By Alex Dalenberg

February 13, 2013

Once upon a time, our fair nation — or at least its politicians — decided to investigate an insidious threat to America’s youth: sex and violence in pop culture.

Actually, make that, any time in America, ever, but in this case I’m talking about the 1954 hearings in which a U.S. Senate subcommittee took the comic book industry to task over graphic content, as well as the presence of a pool hall in River City, Iowa.

The hearings have long been the subject of ridicule, but recently published research from a University of Illinois professor have found that the urtext of the anti-comic book crusade, Seduction of the Innocent by psychiatrist Frederic Wertham, was pretty much bogus.

H/T to comic book industry blog Bleeding Cool for digging this one up.

Dr. Carol Tilley dug into Wertham’s personal archive, which wasn’t made available to researchers until 2010 even though Wertham died in 1981. That’s pretty amazing to me, considering the impact Seduction of the Innocent had on an entire arm of the publishing industry. Congress took up the issue in large part due to widespread public outrage tied to Wertham’s book which, among other things, suggested that reading Batman comics could turn a child into a sexual predator.

Turns out Wertham distorted key quotes, left out critical contextual information and altered even basic data such as his subjects’ ages while conducting his research into comic books. You can find a nice summary of Tilley’s work here at the Illinois website.

Tilley also uncovers some overlooked historical footnotes, such as letters written by young readers in defense of their comic books, some of them pointing out that works of Shakespeare, Poe and the Brothers Grimm are similarly gory.

As any comic geek knows, the committee hearings and ensuing fallout from advertisers led the industry to form the Comics Code Authority — sort of the comic book version of the Motion Picture Rating Association. Similar to the way an NC-17 rating is the kiss of death for mainstream box office success today, advertisers tended to avoid any comic book without the Comics Code Authority stamp.

Amazingly, the Comics Code Authority persisted until 2010 (ironically, the same year Wertham’s archive was finally made public). The verdict is still out whether or not it achieved its mission of halting the nation’s slide into decadence and moral decay.