Today there is a rising movement to ban books, especially in schools and libraries where children might access them. This movement comes despite book banning being wildly unpopular nationally, including in red states, and even in a messaging poll designed to test the most effective conservative arguments on education.
Some of the opposition stems from a crisis of credibility among book banners. The advocacy organizations driving the movement are a motley crew.
But opposition and a lack of credibility — or evidence to support their claims — may not doom today’s book-banning efforts. Already, school districts in 32 states have taken some action to ban books. And history shows that when Americans grow panicked about the impact of reading material on children, they often don’t scrutinize specific claims against materials.
This was the case in the 1950s when a movement arose to ban comic books. At its center was a respected child psychologist pushing wild accusations about the dangers of illustrated literature for children. His analysis was misguided, his evidence misleading or fabricated, and his concerns about children’s literature overblown, but Americans bought his claims anyway. This history serves as a cautionary tale, as graphic novels once again draw the ire of book banners.
During the golden age of comic books, which stretched from 1938 to the mid-1950s, comics exploded in popularity. This period saw the introduction of such characters as Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman and Captain America. According to comics historian Carol Tilley, over 90 percent of children and over 80 percent of teens were reading comic books at the time the efforts to ban them accelerated.
Like other forms of popular literature such as science fiction, fantasy and today’s young adult novels, comic books addressed important social controversies and challenging themes. In 1946, a Superman radio serial exposed the secret rituals of the resurgent Ku Klux Klan, embarrassing the white supremacist organization and hastening its decline. More controversially, some comics also told luridly illustrated stories of crime, horror and the supernatural.
After World War II, America’s Cold War with the Soviet Union drove a nationwide Red Scare that culminated in anti-communist witch hunts at congressional hearings led by Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.) and others. This fear of communism drove what historians have termed “containment culture” — a fear of any sort of deviance or difference from established cultural norms, including stories of forbidden crimes, passions and identities.
These fears drove figures like children’s novelist Sterling North and Jesuit priest Robert E. Southard to oppose the proliferation of comic books. And they had an unlikely ally laboring to demonstrate the supposed harm caused by books: the noted child psychologist Fredric Wertham.
Born in Germany in 1895, Wertham had corresponded with Sigmund Freud and trained with the renowned psychologist Emil Kraepelin before immigrating to the United States in 1922. Inspired by Kraepelin’s belief that psychological conditions were caused by environmental factors, Wertham became convinced that exposure to any negative experiences or ideas would cause children to develop mental disorders as adults.
This belief led Wertham to staunchly oppose racial segregation for its negative psychological effects on Black children. In this regard, Wertham was something of a hero. He founded the Lafargue Clinic, one of the first comprehensive, low-cost mental health clinics for low-income Black children; befriended the Black writers Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison; and testified at a hearing that helped inspire the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision that ended legal segregation of public schools.
But Wertham’s experiences at the Lafargue Clinic also sent him down a book-banning rabbit hole. Surrounded by children with mental health challenges, Wertham soon realized that most of them read comic books. Wertham concluded that these must be the negative environmental stimuli responsible for their disordered mental states — ignoring the fact that the vast majority of healthy children were reading comics, too.
Wertham claimed to have interviewed thousands of children who were harmed by reading comic books — and he produced endless alleged examples.
In 1954, Wertham wrote the surprise bestseller “Seduction of the Innocent,” in which he launched a one-man crusade against the comics industry with the shrill alarmism of the recently disgraced McCarthy. “Comic books stimulate children sexually,” Wertham wrote, “a sexual arousal which amounts to seduction.” He claimed that Superman encouraged juvenile delinquency, that Batman and Robin were gay lovers, and that Wonder Woman encouraged lesbianism.
To support such assertions, “Seduction of the Innocent” purported to quote liberally from Wertham’s patients, including a child who told Wertham that when he grew up “I want to be a sex maniac” and a 12-year-old who reported that “I get sexually excited” when comic book villains tie up and beat women. Perhaps Wertham’s most shocking claims were about comic book stores — “obscure” places “where children congregate, often in backrooms, to read and buy secondhand comic books” — which the psychologist labeled “foci of childhood prostitution.” “Evidently,” Wertham wrote, “comic books prepare the little girls well.”
The panic set off by Wertham’s book crushed entire sectors of the comic book industry. The worst part: The anecdotes in the book weren’t even true.
In 2012, Tilley gained access to Wertham’s long-sealed papers and discovered that the psychologist had taken broad liberties in reporting his interviews with children. Some quotes were “composites,” phrases taken from multiple real patients and compiled into a single fictitious case. Other quotes Wertham claimed he had heard directly were in fact reported to him by colleagues. Still others were simply false; the child trafficking ring at the comic book store that Wertham discussed? It was actually a candy store and the trafficking victims were adults.
But the fearful climate of the era, along with Wertham’s professional authority, meant that many Americans accepted his claims without much scrutiny. In 1954, Wertham repeated his theatrical claims before a rapt Senate subcommittee and, in the face of likely government intervention, the comics industry elected to self-regulate instead. The resulting Comics Code Authority restricted comics content for over 60 years and brought an end to comics’ golden age. Bowing to societal pressure, the code banned openly LGBTQ characters and created content standards so stringent that they eliminated nearly all comics written for teenagers and adults.
Despite this self-regulation, 14 states passed laws restricting the sale of comics within a year after the subcommittee hearings. Between the comics code and the bans, comics readership predictably dried up, never to return to the heights of the early 1950s. Just as with McCarthy’s witch hunts, many Americans were eager to believe that there was an enemy in their midst, and that purging such an enemy could solve the problems of their society.
Seventy years on, Wertham’s success at convincing a broad swath of Americans that Superman and Batman were destroying children’s minds is a frightening reminder of how easily people can be “seduced” by fears about literature for young people, even when those fears are not supported by the evidence. Baseless accusations being hurled at librarians and teachers today, suggesting that they are “groomers” who are circulating “pornography,” are an eerie parallel. “There is some hysteria associated with the idea of reading,” Toni Morrison once said about book bans, “that is all out of proportion to what … in fact happens when one reads.” She was right.
The comic book scare resulted in the censorship of minority identities in fiction, ruined the careers of authors and illustrators, and drove many young people away from the stories that spoke to them. Facing a new movement to ban books today, and with the benefit of hindsight, Americans have an opportunity to do better.
This essay is the eighth in the Freedom to Learn series sponsored by PEN America, providing historical context for controversies surrounding free expression in education today.