As Robert Emmons tells it, for generations of comic-book enthusiasts, one villain has stood head and shoulders above the rest. His name? Fredric Wertham.
“He is the dark, infamous figure in comic book history,” says Emmons, an associate faculty member of fine arts and associate director of the Digital Studies Center at Rutgers University–Camden. “You can bring up his name in comics shops throughout the country and people will tell you, ‘Fredric Wertham ruined comics.’”
A lifelong comics fan himself, the filmmaker set out to make a documentary chronicling Wertham’s successful – and scientifically flawed – crusade against the comics industry in the 1950s. However, even Emmons couldn’t have foreseen what would happen next. At every turn, he would unexpectedly discover another aspect to the despised psychiatrist – that of the ardent pacifist; the influential researcher hell-bent on protecting children and their rights; and the ironic, staunch believer in free speech.
The Rutgers–Camden researcher uncovers the complex, untold story of Comics Enemy No. 1 in his new film, Diagram for Delinquents. Using expert and comic book insider interviews, animation, and never-seen-before historical photographs and films, Diagram for Delinquents goes further than any previous comic book documentary to explore and understand the controversial figure at the center of this American tale. A digital download of the film is available at sequart.org.
“While other films have shown Wertham’s fight against comics, this is the first time that we see a real human side to him,” says Emmons, a Collingswood resident.
The film captures the zeitgeist of the era, taking into account the social, economic, and political forces at play. As Emmons explains, in post-World War II America, there was a marked shift from superhero comics to crime and horror comics, produced most notably by publishing powerhouse EC Comics. At the time, more than 90 percent of children in the country were reading comic books. “It’s a remarkable statistic,” says Emmons. “In terms of media consumption now, does anything come close to that?”
A psychiatrist by trade, Wertham began to treat juvenile delinquents and noticed an ominous common denominator – they read comics. He promptly made the correlation that reading comics is the leading cause of juvenile delinquency in the United States.
“What he never puts together is that, when virtually the entire population is reading comics, there is a world of kids out there who enjoy comics but don’t have dysfunctions and aren’t juvenile delinquents,” says Emmons. “Needless to say, there were problems with his research.”
In 1954, Wertham postulated his theory in a scathing indictment of comic books called Seduction of the Innocent. That same year, he testified at special hearings on comics before the Senate Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency in the United States. To avoid any government interference, the industry proceeded to set up a self-regulating code similar to what the Motion Picture Association of America instituted for films.
However, according to Emmons, few people realize that Wertham wasn’t actually concerned with censoring comics. He merely wanted to ban them from being sold to children under the age of 16.
“Wertham believed in free speech, but he also believed that children were a special class of citizen that deserved protections and shouldn’t have access to the same kinds of speech that an adult has,” explains Emmons. “That’s the missing piece that people often leave out.”
Furthermore, says Emmons, while Wertham was an alarmist and extremist, who was hyperbolic in his characterization of comics, he also “did a lot of good for others,” dedicating his time, scholarship, and resources to eradicating social ills. For instance, he established a free clinic in Harlem to provide health services to the black community. He also gave testimonies in Delaware segregation cases that were cited in the landmark Supreme Court case, Brown vs. Board of Education, which found “separate but equal” public schools for black and white students to be unconstitutional.
Wertham also believed vehemently in the elimination of violence in all forms, especially anything which he perceived as being harmful to children, says Emmons. “It was kind of this utopian idea, but that’s why he didn’t like the comic books of the 1940s and ’50s,” he explains. “They were extremely violent in their depictions of crime and horror, and he thought that they fed into a cycle of violence of children.”
Emmons adds that, while Wertham was the indeed the loudest and most effective voice against comics, he was just one of several contributing factors. “For instance, you can also blame the rise of television, a shift in the marketing and distribution of comics, and the new rating system,” he explains.
The Rutgers–Camden researcher recently appeared on a panel marking the 60th anniversary of Seduction of the Innocent, at the San Diego Comic Con. He will also screen his film and appear on a panel, titled “Secret History of Comics Censorship,” at Wizard World Chicago in late August.
Diagram for Delinquents will have its theatrical premiere at the inaugural Reel East Film Festival, to be held at on Friday and Saturday, Aug. 22 and 23, at the historic Ritz Theatre in Oaklyn. Sponsored by Digital Studies Center at Rutgers–Camden and Camden County, the festival will showcase a variety of independent and feature films and shorts. For more details, visit camdencounty.com/events/reel-east-film-festival.