Comics in the Classroom: Burying Dr. Wertham’s Legacy

Photo by L. Brian Stauffer.

PHOTO BY L. BRIAN STAUFFER: Prof. Carol L. Tilley also teaches a graduate-level course on how librarians can help readers of all ages find and enjoy comics.

“I think that great comics are great, and it’s not just because they’ve got a hard cover, or they lack superheroes. There’s something about the story or the idea that the comic is conveying—and is worth teaching,”

Carol L. Tilley, a professor of library and information science at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said as much at last month’s San Diego Comic Con, during a well-attended panel discussion, “Using Graphic Novels in the Classroom.”

Tilley also referenced Fredric Wertham, a psychiatrist whose now much maligned 1954 book, Seduction of the Innocent, played a large role in propagating widespread fear that comics were good for one thing—promoting delinquent behavior. Curious to hear more about something so preposterous, I paid to read an online copy of the book. The cover-jacket alone boils my blood, asserting that “on the basis of wide experience and many years’ research,” Dr. Wertham shows how comic books “are an invitation to illiteracy,” “create an atmosphere of cruelty and deceit,” “stimulate unwholesome fantasies,” “suggest criminal or sexually abnormal ideas,” and “create a readiness for temptation.”

Thank goodness for Tilley, who, in 2012, transformed into somewhat of a hero-rock star in the comic book world. Her article, “Seducing the Innocent: Fredric Wertham and the Falsification that Helped Condemn Comics,” relies on newfound evidence to show how her subject “manipulated, overstated, compromised, and fabricated evidence—especially that evidence he attributed to personal clinical research with young people—for rhetorical gain.”

I recently spoke with Tilley, wanting to hear more about her reaction to Wertham’s deceit. “I was intrigued, frustrated, and angered by what I was beginning to see him doing with children’s words,” she said, explaining how study of the doctor’s notes, made public in 2010, shows that he twisted and misattributed quotes. “I consider myself a real advocate for children, and I realized I couldn’t stay quiet about this.”

I’m grateful for Tilley’s research, but I can’t say that I’m surprised by it. Everything I know about comic books in the classroom, and everybody I’ve interviewed about the subject, says the exact opposite of Wertham. Certainly, the 1950s were a much different time, with Cold War tensions mounting to even greater heights. Coupling that with teen angst, as best portrayed by James Dean in one of my all-time favorite movies, Rebel Without a Cause (1955), I understand a jittery public.

I’m far less forgiving, though, of those who accepted Wertham’s findings throughout the latter half of the 20th-century. Wertham died in 1981 (two years before I came into existence), but even in death, it seems, the doctor has contributed to the still-existing notion that comic books—while perhaps no longer widely regarded as harmful or illicit—remain garbage, unsuitable for classroom use. Only in the last 10-15 years have scholars like Tilley, along with organizations like Reading With Pictures (which I’ve written about), begun to prevail in the fight against the antiquated ignorance of a bygone era.

Tilley doesn’t excuse Wertham’s behavior, but her insight into the man whose life many comic book fans despise (and for good reason) is more levelheaded and pragmatic. She isn’t as quick to brand Wertham a no-good liar, even as her own research completely discredits his work.

Tilley says, “I think he pushed on rhetorical gain ahead of the evidence and integrity of the kids he was treating. But I do think he had some sincere belief in the value of what he was doing. It was a different time. He was writing for the popular press. He knew he could be somewhat inflammatory and titillating in his presentation. I think he understood his audience, primarily mothers, who were happy to believe . . . what he was saying.”

I also learn from Tilley that the release of Wertham’s book coincided conspicuously with the tenure of the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency. At the hearings, New Jersey Senator Robert C. Hendrickson left no illusions about his charge with his opening remarks: “We want to find out what damage, if any, is being done to our children’s minds by certain types of publications which contain a substantial degree of sadism, crime, and horror. . . . We are examining the reason why more and more of our youngsters steal automobiles, turn to vandalism, commit holdups, or become narcotic addicts.”

Shortly thereafter, the Comics Magazine Association of America, fearing governmental regulation, chose what was thought to be a lesser evil by establishing the Comics Code Authority (CCA). Anybody can read online the regulations Hendrickson’s subcommittee tasked the CCA with enforcing—but here are my top-ten picks for outlandish attacks on the first amendment.

1. Police-men, judges, Government officials, and respected institutions should not be portrayed as stupid or ineffective, or represented in such a way as to weaken respect for established authority.
2. No comics shall explicitly present the unique details and methods of a crime.
3. Criminals shall not be presented so as to be rendered glamorous or to occupy a position which creates the desire for emulation.
4. No comic magazine shall use the word “horror” or “terror” in its title.
5. Scenes dealing with, or instruments associated with walking dead, torture, vampires and vampirism, ghouls, cannibalism, and werewolfism are prohibited.
6. Profanity, obscenity, smut, vulgarity, or words or symbols which have acquired undesirable meanings are forbidden.
7. Females shall be drawn realistically without exaggeration of any physical qualities.
8. All characters shall be depicted in dress reasonably acceptable to society.
9. No unique or unusual methods of concealing weapons shall be shown.
10. Divorce shall not be treated humorously nor shall it be represented as desirable.

Marvel withdrew from the CCA in 2001, but not until DC Comics followed suit 10 years later did the CCA’s “seal of approval,” which for over 50 years appeared on comic book covers, vanish completely.

Tilley tells me that it wasn’t until the early 2000s that many classroom teachers and librarians wanted kids to read comics. I ask her if she thinks the CCA played a role in stalling progress. “There was this popular idea that all comics were garbage, and I think people who were experimenting with comics in classrooms and libraries, before the CCA, were certainly the exception,” she says. “Not all of them liked or appreciated them, but they perhaps understood the importance of visual communication, or that comics spoke to some social and political reality, or saw that they could be a tool for connecting to young people.”

As a history teacher, I know it’s no use questioning what could have been. But I still can’t help but wonder, were it not for the CCA, would things have been different for Tilley? When she went to work as a school librarian in 1993, would she have been able to build a solid comic collection? Even today, Tilley hears of librarians who, try as they might, have a difficult time convincing supervisors to sign-off on comic book purchases.

All of this bears Wertham’s fingerprints, and, as if the doctor is reaching out from beyond the grave, I’m reminded of a passage from his book: “Whenever you hear a public discussion of comic books, you will hear sooner or later an advocate of the industry say with a triumphant smile, ‘comic books are here to stay.’ I do not believe it.”

Before parting ways, I ask Tilley what she would expect from a school library today. Her answer is predictable, but no less praiseworthy.

She tells me, “Walking into a school library, especially an elementary school library, I would expect to see a pretty robust comics collection, and I would expect to see them worn from use, and almost always checked out.”

School librarians everywhere, let’s not let Tilley down.

As a coach, history and journalism teacher at Brimmer and May, a wonderful independent school in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, I have the absolute best job in the world. I am thrilled to get up every morning to engage with interesting young people, and I'm equally fortunate to have such amazing colleagues and mentors. As the founder of Spin Education, I encourage you to check-in frequently and submit posts and lessons—all in an effort to better our practice as teachers.

1 Comment

  • Reply August 15, 2014

    Herb Finn

    Regardless of Dr.Wertham’s (now false) findings, comics clearly needed regulation to clean up the unregulated content. Comics were presenting stories that not even Hollywood could under the Hayes code – of which when finally enacted , the CCA was even more strict!

    The horror and crime content got way out of hand…period.

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