So thundered psychiatrist Frank Wertham in his 1954 Seduction of the Innocent, a book which accused comic books of breeding juvenile delinquincy (quoted on p. 6 of Hajdu's book). Today, Wertham's comparison between Hitler and comic books seems ludicrous. But at the time, millions of Americans took it seriously, and it brought down the comic book industry.
David Hajdu's wonderful The Ten-Cent Plague is a history of the culture war over comics that spanned the decade after the second world war. By the mid-40s, he claims, comic books were beyond doubt the leading form of popular entertainment, selling an astounding 80 to 100 million copies each week. Some 650 titles were released each month, and the industry employed around 1,000 writers, artists, and editors. The leading comic book publisher was EC, headed by the genius William Gaines.
The genre in those days, lead by EC, focused primarily on horror and crime, and some of the covers, interior artwork, and story lines could get gruesome: pools of blood, severed heads, stony-faced and scary killers. The artwork and storylines could get sexy too: heroines in filmy negligees, the occasional cleavage or bare foot showing. Middle class parents, egged on by a few religious leaders and political conservatives, began to express concerns, and those concerns grew into a national crusade against the "corrupting" influence of comic books. Editorials raged against them, politicians speechified against them, the Senate held hearings, and schools and churches sponsored comic book bonfires.
In an effort to salvage what it could, the comic book industry organized the Comics Magazine Association of America in 1954, and promised to watchdog its product by promoting "wholesomeness and virtue" (p. 319). But the resulting CMAA Code, written to placate the blue-noses, destroyed the comic book. Cops and other authorities were never to be depicted with "disrespect." No comic book could use the words "horror" or "terror" in its title. All "lurid, unsavory, or gruesome illustrations" were forbidden. Ditto on the depiction of the "walking dead, vampires, ghouls, werewolfs, and cannibals." Ditto on "words or symbols which have acquired undesirable meanings" (pp. 291-292).
You get the drift. The enforcement of this Code transformed comic books into "funny books." Interesting art and storylines disappeared in the wake of the Code, to be replaced with comics about anthropomorphized animals. But the kids (and adults) who'd avidly read the old comic genre wanted little to do with its antiseptic replacement. By the mid-1950s, title release per month had dropped to one-third its mid-1940s level, and 8 out of 10 comic writers, artists, and editors were out of work. Most of the titles released by EC disappeared overnight.
William Gaines rebelled against the death of the comic by publishing MAD, which in a roundabout way (sketched by Hajdu in his final chapter) inspired the underground revival of the comic book in the late 1960s. But before that resurgence, one of the most brutal massacres of any culture war fought in America gutted an entire genre of popular art, and in the process intimidated and de facto blacklisted hundreds of talented artists.
Hajdu's book is a fascinating, frightening read. My guess is that few of us--even those of us who, like me, were kids during the comic book purging era--are familiar with the witch hunt that Hadju chronicles. It's well worth knowing about, particularly in an era when a new front of the current culture wars seems to open almost every week.
on March 21, 2008
With THE TEN-CENT PLAGUE, David Hajdu does for comic books what his previous books did so brilliantly for music. Hajdu's research is exhaustive without being exhausting to read; THE TEN-CENT PLAGUE has the readability and vivid characters of a great novel as Hajdu tells his entertaining, thought-provoking account of the censorship debate over comic books in the 1950s, and how it trickled down into other aspects of pop culture and generation-gap clashes between youths and their parents. Instead of simply rehashing what comic fans already know, Hajdu digs deep into other areas, talking in-depth to the first-hand witnesses to these events, like the early comic creators who lost their jobs once people like Fredric Wertham and Estes Kefauver denounced comics as a corruptor of America's children -- you know, before heavy metal and video games and Fill In Your Favorite Bad Influence Here came along. :-) Hajdu brings the era and its struggles to life in a page-turner brimming with insight and affection. THE TEN-CENT PLAGUE is a must-read not only for fans of comics and pop culture, but for anyone intrigued with how censorship and power struggles shape society.
Probably one of the greatest evils in society are the self-righteous moralists who want to rid the world of what they perceive as sinful, usually saying it's "for the children". Usually, the things they want to actually get rid of are merely items that encourage free thought or seemingly contradict their own narrow dogma. Thus today, we get those who want to ban Harry Potter books not because of any proven harm, but merely the fact that they don't fall into their own interpretation of good and evil. It's not enough to choose to ignore the items, but also to deprive others of their joy.
David Hajdu's The Ten Cent Plague details one such situation that occurred in the early 1950s and focused on comic books. This was an era when comics were at a creative and commercial peak, dealing with not only the superhero genre, but also horror, crime, war and romance. While some of it was over-the-top, it also provided entertainment and occasionally delivered a message as well.
The main villain in this piece is Fredric Wertham, author of Seduction of the Innocent, a book that alleged links between comic books and juvenile delinquency, links that were often weak at best, and completely fabricated in other cases. In this Legion of Doom, however, Wertham is merely the biggest name, but there are others as well, driven to hound the comic book industry out of existence. They would use book-burnings, boycotts and the police to get their way, and to a large extent, they would win. Due to their efforts, the Comics Code was instituted, resulting in comics that went from being fun (if edgy) to watered-down pap fit for only the youngest kids. It was like replacing Bugs Bunny and Homer Simpson with Baby Huey and the Care Bears.
It would take decades for the comic books to get back much of the creativity they lost, and commercially, they would never be as dominant again. Yet there were still heroes in this era - most notably Bill Gaines - but they could never quite grasp the significance of Wertham and company until it was too late. Around the only positive that came out of this period was Mad Magazine, which Gaines was able to squeeze past the Comics Code by changing its classification from comic book to magazine.
Hajdu's writing is always engaging. I would have liked a few more illustrations but that's a minor quibble. Overall, this is a good book of relatively modern history, not only giving a good look at another era, but also providing a valuable lesson that too many times, the ones who say they are protecting "the children" from evil may be doing the actual evil themselves.
on March 23, 2008
Here's something truly "Weird," "Scary" and "Amazing!" It's a history with a gripping-but-true story of American hysteria that most Americans probably have forgotten - or perhaps never knew -- until Columbia University journalism professor David Hajdu thoroughly researched America's crazy crusade against comics.
In the growing literature about Americans' love affair with comic books, Hajdu has staked a major cultural landmark with his new, "The 10-Cent Plague." As a journalist myself for more than 30 years, I've closely watched the ebb and flow of American comics and graphic novels. I can tell you this: Hajdu's cultural history is so fresh and so solid that, henceforth, anyone interested in understanding the strange twists and turns of our post-World War II culture will have to include his history of comic hysteria on any "must-read" list.
If you haven't heard Hajdu on NPR or read any of the growing number of magazine and newspaper articles about his book, the use of the term "hysteria" may sound - well, "Insane." But the tragic truth is that, starting in the late 1940s only three years after the defeat of the Nazis in Europe, Americans in towns across our nation felt it was their sacred duty to build comic book-burning bonfires, encouraging and sometimes compelling students to stand up for virtue at these conflagrations. Hajdu points out that this showed a terrifying blindness to world history - eerily reminiscent of the zealous book burnings in Germany in the 1930s.
A few wise American observers in that era recognized this historical irony - but, as shocking as this sounds, Hajdu documents that the mainstream of American media amounted to a frenzied mob in some Grade-B horror film. Almost no one was willing to defend comic books - and, as strange as this may seem, such current pillars of free speech as The New York Times, the New Yorker and the Hartford Courant actually poured fuel on the comic book pyres. If you doubt this, check out Hajdu's detailed reporting. He cites enough examples to make all of us in American media hang our heads these days to think of how wrong our venerable institutions could be.
This was, indeed, a very strange outbreak of paranoia and bigotry, which Hajdu deconstructs with fascinating anecdotes along the way. It was partly a flowering of fear about emerging youth culture that began as far back as the war years. It was partly a fear of the "sort of people" involved in producing comic books, who were considered socially unsavory - an ugly bias vaguely aimed at "lower-class" and immigrant Americans.
Along the way, much damage was done. New laws were passed to stamp out comics. Police action was taken against comic books and comic writers, artists, editors and publishers. Congressional hearings were held. Things got so ugly that Hajda devotes 14 pages in his appendix to listing the names of hundreds of men and women in comic book publishing houses "who never again worked in comics after the purge of the 1950s."
Why should we care? Well, first, this truly is a "good read." Hajdu obviously has been influenced by his love of comics and pulp fiction in general. He writes this history in a suspenseful narrative style that vividly paints key scenes for us, such as the first mass burning of comics in 1948.
Second, and more importantly, this is a cautionary tale against censorship, which cost the religious community far more than it gained by righteously crusading against pulp. During World War II, for example, Hajdu documents that Catholic leaders had discovered that comics served as important educational media for millions of young Catholics, especially those challenged by the English language. Thousands of parishes across the U.S. began using Bible-story comics for evangelism. Unfortunately, within a few years, a handful of overly zealous Catholic leaders jumped into the vanguard of a take-no-prisoners campaign to destroy comic producers.
It's only now - half a century after the purge - that comics are rebounding in a big way and, finally, there's growing interest in spiritual circles in drawing young readers into timeless truths with the powerful words and images of comic artistry.
The cover of Hajdu's book shows a teen-age boy sitting up late in bed, flipping the pages of a creepy comic book. It's a great cover design! I bet you'll find yourself sitting up late to finish "just one more chapter" of Hajdu's wild history of that explosive era.
In hindsight, censorship so often seems ridiculous. It seems silly now that anyone was trying to keep readers from reading _Tom Jones_ a couple of centuries ago, or that seventy years ago, movies could not show married people sharing a double bed. A less familiar arena for censorship was comic books of sixty years ago, an effort that was not only silly but was successful. Before it, a kid could spend a dime to buy a horror or crime comic, which gives the title to _The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America_ (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux) by David Hajdu. The problem, according to the censors, is that kids were putting their dimes down for comics that were sexy and violent and which punctured the complacent conformity of the fifties. Hajdu, a professor in the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University, has given a lively history of comic censorship (this is not an academic treatise) and the toll it took on liberty but also on the thousand-or-so artists, writers, letterers, and others who were putting out hundreds of comics a month. Hajdu says that with each comic traded and passed along, the comics reached more people than movies or television at the time, so when the censors succeeded, it was a real shift in culture, one worthy of documentation in this comprehensive and readable book.
Protests about comics started when they were first invented at the beginning of the twentieth century, and in the forties critics criticized the "mayhem, murder, torture, and abduction" handled by "superman heroics". This is one of the surprises in Hajdu's work: many of the censors were so eager to include all comics as insidious that they saw fault in the superheroes that we all know were fighting for "Truth, Justice, and the American Way." Psychiatrist Dr. Fredric Wertham accused Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman of, respectively, fascism, homoeroticism, and sadomasochism. The main concern of Hajdu's book is the horror comics that had a brief lifespan, starting when Bill Gaines of EC Comics introduced them in 1950. The tales were not just bloody, they were weird, and were poorly understood by adults, who could only fathom that conventions were being challenged by the reading styles of youths who were at constant threat of becoming "juvenile delinquents" thereby. Dr Wertham, as an expert acknowledged by everyone who hated comics, was invited to testify before a 1954 Congressional hearing. Senator Estes Kefauver organized the hearing, as he had done for the more famous hearings on organized crime a couple of years before. A highlight of the book is Gaines's appearance before the committee. He was eager to testify, but was exhausted from a Dexedrine bender and did his cause little good. Kefauver faced him with the cover of a comic that showed a man gripping a blood-spattered ax in one hand and a severed head in the another, standing over the headless body of a woman. Gaines said he used his own good taste as a measure of what was permissible, and Kefauver fired up about the picture, demanding, "Do you think that is in good taste?" Gaines stammered, "Yes, sir, I do, for the cover of a horror comic," and proceeded to explain that it would be bad taste if the man were shown lifting the head higher to show more gore. He essentially sealed the case against horror comics.
Hollywood had adopted a code that cleaned all the filth out of movies, and similarly the comics developed a code and a seal of approval. The code was one thing that killed the comics; the other was that Wertham and the Congressional hearing had made the occupation of working on comics unsavory in the eyes of the public. Artists who had taken pride in their work no longer liked admitting what they did. Like other publishers, Gaines capitulated, throwing hundreds of artists into other fields. They became postmen or security guards; one who went into advertising said he made a fine living, "But the work was work. It wasn't comics. You couldn't be as creative. It wasn't fun. You don't have the freedom... I missed comic books for the rest of my life." It isn't surprising that with the rebellion of the sixties that comics (or comix) were part of the trip. Gaines himself had a revenge of sorts. He took the satirical part of his comics and turned them into a magazine; if they were in a magazine, they didn't have to conform to any comics code. The magazine was _Mad_, and it was far more influential in making kids laugh and distrust authority than the horror comics had been in making them ax murderers. Nonetheless, the comics scare succeeded where the Commie scare had not; at the same time as the Congressional hearing on comics, Senator Joseph McCarthy was beginning his downfall. Hajdu's book is funny and revealing, and has excellent small biographies of the main players in the comics and anti-comics game. The anti-comics forces won this one for the censors, and put a temporary end to one particular branch of an art form that has come back in today's graphic novels. Those crying for censorship this time are having little effect.
on June 8, 2009
I first learned of this book through an interview with the author on NPR. The interview was very interesting, and I knew that I had to get The Ten Cent Plague on my reading list.
Unfortunately, I found this book a profound disappointment. I'll lead off by saying that TTCP isn't a bad book, it just wasn't nearly as good as I thought it would be. The book has rather slow, awkward pacing, and many of the anecdotes sound so similar that the book gets rather monotonous during the middle section.
My biggest critique of the book, however, is that it doesn't deliver on the second part of the subtitle: "How It Changed America." By the end of the book, the reader isn't left with much of an impression as to how the story really did change America. We're not even left with much of an impression about what many in the comic book industry thought, since the author focuses most of his attention on a single company (EC Comics) to the exclusion of nearly everything else.
The epilogue and appendix are especially disappointing. After 300 pages, I expected the epilogue to tie Hajdu's story back in with contemporary America. Instead, the reader is treated to a self-indulgent, worthless snippet whose only point was to let everyone know that Hajdu managed to get an interview with Robert Crumb. Even though I like Crumb (and loved the documentary), he's hardly a stand-in for American culture.
Hajdu also treats the reader to an appendix that's a massive list of those "who never again worked in comics after the purge of the 1950's," which might lead the prospective buyer to think that he's about to read a story akin to the Hollywood blacklists of the McCarthy era. The problems here are two-fold: first, there was no official "purge," in the McCarthy sense; comics as an industry, rather than individual artisans, were targeted. People lost jobs from companies that closed, not because of any attack directed toward targeted individuals.
Dwight Eisenhower's glum picture is even featured prominently on the cover, suggesting he was somehow involved in the "Great Comics Scare." Eisenhower is mentioned twice in the text, both times in passing.
Second, Hajdu treats the vast majority of these people as names on a page. Those that are actually mentioned in the text are often mentioned only in passing.
We're never really treated to a good discussion as to why some comics survived (Superman, Batman, etc.,) that were under fire, while others did not. It's taken that, if you're reading the book, you know those made it while others didn't and no more need be said. We're also not really treated to much discussion about what the lack of some titles and the endurance of others meant to American pop culture.
If you're a big fan of comic books, you'll no doubt get a little more entertainment value than the average reader, since there are names in here that will mean something to you. Most readers will find the Senate hearings interesting, and I found the story of the emergence of Mad Magazine quite interesting.
To sum up, The Ten Cent Plague isn't bad, but it certainly isn't everything it could have been. Other publishers than EC could have been discussed more, and the writing could have been tightened up considerably. Overall, the text felt lazy and poorly edited to me.
on March 18, 2008
This book is an interesting overview of the "beginning of the end" of the great1950s' crime and monster comic craze that featured horrific comic book titles like Dick Briefer's The Monster of Frankenstein and The EC Archives: Crime Suspenstories Volume 1 (The Ec Archives), both of which quickly gets cancelled due to the creation of the self-imposed Comic Code Authority. The fuss starts when Fredric Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent (a scathing assault on the comic book industry due to its use of sex, violence and deviate behavior - all of which was aimed at children) is published and garnishes enough controversy to warrant a Senate committee hearing. The result: decades of censorship and wimpy white-bread superheroes cast as role models for the youth of America. THE TEN-CENT PLAGUE is a must read for any golden age comic fan.
on May 26, 2008
The inside cover reads "this is the revelatory, until now largely untold story of a lost world of the imagination..." Not quite so true - there was very little in this volume that I hadn't read or seen elsewhere, scattered across the forwards of the recent EC hardback collections, Stan Lee's autobiography, a recent cable documentary about the history of comics, and a dozen other sources. But this book does bring it all together into a clear and fairly comprehensive narrative of those dark days and I recommend it, not just for comic fans but also for those that are just interested in American history and or sociology.
It was an interesting trifecta last week, as I finished this book, watched the season finale of Boston Legal, and began reading Kenneth Johnson's sequel to the 1980s sci-fi miniseries, "V". All three gelled into the message that we usually don't learn from our history and thus do repeat our mistakes. They also gelled into the idea that all it takes for a group to get its way is for it to create a sentiment of fear against something, and then to allow for peer pressure to step in and move the society into a direction no-one would have imagined shortly before. There is little more dangerous than a scared populace.
Mr. Hajdu interviewed some of the, now elderly, children that participated in the bonfires that burned comic books. Just a few years after people reacted in horror to films of the Hitler youth burning books, in Germany, American youth were doing the same thing. The "kids" talked about how they felt they were doing something positive, but in retrospect realized they had been misled and tricked by adults - parents and teachers.
The architects of this censorship created an environment of fear: Store owners feared prosecution and attacks, teenage customers feared being beat up by mobs of do-gooders, parents feared that their children would become monsters, politicians feared they would lose their positions. This great comic book scare was coincident to the much bigger scare of the McCarthy hearings. In both cases a combination of the self-serving and the well-meaning and fear ruined the livelihoods of people. Mr. Hajdu, in an appendix, lists 14 pages (double columned) of writers and artists that never again worked in the industry the loved, after the purge of the 1950s.
Mr. Hajdu takes the time to carefully introduce all of the players, and in so doing, gives a good overall history of comic books in America, from their origins as newspaper strips. In doing this he helps the reader understand how the works were viewed by the average person when the scare began. He also talks about how they changed due to societal changes and due to the crisis.
It's a good book - and thought provoking. Hopefully it will be eye-opening to its readers to be wary of those that deal in fear. Hopefully it will also help its readers to realize that comic books are a medium, not a genre - a medium that can have diverse products aimed at every age group. In recent years district attorneys in Texas and Georgia have tried to prosecute comic book sellers for selling adult comics to adults on the grounds that comic books are for kids. A reminder that 2008 is not that far removed from 1954.
on May 25, 2008
This book was recommended along with Amy Kiste Nyberg's "Seal of Approval". This one is more of a history and biography of the people, Nyberg's is more of an academic study. I'd 4-star this if it had presented itself as a history and a biography, but since it purports to be a review of the issues as well as the people I 3-star it - if you promise something you have to deliver it.
The book is about the people who worked in the comic book industry and the development of that industry up to the institution of the Comics Code, a self-regulatory system enacted to avoid government regulation of the comics industry. That's not actually what the book says it's about - it says it's about the industry as a whole and the impact of the Code - but I guess you can't judge a book by its cover.
I kill me...
Seriously, this is an interesting bit of history and stands on its own there. It recounts the business, and the political and cultural environment in the 1950s that all but killed the business. But it's those words "all but" that make the big difference between what this book purported to be and what it is. The fact is, comic books survived. They were published through the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. They started coming back into their own in the 1980s, and by the 1990s the graphic novel craze had brought them right back. How did this happen? You won't find out in this book. Considering its subtitle is "The Great Comic Book Scare and How it Changed America" I would have expected to see it deal with events both before and after. It doesn't.
Net-net: if you're looking for a historical document to describe a period of time and the people who were active in it, this book does that very well. The author is a journalist and uses those skills. Those aren't really the kinds of books I usually buy or read for pleasure, but your mileage may vary. I would have liked to have known the answers to questions like:
- Did companies that were subject to the Comics Code sell more issues than companies that weren't?
- Did parents actually consider whether a particular book was subject to the Comics Code when allowing their children to purchase?
- Did members of the Code try to push its limits or self-censor to make sure they stayed well inside its scope?
Without them, it was instructive for me and not a waste of time from a work perspective. With them, I would have made all my colleagues buy it. But this would have taken an author like Niall Ferguson, and this author isn't Niall Ferguson.
First, I have to admit that I am not a comic book expert or collector. I do have a modest collection of Black Hawk (Blackhawk) comics, but only because they were my favorites when I was a kid. I really did not read this work due to any overwhelming interest in comics. I did read them growing up and well remember the hysteria surrounding them in the 1950s. I will admit though that I did read quite a number of them during that time period. My parents liked peace and quiet and found that giving me a comic would shut my never ending talk up for a bit. I did read this book though because I do have a great interest in censorship in any form, and I am interested in the particular era covered by this work.
The author has certainly done some wonderful research with this offering. He gives us a very nice discussion of the history of the comic book in America, which I found quite interesting. I am sure that most comic enthusiasts will be aware of this information, but I was not, so I enjoyed it and learned. After his history he goes into the, as I said, "hysteria" which showed its ugly head every so often as to the effect this particular art form had upon the youth of our nation. Particular attention is made to the period of the late 1940s and the 1950s when the real trouble began.
Post war America was in many ways, a rather scary place. For those of you not there at the time, you need to remember stories of The Red Scare, The Bomb, Eugene McCarthy, women asserting themselves in the work place, The Yellow Peril, population upheavals, transformation after a world wide depression...and the list goes on. Among the "evils," or so it was thought, was an increase in juvenile crime. The term "Juvenile Delinquent" became a part of our everyday vocabulary. Naturally, people needed something to blame these problems on. If a communist was not handy, or jazz music was not being played on the radio, then something else had to do. It this case, the comic book was chosen. I suppose since the beginning of time, young folk have rebelled a bit against the system or their elders, and since the beginning to time the elders have sworn up and down that the young are going to hell in a hand basket. When you think about it, this process is still going on. This is the natural way of thing; always has been, always will be.
The author has given us a wonderful study of how a thought, a word, a picture, a story can be twisted and used by the powerful to meet their own needs and justify their own ends. In this case the PTA, politicians, preachers, the church, the Boy and Girl Scouts, schools, educators and the local village idiot all got in on the act. Priest, preachers, congressmen, psychiatrists, the news media, parents, George who worked at the local barber shop, all had an opinion. The author weaves a wonderful readable tale chronicling all of this. Now make no mistake; this is not what I would classify as an "easy read." This is probably more of a scholarly work that a piece of popular history. It is easy to consume and teaches though, and holds the reader's interest.
All in all, I found this to be a remarkable read. I learned new things and it certainly gave me much more food for thought. For history buffs, pop culture enthusiasts, comic collectors, and the generally curious, it would be hard to beat this one. Highly recommend this one.