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

How Did Casper the Friendly Ghost Die?

Universal Pictures
Universal Pictures

The star of dozens of animated shorts and specials, hundreds of comics, and one big-screen feature (which spawned a couple of straight-to-video follow-ups), Casper the Friendly Ghost has enjoyed a great deal of spooky success since he debuted in 1945. An affable spirit, the seemingly pre-adolescent blob of ectoplasm only wants to make friends. Unfortunately, people are consistently wary of his ethereal qualities. In the earliest shorts, he preferred to hang out by himself near a tombstone.

Does the tombstone belong to him? By virtue of being a ghost, doesn’t that mean Casper was once a real, live boy who suffered a tragic fate at a young age?

The Ghost With No Name

When Casper was created back in 1940 by Seymour Reit and Joe Oriolo, the question apparently didn’t come up. Reit and Oriolo planned to have Casper—who did not yet have a name—be the star of an illustrated children’s book, with Reit writing and Oriolo illustrating it. They never got the chance. The two, who worked at Fleischer Studios on animated shorts, were both drafted to serve in World War II. When they returned, Fleischer Studios had been purchased by Paramount, renamed Famous Studios, and wanted complete control over the intellectual property of work created by employees. The two sold Casper and other characters for a total of $200 to Paramount.

When Casper made his animated debut in the 1945 Famous Studios short “The Friendly Ghost,” he finally got a name, but no mention was made of his origins. The short references his “brothers and sisters” who enjoy scaring people but offers no other details of his private life.

A second short, 1948’s “There’s Good Boos To-Night,” shows Casper leaning on a tombstone while reading a book, with a “Love Thy Neighbor” sign hanging nearby. The ghosts in the cemetery are referred to as his “neighbors” and appear to rise from their respective resting places when it’s time to go haunting. This would imply Casper is relaxing at his own gravesite, though his name doesn’t appear on the tombstone. If so, it would support the idea he once occupied the land of the living.

As Casper moved into another medium, however, a case began to be made for his existence as something other than human. In 1949, St. John Publishing produced five Casper comics. In 1952, Harvey Comics took over the license. In an effort to expand Casper’s world, Harvey gave him a ghost family, including a mom and three uncles. None of them were named until 1955, when the uncles were dubbed Fatso, Fusso, and Lazo. What wasn’t clear, however, was whether Casper’s relatives were all deceased as well or whether the Casper mythology implies ghosts are simply "born" ghosts.

The Pneumonia Theory

When the Casper feature film starring Christina Ricci was released in 1995, producers apparently thought moviegoers would be confused by a lack of explanation, and so the Casper of that film was portrayed as a boy named Casper McFadden. He was said to have died of pneumonia at the age of 12 after staying out in cold weather for too long playing with a sled he had just received as a gift.

There is one alternative, and slightly darker, theory that was purportedly first floated by The Simpsons. In the 1991 episode “Three Men and a Comic Book,” Bart and Lisa speculate that Casper is the ghost of Richie Rich, another Harvey Comics icon. (The two bear a resemblance.) Lisa believes that his realization of “how hollow the pursuit of money really is” caused Richie to take his own life. Other observers have speculated that perhaps Richie’s parents killed their son for the insurance money.

This is, of course, virtually impossible, as Richie Rich wasn’t created until 1953, 13 years after Reit and Oriolo conceived of Casper.

So what is Casper—former boy or forever ghost? Given his comfort hanging around a tombstone and his pleasant nature preventing him from besmirching the grave of another, it seems likely he was once human. To date, only the 1995 feature has attempted to detail what led him to the afterlife. Considering Casper's appeal as a children's property, that's probably for the best.

The Far Side Is Officially Online—And New Art Is Coming

Courtesy of FarWorks
Courtesy of FarWorks

In September, a cryptic update to cartoonist Gary Larson’s The Far Side website hinted that something new might be in store for fans of the popular single-panel comic strip. This week, Larson and his syndicate, Andrews McMeel Universal, made it official. The irreverent cartoon, which originally ran from 1980 to 1995 and explored the perils of anthropomorphic cows and science run amok, will now be available online for the first time. But it won’t be strictly archival material: Larson plans to periodically revisit his bizarre world with new art.

In an open letter posted to the site, Larson explained that he was initially taken aback by fans using scanners and posting his work on the web without permission. According to Larson, part of his reluctance to share his catalog of work was due to the questionable resolution of older computer screens, which might miss some nuances of his artwork. With new displays making that concern obsolete, the artist decided to enable readers to enjoy the strip without having to go looking for illicit files.

In a interview with The New York Times, Larson also addressed his plans to supplement his collection with new panels, though readers shouldn’t expect anything resembling a schedule. “I’m not ‘back,’ at least in the sense I think you’re asking,” he said via email. “Returning to the world of deadlines isn’t exactly on my to-do list.”

Fresh artwork will likely be seen in 2020. But for the moment, The Far Side site will be home to a revolving library of content, from random daily posts to curated and themed collections. Larson will also post sketches and other ancillary material.

Larson is not the only iconic cartoonist to make a return. In 2014, Bill Watterson of Calvin and Hobbes fame ended a near-20 year sabbatical from the comics pages to ghost-pencil cartoonist Stephan Pastis’s Pearls Before Swine. And in 2015, Berkeley Breathed resurrected his Bloom County for Facebook.

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