Heather Cox Richardson
In 1938 Superman sped into this galaxy from the planet Krypton to save humanity. He and his superhero friends oversaw the chaos of the late 1940s, as America first fought World War II and then struggled to adjust to demobilization. Superman and his friends then swept through the skies as the U.S. armed for the Cold War. While Superman matured, the late 1940s and early 1950s brought chilling fear to Americans that the nation was slipping, losing ground to the Russians, falling apart.
So many children—and adults—were reading comics that critics carped that comics themselves were part of America’s moral decline. In 1953, 6.5 comics were sold for every one person in the country. More than 90% of children admitted to reading them.
In 1954 the psychiatrist Fredric Wertham published The Seduction of the Innocent, detailing how comic books dragged impressionable youths into crime, violence, and homosexuality. The book used anecdotes to prove that Batman, for example, promoted a gay lifestyle. The Seduction of the Innocent was such a sensation that Wertham became the go-to man for information about the danger of comics, and the industry itself, which scorned Wertham, felt obliged to bow to pressure from his acolytes. To preempt government censorship, the Comics Magazine Association of America developed the Comics Code Authority, which banned violence, sex, and disrespect for authority in comic books. Under the Comics Code, good must always triumph over evil, and any treatment of sexuality had to emphasize the sanctity of marriage.
Wertham died in 1981, and his archives opened to researchers in 2010. Carol Tilley, a scholar of library science at the University of Illinois, dug immediately into Wertham’s files on The Seduction of the Innocent. She found that Wertham had comprehensively fudged his data.
Wertham used no citations, and excised from his notes the full portraits of the children he claimed were victimized by comics. His 13-year-old “Dorothy” refused to go regularly to school because she admired Sheena, Queen of the Jungle and crime comics. In fact, Dorothy had other attributes that undoubtedly affected her school attendance: she was a sexually active runaway with a reading disability who belonged to a gang. Another 13-year-old—a boy this time—admired Batman for what he and Robin might be doing in their spare time; in fact, the boy had been sexually assaulted and preferred Superman and war comics to Batman. The list goes on and on.
The seduction of the innocent, indeed.
2017 Dorothy Ross Prize
5 hours ago