13 February 2013

“A special devotee of Batman”? Not Really

The latest irregularly scheduled Oz and Ends award for Batman research goes to Carol Tilley, professor of library and information science at the University of Illinois, who recently published a paper comparing Dr. Fredric Wertham’s statements about comics in Seduction of the Innocent with his actual research notes.

The university released an unfortunately headlined press release that says:
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.
That change was crucial because Wertham’s book linked Batman and Robin to homosexuality but didn’t make the same link for the comics that young patient actually preferred.

The press release notes other examples where Wertham’s notes and final text don’t match. For example, he left out a lot of pertinent risk factors in troubled young patients’ lives. When a patient described learning crime techniques from “the movies” as well as comics, Wertham mentioned only the comics.

I’ve previously noted how Wertham retold a news story about a boy who put on a cape and jumped off a cliff without acknowledging that the character the boy was imitating wasn’t Superman but Mighty Mouse, a character created for the movies.

(Thanks to E. J. Barnes for the alert.)


Icon_UK said...

Interesting, though his scientific approach was pretty much worthless already, since he sought out instances of a connection between comics and deviance and focussed on them, rather than analysing a wider range of data to see if a connection presented itself.

I found a copy in a university library many many years ago, and it made odd reading even then.

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, as science Seduction of the Innocent is worthless since Wertham never considered the control group of kids who read comics and never had major psychological or legal trouble (i.e., the vast majority of kids).

But even on its own terms as a collection of case studies, Seduction of the Innocent now appears to be fraudulent.

Sooner or later I'll lay out my own theory about how the effect of Seduction of the Innocent on the Batman comics was distorted by the countercultural left of the mid-1960s.