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Review of Fredric Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture by Bart Beaty

By Tof Eklund
Beaty, Bart. Fredric Wertham And The Critique Of Mass Culture. Oxford: University Press of Missippi, 2005.

For some time now, the smart money has been on Fredric Wertham being more than just some quack conservative who hated comic books. This reader came to Bart Beaty's Fredric Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture knowing that Wertham was actually a liberal who did not advocate banning or burning comic books, merely adopting an age requirement for those with violent, sexual or "disturbing" content. Nonetheless, the extent of Wertham's work and accomplishment, as presented here by Beaty, is surprising.

This is a book that every comics scholar should read and own. It is a thoroughly researched and contextualized look at one of one of comics' most maligned figures that simultaneously offers an interesting re-reading of the history of communication and media studies in the US. It is not going too far to describe the book as an apologia for Wertham – Beaty shows how his influence in the budding field of communications studies was curtailed and ultimately written out of textbooks, and presents a detailed and rigorous defense of Wertham's value and relevance.

Beaty describes Wertham as a social reformer unwilling to adopt the pretense of scientific impartiality, and he obviously shares the conviction that impartiality is a ruse and is whole-hearted in his defense of Wertham. This makes the book a little one-sided and allows for its few notable failings, but is probably necessary if Fredric Wertham is to act as a corrective to the unfair caricature of Wertham often put across by comics fans, professionals and even scholars. In addressing the weak points in the text, it is important to keep in mind the prevelence of the bias against Wertham.

Fredric Wertham depicts the man as a singular, progressive liberal voice of dissent against an increasingly conservative cadre of "New York Intellectuals" selling the idea of an American utopia produced by pluralistic consensus. The only flaw here is that Beaty wants to distance Wertham from the Frankfurt school, insisting on describing Wertham as a "progressive liberal" and taking Wertham at his word that he is not a Marxist. This despite Wertham's defense of the Rosenbergs, his expressed desire to write a book reconciling Marx with Freud, his consistent anticorporate stance, and his absolute privileging of children's safety over freedom of the press. Wertham's view of the purpose of government is clearly socialist-Marxist, though he was probably never a card-carrying Communist.

A more serious concern comes in the way Wertham's arguments against comics are endorsed. The problem here is not the arguments themselves, which are convincing enough on their own terms, but in the way that Wertham conflates the mental health issues presented by comic books with those presented by racial segregation and the way Beaty endorses that conflation. Wertham's metaphor for both is tuberculosis, a disease contracted only by a minority of those who are infected with tubercle bacilli. This metaphor works in the case of racial segregation, given that the only "benefit" it provided was allowing racists to indulge in their racism. But this metaphor only works for comic books if they are only capable of doing harm – if comic books can also allow for the safe release of aggressions, teach tolerance or promote reading in general, as some critics argued, then it is much harder to perform a utilitarian analysis of their value. Beaty argues against the views of some critics, most of whom were sponsored by the industry, that comics could have positive effects but not negative ones. He then falls into the trap of accepting Wertham's view that comics could harm children, but not help or heal them.

One thing that emerges out of Fredric Wertham is the realization that none of the critics of the time were actually reading the comics in question. Beaty makes it obvious that most of the critics on both sides weren't even taking a real look at the material. Wertham did look at the books, sometimes closely, and was capable of analyzing the images therein in terms of themselves and in terms of what his juvenile patients said about them. Wertham seems generally dismissive of the interaction of word and image and of the narrative content and context of the comics. This makes sense, as critics of the time inevitably compared comics to print books, and always unfavorably. As Beaty points out, this fear of popular visual media would soon be transferred to television. In one of his harsher moments, Beaty attacks EC Comics editor M.C. Gaines for arguing that the only meaning in a comic book was the one that was intended in the narrative. Given that Gaines wrote or adapted many of the scripts for EC, this seems sensible from his perspective, as does the way that Wertham is mostly concerned with evidence from the analysis of troubled youth.

The issue of critics not reading the comics has an ironic edge, as this is exactly what critics of Wertham have done to his books. Beaty point out that though Seduction of the Innocent was a widely discussed and excessively reviewed book, it did not sell very well – people heard it discussed, agreed or disagreed with it and presumed that they didn't need to read it. One can only hope that Fredric Wertham will encourage those engaged in communication and media studies, as well as those studying psychology and modern literature, and especially those engaged in comics studies, to actually read Seduction of the Innocent, and other books of Wertham's as well, such as A Sign for Cain, which argues against the "blame the child" school of child psychology.

The field of comics scholarship has been waiting for a definitive work on the historical Fredric Wertham, and Fredric Wertham fits the bill. Whether Wertham will finally be acknowledged in the field of communications scholarship remains to be seen. A caveat is merited regarding the book's conclusion, in which Beaty condemns the comics industry and comics fandom harshly in a way that seems scarcely justified by the rest of the book. Nonetheless, Beaty's partisanship does not compromise the academic integrity of Fredric Wertham, as his meticulous historiographic analysis presents readers with the resources they need to come to their own judgments. After this book, there are truly two Fredric Werthams – a historical man who fought to curb violence and protect the powerless in American society, and a mythological beast who simply hates comics.

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