Tilley sheds light on comics history with new discovery, lectures

Carol Tilley
Carol Tilley, Associate Professor

Thanks to research conducted by Associate Professor Carol Tilley, the work of one of the most influential anti-comics voices has been debunked. Psychiatrist Fredric Wertham’s evidence of the negative effects of comic readership on young people hasn’t been taken seriously by scholars in decades, but a new discovery by Tilley shows that even when Wertham’s claims were taken as fact by many—in the 1940s and 1950s—a small but vocal group was already questioning his methods.

One of those who spoke out against Wertham was David Pace Wigransky, a teen whose letter in the Saturday Review of Literature gained attention for challenging Wertham’s claims in 1948.

Tilley recently discovered another piece by Wigransky, a satire of Wertham’s life and work in a most fitting medium—the comic book. She gives a detailed account of the discovery in a guest post on the blog of the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum, where she found the book last fall.

Under the pen name Sterling South, teenaged Wigransky wrote and illustrated The Uncanny Adventures of (I Hate) Dr. Wertham, which depicts Wertham conducting his research as told from the point of view of an accused “juvenile delinquent.” The youth sees quickly that Wertham “ain’t got all his marbles,” and plays along, providing fodder for the doctor’s faulty conclusions about the role of comic books in leading children down the path of violence and crime. Once his research gains attention, a group of comic creators take Wertham on a journey back in time to his childhood, showing him examples of his own youthful escapades, in which the doctor engages without the influence of comics. Wertham realizes the error of ways, with lasting consequences.

“Some of my recent work on comics history demonstrates how young readers spoke up against the critics of comics by writing letters to the US Senate and to Dr. Wertham during the early 1950s. In many of these letters, kids argued eloquently for the value of comics. David Wigransky's comic book takes those arguments for comics to a new level by showing both his knowledge of then-contemporary comics culture and his understanding of how comics storytelling works,” Tilley said.

Tilley will speak on her research related to comics at several events this month.

On March 16, she will be a virtual guest in a Massachusetts Institute of Technology class on “Women, Comics, and Cognitive Dissonance,” in which students are reading some of Tilley’s work this semester. Tilley will discuss her research and her role as a female comics scholar.

At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus, she will be the faculty respondent to a talk by Nick Sousanis (University of Calgary) titled, “Unflattening: Reimagining Scholarship through Comics.” This free event will be hosted by the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory on March 17 from 4:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. in 104 Illini Union.

Tilley will deliver the 2016 Lois Lenski Lecture in Children's Literature on March 21 at Illinois State University. The event is free and will begin at 7:00 p.m. in 101 Stevenson Hall. In her talk titled, "A Severe Case of Comics: Looking Back on a Problem that Wasn't," Tilley will explore young people's engagement with comics in the mid-twentieth century in contrast to the media panic around the medium generated by adults, including librarians and teachers.

Tilley teaches courses in comics reader’s advisory, media literacy, and youth services librarianship. Part of her scholarship focuses on the intersection of young people, comics, and libraries, particularly in the United States during the mid-twentieth century. Her research has been published in journals including the Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology (JASIST), Information & Culture: A Journal of History, and Children’s Literature in Education. Her research on anti-comics advocate Fredric Wertham was featured in the New York Times and other media outlets.

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