Monday, January 12, 2009

I guess I can't hate on Fredric Wertham so much anymore.

But let me start from the beginning; over the past week I've been reading a book called Disguised as Clark Kent: Jews, Comics, and the Creation of the Superhero. It's written by a Mr. Danny Fingeroth, a former Marvel editor and comics scholar. I had the fortune of meeting him at the New York Comic-Con this past year, where he graciously signed my copy of his previous work, Superman on the Couch. Mr. Fingeroth is a really cool guy and, I feel, an important writer when it comes to comics-as-academia. So it is that I happily grabbed a copy of his latest book.

Disguised as Clark Kent aims to tell the history of superhero comics through the lens of Jewishness--it explores the Jewish creators, themes, and heroes that were the foundation of the comics industry, from Superman creators Siegel & Shuster to Will Eisner to Stan Lee and beyond. I have to say that, while I am proud to add Disguised as Clark Kent to my bookshelf, I did not find it to be as revelatory as Superman on the Couch. Perhaps it's because I myself have no Jewish background (other than attending a Jewish preschool because it was the only game in town, but that's neither here nor there), but I didn't find this book as a whole to be as incisive as Fingeroth's last one, which concerned itself with more psychological and philosophical themes. That said, there is a lot of good stuff to be found in Disguised as Clark Kent, but for me, the real joy of this book was the chapter on Dr. Fredric Wertham.

For the uninitiated: Dr. Wertham was the psychologist responsible for the 1950s comic-book witch-hunts, which sought to blame the rash of post-World War II juvenile delinquency on Batman & Robin (a homosexual power fantasy), Wonder Woman (a lesbian power fantasy with BDSM overtones), EC's horror comics (full of immoral tales that glamorized a life of crime and other malfeasance), and their four-colored ilk. Wertham first published his ideas in the infamous text Seduction of the Innocent, which led to a series of Congressional hearings with many top comics publishers of the day. Wertham did a damn fine job of humiliating and damaging the comics industry, striking a blow that some would say it has never recovered from (there are still people today who will tell you, sadly, that Batman and Robin are lovers and therefore negatively influence children). Wertham's influence led to, among other things, the creation of the restrictive Comics Code and the crippling of William Gaines' EC Comics, one of the most creative publishers of the time. The result of this is that the name Fredrick Wertham has a monolithic quality in comics circles... he is hated. He is the enemy. He is the comic industry's devil, or, for Futurama fans, the comic industry's Robot Devil.

(above: Dr. Fredric Wertham as a robot. Note the top hat he festively waves around as he kills the comic industry we all love so.)

Disguised as Clark Kent, while not excusing Wertham's actions, tells part of his story that makes them a lot more interesting. Wertham was, as you might have guessed, a prominent child psychologist. Fingeroth brings to light that Wertham had other interests besides fighting comic books... he was actually quite invested in social services. In his day job, he spent a lot of time with underpriviledged, minority children at a nearly free clinic he helped establish in Harlem, which had some interesting and important results. Perhaps the most striking fact in Fingeroth's entire book is this: "His findings on the effects of segregation on African-Americans played an important role in the Supreme Court's landmark school desegregation ruling in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954."


So here is this guy who most people like me loathe... to the point of wishing he never existed... and it turns out that he was a major component in ending segregation in schools. That kind of complicates things, doesn't it? I mean, if we were to weigh "comic books being socially respected" against "black children getting equal education as their white peers"... there's really no contest. If comics had to take the hit, so be it... you have to respect that other element of Wertham's career.

But that's not all. Let's return to Wertham's attack on comic books. Even here Fingeroth deepends our understanding of the situation. He suggests that Wertham's hatred of comic books may have been racially motivated... which is not to say motivated by racism. Fingeroth points out that the Jewish Wertham was similar to many early Jewish immigrants to America--cultured, educated, fairly erudite individuals who valued high society (one might picture the mascot for "The New Yorker"). It was not uncommon among those of Wertham's type to feel embarassed by later Jewish immigrants, who were often impoverished, uneducated, and decidedly lower-class... the types of people, in other words, who formed the backbone of the comics industry. Wertham, Fingeroth suggests, felt that his Jewish brethren were doing irreparable harm to culture by peddling their "low art," and felt responsibility as a more noble representation of the Jewish people to put a stop to it.

Of course this doesn't make Wertham's crusade any more correct. Fingeroth points out that Wertham had no formal training in the arts or in any kind of cultural studies... he was merely an opinionated man who used his high status in the field of psychology to launch attacks on aspects of American culture he deemed unfitting. I think we would all agree that this is a pretty poor thing to do, especially when coupled with, as suggested, a condescending embarassment for his people. And yet, this picture of Wertham--a man motivated by the drive to do well for his culture, its art and his race--it makes him so much more interesting than this fire-breathing dragon intent on destroying the comics industry because he was offended by Wonder Woman's skimpy get-up.

The rest of Disguised as Clark Kent is full of value; it's certainly a great read for anyone interested in the history of comics or of the Jewish influence on America's popular culture. I'm not sure I buy all of the connections Fingeroth draws between Judaism and comics; then again, I'm not sure I don't. Some of it feels like a stretch but Fingeroth admits that much of the book is his own conjecture. Given that, the book certainly succeeds in its mission of showing how Jewish concerns inform many important aspects of comic book culture as we know it, thereby influencing an important part of the American cultural landscape as a whole.

I feel like Fingeroth's chapter on Wertham, though, is absolutely essential reading. Once a year I give a talk on comic books to a class of library science students at the University of Illinois. Wertham has always come up, and I'm happy that now I have this much to say about him. I find I am now forced to respect the man, despite vehemently disagreeing with a lot of his work. But you can't detract from Brown v. Board of Education, and in the end, I guess you can't really fault a guy for trying so hard in any endeavor. And I'm ashamed to say that I never really thought about Wertham as a human being before. If nothing else, Danny Fingeroth's book has made this man seem to me all the more real, all the more interesting, and maybe just a little bit noble.

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