When it comes to those who have had a drastic impact on how the comic book industry has evolved over the past seventy five years, it would be hard to argue that anybody has had more of an impact than Stan Lee has when it comes to the positive influence in the industry. There is another man who has had just as much influence over comic books as Stan Lee, if not more than Marvel’s legendary writer, and there is a very good chance that yu may never have heard of him: Fredric Wertham, a man who’s name used to be reviled when spoken in the comic book industry.
During the early 1950’s Wertham embarked upon a crusade against comics, decrying the corrupting influence that the four colour strips had on the nations children. Beginning in the early part of the 50’s, Wertham published a handful of articles in various magazines, culminating with his most well known book Seduction of the Innocent. Asserting in this book that the comics available did little but corrupt the hearts and minds of America’s children, Wertham’s claims gained traction. During a 1988 interview with Darrel Boatz for Comic Interview, Stan Lee recounted that Wertham “said things that impressed the public, and it was like shouting fire in a theater, but there was little scientific validity to it. And yet because he had the name doctor people took what he said seriously, and it started a whole crusade against comics.”
And Stan Lee wasn’t wrong; in the decades since Wertham’s book was published, scholar Carol Tilley has since looked into Wertham’s research papers and came to the conclusion that Wertham’s documentation glorified and sensationalized his findings. The influence of comics was never as bad as he claimed in his book, although his accusations weren’t utterly without fact; the crime and horror comics of the day did indeed have graphic covers, whether it be of drug addiction or a headless body. The furor around the book culminated with a series of senate hearings on the subject. Although the committee hearings ended without any real resolution or prosecution on the comic publishers, the damage had already been done.
As a result of the hearings the Comics Code Authority (CCA) was formed, allowing publishers to self-regulate the comics produced. Advertisers would largely bypass comics that were not approved by the CCA, driving many publishers to stop printing the offending material, and one of the hardest hit genre’s was the horror-comic. Any depiction of the walking dead, vampires, ghouls, cannibalism, and werewolfism were prohibited, as were stories dealing with the moral grey areas of the sympathetic criminals. The CCA limited what content would be approved by the Code, and as a result companies would only advertise within Code approved comics; effectively running non-Code approved comics off the newsstands. Marvel would occasionally release comics that weren’t approved by the Code, Daredevil #230 is an example of this, but this was always done with little fanfare. Most of these comics that were released without approval were never really publicized at the time (the lone exception to this, however, was in 1971, when the United States Department of Health, Education, and Welfare approached Marvel Comics editor-in-chief Stan Lee to do a comic book story about drug abuse. Lee agreed and wrote a three-part Spider-Man story portraying drug use as dangerous and unglamorous. The Code refused to approve the story because of the presence of narcotics, deeming the context of the story irrelevant. Marvel published the story regardless in The Amazing Spider-Man #96–98, without the Comics Code seal. The story was well received, and as a result caused the CCA to revise the Code the same year).
The Comics Code Authority was completely abandoned by publishers in 2011, but for more than fifty years it dictated the content within American comics. Had Wertham published an actual factual account of the effect comics were having on the youth, one has to wonder whether the CCA would ever have been formed, and where comics today would be had that never been the case. Because his research was largely misrepresented or outright false, the face of comics was irrevocably changed. Would superheroes be as huge today, if not for Seduction of the Innocent?
Although Wertham’s name isn’t spoken much anymore, his work has influenced, and been felt by, comic books for nearly sixty years .