Welcome to the four hundred and fifty-first in a series of examinations of comic book legends and whether they are true or false. Click here for an archive of the previous four hundred and fifty. This week, did Stan Lee really debate Fredric Wertham or Gershon Legman? Discover the surprising first comic book appearance by Conan! Plus, discover the issue of Doctor Strange that was lettered with a script that didn't match the comic!
NOTE: The column is on three pages, a page for each legend. There's a little "next" button on the top of the page and the bottom of the page to take you to the next page (and you can navigate between each page by just clicking on the little 1, 2 and 3 on the top and the bottom, as well).
COMIC LEGEND: Stan Lee debated Fredric Wertham and/or Gershon Legman on their views about comic books.
Reader Greg P. wrote in recently to ask about something he read in Stan Lee's 2002 autobiography, Excelsior!: The Amazing Life of Stan Lee (written with George Mair), and whether it was true or not.
Here is the passage from Lee's book, about Fredric Wertham, author of Seduction of the Innocent, which argued that violence in comic books were harmful to children.
To me, Wertham was a fanatic, pure and simple. I used to debate with him, which was fun because I usually won - but that was rarely publicized. He once claimed he did a survey that demonstrated that most of the kids in reform schools were comicbook readers. So I said to him, "If you do another survey, you'll find that most of the kids who drink milk are comicbook readers. Should we ban milk?" His arguments were patently sophistic, and there I'm being charitable but he was a psychiatrist so people listened.
Lee then detailed a story of an old Timely "funny animal" comic book cover that drew the ire of Wertham:
Well, I was invited to have one of my Lee/Wertham debates at New York University at a class that discussed social issues. Dr. Wertham couldn't attend, but sent one of his acolytes to speak for him. If memory serves, his last name sounded something like Legman. Out friend Legman held up that same giraffe cover that I've just described and started ranting about the fact that every young reader certainly understoof the subliminal sexual message being so blatantly exhibited in that drawing. It was hard for me to reconcile something subliminal being blatant, but who was I to contradict a follower of Fredric Wertham?
When the professor and his mystified students asked the raging crusader to explain what the hell he was talking about, he said that the giraffe's neck obviously represented the male organ and - well, you can guess the rest. Within minutes, the erudite Mr. Legman was ushered out of the classroom and ordered never to return as the professor apologized to the students and me for Legman's obscene tirade.
So, as to whether any of this happened.
First off, Lee and Wertham never had any debates. Wertham thought of people like Lee as essentially the lowest of the low, and would never indulge in actually debating with them.
Secondly, the Legman that Lee is referring to is Gershon Legman, whose book Love and Death actually predated Seduction of the Innocent, and dealt more with the idea that the depiction of violence in popular culture was a result of the repression of sex. Later in life, Legman actually claimed to have ghost-written Seduction of the Innocent.
Anyhow, there do not seem to be any evidence of Lee actually debating Legman, either. In fact, the one notable example we have of Lee actually debating someone related to Wertham came many years after Wertham's peak, and at a time when Lee was much more well-known in the comic book field. In 1968, Lee debated a colleague of Dr. Wertham's, Dr. Hilde Mosse on the Barry Farber radio program on WOR-AM Radio in New York (the whole thing is transcribed in Danny Fingeroth and Roy Thomas' great book, The Stan Lee Universe). In that debate, Lee retells the same basic story about Legman he told in his autobiography, only this time he describes the events as occurring in a lecture by Legman that Lee attended. A lecture that did not end with anyone ushering Legman off of the stage. Now that certainly sounds a lot more believable, no?
Lee obviously DID greatly disagree with Wertham's beliefs, and Lee did a fine job in the 1968 debate with Mosse.
In addition, even back in the early 1950s, when Wertham was at his peak, Lee certainly was outspoken about his distaste for Wertham's attitudes, as were most comic book publishers. Lee actually wrote a scathing indictment on Wertham in a 1953 issue of Suspense. Check it out (with art by Joe Manneely)...
So it was not like Lee was some Johnny-come-lately when it came to denouncing Wertham. He was all over the guy during Wertham's peak. However, Lee did not testify in front of the United States Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency and never actually publicly interacted with Fredric Wertham. Like I noted, Lee and Timely were not exactly at the top of the comic book food chain back in 1953, so it is understandable that Lee would not be more of a public face on the issue (unlike William Gaines, whose EC Comics were a much bigger deal at the time and definitely DID become the face of the issue). So it is perfectly normal for Lee and Wertham not to interact with each other during the 1950s. But it is worth pointing out that they did not actually interact.
Hope that helps, Greg!
On the next page, was there a Conan comic book years before Marvel's Conan adaptation?