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.