Paper on comics leads to 'wild, crazy and fun' time for UI professor

CHAMPAIGN — As a comics scholar, Carol Tilley had read Fredric Wertham's book "Seduction of the Innocent," a touchstone of the U.S. anti-comics movement of the 1950s and '60s.

She felt somewhat indifferent to the archenemy of comics, though. She considered Wertham just part of the landscape.

Then his papers at the Library of Congress finally opened, in 2010, to the public. Tilley, an assistant professor in the University of Illinois Graduate School of Library and Information Science, delved into them, spending a dozen or so days over four visits sifting through 20 to 30 of the 200 Wertham boxes.

She was specifically interested in the many supportive letters teachers and librarians had purportedly sent to him.

She was disappointed by how few there actually were.

What she instead found in the Wertham archives was alarming evidence that the German-born New York psychiatrist had "manipulated, overstated, compromised and fabricated evidence" — especially evidence connected with his research with children at the Lafargue Clinic in Harlem.

Wertham, who died in 1981, had founded the low-cost mental hygiene clinic in 1946 at the behest of African-American novelist Richard Wright.

At first Tilley felt reluctant to report on what she had discovered; she had not set out to discredit Wertham. Ultimately, she wrote an article, feeling compelled by the details of the lives of Wertham's young patients.

"It was just important for me to respect their childhoods and their experiences and to ensure what they had to say was reported as honestly as it could be," she said.

Tilley's article was published in late 2012 in Information & Culture, an academic journal published by University of Texas Press.

Soon after, the UI News Bureau reported on Tilley's research. Award-winning English author Neil Gaiman saw the UI release and posted a link to it on Twitter, where he has 1.9 million followers.

Then Dave Itzkoff of The New York Times wrote a lengthy article — something that doesn't happen every day to a historical scholar, Tilley later noted.

More publicity followed, and soon the professor was doing more interviews and receiving invitations to speak at conferences, among them the American Library Association national convention, and Comic-Cons, the huge comics-fan meetings that take place in major cities.

The Big Ten Network also produced the documentary, "Carol Tilley, Comic Book Crusader," which premiered in July.

In it Josh Elder, a graphic novelist and syndicated cartoonist who founded Reading with Pictures — it aims to revolutionize the role of comics in education — calls Tilley a rock star.

"It's been a wild, crazy and fun six months," she said.

Tilley, who lives in Urbana, had led a quiet life before her Wertham article surfaced. Her only other brush with celebrity was appearing on "Jeopardy" in 2007.

"I didn't win, but it was fun," she said.

As a result of all of the publicity surrounding her Wertham research, Tilley has had the "great pleasure" of meeting fans, comics readers, comics creators and other comics scholars — most at events, some virtually through Twitter and Facebook.

One of the most exciting encounters for her: Paul Levitz — former president of DC Comics — introduced her to legendary cartoonist Al Jaffee. Now 92, Jaffee continues to draw the fold-in pages for MAD magazine.

Tilley also feels she is now able to advocate more effectively for the value of comics.

"I think they're just a way of engaging people in text in a different way," she said. "I think some people find value in comics that they don't find in a novel or conventional magazine.

"And for many younger readers, it's a way of getting excited about reading."

In recent years, comics have enjoyed a resurgence, particularly indie, self-published and Web comics as well as graphic novels — longer-form comics on a variety of subjects, she said.

Tilley, 43, grew up in the small Ohio River town of Vevay, Ind., a daughter of a bank president and an artist who, after teaching art for two years, bought and sold antiques.

Her parents didn't care that their daughter read comics. Her mother was not interested in reading them herself, but her father was.

"I always had to fight my dad for the comics section of the newspaper," Tilley said. "I read sort of everything, so comics were just part of the overall package."

As a child, Tilley favored Archie, Casper the Friendly Ghost and Richie Rich comics.

"I bought them from what was the only drugstore in town when I was growing up," she said. "I would go down on Saturday mornings and read and buy them."

She was a big user of the public library as well. It was in the same block as her family home. In fact, the two buildings were the only ones in Vevay constructed with wire-cut red bricks and having red Spanish tile roofs.

"I always took that as a sign of fate, that I was meant to be there at the library," she said. "I was probably at the library every day, from age 3 and up."

She began volunteering at the Carnegie library as a second-grader.

Even as a child she read almost everything, including serious subject matter.

"I was a big nonfiction geek, and I still am," she said.

Perhaps comics appealed to her too because they were different, more light-hearted and amusing, she said.

Tilley said she was "reluctantly dragged" into the profession of librarian, even though it seems like fate.

She majored in English at Indiana University. After graduating and getting a teaching certificate, she went on a trip with a friend.

She remembers calling her parents from a campground in Sedona, Ariz. Her mother told her the librarian at Tilley's high school had dropped off information about a scholarship to the IU library school.

"My actual response to my mother was, 'Why would I want to be a librarian?' She let it drop."

After returning home, Tilley decided to look into the Higher Education Administration fellowship in youth services. She interviewed for it and received the fellowship.

After obtaining her master's degree, Tilley worked as a high school librarian for three years before returning to graduate school at Indiana.

It took a while to finish her doctorate as she worked full-time as a lecturer on the IU campus in Indianapolis. She taught three courses a semester and had administrative duties that required her to travel to satellite sites twice a year.

Seven years ago, Tilley joined the UI Graduate School of Library and Information Science, ranked by U.S. News and World Report as the top library school in the country.

Here she teaches semesterlong courses in youth services librarianship and media literacy for youths.

Her comics courses include "Comics: Advising Child and Adult Readers," an eight-week course, capped at 25 students, that fills quickly.

She also taught, just once so far, the intensive summer-session course, "Comics in Libraries." It's not about the content of comics but rather about comics as information objects.

Her semesterlong "Comics and Graphic Novels" is, to her knowledge, the first for-credit course on comics/graphic novels in a university library-science school.

"You can find them in history, arts, English and education," said Tilley, who has been ranked as an excellent teacher by her students.

In her journal article about Wertham, Tilley wrote that her intent was not to add her name to the list of his detractors.

"In fact, I find myself conflicted about Wertham," she wrote. "Having examined thousands of pages of documents that he created and collected, I discovered that he had a genuine passion for children and their welfare, though it is difficult to document that passion meaningfully.

"At the same time, he gave readers a clear indication that rhetoric must trump evidence: Commenting about a colleague, Wertham wrote, 'Neutrality — especially when hidden under the cloak of scientific objectivity — that is the devil's ally.'"

In her article, "Seducing the Innocent: Fredrick Wertham and the Falsifications That Helped Condemn Comics," Tilley wrote that the psychiatrist conceded that not every comic book was bad for children's minds and emotions.

However, Tilley believes he derogated that claim by writing, "All child drug addicts, and all children drawn into the narcotics traffic as messengers, with whom we have had contact, were inveterate comic-book readers."

Wertham was not the only comics critic of his time, though to comics advocates he's the leading bogeyman of the movement.

Public concern arose after World War II with the introduction of new comics genres such as romance, jungle, horror and true crime, Tilley wrote. The new genres, aimed at adults, particularly returning veterans and other young adults who had grown up with superhero comics, flourished.

Of course, children read them, too. As a result, many cities in the late '40s and '50s passed legislation trying to restrict the sale of certain comics to adults.

Organizations such as the National Congress of Parents and Teachers and the National Council of Juvenile Court Judges also condemned comics.

At the time, Wertham was devoting much of his psychiatric practice to the diagnosis and treatment of children identified by various agencies as juvenile delinquents.

Some of the children he treated had diagnosed neuroses or psychoses, and many had behavior disorders, "a catchall diagnosis that included truancy, shoplifting and daydreaming," Tilley wrote.

What almost all of his young patients shared — and what he sought most to understand — was a passion for comic books, she wrote.

Obviously, not every child who read comics became delinquent. At the time, research and market surveys showed that more than 90 percent of U.S. children and more than 80 percent of U.S. teens read comics, often avidly, wrote Tilley, who believes they were the dominant cultural force among youths in mid-20th century America, before television came along.

What most bothers Tilley about the Wertham archives are the details of the lives of his young patients — and how he falsified and fudged their statements about comics.

"A lot of the kids he was working with had incredibly horrific lives," she said. "Reading about their circumstances, I would go back to my hotel room in the evening and feel exhausted and emptied."

Tilley continues to receive invitations to speak about Wertham and other comics-related issues, and she's become the go-to expert on comics on the Illinois campus.

The professor is now shopping around her proposal for a book on the social history from the 1930s to the '60s of children reading comics. Wertham will be part of the book.

More on Carol Tilley

The Big Ten Network documentary, "Carol Tilley: Comic Book Crusader": youtube.com/watch?v=cktZutUTo_k

University of Illinois News Bureau release on Tilley's research on Fredric Wertham: http://bit.ly/1hcHq09

New York Times article on Tilley's research: http://nyti.ms/H4vWxM

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