The 1950s crusade against comic books exposes the danger of book bans

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Today, there is a growing movement to ban books, especially in schools and libraries where children might access them. The move comes despite the book ban being hugely unpopular nationally, including in red states, and even in a messaging poll designed to test the most effective conservative arguments on education.

Some of the opposition stems from a credibility crisis among book banners. The advocacy organizations leading the movement are a motley crew.

But the opposition and a lack of credibility — or evidence to back up their claims — can’t condemn today’s book banning efforts. Already, school districts in 32 states have taken action to ban the books. And history shows that when Americans panic about the impact of reading material on children, they often fail to consider specific claims against the material.

Such was the case in the 1950s when a movement arose to ban comic books. At its center was a respected child psychologist, pushing outlandish accusations about the dangers of illustrated literature for children. His analysis was flawed, his evidence misleading or fabricated, and his concerns about children’s literature exaggerated, but Americans bought his claims anyway. This story serves as a cautionary tale, as graphic novels once again draw the ire of book banners.

During the Golden Age of comics, which spanned from 1938 to the mid-1950s, the popularity of comics exploded. This period saw the introduction of characters such as Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, and Captain America. According to comic book historian Carol Tilley, over 90% of children and over 80% of teenagers were reading comic books by the time efforts to ban them gained momentum.

Like other forms of popular literature such as science fiction, fantasy, and young adult novels today, comics address important social controversies and difficult themes. In 1946, a radio series of Superman revealed the secret rituals of the resurgent Ku Klux Klan, embarrassing the white supremacist organization and hastening its decline. More controversially, some comics also told illustrated stories of crime, horror, and the supernatural.

After World War II, America’s Cold War with the Soviet Union caused a nationwide red alert that culminated in anti-Communist witch hunts at congressional hearings led by Senator Joseph McCarthy ( R-Wis.) And others. This fear of communism has led to what historians have called the “culture of confinement” – a fear of any kind of deviance or difference from established cultural norms, including stories of crimes, passions and identities. prohibited.

These fears prompted the likes of children’s novelist Sterling North and Jesuit priest Robert E. Southard to oppose the proliferation of comic books. And they had an unlikely ally working to demonstrate the supposed damage caused by the books: famed child psychologist Fredric Wertham.

Born in Germany in 1895, Wertham had corresponded with Sigmund Freud and trained with renowned psychologist Emil Kraepelin before immigrating to the United States in 1922. Inspired by Kraepelin’s belief that psychological conditions were caused by environmental factors , Wertham became convinced that exposure to any negative effects of experiences or ideas would cause children to develop mental disorders in adulthood.

This belief led Wertham to strongly oppose racial segregation for its negative psychological effects on black children. In this regard, Wertham was something of a hero. He founded the Lafargue Clinic, one of the first comprehensive, low-cost mental health clinics for low-income black children; befriends black writers Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison; and testified at a hearing that helped inspire Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision that ended the legal segregation of public schools.

But Wertham’s experiments at the Lafargue Clinic also sent him down a rabbit hole banning books. Surrounded by children with mental health issues, Wertham soon realized that most of them were reading comics. Wertham concluded that these must be the negative environmental stimuli responsible for their disordered mental states – ignoring the fact that the vast majority of healthy children also read comic books.

Wertham claimed to have interviewed thousands of children who have been hurt by reading comics – and he has produced countless alleged examples.

In 1954, Wertham wrote the surprise bestseller “Seduction of the Innocent,” in which he launched a one-man crusade against the comic book industry with the strident alarmism of the recently disgraced McCarthy. “Comics sexually stimulate children,” Wertham wrote, “a sexual arousal that amounts to seduction.” He claimed that Superman encouraged juvenile delinquency, that Batman and Robin were gay lovers, and that Wonder Woman encouraged lesbianism.

To back up such claims, “Seduction of the Innocent” claimed to generously quote Wertham’s patients, including a child who told Wertham that when he grew up “I want to be a sex maniac” and a 12-year-old who reported that “I get sexually aroused” when comic book villains tie up and beat women. often behind the scenes, to read and buy second-hand comic books” – which the psychologist called “hotbeds of child prostitution.” “Obviously,” Wertham writes, “comics prepare little girls well.”

The panic triggered by Wertham’s book crushed swaths of the comic book industry. The worst part: the anecdotes in the book weren’t even true.

In 2012, Tilley gained access to Wertham’s long-sealed papers and discovered that the psychologist had taken wide liberties in reporting his interviews with children. Some quotes were “composites”, sentences taken from several real patients and compiled into a single fictional case. Other quotes that Wertham claimed to have heard directly were actually reported to him by colleagues. Still others were simply wrong; the child trafficking ring at the comic book store that Wertham mentioned? It was actually a candy store and the victims of trafficking were adults.

But the chilling climate of the time, along with Wertham’s professional authority, meant that many Americans accepted his claims without much scrutiny. In 1954 Wertham rehearsed his theatrical claims before an elated Senate subcommittee and, faced with likely government intervention, the comics industry opted to self-regulate instead. The resulting Comics Code Authority restricted comic book content for over 60 years and ended the Golden Age of comics. Bowing to societal pressure, the code blatantly banned LGBTQ characters and created content standards so strict they eliminated nearly all comics written for teens and adults.

Despite this self-regulation, 14 states passed laws restricting the sale of comic books within a year of the subcommittee hearings. Between the Comic Book Code and the bans, comic book readership predictably dried up, never to return to the heights of the early 1950s. Much like with McCarthy’s witch hunts, many Americans were eager to believe that there was an enemy among them and that purging such an enemy could solve their society’s problems.

Seventy years later, Wertham’s success in convincing a wide range of Americans that Superman and Batman were destroying children’s minds is a chilling reminder of how easily people can be “seduced” by fears of literature for young people, even when these fears are not supported by evidence. The baseless accusations leveled at librarians and teachers today, suggesting that they are ‘healers’ who distribute ‘pornography’, are a strange parallel. “There’s a certain hysteria associated with the idea of ​​reading,” Toni Morrison once said of book bans, “it’s quite disproportionate to what… actually happens when we read.” She was right.

The fear of comics led to the censorship of minority identities in fiction, ruined the careers of authors and illustrators, and alienated many young people from the stories that spoke to them. Faced with a new book banning movement today, and in hindsight, Americans have an opportunity to do better.

This essay is the eighth in the Freedom to Learn series sponsored by PEN America, providing historical context to the controversies surrounding free expression in education today.

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