Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Books Read in 2012: "The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America" by David Hajdu


I listened to this one as an unabridged audio book. 

I was never that much of a comic book reader growing up—I'm not sure why not—but even I learned somewhere along the way about the Comics Code Authority that had once existed. I never paid it much mind, since it was one of those things that was a given growing up, like ratings on movies or not seeing cigarette commercials on television. I'd heard about hearings back in the 1950s, but there were a lot of hearings back in the '50s, and I assumed that this was just another in the mix. It was, in a way. Just as Joseph McCarthy and his ilk saw Reds lurking around every corner, so some culture warriors saw debauchery, degeneracy, and delinquency lurking between the covers of the comics that exploded in popularity among America's youth. 

Hajdu does a pretty decent job of bringing the clueless, like me, up to speed on how comic books came to be, deriving from the comic strips that ran in newspapers early in the 20th century, and grew into an art form of its own. While superheroes, like Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, all make appearances early on, and continue to be what most people think of when they think of comic books, the enormous popularity of crime and romance titles were what caught the attention and the ire of some well-meaning people. Juvenile delinquency was on the rise, or so it seemed, and something, as always, needed to be done. A search for the root cause led some to these drawings and word balloons as virtual blueprints of how to commit assorted crimes. Any kid who acted in a dangerous, reckless, or even vicious way was found to have read these insidious things and they must, of course, be the explanation. (That kids who acted in safe, sane, and kind-hearted ways also read these "insidious" things didn't seem to explain anything.)

Enter Frederic Wertham and his dubious psychological research, which found its greatest publicity in his book "Seduction of the Innocent". Whatever anyone thought they needed to know about the ten-cent plague could be found in the book. In a time of witch hunts and loyalty oaths, the war on comics began in earnest...for the sake of the children, of course. Hearings, censorship, and book burnings came soon after, followed by ruined lives and careers in an industry decimated by a lot of clueless people with good intentions. 

The one publisher that Hajdu follows more than any other is William Gaines of EC Comics. And while EC received a high degree of scrutiny, especially once they introduced their line of "horror" and "terror" titles, I wonder if he makes a mistake in following their saga too closely. Many of the writers and the artists who worked on the comics of the time agree that there were some titles and some publishers that went too far, publishing stories and illustrations that were beyond crass and vulgar. EC tried, through the efforts of Gaines and editor Al Feldstein, to at least be clever in their presentations, aspiring to O. Henry-like twists and ironic turns in the resolutions of their stories. Their scrutiny may have been unfair, and Gaines may have been vilified out of all reason, but it feels like Hajdu stacks the deck a little bit, and some of the people who may have crossed a line get off easy because he'd rather make the case for these martyrs to the cause of free expression. It feels like something is missing, and that there's a better survey of the land of comics than what he selectively—though very ably and compellingly—presents here.

(P.S. - Here's a link to a 2008 appearance on C-SPAN by David Hadju, discussing the book. I haven't watched it yet myself, so...)