An (Im)moral Outrage Against Comics


In the 1950s, a man named Wertham led the charge to censor comics. His success was due to his book, Seduction of the Innocent. It may have all been a lie.

Seduction of the Innocent  detailed Wertham’s psyhotherapy sessions with young boys and girls. The sessions, according to that book, linked their social deviancy with their reading of comics, specifically horror comics and war story comics.

In 2012, a librarian named Carol Tilley dug through his research and archived records.

She has evidence he made it all up.


The year is 1954. The so-called “Lost Generation” is coming into their own, to the disdain of the older generations who have political control of the United States. Moral outrage is the cause of the times, and scapegoats for the youthful rebellion are in short supply. The House Un-American Activies Committee was losing public favor.

Those in power needed a target, something to point the American public’s attention toward and say, “There! There is the source of our youth’s corruption and our country’s failings!”

Enter one Frederic Wertham. Wertham had spoken out about comic books for six years til this point, starting in 1948. He called out images of violence and horror, such as those found in EC’s comics titles such as Tales from the Crypt and Vault of Horror. He called the relationship between Batman and Robin a predatory homosexual pairing, and claimed that Wonder Woman’s stories had an underlying theme of BDSM deviancy (okay, so that one’s kind of been proven). He also claimed her strength and power must obviously make her a lesbian (that one not so much).

Coming back to 1954, and Wertham publishes his legacy piece: Seduction of the Innocent, in which he details psychotherapy sessions he has with victimized and deviant children, whose issues he ties back to the comic books they read in the years prior. One famous example is of a child who, after reading Batman’s adventures with his young ward Robin, began a homosexual relationship with a slightly older boy.

The outrage was swift, panicked, and painful.

Congress called hearings, bringing in other moral experts who claimed these “funny books” corrupted the minds of America’s youth. The Comics Code and Comics Code Authority were created, which limited the scope of both writer’s and artists’ expression in how the comics they created, could be. It wasn’t until the 1970s and 80s that the Code was skirted around and eventually ignored altogether, allowing greater freedom of artistic expression that hadn’t been seen in decades.

All because Frederic Wertham made it up.

Just this year, thanks to the research of Carol Tilley, Wertham’s archived records in the Library of Congress have come to light, destroying for all the credibility of the man who sealed the Vault of Horror.

Tilley’s research has produced definitive proof that Wertham’s study misrepresented or outright fabricated patient statements about comics and their effects. The archived records show Wertham “changed patients’ ages, distorted their quotes,” and “omitted other causal factors”, according to this Illinois news article interviewing Tilley.

To start, Wertham frequently references in his Seduction that numerous librarians (portrayed as dozens) wrote to him to complain about the content found in comics of the times. In reality, his archived documents reflected “maybe a dozen,” according to Tilley.

Then, when reviewing Wertham’s patient records and referencing the quotes provided in his book, more discrepancies presented themselves. A direct quote from the Illinois News article sums up the Batman link better than could be done here in other words:

For example, in “Seduction,” Wertham links “Batman” comic books to the case of a 13-year-old boy on probation and receiving counseling for sexual abuse of another boy: “Like many other homo-erotically inclined children, he was a special devotee of Batman: ‘Sometimes I read them over and over again. … It could be that Batman did something with Robin like I did with the younger boy.’ ”


What Tilley found in Wertham’s notes, however, was that the boy preferred “Superman,” “Crime Does Not Pay” and “war comics” over “Batman,” and that he had previously been sexually assaulted by the other boy – all information that Wertham left out.

The Illinois News article also details other examples, such as breaking up quotes from one disturbed young boy into representing several young boys, an example of Wertham withholding other causes that factor into a young girl’s truancy far more prominently than reading a comic (such as her status as a runaway, gang member, a reading disability and sexual activity, all in a 13-year old).

After reviewing all of these factors and the effects they’ve had on the comics industry and its perception by the public in the decades following both Seduction‘s publishing and the CCA’s creation, it’s pretty plain that the only people seduced in this case, were the people who needed a scapegoat.

One response to “An (Im)moral Outrage Against Comics

  1. Well, that is interesting. I mean, if you look at Seduction of the Innocent itself with no other context (except being a member of the Nintendo Generation) and you are sane, you probably notice right away that the contents are pandering to the authoritarians, and doesn’t quite line up with reality. My personal theory was he was leaning on children who were already in trouble to say what he wanted them to say. Nice to know Wertham couldn’t even accomplish his aim with *that* and had to just fabricate evidence out of whole cloth.

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