UBC Library and Archives

Children, Comics, Critics, and the Researcher Tilley, Carol

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Webcast sponsored by the Irving K. Barber Learning Centre and hosted by the School of Library, Archival, and Information Studies (SLAIS). In April 1953, eleven-year old Brian McLaughlin wrote to psychiatrist Fredric Wertham in response to the latter’s article in Reader’s Digest, “Comic Books – Blueprints for Delinquency.” The boy asserted confidently: “Anybody that goes out and kills someone because he read a comic book is a simple minded idiot. Sound silly? So does your item.” McLaughlin was not the only young person to critique Wertham’s argument about comics: dozens more wrote him in 1953 and 1954. In the late 1940s and culminating in 1954 with the publication of Wertham’s book Seduction of the Innocent and the televised hearings on comics held by a United States subcommittee, comic books were the most contested form of print. Young readers could not get enough of them, purchasing more than a billion new comic books issues a year in the early 1950s. Adult critics such as Wertham feared, that by reading these four-color pamphlets full of stories of superheroes, cowboys, and jungle queens, young people would stunt their cultural development, ruin their eyesight, and fall into lives of depravity. This presentation draws in part from Wertham’s manuscript collection at the Library of Congress and the archival record of the 1954 Senate hearings to document and analyze some of the ways young readers challenged and protested adults’ understanding of comic book reading. Carol Tilley, Assistant Professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, did not expect to find letters from young comics readers when she explored these collections. The discovery of these narratives has prompted me to extend this investigation into locating more descriptions of children's reading experiences - many of which are unfiltered and unmediated by adults—that can serve as potent evidence to enrich scholarship in children's print culture.

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