The Secret History of Comics Censorship

l to r: Charles Kochman, Carol Tilley, Charles Brownstein

l to r: Charles Kochman, Carol Tilley, Charles Brownstein

Researcher Carol Tilley revealed to the world that much of Fredric Wertham’s data supporting the “dangers” of comics were largely fabricated. Her evidence? Wertham’s own notes and papers. Recently, Tilley joined CBLDF Executive Director Charles Brownstein and Abrams Comicarts editorial director Charles Kochman for “The Secret History of Comics Censorship,” a panel presented at NYCC 2013.

Brigid Alverson covered the panel for Comic Book Resources. The panel offered a revelatory perspective on Wertham’s anti-comics crusade, often calling to mind political conspiracies, paranoia, and dirty dealings that might be better suited to the crime comics that Wertham attacked.

Alverson writes about Wertham’s research into comics,

…Wertham began collecting inside information on the comic industry, aided by folklorist and publisher Gerson Legman. “Legman fed Wertham’s appetite for inside information,” Tilley said, “sending him lists of crime comics, explaining how comics changed titles but retained issue numbering, and outlining suspicious business connections, such as companies that also owned paper mills. He also shared reports on New York University professor Harvey Zorbaugh’s workshops on comics.” Zorbaugh hosted workshops on using comics in education, and Legman wrote to Wertham that “of the first 17 speakers, 15 were paid agents of the comic book companies themselves.” Indeed, this gave Wertham the idea that the comics industry had “paid apologists,” in Tilley’s words. “He began seeking even more information about people employed in the advisory capacity by DC/National Comics, Fawcett, Hillman and more,” she said. “Over time his ire focused on DC/National and its slate of advisors, including Lauretta Bender and Josette Frank.”

Wertham did not get along with Bender, a psychiatrist at the same hospital where he worked, and Frank worked for the Child Study Association and as an adviser for EC Comics, which led Wertham to accuse her of being a “shill” for the comic book companies.

The actions of a third party, Ellen Wales Walpole, likely led to Wertham’s inclusion in the 1954 Senate hearings. Walpole — described by Tilley as having mental health issues of her own — carried a grudge against the Child Study Association in large part because the director, Sidonie Gruenberg, had criticized a series of books on children’s emotions that Walpole had proposed.

Walpole also happened to be a close friend of Estes Kefauver, the Senator who instigated the 1954 Senate hearings. Alverson writes:

Walpole arranged for Wertham to meet with Kefauver, and she encouraged Wertham to suggest questions for the hearings held by Kefauver’s Committee on Organized Crime in 1950. Wertham was not impressed with the 1950 hearings but was willing to testify when Kefauver held another set of hearings in 1954. Thus, as Tilley put it, “Were it not for a negative review of a children’s book, it’s possible that Kefauver and Wertham may never have met.”

Subsequent to the hearings, Bill Gaines — who was one of 100 people to testify — encouraged a letter writing campaign on behalf of comics. Nearly 200 letters were sent to the committee, and Tilley examined the letters as part of her research and followed up with several of the authors. Wertham’s actions made a comic book fan into an active critic of would-be censors. From Alverson:

One letter was from a 14-year-old named Philip Proctor, who wrote, “We don’t buy these mags because we have a thirst for blood, we buy them for the stories, the snap endings, the artwork, and because they deal with the unknown.” As an adult, Proctor was one of the founders of the satirical comedy troupe Firesign Theatre; he told Tilley that he turned to satire because he wanted to ridicule “the blue-nosed, tight-assed censors” like the ones who were attacking his comics.

Another (presumed comics-induced juvenile delinquent) wrote a letter defending the free expression of comics, comparing the government’s actions to those of Russia, notably during a period when the Cold War was in full swing:

“I have, for the past few months, been urged by the editors of EC Comics to write to you about the recent comic book investigation,” wrote 15-year-old Brian Mulholland. “I had failed to do so because I thought it absurd that the United States government would or could abolish harmless literature. But just yesterday I read that EC Comics is being forced to drop five of its publications because wholesalers and retailers throughout the country have been intimidated into refusing to handle crime and horror type comic books. That is the type of thing that goes on in Russia but not in America.” Tilley spoke to Mulholland last year; he had recently retired from his post as a district attorney.

While it seems we might have overcome comics censorship with the demise of the Comics Code authority, Tilley was quick to point out that we still have a very long road to travel before comics are truly free:

Tilley concluded by pointing out that while the Comics Code is a thing of the past, attempts to censor comics continue in different forms. “In Illinois, where I live, in the past year, there was an enormous uproar about ‘Persepolis,'” she said. “I’ve heard school librarians in Illinois question whether they could purchase books for their collections like Raina Telgemeier’s ‘Drama,’ because of its references to homosexuality, and Ed Piskor’s ‘Wizzywig,’ because it addresses hacking. In the very community where I live, public librarians have purchased books like Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie’s ‘Lost Girls,’ only to have administrators later demand the books’ removal.”

It is these ongoing and insidious attacks on comics and the freedom to read that continue to keep CBLDF in business. As the panel drew to a close, Tilley described how the same suspect motives that urged Wertham to action continue to fuel censors:

“The path to censorship is seldom direct,” Tilley said. “It meanders and weaves, directed at times by individual motives, personal vendettas, imperious morality — just as we’ve seen in some of the stories I’ve shared today. Censors, including people like Fredric Wertham, seldom see themselves as censors. But I would say we have to resist. It takes individuals like the children and teens who wrote to Wertham and the senate in the 1950s to speak out. It takes organizations like the CBLDF. We are all in this together.

You can read the entirety of Alverson’s coverage of the panel here. Jamie Coville recorded several of the NYCC panels, including “The Secret History of Censorship.” You can download audio of the panel here.

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