How One Man Nearly Killed the Comic Book Industry

Joe Douglas
9 min readApr 12, 2021
Frederic Wertham

With every generation, a new kind of media comes along that “threatens to destroy the moral fibre of the youth”. Today, it is social media. In the mid-’90s to early 2000s, it was video games and before that, rock music and television. In the 1940’s it was comic books.

During the late 1930s and into the ’40s and ’50s, the comic book medium was at its height. Due to the Great Depression, cheap entertainment for children was in demand. Comics provided that. Originally appearing in newspapers as strips, they proved to be among — if not the — most popular section for many papers.

Publishers caught on to this and in 1933 Famous Funnies: A Carnival of Comics printed. It was a collection of newspaper strip reprints rather than original material. Famous Funnies was 36-pages and printed in a magazine-style format. It is considered by many comic historians to be the first comic book as we know them today. At US10c (approximately US$1.50 by today’s value) it was a massive hit with Depression-era children. It sold 90% of its 200,000 print run. By issue #12 it was making a profit of US$30,000 (approximately $US460,045 by today’s value) each issue.

Of course, other publishers copied this success, and the market quickly flooded with funny animal comics, Westerns, sci-fi dramas, and more. Then, DC released Action Comics #1 in 1938 and the age of the superhero began. However, as with all popular media, comics had their detractors.

The cover of Famous Funnies, the first comic book.

Psychiatrist Frederic Wertham was a well-respected individual. He was a senior psychiatrist for the New York City Department of Hospitals and director of the Lafargue Clinic in Harlem. The Lafargue Clinic was a mental hygiene clinic for the poor in a section of New York City. The population in the area was mostly black. One of his articles, “Psychological Effects of School Segregation”, was instrumental in the ruling that found segregation in schools as unconstitutional.

For a time, Wortham worked at Bellevue Mental Hygienics Clinic. Bellevue focused on making psychiatric evaluations of criminals for use in court. Wertham evaluated everyone from robbers to…

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Joe Douglas

Collector. Writer. Artist. Geek. I write mostly about the hobby of collecting. Check out my full portfolio at JMDWorks.org.