CLOSE

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

Original image
Hulton Archive (left), Bruno Vincent (right) // Getty Images
arrow
History
How Superman Helped Foil the KKK
Original image
Hulton Archive (left), Bruno Vincent (right) // Getty Images

The Klansmen were furious.

Dozens of them had congregated in a nondescript room in Atlanta, shaking cloaked heads at the worrisome news that their sect leader had just shared: An act of gross subterfuge had transpired over the airwaves. Millions of Americans had now become privy to their policies, their rankings, their closely guarded methods of organized hatred.

All of it fodder for some comic book radio show. Their mission had been compromised, sacrificed at the altar of popular culture. Kids, one Klansman sighed. His kids were in the streets playing Superman vs. the Klan. Some of them tied red towels around their necks; others pranced around in white sheets. Their struggle for racial purity had been reduced to a recess role play.

Stetson Kennedy listened, doing his best to give off irate body language. He scowled. He nodded. He railed.

The covert activist waited patiently for the Klan to settle down. When they did, he would call radio journalists Walter Winchell and Drew Pearson, offering the results of his infiltration into the group for public consumption.

He’d also contact Robert Maxwell, producer of the Superman radio serial. Maxwell, eager to aid the humanitarian mission of the Anti-Defamation League, would promptly insert the leaked information into his show’s scripts. In between fisticuffs, his cast would mock the KKK’s infrastructure, and the group’s loathsome attitudes would be rendered impotent by the juvenilia.

The Klan roared, demanding revenge on their traitor. “Show me the rat,” their leader said, “and I’ll show you some action.”

Kennedy cheered, just as they all did.

And when he returned home, his Klan robe would be traded for a cape.

The cover to the first issue of Superman
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Kennedy, born in 1916, was an unlikely undercover operative. After a back injury kept him out of World War II, the Jacksonville, Florida native decided he wanted to combat anti-American forces on the home front. With Klan members alleged to have assaulted his family’s black maid when he was a child, the Klan—once again gathering steam in an era of segregation and racial divisiveness—was a favored target.

Having convinced a “Klavern” in Atlanta, Georgia that he shared their bigoted views, Kennedy donned the ominous attire of a Klansman, attended cross burnings, and covertly collected information about the group that he would then share with law enforcement and media. Radio journalist Drew Pearson would read the names and minutes of their meetings on air, exposing their guarded dialogues.

Revealing their closed-door sessions was a blow—one that Kennedy didn’t necessarily have to confine to nonfiction. In 1946, Maxwell, who produced the Superman radio serial broadcast around the country, embraced Kennedy’s idea to contribute to a narrative that had Superman scolding the racial divisiveness of the Klan and airing their dirty laundry to an enraptured audience.

“The law offices, state, county, FBI, House Un-American Activities Committee, they were all sympathetic with the Klan,” Kennedy said later. “The lawmen were, ideologically at least, close with the Klansmen. The court of public opinion was all that was left.”

Ostensibly aimed at children, Superman’s daily radio dramas were often broadcast to assembled nuclear families; one phone poll showed that 35 percent of its audience was composed of adults.

But regardless of whether parents listened, the activist believed the younger demographic was worth attending to. “Even back in the ’40s, they had kids in the Klan, little girls dressed up in Klan robes at the cross burnings," Kennedy said. "I have photos of an infant in a cradle with a complete Klan robe on. It seemed like a good place to do some educating.” 

In “Clan of the Fiery Cross,” a 16-part serial airing in June and July of 1946, Superman opposes an organized group of hatemongers who target one of Jimmy Olsen’s friends. Exploring their network, Clark Kent uncovers their secret meetings and policies before his alter ego socks the “Grand Scorpion” in the jaw. The idea, Kennedy wrote in his account of his work, The Klan Unmasked, was to made a mockery of their overblown vernacular.

When traveling, for example, Klansmen might identify one another by asking if they “knew Mr. Ayak,” an acronym for “Are You a Klansman?” Although Kennedy may not have actually shared their code words on air—a longstanding myth that was debunked in Rick Bowers’s 2012 book, Superman vs. the KKK—their histrionics were perfect for dramatization in the breathless structure of a radio drama. Given shape by actors and sound effects, all the clubhouse tropes of the Klan seemed exceedingly silly.

The cover to the first issue of Superman
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

As Kennedy continued to serve up Klan secrets to Superman, he watched as Klan morale dipped and membership enrollment ebbed. Desperate, the Klan tried calling for a boycott of Kellogg’s, a new sponsor of the show, but racial intolerance was no match for the appetites of post-World War II homes. Rice Krispies and Corn Flakes remained breakfast table staples, and Superman’s battles with the close-minded continued. Emboldened by his success against the Klan, Superman took aim at Communism, a favorite target of the show’s anti-Red star, Bud Collyer.

Kennedy would go on to burden the Klan using proof of uncollected tax liens, and eventually convinced the state of Georgia to revoke their national corporate charter.

Kennedy died in 2011 at the age of 94. While some of his accounts of subterfuge in the Klan later came under fire for being embellished, his bravery in swimming with the sharks of the organization is undeniable. So, too, was his wisdom in utilizing American iconography to suffocate prejudice. Fictional or not, Superman may have done more to stifle the Klan’s postwar momentum than many real people who merely stood by and watched.

Portions of this article were excerpted from Superman vs. Hollywood: How Fiendish Producers, Devious Directors, and Warring Writers Grounded an American Icon by Jake Rossen with permission from Chicago Review Press. Copyright (c) 2008. All Rights Reserved.

Original image
Courtesy of Highlights for Children
arrow
Lists
7 Engaging Facts About Goofus and Gallant
Original image
Courtesy of Highlights for Children

For well over 60 years, the preadolescent readers of Highlights for Children magazine have gotten regular lessons in morality from Goofus and Gallant, a pair of kids of indeterminate age and relation who offer sharp contrasts in behavior. Gallant is prone to exhibiting perfect manners; Goofus is selfish, thoughtless, and has even been seen torturing small animals. (Honest: He has stoned birds and once subjected a frog to some disturbing cruelty.)

The two-panel strip has become so ubiquitous that warring ideologies are often described as “Goofus and Gallant” types. If you’ve ever wondered whether there’s more to Gallant than being a goody two-shoes or whether Goofus is flirting with juvenile delinquency, check out our round-up of the pair’s storied history.

1. THEY USED TO BE ELVES.

Goofus and Gallant

Goofus and Gallant were the creation of Garry Cleveland Myers, a child psychologist and popular syndicated parental advice columnist. Myers debuted the strip, then known as the The G-Twins, in Children’s Activities magazine in 1938. While the twosome were already displaying their radically different approaches to life, Myers depicted them as fanciful creatures with pointed ears and curly-toed shoes. No one is quite sure why Myers opted for the fairy tale aesthetic, although one theory is that he wanted to depict bad behavior rather than bad children.

After Myers and wife Caroline started Highlights for six- to 12-year-old readers in 1946, they were eventually able to acquire the rights to the strip. Goofus and Gallant debuted in their magazine in 1948; by 1952, they had morphed into two regular kids. Their parents lost the elf ears, too.

2. THEY MAY HAVE BEEN BASED ON REAL KIDS.

Highlights turned into a family enterprise, with the Myers’s children and grandchildren having a hand in its publication. In 1995, Kent Brown Jr., the Myers’s grandson, told the Los Angeles Times that he was the inspiration for Goofus and that his cousin, Garry Myers III, was the model for Gallant. Myers III denied the accusation. “Kent gets great glee out of claiming to be Goofus," he said. Brown later stated that all of Myers's 13 grandchildren helped inform the characters.

3. ONE ARTIST DREW THE STRIP FOR 32 YEARS.

Goofus and Gallant

Once Myers secured the rights to the two characters for Highlights, he enlisted illustrator Marion Hull Hammel to draw their adventures (and misadventures), taking them from the elfin creatures of the early days to the human boys of the 1950s and beyond. Hammel wound up drawing it for 32 years; Sidney Quinn took over when she retired and worked on it through 1995. Current artist Leslie Harrington has been on the strip since 2006. 

4. GALLANT GETS HATE MAIL.

While the recurring theme of Goofus and Gallant is to exercise the Golden Rule, not all juvenile readers are on board with Gallant’s impeccable manners. "I got a letter from an attorney who'd grown up with the feature," Rich Wallace, the magazine's then-coordinating editor, told the Los Angeles Times in 1995. “He had something he wanted to get off his chest: 'Gallant was a wussy.'" Other readers have expressed similar disdain for Gallant, observing that they identify more with Goofus.

5. GOOFUS IS NOT A SOCIOPATH.

Goofus and Gallant

In the absence of any in-panel clinical diagnosis of Goofus’s reckless behavior—including but not limited to playing with fire, being unkind to peers, and vandalizing school books—we’re left with the editorial directives of Highlights. In a 1993 interview with the Chicago Tribune, magazine publicist Tom White admitted that Goofus is a “surly, uncooperative, ill-mannered child” but that "he is not a sociopath.” Good to know!

6. THEY’VE BEEN FEATURED IN ROUGHLY A BILLION ISSUES.

Discounting the two years they were absent from Highlights from 1946 to 1948, the antics of Goofus and Gallant have appeared without fail in every subsequent issue. In 2006, the magazine celebrated its 60th anniversary by shipping its one billionth copy. The magazine went from selling 20,000 copies of its first issue to averaging 2.6 million readers a month in the 1990s.

7. ONE EDITOR’S THEORY WILL BLOW YOUR MIND.

Goofus and Gallant

When Goofus and Gallant began their broadly-drawn moral plays in the 1950s, they were depicted as identical twins. Later on, editors for Highlights indicated the two were brothers, but not twins. By 1995, they were simply two unrelated boys. But according to former coordinating editor Rich Wallace, the two might actually be part of a Fight Club-style twist. “I’ve theorized they’re two sides of the same kid,” he said.

We were so awed by this possibility that we asked Highlights editor Judy Burke if it held any water. "We show the boys with different parents in the panels and they look slightly different from each other," she says. More recently, the two have seemed to become aware of the other's existence. "In April 2016, we had them breaking through their respective art panels and pranking each other for April Fools’ Day, which they couldn’t have done if they were the same child."

That doesn't mean that readers can't have an existential crisis of their own. "Each time we run Goofus and Gallant, we include the line, 'There’s some of Goofus and Gallant in us all,'" Burke says. "When the Gallant shines through, we show our best self.  We also include a few 'Goofus and Gallant Moments' from kids, where they tell us about times when they felt like either Goofus or Gallant. These two aspects of the feature support the theory that both characters reside within the same individual, and it’s up to that person to choose how to behave."

All images courtesy of Highlights for Children and used with permission.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios