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