Graphic Lit: 'The Ten-Cent Plague'
Comic books have never really been respected as an art form by the general public.
That being said, it might nevertheless surprise some folks to know that there was a time when comics were seen not only as kiddie fare but as harmful, vile, mind-alteringly dangerous kiddie fare.
That history is recounted in David Hajdu’s excellent new book, “The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare and How It Changed America.”
Hajdu provides a captivating, insightful and detailed look at how American parents in the 1950s became convinced that the crime, horror and romance comics their kids were devouring would turn them into sociopaths.
He builds his history slowly, taking readers through a basic history of how the medium took shape in America and describing how artists such as Charles Biro and publishers such as EC’s Bill Gaines saw a way to sell books by offering lurid, pulpy stories of criminals, killers, vampires and other monsters.
Parents, psychiatrists and other do-gooders, led by one Dr. Fredric Wertham, whose book “Seduction of the Innocent” accused the industry of being little more than Nazis, feared such material would lead to antisocial behavior.
They began a pogrom of attacks in the media, attempts at censorship through legislation and book burnings in towns, all of which Hajdu recounts with flair.
While Hajdu makes it clear what side he’s on, he nevertheless is careful not to portray the comics industry as being rife with innocents.
He chastises certain people for their naivete and greed, not to mention disregard for seeing their books as anything other than product.
It all came to a somewhat literal head during a congressional hearing in which Gaines, high on diet pills, was asked whether a cover depicting a severed woman’s head could be in “good taste,” Hajdu said.
His answer inadvertently led to the Comics Code, a self-policing organization that proceeded to violently neuter every book on the stands.
Comics quickly lost whatever cultural cache they had and more than 800 talented people lost their jobs as companies folded.
Only Gaines managed to salvage through, taking his humor comic, Mad, and turning it into a 25-cent magazine that still thumbs its nose at popular culture today.
Hajdu’s central conceit is that the comic book was the opening salvo in baby boomer culture wars. He makes a strong point.
The kids who read “Crime Does Not Pay,” after all, would go on to discover rock
And yet this sort of cultural battle has occurred throughout history.
People freaked out about the waltz, for example, when it was introduced in the 18th century, calling it vulgar and sinful.
To those who think such censorship scares could never happen in today’s enlightened times, I only ask you to consider the pillorying video games receive today from such upstanding moral folk as Sens. Hillary Clinton and Joe Lieberman.
‘Comic Book Comics’
If you prefer to have your comic book history told in a more ... well, comic book fashion, then perhaps you should pick up a copy of the oddly titled “Comic Book Comics.”
Having explored the lives of deep thinkers such as Nietzsche and Kant in their previous series, “Action Philosophers,” writer Fred van Lente and artist Ryan Dunlavey decided to take on the convoluted and at times controversial history of the comics industry.
“We realized we couldn’t keep [“Philosophers”] going on forever. We were running out of thinkers,” van Lente said during a recent interview. “The one thing we could be certain all comic fans like are comics.”
“Comics” takes a more linear approach than “Philosophers,” starting with the appearance of the Yellow Kid in newspaper pages in 1896, then hurtling forward to the birth of the comic book and animated cartoon while touching on important figures such as Will Eisner, Jack Kirby, Walt Disney and Max Fleischer.
There won’t be any resting on laurels however. Van Lente and Dunlavey plan a series on U.S. presidents.
Copyright The Patriot-News, 2008