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The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare and How it Changed America.

The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare and How it Changed America

By David Hajdu

(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008)

434 pp.; $26.00


I RECENTLY RECEIVED a solicitation letter from the National Coalition Against Censorship asking me to contribute to a campaign it's cosponsoring called The Kids' Right to Read Project. Schools across the land are purging novels by highly praised authors like Richard Wright, Cormac McCarthy, and (of course) Kurt Vonnegut, and the coalition is determined "to counter this disturbing trend." A worthy enterprise, to be sure, but one wonders whether groups like the NCAC would agitate even a teensy bit on behalf of the kind of publications that are the subject of David Hajdu's intriguing but sometimes frustrating new book, The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America.

Eons ago--the late 1940s and early 1950s--America, despite having won the Second World War, was apparently riddled with insecurities and fears: of the Red Menace, nuclear devastation, UFOs, a perceived increase in juvenile delinquency, and, complementing that last item--comic books. Yes, an astonishing number of Americans were convinced that comic books were corrupting the nation's youth, turning them into thugs, degenerates, and, even worse, Communists.

In the post-World War II era comic books were wildly popular among the young; in mid-1948, Hadju reports, "comic books sold between 80 million and 100 million copies per month." There were many different genres: romance, humor, science fiction, even Bible tales. Also in the mix were two relatively new categories, crime and horror. They were particularly successful--too successful for many adults, who were shocked by their alleged depravity, contempt for authority, and graphic (sometimes grisly) violence. Horror and crime comics were targeted for extinction by practically everyone--clergymen, the press, police organizations, parent-teacher associations, ad infinitum--and had virtually no defenders. (Intellectuals love to champion highbrow literature when it is marked for suppression. But in mid-twentieth century America, comic books were declasse.) Inevitably, state legislatures passed censorship statutes. Not so inevitable, but considering the climate of the times, unsurprisingly, tinhorn Torquemadas throughout the country incinerated thousands of comics in communal ceremonies. (The crazed atmosphere of the period, especially in the political realm, is adeptly evoked in Robert Coover's raucous and controversial 1977 novel about the Rosenberg case, The Public Burning.)

In April 1954 a U.S. Senate subcommittee on juvenile delinquency held a hearing in Manhattan on comic books. The televised forum featured two major antagonists (and two of the principals in Hajdu's book). The first was Fredric Wertham, a German-born psychiatrist, author of Seduction of the Innocent: The Influence of Comic Books on Today's Youth (published shortly before the subcommittee hearing), and a ferocious promoter of the theory that linked comics--all comics--to juvenile crime: "I think," he testified, "that Hitler was a beginner compared to the comic-book industry. They get the children much younger. They teach them race hatred at the age of four, before they can read."

Hajdu states that Wertham "was a nest of contradictions" and did some commendable work in his career: He was "[d]evoted to correcting the racial inequity of mental-health care" and in 1946 opened the Lafargue Clinic in Harlem, "among the first free (or nearly free) psychiatric facilities available to people of any color in the United States." Nonetheless, based on the preponderance of the evidence in The Ten-Cent Plague, he appears, overall, to have been an odious charlatan: pompous and publicity hungry, an inept researcher, and a precursor of all the psychobabbling snake oil salesmen battening on today's crass mass media.

Squaring off against Wertham at the hearing was William M. Gaines, the publisher of Entertaining Comics (EC), one of the leading purveyors of horror titles (he would, in the future, achieve renown as the publisher of Mad magazine). Decompressing (and decomposing) from a Dexedrine high, Gaines's appearance was a disaster. Whether endorsing one of his company's grotesque covers (of a woman's severed head) or discussing his highly arbitrary professional standards and tastes, Gaines came off as a sleazy and unscrupulous knave at what was essentially a kangaroo court. Gaines probably did more harm to his cause than Wertham's testimony did.

Hajdu makes it clear that the data connecting comics to juvenile mayhem ranged from highly suspect to nonsensical. Nevertheless, a vulnerable comic book industry was unable to withstand the incessant bashing. Five months after the Senate hearing, Gaines publicly declared that EC would no longer publish crime and horror comics. More momentously, at around the same time as Gaines's announcement, most of the other comic book publishers created the Comics Code, which, as Hajdu points out, "was an unprecedented (and never surpassed) monument of self-imposed repression and prudery." The bureaucrats who implemented the code fervently carried out its mandate to eradicate "excessive" violence and "smut" from comics. The result, naturally, was that comic books became bland and marginalized. "Between 1954 and 1956," Hajdu writes, "more than half the comic books on the newsstands disappeared; the number of titles published in the United States dropped from about 650 to some 250." Kids moved on to television and rock 'n' roll and juvenile delinquents continued to cock a snook at Western civilization by sporting black leather jackets and growling "Daddyo."

I'm sorry I don't like The Ten-Cent Plague more than I do because there is much to like in it. The subject is provocative and has serious implications and the research is thorough, and the writing can be droll. (How not, since bluenoses are invariably farcical figures--fatuous, hypocritical, humorless. On the subject of writing, verbal is used incorrectly in the book and I spotted four typos: Shame on you, Farrar, Straus.) But as other reviews have noted, The Ten-Cent Plague is crammed with minibiographies of numerous comic book artists and writers and there is a fifteen-page appendix listing the men and women who never worked in the industry again after the death-to-the-comics crusade. Hajdu obviously felt it was important to honor these individuals, but for this reader those life stories often seemed at best superfluous (there's a sameness to many of them) and at worst peeving. I wish more space had been devoted to the long-term influence of EC and its ilk on American culture (particularly movies) and the legal system. It would be interesting to know, for instance, whether the most draconian anti-comics laws are still on the books.

David Hajdu contends that many comic book artists and writers of the forties and fifties were quite talented, and in deference dubs them "cultural insurgents" Unfortunately it's not possible to ascertain whether this is true from The Ten-Cent Plague's insert of photos: these, disappointingly, are in black and white and feature only a few drawings from comics. An online search for artwork from pre-code horror and crime comics yielded illustrations I found to be crude, meretricious, and ridiculous. Moreover, the comic book plots described by Hajdu seemed to me less than impressive. However it is the mediocrity of these elements that underpins what I think is the key issue implicitly raised by The Ten-Cent Plague, an issue that takes the form of a question: Should the sort of writing and images discussed in this book--work of arguably no artistic merit what-so-ever--be subject to censorship if (for the sake of argument) this material occasionally prompts a young person to commit criminal acts? On reflection I believe that censorship should not be wielded in this circumstance because American history instructs us that, when it comes to words and the graphic arts, politicians and lawyers should never be permitted to decide what anyone can read or gaze at.

The May 9, 2008, New York Times reported that "[t]he social network Facebook has reached an agreement with 49 state attorneys general to institute a broad set of principles intended to protect young users from ... inappropriate material." Now it is the Internet and hip-hop and video games that incense the official and quasi-official guardians of the nation's tykes. Ten years hence these zany zealots will be made livid by something else. It will always be so because what the self-righteous sentinels really dig is participating in the exhilarating American pastime of bullying scapegoats.

Howard Schneider, a writer and editor in New York City, read comic books during his decidedly nonanomic childhood.
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Author:Schneider, Howard
Publication:The Humanist
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jul 1, 2008
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