24 September 2014

Carol Tilley on “When Comics Almost Died”

On Monday night I had the pleasure of attending a lecture by Carol Tilley of the University of Illinois on Dr. Fredric Wertham’s crusade against comics in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

I knew that basic story well from Jules Feiffer’s Greatest Comic Book Heroes and more recent books. In fact, I remember finding a copy of Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent in a library during a high-school summer and wondering at its form of argumentation.

Tilley’s research has filled out that picture in several ways. One was, as I noted back here, to document how Wertham edited his notes on counseling sessions when he wrote his book, making his young patients say what fit his thesis and leaving out significant evidence that would undercut it.

Another, and for me this was a highlight of Tilley’s talk, was to collect and display the letters from young comic-book readers to Wertham arguing against his conclusions. They pointed out, sometimes eloquently, that they were more representative of kids who enjoyed comics than the juvenile delinquents and troubled youth he saw in his psychiatric practice.

Tilley had also found those teens’ yearbook photos and interviewed them so she could put (perfectly ordinary) faces up on the screen beside their names and words. Evidently Wertham read through their letters, marking grammar, punctuation, or spelling mistakes, before filing them away and never answering.

After Prof. Tilley’s talk, the question came up about how Wertham, a very progressive child psychiatrist who set up a practice in Harlem and provided evidence for the plaintiffs in Brown v. Board of Education, could be so oppressive when it came to comics. My view was that all those actions came from the same crusading desire to protect vulnerable children. These days most book challenges in America seem to come from the political right, but the anti-comics critics were all over the political spectrum.

Afterwards, a bunch of us went out for dinner and had a lot of laughs, so I should start calling Prof. Tilley “Carol” now. If you get a chance to see her “When Comics Almost Died” lecture, take it.


Anonymous said...

Many of the books condemned by liberals have either been rewritten (MARY POPPINS, DR. DOLITTLE) or have disappeared altogether (LITTLE BLACK SAMBO). Thus, book banning seemingly only from the Right.

J. L. Bell said...

Little Black Sambo is still available in its original form, though it, too, has been reworked in other editions to make it more palatable for the modern mainstream.

One of my writing friends revised language in his teen novel after publication to make it more palatable for schools and younger readers. That was done preemptively and quietly, so it didn't make any news. Other writers make the same decisions about language or hot-button issues before publication, especially when they're looking at potential school sales and younger readers.

I think there's a major difference in how the left and right complain about books that don't make them parallel. The left has condemned books that are decades old for vestiges of white supremacist thinking that almost everyone now disagrees with, at least consciously. The right complains about how newer books reflect current social mores, such as an author for teens writing about how boys masturbate and a school being willing to assign that book. Our society has a consensus on white supremacy. It doesn't have a consensus on sexual topics, and complaints about the latter are therefore trying to impose the views of one side.

Of course, it's possible that the situation looks the opposite to people on the other side. But I really don't think there are a lot of people going on record to support openness to racism.

Richard Bensam said...

Gerard Jones in Men of Tomorrow made a case that Wertham's antipathy for comics is rooted in his background. He was a very highly educated upper class German Jewish intellectual who looked at mostly lower class American emigre Jewish comic book makers as, basically, vulgar ghetto thugs involved in organized crime. His intellectual and class bigotry colored the way he saw the whole medium and its purveyors. This has the ring of truth to me.

I wish I could see Professor Tilley lecture someday!

J. L. Bell said...

In her Q&A session, Carol Tilley said that some of Wertham's colleagues at Johns Hopkins, his one academic post in America before he moved to New York and helped to open the clinic in Harlem, thought he was narcissistic. From a layperson's perspective, she said, she thought that sounded about right. He really was out to save the world!

Undoubtedly Wertham held some prejudices about dicey publishers, pulp magazines of all kinds, women, and gays. Some of those early comics publishers really were tied to the porn industry and perhaps organized crime. I'm not sure how much he knew that, though. He seems to have judged the comics purely on the basis on content, as he saw it.

At the same time, Wertham was willing to work with a poor, oppressed community when few other psychiatrists did. That might have satisfied his narcissism as well as doing genuine good.