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Notorious Comic Book Censor Employed Flawed Studies

| 20 Feb 2013 16:44
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The man who defanged comic books in the 1950s used dishonest methodology.

Time for a bit of a comic book history lesson: Comics in the 1930s and 40s were weird, violent, and often scary. Since videogames wouldn't come around for another few decades, old fogeys of the day loved blaming society's ills on the proliferation of comic books and their young readership (sound familiar?). One such dinosaur was Fredric Wertham, an American psychologist whose inflammatory book Seduction of the Innocent necessitated the creation of the Comics Code Authority, which made comic books into safe, silly bastions of traditional American values. Although Wertham remains a controversial figure, new findings suggest that his research was flawed at best, and outright fabricated at worst.

Carol L. Tilley, an assistant professor at the University of Illinois, discovered this disconcerting information while researching Wertham for a project concerning the social history of comic book readers. She asserts that Wertham "manipulated, overstated, compromised and fabricated evidence" in pursuit of singling out comic books as a harmful influence for children. Among other things, Wertham claims to have treated thousands of young patients (evidence suggests he worked with only a few hundred), combined and invented personalities to make more compelling quotes, and did not properly research the comics and characters which he despised. For example, Wertham's book cites a 7-year-old boy having nightmares about becoming a beetle, just like the Blue Beetle in DC Comics. However, the Blue Beetle character possesses no such ability, and Wertham's own notes state that the boy recalled having nightmares, but could remember no particulars about them.

Interestingly, Tilley and others who have critically examined Wertham's work generally believe that he was a good man with a misguided cause, rather than the tyrant he's often made out to be. "I don't want to join the people who are trying to heap him onto some bonfire of how awful he was," says Tilley. "[He was] carried away with his own preconceptions, his own agenda, that became perhaps disconnected from the kids that he was treating and observing." Michael Chabon, the author of the Silver Age superhero-inspired book The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, adds that Wertham was a compassionate, progressive man. Wertham spent years of his life caring for minority and poor mental health patients, casting light on their plight in society at large rather than dismissing it.

Whether Wertham was a petty bully or a misunderstood crusader, Tilley and her contemporaries will do their best to bring his historical role to light. "We need to be reasonable and realize that it could be that some of the research is flawed," she says. "It could be that some people are choosing to preference their own personal beliefs or their own agenda above doing good research. I think this can be a cautionary reminder." Cautionary, indeed.

Source: The New York Times

Image: DC Wikia

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