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June 09, 2008


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Ben Towle

Tangential to Feldstein's comments, the thing that surprises me the most in all this recent brouhaha about Wertham is how rarely anyone ever mentions what seems to me to be the most salient and most damning fact about Wertham: he was a poor scientist, a terrible researcher. Like any field of scientific research, Psychology has rigorous standards for gathering and vetting data and for making predictive conclusions based on that data, and Wertham's book evidences scant attention to this. That Wertham's "data" was used (with Wertham's obvious participation and consent) as part of decision-making process which ultimately hamstrung the comics industry is akin to using "Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus" as the basis for a congressional panel on gender issues. Whether Wertham was a conservative or a liberal, whether he loved modern art, whether he was well-intentioned, whether he was a swell guy who wounded nursed baby animals back to health, (and whether there were in fact some pretty lurid comics being published)--these are all issues that need to take a back seat to the validity, or lack thereof, of Wertham's research and the undisputed facts about how that research was used and what the eventual results of that use were.


Thanks for the comments, Ben!

A defense of Wertham's methodology could be mounted on two fronts: one, that he was scrupulous but did not accept what have since overwhelmingly become the preferred methodologies in psychiatry and in media studies (i.e., he had a legitimate alternative perspective on research); two, that he had at his disposal more detailed, carefully documented evidence that he felt unable to air in print because doing so would have violated doctor/patient confidentiality. These are lines of argument presented in Bart Beaty's book on Wertham, and the second line was actually used by Wertham himself.

You say that Wertham was "a poor scientist, a terrible researcher," but of course we need to bear in mind that he was, first, a practicing psychiatrist, a clinician, one whose concerns about media were arrived at inductively through his interactions with patients/clients. This is what prompted and enabled his critique of comics, but also what handicapped him in terms of being taken seriously as an "objective" researcher.

Wertham eschewed putatively objective work for social activism, which, in most every area except his critique of comics, was to his credit.

Wertham's research took place even as disciplinary standards were forming. They formed around him, and, ultimately, without him, and in spite of him. This is the impression I got when reading Bart's (very careful) book.

I don't go as far as Bart in defense of Wertham, because I think it's fundamentally a mistake to accede to Wertham's dismissive views of comics as a form of reading. That, not the moral or clinical argument, is IMO the most damning element in Wertham: that he did not take comics reading seriously as reading. That is the only reason I dealt with Wertham in my book, incidentally, the moral/mental health sides having already been dealt with copiously by others.

Ben Towle

Thanks for the reply. I have to admit I've read Bart Beaty's various essays on ComicsReporter on this subject, but not his book on Wertham. I'd have to defer to someone more knowledgeable than I about the particulars of research standards in psychology, but certainly the state of general "hard science" research, statistical methodology, etc. was relatively advanced by Wertham's time. I've got a couple of "shrinks" in the family--maybe I'll put this question to them.

Benjamin Woo

I also think the criticism of Wertham's methodology as a priori bad research because it isn't positivist "science" fundamentally misunderstands the nature of research in the human and social sciences. Wertham's general approach is in fact very close to where the mainstream in media effects research and, arguably, the social sciences more generally have been moving over the last couple of decades.

While a certain kind of naïve quantitative research modelled on the natural sciences will probably always remain popular in the Anglosphere, it is very difficult to maintain such a view in light of both postmodernist critiques of positivism and the recognition of complexity. Experimental research may have a place if one wishes to explore the specific neurological and cognitive mechanisms at play in reading comics. But it won't provide much insight into the interface between real human subjects and the social world.

Wertham's argument that crime comics were one risk factor (among many) leading to negative social outcomes for some readers is so straightforward that I am surprised how controversial it remains. To insist that it be proven according to the standards of the "hard" sciences is to set an evidentiary standard that no one could ever meet. It is to refuse any sort of social action that might mitigate the worst effects of these risk factors on the basis of epistemological fundamentalism. It is, therefore, hardly a politically neutral position.


Benjamin, thanks for weighing in.

You said, "Wertham's general approach is in fact very close to where the mainstream in media effects research and, arguably, the social sciences more generally have been moving over the last couple of decades." I'm not qualified to gainsay that assessment, but I will say that most of the media effects research I've read has been positivist, empiricist, experimentally-based, and basically, as you say, "naive quantitative research." If the pendulum has begun to swing the other way, then Wertham was ahead of his time.

Granted that my readings in media effects research are not very recent, since years ago I was persuaded by Martin Barker's damning critique of effects research to steer away from that area (though I do raise such research in classes about youth culture and media, where some positivist effects research is required reading alongside Barker's rebuttal). My impression of effects research has been shaped by the occasional headline news story about, say, longitudinul studies of the effects of TV violence, studies that even in a mere two inches of newspaper copy reveal serious methodological flaws.

Bart Beaty's contention in the Wertham book is that Wertham was not trying to practice such research, and your comment lends support to that.

Myself, I continue to believe that Wertham's work can be usefully critiqued on ideological (not empirical) grounds. His positions vis-a-vis popular culture and literacy were ideologically fraught in the extreme. While not going as far as Barker in the direction of damning Wertham's work on comics (see his essay in _Pulp Demons_, ed. John Lent), I do think Wertham was seriously blinkered in his take on comic books. To me that is the one thing that continues to matter for comics studies: his entire dismissal of the comics form, as such.

As for the rest, Wertham's work outside comics studies was far more meaningful and socially efficacious. He accomplished important things, as a clinician, activist, and expert witness. I bet he was wonderful to talk to, as well. A fascinating figure.

Speaking of 1950s comics furor, Hadju did a pretty good job of holding up under Stephen Colbert's forced irony last night (was that last night?). Often Colbert is insufferable as an interviewer, but his faux-naive questions actually hit close to key issues this time round, and Hadju gave him good counter-fire. I suspect Colbert's own affection for comics probably had something to do with this.

(BTW, I like Colbert as a satirist. But the way he runs roughshod over potentially interesting interviewees is often frustrating.)

Benjamin Woo

Charles, I think there is definitely still a strong streak of quantification in media effects. But my understanding is that the "risk factors" approach has gained increasing ground in internal debates. (That being said, my impressions are largely filtered through someone I know who is a partisan of this perspective.) And there has been a turn, however incomplete, away from positivism in social science more generally—see, for example, Bent Flyvbjerg's book Making Social Science Matter.

Even where researchers may reproduce some of the methods used by earlier studies (particularly, when dealing with large sample sizes), they are not ultimately oriented with isolating a single determinant cause for a single effect. That is, they've explicitly rejected the "hypodermic needle" model of media effects. This research instead looks to identify various significant risk factors and to attempt to understand their interrelations as contributing but never wholly determining factors. I think Wertham's oft-quoted tuberculosis metaphor is cheek-by-jowl with this kind of approach.

The up side of this is that a whole range of positive interventions can be made to mitigate the effects of risk factors without necessarily resorting to censorship. For example, studies have suggested that parental co-viewing of television can mitigate many of the negative effects correlated with television watching.

I agree that one may very well want to critique Wertham's particular arguments about comics and the particular explanations he offered for his clinical findings. But I think such a critique is more productive when grounded in a recognition that communication and media do have a dynamic, structuring presence in our society and in individual lives, and it is possible to alter that presence should we, as a society or as individuals, decide to do so.

I'm sorry I missed the Colbert interview.


Benjamin, thanks for the thoughtful reply and useful references. I'm learning here.

It's not so much Wertham's clinical findings I would dispute. It's his attitude toward reading, which is less a finding than a structuring assumption of his comics-related work.

You said, "communication and media do have a dynamic, structuring presence in our society and in individual lives." That I agree with entirely. Indeed, the defense of free speech and artistic expression presumes that speech and expression can have powerful effects on our lives. It's not just lines on paper, folks.

That said, there's a distinction between the logic of propositions and the logic of fiction, a distinction that Wertham seemed insensitive to (or that he thought children were incapable of making). Media effects methodology, though in the main so different from Wertham's work, also seems insensitive to this difference.

In things like horror comics and crime comics, there are genre conventions (socially constituted and shared) that distance the work from everyday reality. Wertham seemed unable or unwilling to parse distinctions like these, at least when he thought children's welfare was at stake. One could say, as indeed Bart suggests in his book, that the welfare of the young ought to trump such considerations (better to err on the side of caution; after all, the general welfare ought to be more important than comic books). Or one could argue, as Barker and others have, that the construction of children as susceptible, naive, and passively acted upon by outside forces is misleading.

I will admit that my former view of Wertham as simply very naive (though well-intentioned) was challenged by Bart's book; it seems Wertham was less directive and more open in his dealings with young patients/clients than I had thought. But I'm still not willing to concede the argument about comics reading to Wertham. It seems to me that his view of comics was reductive and classist (as in, high culture texts for grown-ups have license to provoke and disturb, but not low culture texts for young people).

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