NYCC: The Secret History of Comics Censorship

The history of comics censorship in the 1950s has been chronicled in books like David Hajdu's "The Ten Cent Plague," but researcher Carol Tilley, an assistant professor at the University of Illinois, has found some new angles to the story in a surprising place: The papers of Dr. Frederic Wertham, author of the 1954 book "Seduction of the Innocent," which warned against the supposed evils of comics.

In 1954, when Wertham testified before the U.S. Senate about his view of comics, EC Comics publisher Bill Gaines invited readers to respond. Over 200 teenagers wrote to Wertham to tell him how wrong he was.

Tilley presented those responses, as well as some insight into the more personal aspects of the anti-comics crusade of the 1950s, in New York Comic Con's "CBLDF: The Secret History of Comics Censorship" panel. Charles Brownstein, executive director of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, served as moderator for the discussion between Tilley and Charles Kochman, editorial director of Abrams Comicarts.

"The job of younger people is to horrify their elders," Brownstein told the audience as the panel began. "Our job as elders is to either have a dialogue with our kids about why we are horrified and why they like it, or to try to ban it -- You see it right now with the great debate raging over video games." While video games have powerful groups pushing back on attempts to ban them, however, comics had no such advocates, and the industry was "severely scarred by moral panic."

Tilley began with an excerpt from a letter to Wertham from an 11-year-old boy, Brian Arthur McLaughlin. "Anybody that goes out and kills someone because he reads a comic book is a simple-minded idiot," he wrote. "Sound silly? So does your item," he concluded, "I sincerely wish that you could understand comic books as I do, and I hope that someday in the future people will know their goods and evils."

Although he is now chiefly remembered for his anti-comics crusade, in his day Wertham was a respected psychiatrist who held many progressive views. In the 1940s he co-founded a pediatric clinic in a church basement in Harlem, and he also directed a clinic at Bellevue Hospital, where many of his patients came from the juvenile justice system. "These 'juvenile delinquents' were simply troubled kids who didn't like school, daydreamed too much, or had learning disabilities," Tilley said. "Some were physically, mentally, or sexually abused. A few of these kids were petty criminals or had been diagnosed with psychotic conditions. But because almost all of them read comics, Wertham argued that comics and juvenile delinquency went hand in hand."

According to Tilley, more than 95% of school-aged children and more than 80% of high-school aged teenagers in the early 1950s read comics. In 1954, nearly 1 billion comics were sold in the U.S., or about 30 comics for every person in the country. After World War II, comic publishers diversified from superhero comics into other genres such as horror, crime and romance. These comics were aimed at adults but could easily find their way into the hands of younger readers.

Wertham first spoke out publicly against comics in 1947 while testifying before a Post Office commission. He was defending a publisher of nudist magazines, arguing that the total nudity portrayed there was more innocent than what comic readers were exposed to. Judith Crist, who covered the hearings as a young reporter, quotes him as saying, "It is obvious, to the simplest G.I., let alone to psychiatrists, that a half-dressed woman is far more enticing than one without clothes." The following year, Crist wrote an article for Collier's magazine about Wertham's research, titled "Horror in the Nursery," which brought Wertham's views to a wider audience.

Around that time, Wertham began collecting inside information on the comic industry, aided by folklorist and publisher Gerson Legman. "Legman fed Wertham's appetite for inside information," Tilley said, "sending him lists of crime comics, explaining how comics changed titles but retained issue numbering, and outlining suspicious business connections, such as companies that also owned paper mills. He also shared reports on New York University professor Harvey Zorbaugh's workshops on comics." Zorbaugh hosted workshops on using comics in education, and Legman wrote to Wertham that "of the first 17 speakers, 15 were paid agents of the comic book companies themselves." Indeed, this gave Wertham the idea that the comics industry had "paid apologists," in Tilley's words. "He began seeking even more information about people employed in the advisory capacity by DC/National Comics, Fawcett, Hillman and more," she said. "Over time his ire focused on DC/National and its slate of advisors, including Lauretta Bender and Josette Frank."

Bender was a psychiatrist who, like Wertham, worked at Bellevue, and his dislike for her may have stemmed from a disagreement with her late husband, Paul Schilder, who was also a psychiatrist at Bellevue.

Frank, whom Tilley describes as "an earnest, career-minded woman," was a consultant for the Child Study Association, a parents guidance organization, and also was an advisor for DC, writing book reviews and offering guidance on their radio shows as well as their comics. "Despite the fact that her name and affiliation with the Child Study Association appeared on the masthead of every issue of DC's comics beginning in 1941," Tilley said, "Frank and the Child Study Association became Wertham's favorite targets. He accused the organization of hiding its ties to comics and of being a shill for corrupt publishers. At one point he even took extensive notes when one of his friends described going to a party held in Frank's honor. His friend reported that Josette looked 'insignificant, simple and sloppy,' while Lauretta Bender, who was serving tea at the party, his friend said, looked like a 'witch.'" He also held Frank's boss at the Child Study Association, Sidonie Gruenberg, in contempt.

That personal antipathy may have led directly to Wertham's appearance at the Kefauver hearings, the 1954 hearings before the U.S. Senate, by way of a third person, Ellen Wales Walpole, a confidant of Senator Estes Kefauver who had some grudges of her own.

"Walpole, it seems, may have had some mental health issues, according to a mutual friend, but she definitely had a grudge with the Child Study Association," Tilley said. "It seems that in the late 1940s, Sidonie Gruenberg had said harsh words about a series of books Walpole was proposing on children's emotions. I'm still uncovering the pieces of the story, but Walpole appears to have funneled her anger against the Child Study Association into a form of revenge."

Walpole arranged for Wertham to meet with Kefauver, and she encouraged Wertham to suggest questions for the hearings held by Kefauver's Committee on Organized Crime in 1950. Wertham was not impressed with the 1950 hearings but was willing to testify when Kefauver held another set of hearings in 1954. Thus, as Tilley put it, "Were it not for a negative review of a children's book, it's possible that Kefauver and Wertham may never have met."

Over 100 witnesses testified in the 1954 hearings, including Helen Meyers, vice president of Dell Comics; Walt Kelly, who was not only the creator of Pogo but also the president of the National Cartoonists Society; and Bill Gaines. Tilley pointed out that Wertham was on the extreme conservative end of the spectrum of witnesses at the hearings, and she showed a photo of Kefauver and his children, a few years later, reading comics.

After the hearings, Gaines invited readers of EC comics to write to the committee and present their side of things, and about 200 of them did exactly that. Tilley read a number of these letters from teens and pre-teens and followed up with some information about what they did when they grew up.

One letter was from a 14-year-old named Philip Proctor, who wrote, "We don't buy these mags because we have a thirst for blood, we buy them for the stories, the snap endings, the artwork, and because they deal with the unknown." As an adult, Proctor was one of the founders of the satirical comedy troupe Firesign Theatre; he told Tilley that he turned to satire because he wanted to ridicule "the blue-nosed, tight-assed censors" like the ones who were attacking his comics.

Lyn Crawford, age 13, wrote, "In your article you claim that comic books (horror, sex, love, crime) increase delinquency. I disagree. I believe those children you spoke of were delinquent before they even saw a comic book." Wertham did not answer Crawford's letter -- he did not respond to most letters challenging his views -- but he did take the time to mark up the grammar and spelling errors with red ink.

"I have, for the past few months, been urged by the editors of EC Comics to write to you about the recent comic book investigation," wrote 15-year-old Brian Mulholland. "I had failed to do so because I thought it absurd that the United States government would or could abolish harmless literature. But just yesterday I read that EC Comics is being forced to drop five of its publications because wholesalers and retailers throughout the country have been intimidated into refusing to handle crime and horror type comic books. That is the type of thing that goes on in Russia but not in America." Tilley spoke to Mulholland last year; he had recently retired from his post as a district attorney.

Several comic creators also wrote to Wertham over the years. Malcolm Kildale, the creator of "Speed Centaur," wrote to him in 1950 to complain about the Comics Code, then in existence, which he regarded as ineffectual because the publishers were policing themselves. "I dislike censorship as much as anyone," he wrote, "but I believe the comic book field needs a policing, similar perhaps to the baseball world. Comics needs a Landis"--referring to the first commissioner of baseball, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who cleaned up the sport after the Black Sox scandal. The most famous creator to write to him was Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel, who sent him two letters, although Tilley did not elaborate on their contents.

In 1954, in response to the furor aroused by "Seduction of the Innocent" and the Senate hearings, comics publishers formed the Comics Magazine Association of America and promulgated the Comics Code. According to Tilley, it's possible that Bill Gaines may have approached Wertham, via an intermediary, Lyle Stuart, to ask him to head up the Comics Code Authority. There is no direct record of this, but Stuart did send Wertham a comic that bore the new Comics Code seal of approval, and in the letter that accompanied it, he had harsh words for the head of the authority, Judge Charles Murphy. "Judge Murphy, as you may be aware, is a not-very-bright political hack who was selected mostly because of his religious faith," Stuart wrote. "Not too surprisingly, his code reads like a Church code approved by Cardinal Spellman in that it avoids things that were rarely complained about in comics. Bill Gaines, who, for all his faults, has played it straight and in good faith at all times, now will be the victim of his own honesty."

The following year, EC editor Al Feldstein spoke to Wertham's wife, Hesketh, by phone and followed up with a letter. (While Feldstein claimed later to have no memory of this, Tilley is sure the signature on the letter is his.) In the letter, Feldstein expressed frustration with the way the Comics Code was being implemented; a penciled note on the letter states, "Dr. Wertham can't give you a statement for this purpose in any case. He doesn't think the whole Murphy set-up legitimate."

Tilley concluded by pointing out that while the Comics Code is a thing of the past, attempts to censor comics continue in different forms. "In Illinois, where I live, in the past year, there was an enormous uproar about 'Persepolis,'" she said. "I've heard school librarians in Illinois question whether they could purchase books for their collections like Raina Telgemeier's 'Drama,' because of its references to homosexuality, and Ed Piskor's 'Wizzywig,' because it addresses hacking. In the very community where I live, public librarians have purchased books like Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie's 'Lost Girls,' only to have administrators later demand the books' removal."

Wertham defended his legacy in a letter to horror-comics editor Alan Hewetson in the 1970s, saying, "Things have changed since 'Seduction of the Innocent.' Compared with all the mass media, comic books are now only a minor influence. My main contribution was to point out that what happens in mass media was not only a reflection of society but also an influence on it. I have never suggested, endorsed nor approved the Comics Code. I merely suggested that the most gory crime comic books should not be directly displayed to children of thirteen and under. Censorship is what one agency does to another. The Comics Code was not a 'censorship body.' It was an intra-office business arrangement."

"The path to censorship is seldom direct," Tilley said. "It meanders and weaves, directed at times by individual motives, personal vendettas, imperious morality -- just as we've seen in some of the stories I've shared today. Censors, including people like Frederic Wertham, seldom see themselves as censors. But I would say we have to resist. It takes individuals like the children and teens who wrote to Wertham and the senate in the 1950s to speak out. It takes organizations like the CBLDF. We are all in this together.

Tilley closed with a letter to Wertham from Bhob Stewart, who had his local library order "Seduction of the Innocent" and read it cover to cover. Stewart, who went on to become a writer and cartoonist, was already publishing an EC fanzine, "Potrzebie," in 1954, and he sent Wertham a copy, pointing out that several other EC fans published magazines of their own. "Then too, these same fans of EC have established an interlaced correspondence system over the United States," he wrote. "You must admit the teenagers who have banded together to cuss and discuss the literate quality of comic books are more than juvenile delinquents... The fact that you are against censorship is enough to make James re-Joyce, because once comics are outlawed out of existence it'll only be a short step to the book-burnings Bradbury science fictionalizes in 'Fahrenheit 451.'"

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