Since the comic book format was first introduced in 1934, start-up companies featuring legendary talents such as Will Eisner, Jack Kirby, Bob Kane, and Jerry Robinson quickly established themselves. Throughout the late 1930s and 1940s, comic books sales boomed with the rise of popular characters such as Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. While other countries followed suit with their own comic book industries, U.S. comic book companies tended to dominate the field. The comics industry grew and adapted with changing world events. As the U.S. entered World War II, comic book characters went to war in increasing numbers and the rise of the Atomic age simply introduced new plot lines for the next generation of comic book characters.
By the beginning of the 1950s however, the industry began to decline and new "grittier" comic books were released which increasingly focused on horror and detective dramas. It also marked the peak of the comics book boom with over 650 different titles being produced monthly by 1952 and millions of issues being sold every year. While conservative factions had long protested against the "evil" influence that comic books had on developing minds, the increasingly violent content to be found in many of the horror- and crime-oriented comics began to worry parents and educators alike.
That same era also marked the rise of juvenile delinquency as a serious concern in American society. Beginning in the years following World War II, increased publicity about crimes being committed by (usually male) youths generated considerable alarm and left child experts scrambling for an explanation. While early criminologists pointed out the probable role of family disruptions resulting from the war in delinquent behaviour, parents and educators were often uncomfortable with the blame falling so close to home. Hard questions began to be asked about the role of mass media in violence, especially given the violent content often found on radio (and later television) as well as comic books. Could violent comic books play a role in delinquency?
The crusade against comic books was nothing new (comic book burnings at conservative high schools had actually begun in the 1940s) but it took Fredric Wertham to give it respectability. A German-born psychiatrist who had moved to the U.S. in the 1920s, Wertham had established himself as a prominent forensic psychiatrist (he had appeared as an expert witness in the Albert Fish trial). He was also a prominent social activist who developed an interest in the role of the media in shaping violent behaviour.; Beginning in the 1940s, Wertham wrote a series of books and articles on the influence of violent comic books on youth violence. He specifically target comic books over other media portrayals of violence since comics were written specifically for children. Other forms of media violence managed to escape his wrath since they were intended for audiences of all ages. For that reason, comic books needed to meet a higher standard than other media. It didn't help that the early comic book industry was almost completely unregulated with none of the government agencies overseeing newspaper and radio content.
Some of Wertham's early articles prompted attempts at self-censorship by the comics book industry. Many comic book publishers formed their own advisory boards with child psychiatrists weighing in on the impact of violent content on children but that wasn't enough to appease Fredric Wertham. He dismissed these advisory board members as "psycho-prima donnas" who were obviously lacking in basic clinical experience with children.As he later wrote, "The fact that some child psychiatrists endorse comic books does not prove the healthy state of the comic books. It only proves the unhealthy state of child psychiatry".
In 1954, Wertham published his most influential book, Seduction of the Innocent. In his book, Wertham provided graphic descriptions of the violent content that could be found in comic books. He specifically targeted EC Comics with its extensive line of horror/crime comics (including the Tales from the Crypt series). Along with his fairly valid objections to the extreme violence depicted in comic books, Wertham made some bizarre conclusions about the hidden sexual content to be found as well. Not only did he denounce Wonder Woman for its "lesbian" and bondage themes, but he also suggested that Batman and Robin's relationship had homosexual overtones. Wertham also had harsh words for the advertisements in comic books (offering items such as air rifles, knives, and "x-ray glasses"). In his book, he concluded that, "The time has come to legislate these books off the newstands and out of candy stores".
Because of Wertham's book and his credentials as an expert witness, he was called to testify before the newly-formed U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency. Then-chaired by Senator Estes Kefauver, the subcommittee held public hearings that focused on "crime and horror" comic books and their potential impact on juvenile delinquency. Fredric Wertham was hardly the only expert witness called&to testify though. Other prominent researchers, including Lauretta Bender and Frederic Thrasher disputed the link between comic books and juvenile delinquency although Wertham's higher media profile gave his testimony more weight.
There was certainly little actual research on the supposed link between comic book violence and juvenile delinquency. While studies into comic book readership tended to find that most U.S children under the age of ten read comics on a regular basis (with boys being more likely than girls to prefer adventure comics).few studies found evidence that the books were harmful. Some researchers reported that comic book readers had a lower IQ than non-comic book readers although later researchers failed to replicate this result. The lack of empirical data didn't stop Wertham's crusading.Continue to Part Two