David Hadju,
The Ten Cent Plague:
The Great Comic Book Scare & How It Changed America

(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008)

You would think that protests against American institutions wouldn't be fought in trenches lined with pages from a four-color printing press, or that superheroes at one time represented the greatest threat to America as a country since Paul Revere and his horse let us know the redcoats were on their way. How bad was it? Such was the frenzy that it may have affected the outcome of an American presidential race, costing Senator Estes Kefauver a shot at the title and leaving a young Jack Kennedy open for a run.

It is a controversy alive and well today, though differently clothed and with many more variables on the table. At the time, however, the argument gelled around a confluence of fear that American institutions, the preservation of which much blood had been spilled in World War II and the Korean War being fought at the time, were under attack. The zeitgeist was very like Athens during the trial of Socrates: when the country and its institutions are grappling with war-induced trauma and the future is so uncertain, why rock the boat by stirring up the young folks?

The future of America was its youth, and the youth of the country were, in the eyes of the adults at the time, being seduced, brought over to "the dark side," by artists who were filling the pages of their picture books with images that were far too graphic and writing far too gruesome for young readers' eyes. This time the enemy was not a homicidal German dictator. This time, the enemy was from within. It was a new art form called the comic book, and in its pages lay the prescription for nothing less than the destruction of America.

As a description of history, The Ten Cent Plague is matchless. David Hadju's in-depth interviews with just about everyone associated with the milieu provide a three-dimensional view of an explosive time that was nothing less than the simultaneous birth of both pop culture and the first significant generational gap in American history. But for the guardians of moral decency, it was a war being fought at home over the future of America.

In 1933, Proctor & Gamble put out a promotional picture book called Funnies on Parade. It was the first comic book ever printed and distributed. By the '40s, comics had become a boom industry: a staggering 80 million to 100 million comics were sold every week. But it wasn't the sales figures that had parents and various and sundry authority figures up in arms. It was the pernicious consequences of young people reading those comics. At best, comics softened the mind by polluting it with unintelligent images, instead of words, which, so it was believed, required a sharper focus. At worst, the unsavory images, especially from the pages of the increasingly notorious crime and horror comics, were prompting some young people to commit crimes because the colorful images were overwhelming their impressionable minds with graphic images of violence and sex while their moral judgment was still in the process of being formed. Comics were "showing kids how to commit crime," hence the term "plague" as a description for the decaying morality of American youth.

This led Dr. Fredric Wertham to pen his infamous tome, The Seduction of the Innocent: The Influence of Comic Books on Today's Youth, which had the effect of pouring gas on a fire. Hearings were held, books were burned in huge public displays and comic-book writers and artists were driven out of business practically overnight. As a precursor to the eventual McCarthyism scare that would overtake America not long after, it was a seminal moment in American history, one that was hugely inflamed by media panic.

It is one of the book's greatest ironies that those in charge of images and storytelling in a highly commercial venue, with a vast reservoir of creative talent at its disposal, were unable to grasp how quickly public sentiment had turned against them. They lost control of the rhetoric early on and never got it back. This was due largely to the fact that they didn't treat the growing threat seriously enough until it was very late in the game.

In their defense, they were writers and artists, not managers of public affairs. They were also vastly outnumbered, about 700 employees of the comics industry facing virtually thousands of angry protestors. That left them unable to frame the debate in fairer terms than was being discussed, or to pivot around and fight back to win the public affairs game. One of the things Hadju does very well is to draw a very clear picture, pun intended, of what an average work week was like for a comic book writer/artist: long hours, low pay and typically, but not always, sweating under the thumb of a corrupt employer who sometimes wrote rubber checks. They were not only outnumbered, but frequently overworked as well and could be forgiven for not having the time or energy to focus on the wolf at the door.

While the industry publishers floundered about trying come up with a coherent message, the guardians of public decency were quickly getting down to brass tacks, creating a specific policy that had the agenda of wiping out immorality from the purview of those too young to deal with the influx of material. Across the spectrum, comics got the blame for it all, and they were going to pay.

Comic book artists, writers, editors and distributors tried in vain to create a believable defense for their side of the story. It fell on deaf ears. The battle expanded to become a legislative one. The hysteria was well underway by then, fueled by corny politicians jockeying for a seat in the presidential race, terrified PTA members in search of something or someone to blame for the rebellion they saw happening in their children, and self-righteous, self-professed experts who needed a public soap box to go along with the soap opera they had crafted, with themselves as the star in center stage. Culminating in the by now infamous "congressional" hearing in which a Dexedrine-fueled Bill Gaines tried to explain to a disbelieving gathering of politicians and Wertham himself how a woman's severed head was in good taste simply because it didn't show any gore below the neckline, you can almost hear the comics industry going belly up at that very moment. Shortly after the hearings, many states created laws banning the sale of most comics. Anyone who sold them faced stiff fines and jail sentences.

For a while, comic-book publishers tried to walk the line by forming the CMAA, their own version of an in-house censoring panel, but the reforms that were demanded literally left nothing to the imagination. The result was that hundreds of talented artists and writers were, by the end of 1955, working as security guards, post office clerks and secretaries. But it certainly wasn't the end.

Comics went the only place they could go, which was underground. The greatest wave of decidedly un-American censorship gave birth to comix, as they are better known.

Hajdu's book ends with an interview with Robert Crumb, the artist whose very name is concomitant with the birth of the new era. The eventual resurfacing of superhero comics in the '60s during the Silver Age also gave silent but highly visible testimony to the fact that comic books were here to stay. Robert Crumb, Frank Stack, Harvey Pekar and many more like them would be the next step taken in an art form that was evolving, perhaps without sunlight and water, but growing like crazy nonetheless.

Hadju's well-rounded view and eye for detail swells the pages with well-documented facts. In fact, it's so well documented that it sometimes feels a bit like a dry academic lecture. Additionally, TTCP is missing a coherent explanation for precisely why comics are different from magazines and pornography. The explanation would have helped many a reader understand the difference between exploitation and creation, between "seduction" and self-expression in a commercial medium. It is this very difference that is crucial to understanding the whole movement. Hadju does touch upon the argument often but without outlining any of the particulars in detail. Still, most of those who will read this probably already "get it" about comics and simply want to know more about the factual history of one of American's most original art forms.

Comics continue to maintain their hiply genteel place in culture. The movie industry would probably be on its last knees without the influx of superheroes and fantasy figures that are practically single-handedly supporting entire entertainment franchises. Fifty years after censorship effectively destroyed a thriving industry, The Dark Knight, which is based on Batman, one of the banned comics, is the second highest grossing film of all time. And although EC Comics was forced to shut down its entire line of comics, the whole line is today considered to be classics of the genre and was recently re-issued in its entirety in graphic-novel format.

Bill Gaines had the last laugh, too. By redistributing one of his flagship titles as a magazine instead of a comic book, he effectively got around the censorship craze because the laws banning the sales of comics did not apply to magazines. It would go on to become one of the most influential American magazines ever produced. With its emphasis on satire of all aspects of American life, including pop culture, politics, famous people and popular entertainment, the magazine went after everyone, holding nothing sacred. Rock singer Patti Smith put it best: "After Mad Magazine, drugs were nothing."

review by
Mary Harvey

5 December 2009

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