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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

There’s no name in comic book history more vilified than Fredric Wertham. Tom De Haven calls him the “industry’s real-life supervillain.” After his 1954 Seduction of the Innocent, comic book sales capsized, and over 400 titles went under. Wertham’s book sparked a Senate Subcommittee Hearing into Juvenile Delinquency that forced publishers to adopt the Comics Code or face government censorship. No single author has had a larger or more negative impact on comics, and yet De Haven says his arguments “made no sense.”

Wertham, a German psychiatrist who left Germany before the rise of the Nazi party, called superheroes “an off-shoot of Nietzsche’s superman” and joked that Superman, a “symbol of violent race superiority” should wear an S.S. on his chest. “Hitler,” he told the Senate, “was a beginner compared to the comic-book industry.” After interviewing juvenile delinquents, he concluded that Superman readers showed “an exact parallel to the blunting of sensibilities of cruelty that has characterized a whole generation of central European youth fed the Nietzsche-Nazi myth of the exceptional man who is beyond good and evil.”

In short, superheroes are fascists.

Les Daniels calls Seduction of the Innocent “a classic of wrong thinking.” Most scholars don’t bother debunking it. Gerard Jones simply acknowledges that Wertham was “genuinely concerned” but ultimately misguided in his tendency to “see fascism” “when he saw any hero using physical force.”

But Wertham wasn’t the only one reading comics through fascist-tinted glasses. In fact, he was the last in a very long but now very forgotten line.

Marshall McLuhan was just as unhappy about Superman’s “strong-arm totalitarian methods” and his readers’ “political tendencies” to “embrace violent solutions” three years before Seduction was published.

Go back two more years and Gershon Legman was calling Superman a “provincial apotheosis” of “the Nazi-Nietzschean Ubermensch” who “save[s] us” by “peddling a philosophy . . . in no way distinguishable from that of Hitler.” He thought Superman comics had “succeeded in giving every American child a complete course in paranoid megalomania such as no child ever had, a total conviction of the morality of force such as no Nazi could ever aspire to.”

Legman and Wertham had teamed up at the Association for the Advancement of Psychotherapy’s 1948 symposium “The Psychopathology of Comic Books” where they warned against comic book in which “Fists that smash against faces settle all problems.” But they weren’t the first post-war voices complaining about superheroic violence. Robert Southard beat them by two years. Superhero comic books, he said, are “paper incarnations of the devastating Nietzsche Nazi Philosophy of force.”

The idea had gone mainstream the year before. With Hitler six months dead and Hiroshima and Nagisaki smoldering, Time magazine asked, “Are Comics Fascist?” Walter J. Ong answered yes, “Superman is a Nazi.” Comparable to “Hitler and Mussolini,” the superhero “is a super state type of hero, with definite interest in the ideologies of herdist politics” and, in the case of Wonder Woman, even “Hitlerite paganism.”

But this wasn’t just a post-war phenomenon either. Reverend Southard launched his attacks in 1944, condemning the unintentional “anti-American, dictator propaganda in the glorification of these wrong-righting supermen.” The U.S. was “ready for a Hilter” and we “would not now have a war on our hands” if “German youth” had not been similarly “persuaded that [Hitler] was a superman with a mission to right the wrong of the German state . . . the Hitler way.”

But Southard wasn’t the trend setter either. The year before Thomas F. Doyle asked “What’s Wrong with the ‘Comics’?” reminding his Catholic World readers of the link between Superman and that “Nazi pamphleteer” Nietzsche.

And fascist accusations were just as popular before the U.S. entered the war too.

Sterling North warned in 1941 that the “Superman heroics” and “cheap political propaganda” found in comics books were “furnishing a pre-fascist pattern for the youth of America through the principle of emulation.” The “chances of Fascism controlling the planet diminish in direct proportion to the number of good books the coming generation reads” instead of comics.

James Frank Vlamos also saw Superman and his imitations as “Hitlerite,” “the nihilistic man of the totalitarian ideology.”A year earlier, Slater Brown, familiar with the black “arts of modern demagogy,” “understood why this new comic should have become so generally and fantastically popular.” Brown recognized Nietzsche in “this popular vulgarization of his romantic concept” and condemned the pro-fascist adults in “Nietzsche’s own native land and in the neighboring country where he lived . . . who have embraced a vulgarized myth of Superman so enthusiastically.”

Even Germany saw Jerry Siegel’s Superman as a Nietzsche knock-off. According to Das schwarze Korps, the weekly newspaper of the German S.S.: “Jerry looked about the world and saw things happening in the distance, some of which alarmed him. He heard of Germany’s reawakening, of Italy’s revival, in short of a resurgence of the manly virtues of Rome and Greece. ‘That’s fine,’ thought Jerry, and decided to import the idea of manly virtue and spread them among young Americans. Thus was born this ‘Superman.’”

So Wertham’s fascist-tinted shades had been a popular prescription long before Seduction of the Innocent. And plenty of contemporary readers are squinting through the same lenses.

Amy Kiste Nyberg sees Wertham as “largely misinterpreted by fans and scholar,” arguing that “the image of Wertham as a misguided pioneer in media effects research is erroneous.” Bradford Wright, with ample misgivings, agrees with Wertham, calling his “basic argument . . . perceptive and prophetic.” And David Hadju, with even more misgivings, sides with Wertham too, declaring that the “the comic book war” fought and won by Wertham and his allies “was worth the fight.”

Of course the fight worth winning was World War II. And if Superman was a bit of a totalitarian bully, at least he did his strong arming in the name of democracy. But that sort of contradiction can only last so long. Once democracy wasn’t under siege, fascist-fighting fascists were harder to stomach.

The Superman later generations came to know and love was very different from the superpowered vigilante Siegel and Shuster introduced in 1938. Their Superman routinely took on the police and army if they got in the way of whatever agenda he chose that month. Too many traffic accidents? Superman demolishes a car factory. Too many juvenile delinquents? Superman demolishes the slums.

Wertham demolished comic books for the same reason. But he wasn’t the lone voice crying “Hitler!” He was just the voice that America finally listened to.

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