Get Lit: The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America, by David Hajdu

Categories: Get Lit
In the early 1950’s, it was considered a malevolent enough influence on American youth to inspire adult outrage, government intervention, and mass protests. Communism? Drugs? Homosexuality? No, it was the 10-cent comic book, and the hysteria surrounding its rise and disastrous fall put the Crypt Keeper right up there on the list of public enemies along with Khrushchev and Lucky Luciano.

In this groundbreaking book, David Hajdu gives the definitive account -- compelling, well-written and insightful -- of one of the most amazing stories in the history of American publishing.

By 1952, more than 20 publishers issued 650 comic books a month selling between 80 to 100 million copies a week. And as a typical issue passed through several hands, comic books reached more people than movies, television, radio or magazines did adults.

They also had their critics as stories and artwork became increasingly controversial for their sexual, criminal and gory content, especially among the horror and crime titles published by EC Comics. If the anti-comic book faction had a public face, it was that of Dr. Frederic Wertham, a sort of Dr. Phil of his day who, as a physician and not a social scientist, firmly saw a clear and unbreakable link between comic books and juvenile delinquency.

But he didn’t just tackle the crime and horror books in his own manifesto, Seduction of the Innocent. He actually saved his harshest criticism for caped crusaders, claiming that Superman was a Nietzschean Fascist and that Batman and Robin were closet homos (come to think of it, those tight green shorts on the Boy Wonder were kind of kinky…).

It didn’t matter that his book offered no research or proof to his findings and that his method was irreparably flawed; in speaking with juvenile delinquents, he found that they all read comic books. However, he could have asked the football team and the chess club and gotten the same answer.

Wertham’s treatise quickly stoked an existing fire that had parent and civic groups in arms, leading to mass burnings of comics (which would be worth a fortune today), banning, and most memorably, Congressional hearings.

Ostensibly held to look into reasons behind “juvenile delinquency,” most of the sparks flew during the two days of hearings on the influence of comic books at which not one artist, writer or editor was asked to testify. On his own volition, EC publisher William Gaines spoke. However, hopped up on anxiety medication, he was not the most eloquent representative.

When Gaines offered that a cover featuring a man holding a bloody axe in one hand and a severed woman’s head in another was actually in “good taste” (bad taste would have been to lift the head higher to show dripping gore or hanging guts), it didn’t take an insider to know the industry as it stood was finished.

The book mentions that the city of Houston even passed a law prohibiting the sale of crime and horror comics. And editorial in the Houston Chronicle praised the “banning [of] filthy comics which are a stench in the nose of every decent person.”

Hajdu’s narrative doesn’t just concentrate on the comic book witch hunt, but also offers a concise history of the genre’s beginnings and its colorful inventors, along with the less-documented “first” hysteria in the late ‘40s, when the forces of propriety tried to shut down the industry over its multitudinous crime titles. Conducting more than 150 interviews with many of the participants, he offers plenty of anecdotes new to even the most studiously steeped in comic book history.

By 1955, the industry was hemorrhaging with publishers going out of business in droves and writers and artists left to find other means to make a living. Under the newly-installed Comics Code, subject matter was essentially limited to funny animals, bland romance and G-rated western and war tales. Even the artist working on Archie comics was told to make Betty and Veronica’s skirts longer and blouses looser-fitting. But it did set the stage for the return of superheroes in the early ‘60s, which would revive the industry tremendously.

Today, of course, reading comic books is no longer a rite of passage for children and teens. It is instead an industry mainly driven by and catered to twentysomething fanboys and middle-aged men seeking to reclaim something of their youth who congregate in specialty shops, drooling over $300 fine art sculptures of Spider-Man.

Gaines did get the last laugh. His EC titles are today revered, and the panels of Graham Ingels’s walking zombies or Jack Davis’s homicidal husbands are currently being reprinted in expensive color coffee table books. He also had this little humor magazine called Mad, the only title to survive the purge, that would go on to do pretty well for itself.

In hindsight, of course, comic books were only part of a youth revolution in pop culture at the time that included rock and roll, novels and films. The Ten-Cent Plague shows that for a time, the subject of comic books was far from funny stuff. -- Bob Ruggiero

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