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Biographies of the Stars

Fredric Wertham M.D

In the middle 1940's a then unknown child psychologist began some studies on his patients. These studies would result in a series of articles written by him and later a book which helped to fan national hysteria toward comic books as social trash. This is his story..

Frederic Wertham was born March 20 1895 in Nuremburg, Germany. Graduating from Wurzburg University in 1921, he began his post graduate studies before he got a position at Munich's Kraepelin Clinic.

Dr. Emile Kraepelin, the clinic's founder had founded a novel idea that in psychological studies, he believed a patient's social background and environmental surroundings had psychological effects on those he studied. Though it is a common belief today, these were truly visionary ideas for the time.

Wertham emigrated to the United States in 1922, quickly getting a position at the Phipps Psychiatric Clinic located at the John Hopkins University, one of the most prestigious medical schools in New York City. During this tenure he wrote "the Brain as an Organ" in 1926, explaining his theories based on those of Dr. Kraepelin in Munich. Though the book was initially ridiculed by Wertham's colleagues, it would later become one of the most widely used psychology books of the time.

He left Phipps in 1932 to become the Senior Psychiatrist for Bellevue Hospital, continuing the writing of books and articles tying together criminal behavior with mental health and environment. During the thirties he advised the City of New York on the first psychiatric hospital for convicted criminals.

But it was when Wertham published his book "Dark Legend" in 1941 that his studies began to take on a noticeable trend in connecting popular culture with crime. Dark Legend was the true story of a 17 year old New York City teenager who killed his mother in the late thirties. Detailing the boys life, Wertham noted the boy's interests in movies, radio and comic books, which Wertham believed helped the boy move emotionally into a fantasy world, contributing to the boy's aberrant behavior and finally the crime itself. The book was made into a play, and only Wertham's insistence that a film story follow closely the book did the deal fall through.

1948 brought two events from Dr. Wertham that began a snowballing disaster for comic books. The first was an article in Reader's Digest magazine that eschewed comics as a direct contributor to violence in American children. The second was another book about troubled New York children in case studies. This book, "the Show of Violence" firmly attacked comics, movies and other forms of media entertainment as detrimental to children and young teens, in the form and format of their contemporary design.

It would be unfair to indicate that Wertham was alone in his quest. In 1940 children's book author Sterling North attacked comics as vile sex serials and in 1949 Geoffrey Wagner wrote "Parade of Pleasure" a highly sought after book by comic collectors. In this book Wagner accused comic artists, writers and publishers as degenerates and believe it or not he stated that the two most popular comic publishers of the day were "..staffed entirely by homosexuals and operating out of our most phalliform skyscraper." Pretty strong stuff I say!

One of the results of these events was the convening of a Senate panel in New York State focusing on comic books and other media. But by this time the death knell was beginning to ring for comics. All over America comic books were feeling the pressure from religious and community groups. Major cities in some states banned comic books. Laws were introduced in 18 states restricting the sale of comics. Protesters were visible in front of stores and newsstands that sold comics. magazine distributors were deluged with complaints.

Then Wertham wrote yet another book, and this would ring the final bell for many comics companies, and almost comics themselves. Released in 1954, "Seduction of the Innocent" was Wertham's epic tome on the effects of comics on children. He gave graphic examples of sex and violence. He told of scores of stories with unredeemed criminals. Dope, sadism, rape.

It was the final straw! Between the protests, senate hearings, rising violence in America and just plain old fear, comic books were about to be classified as trash and only barely escaped extinction.

By the end of 1954 almost three quarters of the comics publishing industry was gutted. Dozens of publishers went out of business, many others stopped publishing comics and yet others transformed their products into the sort of publication that today is compared to bubble gum and homogenized milk. One of the reasons was the adoption of a "Comics Code" (see the rules and regulations of the comics code here). the other reason was the abject fear of recrimination and bankruptcy

The code carefully explained what could and could not be written into or drawn into the pages of the comics. Violence and sex were written out. Certain words like "weird, horror, terror" and "crime" were restricted. Even slang terms were controlled and attacks on religion were strictly forbidden.

This was just too much for most publishers to deal with. Many publishers closed their doors for good. Atlas Comics (now called Marvel) almost folded. DC scaled back the number of titles they published and famed publishers like EC just barely stayed alive.

EC had been a particular target of many during this period. Inarguably filled with graphic gore, sex, violent acts, sadism and suggestive story lines, even after the adoption of the code EC found itself unable to get their books distributed. EC publisher Bill Gaines had told many stories of unsold comics being returned from the distributors without their bundles being opened. Only the coming popularity of Mad magazine kept them afloat. Mad would be the single publication from EC forever more.

There were only two publishers who seemingly were unaffected by the comics code. Dell Comics had been a rather "sweet" company for it's entire history. Based in Poughkeepsie, New York and Racine, Wisconson Dell published comics that were family oriented. But they had employed their own brand of comic code for years as the publisher of among other titles "Walt Disney's Comics and Stories".

The other company was the Gilberton Company who published the famed "Classics Illustrated" title, who also followed their own code (though they did not until the early fifties, probably to avoid the problems other publishers would later experience).

The effects of Wertham's crusade left just a few comic publishers alive. Artist and writers fled the business landing in every filed from advertising to animation. Wertham had won!

Wertham wrote another book in 1958 called "Circle of Guilt" whose main claim was that Americans were starting to feel that they were less responsible for themselves and their actions, resulting in higher crime rates across the country. What did he claim was the culprit? Comics and films of course! He continued his attack on comics in "A Sign for Cain" released in 1965.

Then in 1973 he took a u-turn and published a book entitled "the World of Fanzines". In this book he claimed that sci-fi and comics fandom were responible for the creation of a new form of art and expression that helped to promote communication and artistic endeavor. That fanzines were a positive force in the individual growth of teenagers! WOW!

After the publication of this book, New York Comic Art Convention founder and promoter Phil Seuling invited Wertham to be a member of a panel at the coming convention to speak to "his fans". In reality it was a setup.

When Wertham arrived at the panel he found himself the target of angry comic fans who complained he ruined the field in the fifties. Hecklers were throughout the audience and with the animous reaching a fever pitch, Wertham left the panel and the convention.

He never wrote another word on comics and died in 1981..

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