Book Review: Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare and How it Changed America
“..the story of the comics controversy is a largely forgotten chapter in the history
Comic books have always been a part of my creative imagination. Comics were the first things I read as a child; the first stories that made sense to me and opened up a world that was far more exciting and interesting than the hot, clamped-down world of a young boy growing up in Arizona. Even today, I read comic books regularly (in the graphic novel format) with great enjoyment. And some of my favorite comic book characters like Dr. Strange and the Silver Surfer exist in my imagination right along side Kafka's “K” and Dicken's “David Copperfield”; equally important, equally inspiring. In short, I grew up on comics and love them dearly.
So it was with great pleasure that I sat down to read David Hajdu's recently published , Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare and How It Changed America. What I discovered both upset and fascinated me. I knew there had been congressional hearings in the fifties on comic books, but I had no idea of the extent of public hysteria, nor did I know how dark certain kinds of comics had become. The “plague” that Hajdu ironically refers to was a cumulative reaction to comic book content continually pushing the boundaries of what was permissible at the time until finally it went too far. Was the plague comic books themselves or was the over-reaction to them a plague? The book is an answer to that pointed question.
In a sense, David Hajdu's book could more accurately be titled “The Great Comics War” because that's what it was: a war between parents and the establishment of the time one one side, and mostly outsider comic book artists and story-tellers on the other. At it's height comics audience of eager kids purchased between 60 and 100 million comic books a month. And if you add the fact that these kids passed on their comics to many of their friends, you have a medium which far exceeds the sales of film, books, radio and the still nascent television combined. The stakes were staggeringly high for both sides.
My own comic book reading began after most of the fog of war had cleared and comics became respectable again with a return to “noble stories of troubled heroes” like Spiderman and the Fantastic Four (Marvel Comics). But there was a much darker age of comics whose subject matter included gruesome images of murder and transgressive stories of young people defying convention and public morality. These type of comics began in the war-time forties and continued until the publishers selfdestructed in 1955 (the year of my birth).
The comics grew out of the special Sunday supplement to American newspapers with series like Windsor McKay's “Little Nemo” and George Herriman's “Krazy Kat” comic strips. They were intended primarily for the young, but appealed to a burgeoning immigrant audience, too, since their own stories were often represented in the comics themselves. The Sunday funnies and the emerging comic books were a kind of “Sunday art class” for artists like Will Eisner, who built a reputation for comic book art/ writing that remains to this day. The first actual comic books grew from Sunday strips that were rejected by the newspapers (Superman began this way) and so found their own separate identity.
Gradually, comics started changing as their audience changed. The pulp magazine era of the thirties gave comic books their first real separate identity as the focus of comics shifted to stories of heroes and noble protectors of the “good” and the “right” like Prince Valiant, Captain Marvel and Superman. For 10 cents you could read the exploits of any number of past or present heroes who fought against evil and defended the innocent. By 1941, the youth population (under 18) was at an all time high. And, since comics were written primarily for this market, comics became hugely popular and a large, hardscrabble industry developed around them, primarily in New York City.
“Created by outsiders of various sorts, comics gave voice to their makers' fantasies
Hajdu does a wonderful job relating the story of the rise of comics. In fact, there are actually two stories presented in The Ten-Cent Plague; one is the birth of comics and the second is it's gradual demise and eventual dramatic death through legislation, public scorn and an act of professional suicide by a powerful publisher of the comics industry. And while the first story is fascinating in it's individual portraits of eccentrics like Charles Biro (Crime Does Not Pay) and Busy Arnold (Hit Comics) who became important figures in the comics industry, it's the latter story that most interests Hajdu and is the central core of the book: the battle between the comics industry and the establishment.
Social and political protest against comics which had begun almost simultaneously with it's birth in the Sunday newspaper supplements, had been displaced due to two world wars. After World War II the criticism of comics and their content became a furious. But what finally pushed lawmakers and the general public into a full fledged hysteria were the horror comics, primarily published by William M. Gaines who published EC Comics. Gruesome murder, torture, rape and horrific death became the mainstay of the EC horror style. This, of course, thrilled young readers to no end, but once parents and teachers began to pay attention to what their children were actually reading they were horrified and began, along with church groups to make a huge, huge stink. Although it's hard to believe today, comic book burnings were ongoing from 1940 to 1955 with scout groups competing for prizes by bringing in the most comics to burn in huge bonfires while smiling parents and church leaders looked on. Many newspapers launched “exposes” of the evils of comic books. The condemnation grew so widespread that the general public became convinced that comics were singularly responsible for the moral corruption and juvenile delinquency that ran rampant.
Eventually state and federal officials joined the massive chorus of disapproval and congressional hearings were convened in 1954. Coming on the heals of the highly popular televised Mafia hearings (which made the comics industry “criminal” by association), the comic book hearings not honest inquiries in to an important social problem, but were show trials designed for self aggrandizement and political profiteering. Dr. Frederic Wertham became the figurehead of the hearings in addition to being the main spokesman for the establishment to promote the “scientific” validity of the negative effects of violence in comics on the youth of the time.
“Comic books are definitely harmful to impressionable people, and most
William Gaines, the publisher of EC comics and the only actual representative of the comics industry to testify, defied the committee, declaring that some of the most egregious comics (on display at the hearing) were within the bounds of taste and that his comics were created to entertain kids and not corrupt them. His argument, while forcefully made, was impaired by his excessive use of amphetamines that left him in a confused haze for most of his testimony. He just made things worse for him and the industry he was representing.
Hysteria was the predictable result of the committee's efforts. Hundreds of laws were enacted in various states making illegal not only the sale of comics that were deemed “offensive”, but even comics which contained certain words like “Crime” and “Horror” the the titles. And after a disastrous attempt to create their own “Comics Code Authority” to police themselves (which actually was more repressive than any laws passed at the time), the industry finally threw in the towel when Gaines publicly tore several of his horror comics in half and vowed to stop publication on all horror-related comics; an act of public suicide that is still surprising to this day. This, plus the fact that comic distributors were sending back box after box of comics unopened spelled the financial death of the comics industry and the loss of thousands of jobs.
“I feel that it is high time for our people, the Congress and the courts, to awaken
David Hajdu's, The Ten-Cent Plague captures all of the proceeding drama and hysteria masterfully. He examines the individual story behind the comic hysteria and then pull back to provide a wider, macroview of American society, a style which places the individuals in effective and interesting historical content. And while he clearly sides with the comic creators and artists, he consistently presents the individuals and events in a balanced and fair fashion. For example, Dr. Wertham, long vilified as the “Jack Thompson” of the fifties (and in many ways, rightly so), is presented as a great champion of free mental health for African Americans. I was amazed to learn that the author photo for his pseudoscientific screen “Seduction of the Innocent” was taken by none other than Gordon Parks, a well known African-American photographer, and that Wertham was instrumental in setting up the first free mental health clinic in Harlem, New York City.
Hajdu is at his most interesting when he is presenting the people behind the comics. Portraits of Will Eisner and William M. Gaines are the real gems of the book. However, some of his recounting of the various legal actions against comics are overly detailed and, at times, slow down the book to a crawl. I suspect some of this is due to Hajdu's desire to create a public record for these actions. Still, much of this material could have been consigned to the well-presented notes at the end of the book.
In addition, the book seems to end somewhat abruptly. Hajdu's device of using a woman illustrator in comics (Janice Valleau Winkleman), who lost her job due to the comic hysteria is touching, but not very effective. I wanted to know how comics managed to survive into the early sixties and become even more radical than their earlier incarnation. The epilogue at the end of the book with the doyen of underground comics, Robert Crumb, was less interesting since he has been done to death as a spokesman for comics with documentaries, books and endless showings of his works.
Still, in the end Hajdu manages to convey the notion that perhaps those shrill voices against comics had a point; maybe comics went too far. While he sympathizes with the artists and producers, he doesn't shirk from criticizing them either.
“As a result of hysterical, injudicious, and unfounded charges leveled at crime
Surprisingly what was left standing after the comic book meltdown was Mad Magazine. Hajdu suggests that Gaines great antipathy for authority, developed and hardened in the comic book fight, were brought to full flower in Mad Magazine once Gaines decided to publish the comic as a “magazine” and escape the constraints (and distribution problems) associated with comics. And finally, Hajdu makes a strong case that perhaps comics were the real beginnings of a youth culture that would flower with the birth of rock and roll and the sixties counter culture.
In an era where video games have become a political football and game violence is being touted as a sign of “moral decay”, David Hajdu's book is a necessary and compelling antidote to the shrill debates that mark our present predicament. Perhaps by remembering the past, we won't make the same mistake twice.
PS I'd like to commend the publisher, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, for choosing Charles Burns (an excellent comics artist in his own right) to illustrate the book cover. The overall design of the book is excellent, thanks to Susan Mitchell.
-David Hajdu's personal website is a model of what a contemporary author should strive for in website design: it's an excellent combination of personal and professional styles. You'll find a complete list of his books and articles (with links, thank you) and an informative “about me” page.
-Mr. Hajdu's previous books; Positively Fourth Street (a history of post-war folk music of Joan Baez and Bob Dylan) and Lush Life (a biography of Jazz musician Billy Strayhorn) are both excellent and well worth your time to track down.
-Highly recommended is a radio interview conducted at the maximumfun.org website. It's over 30 minutes long and the interviewer covers just about everything.
-Youtube.com abounds with excerpts and examples of the comics “war”. One favorite is an excerpted documentary from the fifties that is presented as part of a David Hajdu lecture.
-The full testimony of William M. Gaines at the 1954 congressional hearing is available here and makes for sad/fascinating reading.
-Don't go looking for copies of Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent unless you've got a Platinum Express card as they start at $85 and go up from there. Perhaps some day they'll reprint it in a reasonably-priced edition. For now, you'll have to be content with reading selections. There's also an interesting conversation about Wertham's aims and methods at the comicsreporter.com.
-Here's a nice, short history of comics that I found helpful. And a list of some of the Comics Code Authority rules that were self imposed by the comics industry as a result of the congressional hearings in 1954.
-The recently released Mammoth Book of Horror Comics have reprinted many classics of horror comic history, including some from the late forties and fifties. Unfortunately, they are are black and white, which lack the impact of the original color editions.
-While we lack a comprehensive collection of the “Plague Comics” written about by David Hajdu, there are many editions of EC Comics that are worth tracking down. Some of them are quite expensive, so be prepared.
Ricky Grove [gToon], Staff Columnist with the Renderosity Front Page News. Ricky Grove is a bookstore clerk at the best bookstore in Los Angeles, the Iliad Bookshop. He's also an actor and machinima filmmaker. He lives with author, Lisa Morton, and three very individual cats. Ricky is into Hong Kong films, FPS shooters, experimental anything and reading, reading, reading. You can catch his blog here.
June 2, 2008
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