The Psychiatrist Who Almost Brought Down the Comic Book Industry

Superheroes are used to dealing with mad scientists, lumbering monsters, and would-be dictators on the page, but in the real world of the mid-1950s, their biggest threat came from the words of Dr. Fredric Wertham, a psychiatrist who led a public crusade that almost destroyed the comic book industry.

Born Fredric Wertheimer in Munich, Germany, in 1895, Fredric Wertham came to the United States in the 1920s to work at the Phipps Psychiatric Clinic at Johns Hopkins University [PDF]. In 1932, he moved to New York City to take a job as the head of the Court of General Sessions psychiatric clinic, which examined every convicted felon in the city. In 1936, Wertham became director of Bellevue’s Mental Hygiene Clinic before moving on to work in smaller clinics. His respected status in the mental health community led to him testifying in a number of high-profile cases, including those of noted serial killer Albert Fish and convicted Soviet spy Ethel Rosenberg (though he did so without ever interviewing her).

Though he spent much of his time running clinics for the city's poor and underprivileged populations, Wertham gained more mainstream notoriety after the publication of his 1954 book Seduction of the Innocent, a study on how the sex, violence, crimes, and drug use in comics led to criminal and delinquent behavior in children. The book was the result of Wertham’s years of work with troubled youths, many of whom were comic book readers.

Flipping through the pages, Wertham determined that the content of these comics must be to blame for the behavior of these kids. Between the book and magazine articles he wrote, plus lectures he gave, Wertham launched a full campaign against the comic book industry, capturing the attention—and fearful imaginations—of parents and elected officials along the way.

Wertham’s tirades focused on everything from the obvious—such as the violence and crime in comics like EC Comics's Tales From the Crypt—to more outlandish claims, like painting Batman and Robin as lovers (a stereotype that would continue for decades). In Seduction of the Innocent, he wrote:

“Sometimes Batman ends up in bed injured and young Robin is shown sitting next to him. At home they lead an idyllic life. They are Bruce Wayne and 'Dick' Grayson. Bruce Wayne is described as a 'socialite' and the official relationship is that Dick is Bruce’s ward. They live in sumptuous quarters, with beautiful flowers in large vases, and have a butler, Alfred. Batman is sometimes shown in a dressing gown. As they sit by the fireplace the young boy sometimes worries about his partner: 'Something’s wrong with Bruce. He hasn’t been himself these past few days.' It is like a wish dream of two homosexuals living together.”

Wertham also mused on the “psychologically unmistakable” lesbian subtext of Wonder Woman. His most audacious claim, though, was thrown at Superman, whom he compared to a fascist on the level of Adolf Hitler, saying of the Man of Steel’s iconic “S” shield: “With the big S on his uniform—we should, I suppose, be thankful that it is not an S.S.”

As ridiculous as it all may sound today, Seduction of the Innocent had a cultural moment in 1954. It was named “Book of the Year” by the National Education Association, and it soon created enough noise to prompt the creation of the United States Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency, which held hearings on the dangers of comics on April 21 and 22, and June 4, 1954. Wertham, predictably, jumped at the opportunity to speak.

During the hearing, Wertham again went over his list of grievances with comic books, showcasing one story in particular from EC Comics, where a dismembered head was used for a game of pickup baseball by some neighborhood children. This prompted the surreal moment where Wertham asked the committee chairman, “They play baseball with a dead man's head. Why do they do that?”

Horror comics came under the most scrutiny. At one point, Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee asked EC Comics publisher William Gaines if he thought the cover of Crime SuspenStories #22—showing a woman’s severed head held up by the hair—was in good taste. Gaines’s reaction was derisive:

“Yes sir, I do—for the cover of a horror comic. A cover in bad taste, for example, might be defined as holding her head a little higher so that blood could be seen dripping from it and moving the body a little further over so that the neck of the body could be seen to be bloody."

In the end, the committee didn’t crack down on the comic book industry in the form of government-mandated censorship. But by this time, the damage was done. Sales toppled, publishers went out of business, and comic books went back into hiding under the mattresses of precocious youngsters. The surviving comic book companies—notably DC, Archie, and Atlas, which would later become Marvel—formed a trade association, the Comics Magazine Association of America, to house the newly minted Comics Code Authority. The CMAA was made up of various publishers and industry veterans, led by the association’s president, and Archie Comics publisher, John Goldwater.

The Comics Code was a way to self-censor and regulate comic books in an attempt to clean up their image and win back the public. To earn the Comics Code seal of approval, a book would have to meet certain standards. Words like “Terror” and “Horror” were forbidden to be used in a book’s title [PDF]; there was to be no more gore, pervasive violence, or illicit sex; crime could no longer be glorified; and elected officials and police officers were to be portrayed with respect. There were also rules against showing vampires, werewolves, zombies, and pretty much any other horror staple imaginable. Many distributors would refuse to stock comics without the Code’s seal of approval, so while the Code Authority had no legal power, a book without its support was likely dead on arrival.

Wertham’s words, and the subsequent Senate hearings, would have ripple effects on the industry in the decades to come. EC Comics publisher William Gaines would eventually close up his comic book business and begin a new publication: MAD Magazine. While MAD began life as a comic, as a magazine it didn’t fall under the Code’s jurisdiction. Horror and crime comics were soon replaced with more innocent fare like romance books and the Archie line. There were also unintended oddities, like the character of Batwoman being introduced to form a romance with Batman, dispelling any unsavory innuendo about the Dark Knight's relationship with Robin.

The Code would be revised over the decades, slowly allowing vampires, zombies, and "Terror" back into comics, but throughout the 20th century, that "Seal of Approval" was front and center on every mainstream publication on comic book store shelves.

Though publishers would bypass the Code at points—most famously in Amazing Spider-Man #96–98 in 1971 and in DC’s "Mature Readers" line in the 1980s—it wasn’t until the 2000s that major publishers began to withdraw from the CCA. Marvel did so in 2001, replacing it with their own rating system, and in 2011, both DC and Archie followed. By this time, though, the Comics Code had loosened its demands to such an extent that it had become an afterthought; simply serving to remind everyone of one of the industry’s darkest moments. Still, removing the Code’s “Seal of Approval” for good was the symbolic toppling of Dr. Wertham and his crusade against comics.

Additional source: Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades of the World's Greatest Comics

Batmania: When Batman Ruled the Summer of 1989

JD Hancock, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
JD Hancock, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

“Flop” is how marketing research group Marketing Evaluation Inc. assessed the box office potential of the 1989 Warner Bros. film Batman. The big-budget production, directed by Tim Burton and co-starring Michael Keaton as Batman and Jack Nicholson as the Joker, was expected to be one of the rare times a major Hollywood studio took a comic book adaptation seriously. But according to the marketing data, the character of Batman was not as popular as the Incredible Hulk, who was then appearing in a slate of made-for-television movies. And he was only a quarter as appealing as the California Raisins, the claymation stars of advertising.

That prediction was made in 1988. The film was released on June 23, 1989, and went on to gross $253.4 million, making it the fifth most successful motion picture up to that point.

While Marketing Evaluation may have miscalculated the movie’s potential, they did hedge their bet. By the time profits from the movie’s merchandising—hats, shirts, posters, toys, bed sheets, etc.—were tallied, the company said, Warner Bros. could be looking at a sizable haul.

When the cash registers stopped ringing, the studio had sold $500 million in tie-in products, which was double the gross of the film itself.

In 1989, people didn’t merely want to see Batman—they wanted to wear the shirts, eat the cereal, and contemplate, if only for a moment, putting down $499.95 for a black denim jacket studded with rhinestones.

Batmania was in full swing. Which made it even more unusual when the studio later claimed the film had failed to turn a profit.

 

The merchandising blitz of Star Wars in 1977 gave studios hope that ambitious science-fiction and adventure movies would forever be intertwined with elaborate licensing strategies. George Lucas's space opera had driven audiences into a frenzy, leading retailers to stock up on everything from R2-D2 coffee mugs to plastic lightsabers. It was expected that other “toyetic” properties would follow suit.

They didn’t. Aside from 1982’s E.T., there was no direct correlation between a film’s success and demand for ancillary product. In 1984 alone, Gremlins, Ghostbusters, and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom were smash hits. None of them motivated people to flock to stores and buy Gizmo plush animals or toy proton packs. (Ghostbusters toys eventually caught on, but only after an animated series helped nudge kids in their direction.)

Warner Bros. saw Batman differently. When the script was being developed, producers Jon Peters and Peter Guber were urging writers to make sure scenes were aligned with planned merchandising. They scribbled notes insisting that no onscreen harm come to the Batmobile: It should remain pristine so that kids would want to grab the toy version. As Batman, millionaire Bruce Wayne had a collection of vehicles and gadgets at his disposal—all props that could be replicated in plastic. Batman's comic book origins gave him a unique iconography that lent itself to flashy graphic apparel.

In March 1989, just three months before the film's release, Warner Bros. announced that it was merging with Time Inc. to create the mega-conglomerate Time-Warner, which would allow the film studio to capitalize on a deep bench of talent to help drive the “event” feel of the film.

Prince was signed to Warner's record label and agreed to compose an album of concept music that was tied to the characters; “Batdance" was among the songs and became a #1 hit. Their licensing arm, Licensing Corporation of America, contracted with 300 licensees to create more than 100 products, some of which were featured in an expansive brochure that resembled a bat-eared Neiman Marcus catalog. The sheer glut of product became a story, as evidenced by this Entertainment Tonight segment on the film's licensing push:

In addition to the rhinestone jacket, fans could opt for the Batman watch ($34.95), a baseball cap ($7.95), bicycle shorts ($26.95), a matching top ($24.95), a model Batwing ($29.95), action figures ($5.95), and a satin jacket modeled by Batman co-creator Bob Kane ($49.95).

The Batman logo became a way of communicating anticipation for the film. The virtually textless teaser poster, which had only the June 23 opening date printed on it, was snapped up and taped to walls. (Roughly 1200 of the posters sized for bus stops and subways were stolen, a crude but effective form of market research.) In barber shops, people began asking to have the logo sheared into the sides of their heads. The Batman symbol was omnipresent. If you had forgotten about the movie for even five minutes, someone would eventually walk by sporting a pair of Batman earrings to remind you.

At Golden Apple Comics in Los Angeles, 7000 packs of Batman trading cards flew out the door. Management hired additional staff and a security guard to handle the crowds. The store carried 36 different kinds of Batman T-shirts. Observers compared the hysteria to the hula hoop craze of the 1950s.

One retailer made a more contemporary comparison. “There’s no question Batman is the hottest thing this year,” Marie Strong, manager of It’s a Small World at a mall in La Crosse, Wisconsin, told the La Crosse Tribune. “[It’s] the hottest [thing] since Spuds McKenzie toward the end of last year.”

 

By the time Batman was in theaters and breaking records—it became the first film to make $100 million in just 10 days, alerting studios to the idea of short-term profits—the merchandising had become an avalanche. Stores that didn’t normally carry licensed goods, like Macy’s, set up displays.

Not everyone opted for officially-licensed apparel: U.S. marshals conducted raids across the country, seizing more than 40,000 counterfeit Batman shirts and other bogus items.

Collectively, Warner raked in $500 million from legitimate products. In 1991, the Los Angeles Times reported that the studio claimed only $2.9 million in profit had been realized from merchandising and that the movie itself was in a $35.8 million financial hole owing to excessive promotional and production costs. It was a tale typical of creative studio accounting, long a method for avoiding payouts to net profit participants. (Nicholson, whose contract stipulated a cut of all profits, earned $50 million.)

Whatever financial sleight-of-hand was implemented, Warner clearly counted on Batman to be a money-printing operation. Merchandising plans for the sequel, 1992’s Batman Returns, were even more strategic, including a tie-in agreement with McDonald’s for Happy Meals. In a meta moment, one deleted script passage even had Batman’s enemies attacking a toy store in Gotham full of Batman merchandise. The set was built but the scene never made it onscreen.

The studio was willing to give Burton more control over the film, which was decidedly darker and more sexualized than the original. Batman Returns was hardly a failure, but merchandising was no longer as hot as it was in the summer of 1989. Instead of selling out of shirts, stores ended up marking down excess inventory. McDonald’s, unhappy with the content of the film, enacted a policy of screening movies they planned to partner with before making any agreements. By the time Warner released 1995’s Batman Forever, the franchise was essentially a feature-length toy commercial.

It paid off. Licensing for the film topped $1 billion. Today, given the choice between a film with Oscar-level prestige or one with the potential to have its logo emblazoned on a rhinestone jacket that people would actually want to buy, studios would probably choose the latter. In that sense, the Batmania of 1989 endures.

Theory Explains How Avengers: Endgame Could Introduce X-Men Into the MCU

Ben Rothstein, Marvel and Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
Ben Rothstein, Marvel and Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Earlier this week, the long-talked about merger between Disney and Fox Entertainment became official (to the tune of $71.3 billion), meaning that the door has opened to see many of your favorite Disney characters, including the Avengers, hang out with Fox family favorites like the X-Men. It's a potential alliance that comic book movie fans have long dreamed about, and studio officials are already considering the possibilities.

In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Disney CEO Bob Iger was asked specifically about whether Marvel Studios would absorb the X-Men franchise, and if Marvel head Kevin Feige would oversee that. "I think it only makes sense," Iger said. "It only makes sense for Marvel to be supervised by one entity. There shouldn't be two Marvels."

This, of course, has led to wild fan speculation about how the studio might align the two superhero groups. According to Hindustan Times, one Redditor believes we could see the groups introduced as early as next month, when Avengers: Endgame arrives in theaters.

According to the theory: Endgame could see the Avengers destroying the Infinity Stones, which will in turn create the mutant gene that all X-Men have. They give an example of this with Captain Marvel and the tesseract, which gave her the powers she currently possesses. The tesseract is now in Thanos’s Infinity Gauntlet, but if the Avengers take the stones, it could cause a chain reaction like it did with Carol Danvers, and start a mutant gene.

While no one knows for sure how the X-Men will join the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it likely will be a little while before Disney starts up any new films based on these characters. As of right now, Fox is still releasing the Marvel films Dark Phoenix, which hits theaters on June 7, 2019, and The New Mutants, which has yet to land a definitive release date. Still, it's safe to say that fans are pretty excited to see what could happen if Wolverine and the gang joined forces with Captain Marvel and her fellow Phase 4 MCU characters.

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