W(hat) W(ould) W(ertham) D(o)? The emergence of Comic Institutions

For those who grew up middle of the 20th century, Wertham is a name for some that sends cold chills down their spines in a way that the horror tales never could.  While zombies, vampires, and ghouls excited young imaginations; Wertham looked to censor such ideas.  He played a pivotal role in the demise of comic sales in the 1950s (as did television; but so the story goes, Wertham seemed to be a harbinger of a different sort).  Two good examinations of these events are covered in the documentary Tales from the Crypt Volume 1 and David Hadju’s The Ten-Cent Plague and since this is the internet age, even accessing the transcript to the Senate Subcommittee hearings with Gaines, Wertham and the whole lot can be accessed.   To see the length of his publications, this site offers up a good deal and for those interested in a copy of Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent, contact me.    The summation of who Wertham is and what he did can also be found here for those who haven’t read the aforementioned book or seen the documentary.  But it’s interesting to note that not everyone is a clear critic of the cultural critic that is Wertham.  Some have had some interesting things to say, including Julian Darious in his essay, The End of Seduction (unfortunately, the essay is no longer  accessible online; which is why I was incredibly lucky to save as a PDF!)

 But here we are over 50 years later and comic books continue to thrive and take up a decent spot in popular culture.  But I think what Wertham only marginally go to towards the end of his life with regards to his examination on Fanzine culture is that this elements of popular culture do have something to offer.  More importantly, like other avenues of study and culture, they are becoming more legitimate forms, not just through mass exposure, but through serious inquiry and exploration.  Much has been written about the various academic approaches to comics, whether it's the college-level class (which some of you who are reading this are in), or the academic articles and books (of which I have added to in some small way) or the academic conferences (again, been there, done that, have a t-shirt actually--and no, it's not my Batman t-shirt either).  These have been covered at length throughout the net, but lesser so is the rise in institutions--particularly, nonprofit institutions, that are present to encourage the study, exploration, and usage of comics.  Most recently, two organizations have launched with overlapping intentions.  The Institute for Comic Studies is a nonprofit organization who looks to support in a variety of ways the further study and examination as comics while Reading With Pictures is an organization attempting to raise awareness of comics at education tools either directly connected with reading or any applicable field of knowledge.  Both are run by some of the well-known people in the field of comic studies and they clearly illustrate (pun intended) the desire to push comics beyond their most recent (and most replicated) conversation (which many within comic studies hear repeatedly) about comics not just being for kids. 

The Widened Range of Comic Institutions

The rise of such institutions indicates a clear shift and hopefully larger trend wherein cultural objects can be better understood for their potential merit and not their worst or at least less-reputable examples.  These aren't the only nonprofit organizations dealing with comics but I tend to think these show a clear shift from previous examples such as Prism Comics, which is a fantastic group that looks to promote GLBT theme comics.  Kids Love Comics is another solid organization that looks to increase awareness and tap the potential of kids to enjoy comics.  The Comic  Book Legal Defense Fund comes to mind.  This organization raises funds and provides legal advice to a variety of people within the comic industry from artists to comic book store owners whose First Amendment rights are wrongly assaulted.  These organizations are mainly concerned with increasing awareness (and protection) and encouraging certain populations to pick up the comics and appreciate their value.  The later organizations seem to take the value for granted or rather are looking to enhance our overall value of comics by supporting research.

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  1. Fredric Wertham, by my understanding, is the typical case of someone who has no idea how to accept new ideas or concepts. In my opinion, if he were still alive today to see comics being studied as a form of art (both in terms of literature and visual art) he’d probably end up being the Fred Phelps of comics.
    The thoroughly sad part about his stand point is that, while the man genuinely meant well for the people he claimed to be trying to help (or perhaps ‘protect’ might be a better term to describe his position), he went about it in an absurd method. Wertham was essentially asking people to stick their heads in the ground and pretend like there was absolutely nothing wrong or dangerous in the world and that comics were one of the only sources of evil in the world, as if there wasn’t already a huge amount of evil in the world long before the advent of comics. Many of the comics he was chiefly against, such as those in EC, were often telling stories where the ‘bad guys’ often met rather grisly ends, usually befitting a ‘you reap what you sow’ morale.
    Personally I support the idea of teaching kids ‘what goes around comes around’ instead of trying to shelter them from all negative influence than hope that is enough to teach them right and wrong.


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