There are all the obvious comments about Wertham, famous anti-comic book crusader of the ’50′s and author of Seduction of the Innocent, but what I really fault him for is superheroes.
Wertham wasn’t the only anti-comics hysteric, but he was the first to do a whole book out of the subject, and his testimony formed the bulk of the anti-comics portion of the 1953 juvenile delinquency hearings that ended up crippling the industry. Wertham’s testimony, equal parts irate nonsense and also book tour promotional stop for Seduction, which had just come out, got half the mothers in the country terrified of just what comic books were doing to their poor, susceptible Leave it to Beaver 1950′s kids. His testimony contained no scientific data, was based on no credible research, and willfully misrepresented the content of the comics he was using as examples, but he brought with him the veneer of a very respectable doctor fighting the good fight for the kids. Probably the only person that day to do more damage to comics was William Gaines, the publisher of EC comics, in whose Dexedrine-addled testimony was the infamous moment where he said that a cover involving a woman’s severed head and a bloody ax met with his personal definition of “good taste.”
Wertham, while in some ways seeming very savvy, had an amazing ability for cognitive dissidence. In the hearings that ultimately led to severe censorship of comics, he bizarrely implied that the comics publishers somehow had the ability to censor *him*, and that his book, which had already received a national advertising push, was somehow threatened by them: “Will this book be distributed, or will the sinister hand of these corrupters of children, of this comic-book industry, will they prevent distribution?”
Wertham hated Superman because he said that Superman promoted fascism. He hated Batman because he thought it involved homosexuality, and he hated Wonder Woman because he thought she promoted sadomasochism. I guess in that case, two out of three is pretty good.
What followed the hearings, though, was all manner of small-town yahoos trying to fine local business owners for selling comics, various local organizations across the country in charge of their town’s Hysteria Over Hypothetical Threats to Children organizations trying to ban comics and persecute those who worked on them, and bills to censor various comics in various nonsensical ways getting pushed through different levels of State and local government throughout the country. There was also a prolonged series of actual book burnings in which thousands of comics were destroyed.
What’s amazing is that people like Wertham don’t see that censorship and book burnings might not be the most effective reply to fascism, of all things. He also objected to Superman’s method of conflict resolution often being violence, that he punched people, and he thought that Superman was a perfected man, too reminiscent of Hitler’s master race. He overlooked, of course, the fact that Superman was created by Jewish kids, and that, in his early years, often what he was punching were Nazis.
Meanwhile, comics were also accused of teaching kids communism, and then Bill Gaines accused the people objecting to comics of being communists, and then over in the UK their Socialist organizations were trying to ban American comic books on the grounds that they were teaching kids about American capitalism. When you try to indict an entire art form, it’s pretty easy to come up with examples from it that support any argument you care to make.
The result of the hysteria was the Comics Code, and ultimately that’s what really fucked comics. To assuage the fears of wailing mothers over the perversion of their perfect moppet-headed tykes, and also to keep themselves in business, the comics industry got together and decided to censor itself before somebody else could. What they came up with was a more restrictive, draconian system of blanket rules than the Catholics could have come up with. They didn’t just ban certain methods of presentation, they banned entire genres of stories.
Walking dead, vampires, “ghouls,” and “werewolfism” were all prohibited, as were “All scenes of horror, excessive bloodshed, gory or gruesome crimes, depravity, lust, sadism, masochism,” and cannibalism, as well, to combat the rising epidemic of the youth of American cannibalizing one another. The list went on and on, but in case they missed anything they then added: “All elements or techniques not specifically mentioned herein, but which are contrary to the spirit and intent of the Code, and are considered violations of good taste or decency, shall be prohibited.”
So, basically, what the Code prohibited was, well, *every*thing, should the Code enforcers feel like it.
There was also the particularly disturbing line: “Policemen, judges, government officials and respected institutions shall never be presented in such a way as to create disrespect for authority.” Got that, kids? No disrespect for anybody in authority, ever, no matter what they do. Great way to combat fascism.
The result of the Code was that only certain types of comics could survive. Before all this, comics existed in many genres, horror, crime, romance, sci-fi, war stories, all sorts of things. After the code, those were either marginalized or removed completely for a long while. What was left were superheroes.
At this point in comic book history, in many contexts in America, “comic books” is synonymous with “superheroes.” It drives me insane when people say they’re “comic book” fans, but they don’t know anything about any book that doesn’t involve these few particular anachronistic licensed characters running around in spandex. How did this one particular, weird sub-genre come to be synonymous with an entire art form? For years that was all that could be published. And in those years, many of the other publishers, like EC, faded away, and what was left were the two companies that ended up having the most popular stable of superhero characters: DC and Marvel.
Superheroes were the only comics people could comfortably get away with publishing, and these two companies owned the superheroes. Gradually this led to them having a stranglehold on the entire medium in this country, and when, with less variety of product being offered, business eventually shifted from every newstand in the country into the direct market and specialty shops, DC and Marvel had the clout to sign exclusivity contracts with Diamond, and Diamond became a monopoly. If you want to sell comic books, you have to order through Diamond. DC and Marvel sell the majority of books sold through Diamond, so Diamond does what they want.
So, what have DC and Marvel done, having complete control over the distribution system to every direct market store in the country?
They’ve made more superheroes.
Not new ones, either. They’ve kept milking the same characters they’ve had for decades. They have no incentive to build something new when, short-term, they can make more money off of the things they already have. They could try to expand, they could try to create new characters, they could lay groundwork for a sustainable future when its obvious that their customer base is thinning and aging.
But, nah… Let’s publish more Superman.
So, there you go, Wertham, you hated fascism, and it created mass book burnings in America. You hated Superman, and you made a comic book landscape of almost nothing but Supermen.
Good job, guy.