Civil Liberties

Friday Mini Book Review: The Ten Cent Plague


Mini-reviews of past years.

The Ten Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How it Changed America, by David Hajdu. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008). Hajdu (whose previous group profile of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Richard and Mimi Farina, Positively 4th Street, I reviewed here) claims for comic books a power and cultural influence in the 1950s that most standard American history denies them. To sum up quickly, forget rock 'n' roll when it comes to youth culture ferment and pop cultural dynamic world-changing; comics were the ur-Source of the postwar cultural revolution, while Elvis and Chuck Berry merely "added the soundtrack to a scene created in comic books."

When outsider scholars and journalists dip into neglected fields like comic books, ones chockablock with scene-marinated fanatics (like myself) they risk making critical, interpretational, and historical howlers and seeming in ways both specific and general to just not "get it." Hajdu is a very good reporter and developed quite a feel for his subject; there's little opportunity for the comics fan and amateur historian to write angry marginal notes condemning his mistakes or misunderstandings.

He prefaces the story of the late 1940s/early 1950s cultural and governmental assault on comic books—which he dubs "the great comic-book scare"—with a short history of the comic book form, with well-drawn characters, from exploitative quick-buck artists to gestating genuine artists, with a special emphasis on the cultural marginality and freewheeling openness of the trash form, and the prominent role played by some female, and the occasional black, creators in it.

Hajdu notes that as early as 1909, with newspaper comic supplements still fledgling, Ladies Home Journal was already condemning comics as "nothing short of a national crime against our children." What happened four decades later to bring them low and drive half the comic book titles in existence off the stands was a culmination of decades of middlebrow distrust and fear of this delightfully lowbrow form. It was also part of a general war on a rising new class of unruly kids, who had morphed from the more vernacular "hooligans" to the very social-scientific sounding "juvenile delinquents."

The war against comics, Hajdu notes, "hopped from the back of the newspaper to the front, section by section—from the book reviews and religion columns to the 'women's' department to the hard-news pages." Concerted government action in response kicked off in earnest in 1948; soon at least 50 municipalities had passed some sort of law to restrict the sale or comic books.

That same year, the Supreme Court overturned a New York state law outlawing publications consisting of "pictures and stories of deeds of bloodshed, lust or crime." It did so, though, mostly on grounds of the statute's vagueness. Its decision in Winters v. New York assured legislatures that "circulation of objectionable printed matter" could certainly still be legally punished. "Neither the states nor Congress are prevented by the requirements of specificity from carrying out their duty of eliminating evils to which, in their judgment, such publications give rise." Not exactly a ringing endorsement of press freedom, though the previous sentence does say "assuming that it is not protected by the principles of the First Amendment," and it emboldened rather than halted local and state police actions against comic sales.

Also in 1948 came Fredric Wertham, the good liberal psychiatrist who attacked comics as a source of mental pathology and criminal behavior for kids in the pages of The Saturday Review of Literature and later in his 1953 book, piquantly titled Seduction of the Innocent. Then came the 1950 Kefauver Senate investigation and 1954 Hendrickson Senate investigation on links between comics and juvenile delinquency, the rise and murder of horror comics, and the imposition of the comics code that imposed sanitized standards on what was, if by no means an adult and sophisticated storytelling medium, at least a wilder and more entertaining one than the comics code allowed.

The reader might detect Hajdu's thumb on the scale of historical significance, romanticizing what he wants us to read as an underreported and ignored "red scare" of sorts, the crusade against comics that drove many publishers out of business, many titles off the stands, and many creators out of the medium—including, he informs us, "untold numbers of racial, ethnic, and social minorities."

But whether you're swayed by his claims for significance, they don't drag down (nor do they buoy up) his narrative and characters. Hajdu commands and tells a great story of moral hysteria and the damage done, amusingly lurid comics and the amusing yet also dangerously lurid reactions to them from academics, churches, PTAs and governments. He brings to life everyone from publishers who didn't give a damn what they sold, artists who lived and breathed their disrespected art, kids who fought to defend their pleasures, and kids who enthusiastically burned their fellows' pleasures and beat them up if they didn't go along with comic book boycotts. The detailed recounting of EC publisher Bill Gaines' Dexedrine-fueled and self-destructive testimony before the 1954 Hendrickson committee hearings is especially delightful and instructive.

If Hajdu goes a bit overboard in insisting on the stories' larger importance to people who don't give a fig about comics, that's a forgivable sin to an author pleasingly afire with his subject matter. In short: if you think you care about the history of comics, American 20th century pop culture, and censorship, this book is both necessary and a great pleasure. If you are sure you don't care, Hajdu could well convince you that you should.