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.

NEXT: It's a Bong, Not a Bomb! We're Indian!

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  1. Off topic, but Paul Krugman’s column today deals with the GOP’s failed sothern strategy. Were Ron Paul’s racist newsletters related to a general racism on the anti-government right?

  2. So Lefiti, you’ve been waiting ALL DAY for a Hit and Run piece about Krugman’s article? I bet you’ve been just bursting with anxiety, waiting to be able to spout off, and just couldn’t resist any longer.

  3. Kefauver and Wertham were progressives.
    Progressives want to ban everything that’s fun.

  4. That was too long.

  5. Those mid 20th century progressives didn’t like Bettie Page, hot rods, and switchblades either.

  6. SIV,
    Kefauver was my senator so I cannot forget how he donned a Davy Crockett coonskin cap to get elected.
    I’m just sayin’…

    Speaking of getting elected in Tennessee…
    Well, it’s a whole ‘nother story.
    Davy Crockett himself set the bar.
    And Governor Gordon Browning campaigned by singing the “Tennessee Waltz.”

    Now, Al Gore’s daddy never did a damn thing fun as I can recall.

  7. Wow! The GOP had a strategy for Julia Marlowe’s husband? Soundsmore like something the Dems would employ. No wonder they lost!

  8. No, I just read Krugman’s column. I’ve always wondered what the connection was between right-libertarianism and Ron Paul’s vicious racism. Of course, it’s the exploitation racist feelings to undermine the government–the end justifies the means. The similarities between the rgid dogmatic right and the marxist-leninists of old is spooky.

  9. It’s ironic that when I hear the name C. Estes Kefauver, I think of the high school in the National Lampoon High School Yearbook. In fiction, as in life, the guy sounds like a world class mediocrity.

  10. I read this book a few months ago. It was good.

    Wertham reminded me of Jack Thompson.

  11. Thanks, Brian. I’ll get the book and read it. It sounds like my kind of thing.

    SIV, I think the liberals and progressives were the same people, weren’t they? For a couple of decades they called themselves progressives. Then for seven or eight decades they called themselves liberals. Now for some reason they are starting to call themselves progressives again. I’m not saying it makes sense, only that it’s true.

  12. As far as racism goes, I hate whatever race it is that Lefiti is.

    On topic: the comic book hysteria really sounds like good a subject for Peter Bagge.

  13. “Like good a subject”? Fuckin’ A, I suck.

  14. this is just another lame attempt by reason to tarnish the progressives. the south has always been backward, but not even i believe they conducted lynchings of comic book readers. maybe m4m mng, but not me.

    right joe?

  15. “Paul Krugman’s column today deals with the GOP’s failed sothern strategy”
    I’ve never detected any strategies involving Ann Sothern on the right.

  16. LOL, Thats pretty funny dude!


  17. no mention of how comic books exploit women. brian, that says volumes.

  18. Is “Kefauver” an Old English or Danish word for “asshole” or something?

    I can’t remember a single time I’ve ever read the name “Kefauver” in print where he wasn’t being a complete asshole.

    Seriously, can anyone help me out and name a single act in the guy’s life that wasn’t the act of a total douche?

  19. And what party was Robert Hendrickson SIV?


  20. And lord knows the Ladies Home Journal was and is a hotbet of radical progressive thought 😉

  21. “And that is all Wertham recommended. He was against the code. He did not want to censor comic books, only to restrict their sale so that kids could not buy them without a parent present. He wanted to give them the equivalent of an R rating.”

  22. Kefauver and Wertham were progressives. Progressives want to ban everything that’s fun.

    Yup. Progressives want to order and arrange society to their liking. As such they are kissing cousins of social conservatives. Progressivism is the enemy of liberalism. Much of what we call “liberalism” has been seriously polluted by progressivism, to the point that individual rights take a backseat to social justice in most “liberal” playbooks.

  23. Contrary to the assertion that Al Gore’s father never did anything fun, Gore’s father was a *notable* country fiddle player.

  24. Lef,

    Have your posts ever been on-topic?

  25. If Hajdu goes a bit overboard in insisting on the stories’ larger importance to people who don’t give a fig about comics…

    Eh, it’s a good book, but I’m afraid there’s no “if” about that, especially given that comics were already starting to wane in influence even before the comics scare began. Peak circulation was at the end of WWII. By the late ’40s and the ’50s, but still before the Comics Code, comics were facing a lot of new competition, especially from television.

  26. franklin harris, it was not television or even the imagined “progressives” of brian. it was the neocons and you know it.

  27. As someone who lived through the period it was a big deal. There where some scary comics which kids would talk about.. There were also some scary radio programs. We didn’t have a TV.

  28. I can remember at some point looking at Dr Werthem’s book. I kept hoping I’d be adpoted by Bruce Wayne.

  29. Davy Crockett himself set the bar.

    I thought he kilt him a bar.

  30. I have nothing against people who spent their youth reading comics, but come on. Let’s not make too much of this. Just cause you read it doesn’t mean anyone else cares. Trust me- I love Penthouse.

  31. Wow dude, I think you might be onto something here.


  32. If you are sure you don’t care, Hajdu could well convince you that you should.

    Nah. Don’t.

  33. Way back in 7th grade, I wrote a little report about the comic book scare, and actually read Wertham’s book.

    Years later, I was surprised to find out that when it came to Wonder Woman, he was on the money.

    Thankfully, he appears to have been wrong about everything else.

  34. Since Rick Barton nominated me for H&R cultural historian, I figured I should get my hands on this book, which has been on my “to read” list for awhile. I liked it quite a bit. The only checkable error of fact I found was a reference, late in the book, to Timely/Atlas’ Marvel Tales as starring Captain Marvel. The Big Red Cheese was from Fawcett.


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