New Doc to Explore Comics Code, Fredric Wertham Archives

New Doc to Explore Wertham Archives

As the Comics Code Authority came to an end this year, a period of American history closed with it. But one documentary filmmaker has an ambitious goal of bringing the tale of Fredric Wertham and the Code to life.

"Many [comic book fans] think they know the story of Fredric Wertham and comic books, but this picture is going to blow that wide open," said Robert Emmons Jr., the documentary filmmaker behind the new movie, titled Diagram for Delinquents.

As most comic fans know, Wertham was the New York psychiatrist who published the book, Seduction of the Innocent, which alleged that the violence and sexual images in comics were corrupting America's youth. The book caused such an uproar that the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency began investigating comics.

Not only is the timing for the film appropriate because of the end of the Comics Code, but it turns out that the Fredric Wertham archives became available to the public just this past August. So it struck Emmons that it was "perfect timing to bring that part of comic book history to the screen."

In fact, the film’s title comes from Wertham’s own notes, in which he claimed comics provide a “detailed diagram for delinquents.”

"The film begins with Wertham and his influence on comics in the '50s," said Emmons, who will be directing the film. "His testimony and book are key factors that led to the creation of the Comics Code and the ultimate demise of crime and horror comics, almost toppling the once giant publisher EC Comics."

Diagram for Delinquents is a project of Sequart Research & Literacy Organization, which recently entered the world of documentary filmmaking with the well-received Grant Morrison: Talking with Gods picture. The filmmakers are raising the funding for the film on Kickstarter, currently securing more than $5,000 of a $6,000 goal.

According to filmmakers, the documentary will include historical photos, footage, and interviews with experts and comics creators. It will also feature animation and historical recreation using the Juvenile Delinquency hearing transcripts.

Yet the filmmakers don't want to villainize Wertham, instead hoping to thoroughly explore his side of the story. "The film will be a full investigation of Wertham and his mission. It's my intent to not just finger-point," Emmons said. "There is something really complex going on here and I want all perspectives represented.

"So the question is, how wrong or right was Wertham?" he said. "Like so many things, it's not black and white, there is a lot of gray area that needs to be discussed."

Wertham's impact on comics, however, is undeniable, and Emmons said he believes it can still be felt today. "It plays a role in the ongoing debate of the effects of media and children, censorship and comics, and I think it has really shaped how comics are written, who makes them, and who reads them," he said. "So the second half of the film really brings us right up to the present day of comics. That's why the title of the film is Diagram for Delinquents: Fredric Wertham and the Evolution of Comic Books."

Emmons's previous two documentary films focused on his favorite decade in American history, the 1930's. But when he turned his attention toward the 1950's, he was fascinated by the fact that Wertham's story highlights what America was experiencing at that time.

"That decade [of the 1950's] is such a transitional, tumultuous time in our history," the filmmaker said. "It's another transitional decade: Post-War and pre-sexual/political/musical revolution in America."

Plus, Emmons pointed out, he loves comics. "So there it was, a 1950's historical piece that involves the great American art form: comics," he said.

And it doesn't hurt that there is a built-in audience for the film thanks to the comic book fan-base, Emmons said. But filmmakers are also hoping the story is told in a way that non-comic fans will enjoy. "It is a story that is approachable for non-comics fans because it details such a special time in American history," he said. "It ultimately does what history is supposed to do: Tell us about ourselves then, and now."

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