Can comic books negatively condition children’s behavior? In the 1950s that question provoked a furore, when the psychiatrist Frederic Wertham alleged comics had serious, deleterious effects. Dennis Doyle, who teaches history at St Louis College of Pharmacy, explores the story.
In 2009, the Walt Disney Company purchased Marvel Comics. The decision made good commercial sense. Indeed, Fortune Magazine has said that “measured by any standard, aesthetic or financial,” it was phenomenally successful. However, in 1954 when the burgeoning Disney empire was best known for its feature films, many Americans might have been appalled by a merger between Disney and a comic book company. Comics and Disney’s films were not considered equivalent entertainment then: Disney’s movies were regarded as innocent fantasy while comic books, because of indefatigable campaigning by the psychiatrist Frederic Wertham, were widely thought to damage a child’s psyche.
In Seduction of the Innocent (1954), Wertham recommended that children should not be exposed to comic books. This was but one of many interventions he made on this theme. In magazine articles and books published between 1948 and 1957, Wertham opined that comic books taught some children how to misbehave. He claimed that lurid images of violence, crime, and sexual perversion could hijack a child’s imagination, “indoctrinating” and “conditioning” children to imitate the depraved panels they saw. Wertham used the rhetoric of brainwashing to decry the influence of mass media on childhood innocence, and gained a sizeable public following in doing so. Yet the 1950s comic book scare was more than a case of Cold War anxiety over the coercions of mass culture. Wertham’s arguments about the pliability of children’s minds reveal the role that childhood imagination and fantasy were seen to play in shaping the Cold War American citizen. His interventions, which occurred at a time of burgeoning popularity for Walt Disney Productions, focused specifically on the genre of comic books.
Frederic Wertham’s perspective gained a rabid following in the United States, contributing to the pressure on the US Senate to hold high-profile hearings on the comic book-crime link in 1950 and 1954. Testifying before the Sub-Committee on Juvenile Delinquency, Wertham offered his view that the unregulated sale of the most offensive comics constituted a health risk. Fearful of government regulation, the comic book industry opted for self-regulation with the creation of the Comic Magazine Association of America’s Comics Code. Although Wertham would have preferred that the US had simply stopped selling comics to minors, many parents and civic leaders were satisfied that industry self-censorship would produce a product less injurious to children.
Despite his popularity and influence as a public intellectual in the postwar US, Wertham’s views on both comic books and imagination were not orthodox within the psychological sciences. Wertham was used to being an outsider within psychiatry. Highly opinionated and dismissive of authority, hierarchies, and protocols, he rarely lasted with one employer before alienating many of his superiors and colleagues. A former student of Emil Kraepelin, Wertham left inflation-racked Germany in 1922, working first at Johns Hopkins’ Phipps Clinic and then at New York’s Bellevue, Queens Mass General, and the Quaker Readjustment Center. Perennially willing to take unpopular positions, Wertham championed the use of psychotherapy with the criminally insane, insisted that violence was a disease that could be eliminated, and opposed racism. Indeed, he used his positions to help racially desegregate public schools in Delaware and provide African-Americans with low-cost care at his Lafargue Mental Hygiene Clinic in Harlem.
Wertham also diverged from most other psychiatrists on the matter of consumer culture’s threat to mental health. Although Vance Packard’s work did not directly influence Wertham, Seduction of the Innocent had more in common with The Hidden Persuaders, published four years later in 1954. Packard’s warnings about the psychological manipulation of consumers was more relevant to Wertham’s case than anything written in a psychiatric journal. Wertham did not share his profession’s assumptions about what the “imagination” even was. By the 1950s, most psychiatrists and experimental psychologists conceived of imagination as a productive faculty that facilitated emotional maturation: a kind of internal workshop where children actively worked through their internal conflicts, constructing fantasies that helped them made sense of the world around them. But this expert definition did not go over well in the court of public opinion. Wertham’s anti-comics crusade attained the popularity it had precisely because his understanding of imagination and its role in a mass-mediated society resonated with a public that had made Walt Disney’s films its standard of an acceptable fantasy world.
Given that Wertham and his supporters believed that mass culture could corrupt and manipulate a child’s imagination so easily, what did he think imagination was? Wertham believed it was a passive receiver for sense impressions. Children had no control over which images entered their imaginations. “Endless repetition”of unsolicited images solidified them within the mind, making them likely to function as agents of conditioning. According to Wertham, the comics’ “influence consists in the continuation or repetition of the contents of the stories in life, either in thought or in action.”
But Wertham was also convinced that the imagination’s “true nature” was not as this repository of violent imagery, but as a place of morally uplifting escape. The imagination worked best when filled with images that generated an internal world of escape and fantasy that still conformed to society’s ideals. According to Wertham, comics were incapable of generating mental worlds that could emotionally satisfy a child. Instead, comics triggered fantasies that—contained within the imagination—left the child feeling unfulfilled and restless. These unfulfilled fantasies leached over into the lives of children, prompting them to satisfy their unmet sadistic desires in the real world.
For Wertham, the imagination required classic Western folklore and fairy tales to generate an emotionally satisfying fantasy world. A humanist and an admitted fan of Plato and St. Augustine, Wertham believed we all had a “true personality,” a blueprint for who we were meant to become. If fed a steady diet of the right influences—Hans Christian Anderson and romantic European tales of magic, heroism, sentimentality, and whimsy–the imagination was equipped to help the psyche develop this true personality. Wertham was aware that some critics thought it odd that he encouraged parents to expose children to classic fairy tales, many of which contained very dark and mature elements. He believed that the human imagination was so naturally attuned to the supposedly timeless values those stories contained, that a child’s mind – like a homing device – would locate the moral of the story even in the scariest of Brothers Grimm tales.
The sentimental and magical thinking expressed in Seduction of the Innocent was no different than what Walt Disney offered in his feature-length animated features, especially his midcentury classics such as Pinocchio, Fantasia, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella. Drawing upon the same Eurocentric fairy tales Wertham praised, Disney created highly profitable on-screen worlds of escapist fantasy. His films were beautifully drawn celebrations of sanitized, allegedly timeless smalltown values, a direct contrast to cheap comics’ hastily drawn stories of vigilantes battling street thugs.
What both Disney and Wertham offered was support for the widespread feeling that imagination had a natural craving for certain kinds of old-fashioned fantasies. Although those fantasies allowed for villains, the battle of good and evil was clear-cut and the denouement benign. If properly nourished in childhood, imagination could help sustain an adult throughout his or her life. As Disney claimed: “I do not make films primarily for children. Call the child innocence. The worst of us is not without innocence, although buried deeply it might be. In my own work, I try to reach and speak to that innocence.” Wertham remarked that even as an adult, fantasy worlds stimulated by children’s classics could make an adult “think of something bright and cheerful and idyllic.”
Wertham and Disney’s work resonated with a public that thought of the imagination as a natural resource Americans could domesticate and prune, both during childhood and once childhood was over. Early Cold War rhetoric often intimated that the optimistic American imagination would somehow ensure the US’s continual success. But imagination required nourishment, even in adulthood. By 1955, the year that Disneyland first opened in Anaheim, California, the popularity of Disney products indicated that mass culture had become the primary site where US adults expected to return to reassuring dreamworlds. The parallel success of the anti-comics campaign demonstrates that citizens further expected the marketplace to help children develop those fantasies, and to protect them from pernicious influence. In effect, the 1950s comic book scare should not be regarded as a rejection of mass culture’s influence over the self. Instead it should be understood as evidence of postwar Americans’ willingness to accept the roles of consumerism and mass culture in shaping model democratic citizens.
Dennis Doyle is Assistant Professor of History at the St. Louis College of Pharmacy, Missouri. He is author of Psychiatry and Racial Liberalism in Harlem, 1936-1968 (University of Rochester Press, 2016) and ‘Black Celebrities, Selfhood, and Psychiatry in the Civil Rights Era: The Wiltwick School for Boys and the Floyd Patterson House’ Social History of Medicine (2014). His current research explores Cold War American concerns about the psychological effects of children’s comic books.
 Frederic Wertham, Seduction of the Innocent (New York: Rinehart, 1954); Frederic Wertham, “The Psychopathology of Comic Books,” American Journal of Psychotherapy 2 (April 1948), 472-3; Frederic Wertham, “The Comics…Very Funny!” Saturday Review of Literature 31 (May 29, 1948): 29, 95; Judith Crist, “Horror in the Nursery,” Collier’s Magazine (March 27, 1948), 22-23; Frederic Wertham, “What Parents Don’t Know About Comic Books,” Ladies Home Journal 70 (Nov. 1953): 50-3; Frederic Wertham, “The Curse of the Comic Books,” Religious Education 49 (November-December 1954): 12-15; Frederic Wertham, “Do the Crime Comic Books Promote Juvenile Delinquency?” Congressional Digest 33 (December 1954): 302.
 James Gilbert, Cycle of Outrage: America’s Response to the Juvenile Delinquent in the 1950s (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 143-162.
 Gabriel Mendes, Under the Strain of Color: Harlem’s Lafargue Clinic and the Promise of an Antiracist Psychiatry (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2015); Andrea Friedman, Citizenship in Cold War America: The National Security State and the Possibilities of Dissent (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2014).
 Matthew W. Dunne, A Cold War State of Mind: Brainwashing and Postwar American Society (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013).
 Lauretta Bender and Frank Vogel, “Imaginary Companions of Children,” American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 11 (January 1941): 56.
 Wertham, Seduction of the Innocent, 86, 99, 109, 139, 171, 357, 365, 377.
 Ibid, 95.
 Ibid., 115.
 Ibid., 117,171, 183
 Eric Avila, Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight: Fear and Fantasy in Suburban Los Angeles (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006); Neal Gabler, Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination (New York: Alfred Knopf, 2007).
 Marc Eliot, Walt Disney: Hollywood’s Dark Prince (New York: Birch Lane, 1993), vii.
 Frederic Wertham, “Reading for the Innocent,” p. 2, reprint of Wilson’s Library Bulletin, 2, folder—Articles by Frederic Wertham, Hilde L. Mosse, and Others, box 2, Lafargue Clinic Records, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library, Astor, Lennox and Tilden Foundation, New York, New York; Wertham, Seduction of the Innocent, 89-90.