19, 2006

Decades ago, the comic books overreacted to Wertham’s charges of sexual misconduct by sexualizing all the characters. This only made the Bat appear sexually insatiable, to the point that both mixed teams and same-sex teams were polluted by his presence. In Batman Beyond the mythos had the chance to exorcize this ghost by getting the Wayne/McGinnis relationship firmly footed as a familial one.

It’s easy to blame Wertham’s ghost for the weaknesses of assorted Bat-stories – too easy. It makes him the scapegoat and uses him to justify mistakes which he would have loathed as much as we do. Wertham did not make the Bat mythos introduce female characters, nor did he make them self-destruct. Fredric Wertham would have hated to see woman after woman introduced to serve as sexual objects and to foul up. This is hardly an improvement.

It is time to face the truth. Wertham the man seemed a towering figure, alternately compassionate and calculating, but Wertham’s ghost has no real power, aside from what others give it. Give a phobia the power to rule your life, and it will ruin your life. If the mythos would resolve to give it none, then it would have none. It’s as simple as that.

Ask the hard-core Batfan to describe the Batman, and the answer is usually, "a loner." Sex just isn’t part of Batman’s concern. He’s married to the job, and if Batman was close to his Robins, well, that’s because it’s normal for parents to be close to their children. It fits Batman’s precarious mental state as well. He lost the love of his parents when they died and has built surrogate families to recapture that feeling ever since. It brings out, shall we say, the human in him. And they don’t always turn out badly. Consider how Bruce and Dick define a successful family in Nightwing: Ties That Bind.

From "The Resignation":

"I’ve been looking at my life lately," begins Nightwing, "and I don’t like what I see. We watched my parents fall to their deaths … you took me in and after a few months you let me in on all your secrets. I was flattered, excited. Then you gave me a costume and I became Robin, history’s first kid sidekick. There I was, the laughing boy daredevil, tearing through Gotham City with the great Batman himself. I thought I was the hottest item in town.

"But it wasn’t all fun. I was on call twenty-four hours a day and you subjected me to discipline that would make a Marine boot camp look like a Girl Scout cookiefest. I was able to handle schoolwork. But there was no time for anything else. No football games, no dances, no proms, no girlfriends. Just Robin.

"And where was Dick Grayson? Nowhere. Nowhere at all.

"Eventually I cut loose from you. I thought I was becoming my own person. But was I? I adopted this Nightwing identity – a bargain basement version of Batman, and I continued to do as I’d always done. Wear a mask and fight the bad guys. I wasn’t as good as you – nobody could be – but I did my best. I never felt it was good enough.

"A few months ago, you asked me to be you for a while. I put on the cape and cowl and sallied forth to do battle with society’s foes. Once more the reluctant knight errant …. I was adequate. But I hated it.

"I realized that I’m not you. I was never you. I don’t want to be you."

Nightwing then announces he will become Dick Grayson alone. He leaves his costume behind and walks away. But the life of an ordinary man doesn’t speak to him the way he had hoped. Time crawls. He’s lonely and bored. Every relationship he pursues, whether friend or foe, leads him back to Work. Even his efforts to learn more about his parents prove futile. And so in Dead Simple Dick returns to the only home he's every known.

"I hoped to learn about the Graysons as people. Were they brave, smart, happy? I’ll never know. And it doesn’t matter because I’ve gotten something far more valuable – something I didn’t realize I needed. Something about my own childhood.

"What I’ve gotten is the realization that you did the best you could with what you had. You weren’t a perfect father, but that’s okay because probably nobody’s a perfect father. No family’s perfect, either.

"I was lucky. I was privileged. Not because of the big house and the money, but because you gave me a lot of yourself. You taught me, you showed me, you encouraged me. You never lied to me and you never demanded that I be anything I’m not.

"I didn’t imitate you because you insisted that I do so, but because I wanted to. Of all the men I knew, you were most worthy of imitation. Then I blamed you for letting me be who I was. Pretty dumb.

"You and Alfred gave me a home and you gave me what we don’t mention. The L word. You were the best family I could have had.



Now if Bruce and Dick had talked like this when Fredric Wertham was alive, it might have made a difference. Sadly, even when the Dynamic Duo were at their most chatty and carefree, the important things still went unsaid. And so when Wertham went fishing for terms to describe just what Batman and Robin were doing in that big house all by themselves, he never thought in terms of parent-and-child. When his patients told him how they "read" Bats, he saw no reason to doubt their perceptions. Why couldn’t Wertham see the Batman as a foster parent, a man who’d vowed to change the world to make it a better place for children? These were things Wertham himself promoted. Bats gave his Robins all that he had the capacity to give – but his foster sons were sons, as surely as if they were blood. Why did Wertham never see that?

Because Batman never said so.

That simple misstep caused so much unnecessary confusion, grief and pain. And it all came about because the characters took the indirect approach instead of the direct one. The indirect approach may be more subtle, more dramatic, but there is such a thing as being too subtle. Fredric Wertham made his complaints extremely clear. Now if such a smart man could not "get" Batman, that may not be the Bat’s fault. But if the mythos could not grasp such plainly worded complaints, and instead chose to fix what ain’t broke ‘til it got broke, that surely doesn’t sound like Wertham’s fault. Every player did his part. No one ruined things all alone.

In the final analysis Wertham had more in common with the Batman than he knew. Both men had seen the ugliness beneath a façade of civilization. They saw victims revictimized by a system that didn’t talk to them or know how to help them. They knew how hypocritical it was to say "don’t do that" and then release offenders back into the same environment where they got into trouble. Above all, Wertham and the Batman were utterly exasperated with public apathy. Even if no one joined them, they would continue their campaign alone.

Like the Batman, Wertham was a man who tried to change the world while standing on one foot. He believed he could do it if he just tried harder. He kept believing and kept trying until finally, inexorably, life went on without him. Today people (those who have heard of him, anyway) dismiss Wertham or make fun of him, as the Batman of BB’s "Out of the Past" is dismissed as a high-stepping Rockette. Yes, Wertham failed in his most publicized ambition – but how often history overlooks his achievements.

What Dr. Wertham and the Batman both show us is that one man can make a difference. You can make a difference. Don’t worry about whether you’ll succeed, or whether you’ll be remembered. Just make sure what you give your life to is truly worth fighting for.

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The Old Maid's essays can be found at "Editorials" section of World's Finest


Appendix: Related articles of interest

The Psychopathology of Comic Books, by Dr. Frederic Wertham

Comix Art: A Brief Biography of Dr. Frederic Wertham

Frederic Wertham: Anti-Comics Crusader Who Turned Advocate, by Dwight Decker

The History of Comic Art in America

Review: Comic Book Nation, by Bradford Wright, by Emru Townsend


Images Acknowledgements
All representations of Batman and related characters are property and TMs of DC Comics and/or Warner Bros.
Images from the animated series are provided courtesy of World's Finest and BatBeyond.
Images of Batwoman and Batgirl are provided courtesy of Batgirls of Gotham.

Essays: Index