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

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Many people believe the U.S. is in a mess. But the history David Hajdu recounts in his latest book might provide a handy scapegoat: comic books. Stop and think about it. For nearly two decades, the men in the Oval Office — and even longer for Congress — have been of the generation that grew up reading comic books, a communication form claimed to amount to little more than "cultural slaughter of the innocents."

The latter phrase is just one of many epithets — and laws — thrown at comic books from the 1940s through the mid-1950s, as Hajdu details in The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America. Recently released in a paperback edition, the book traces a popular culture battle between two generations, a battle of mores in which rhetoric outweighed fact and that often reflected societal change.

Here's how bad comic books were, according to those who campaigned against them: "I think Hitler was a beginner compared to the comic-book industry." "The old dime novels in which an occasional redskin bit the dust were classic literature compared to the sadistic drivel pouring from the presses today." Comic books were "the greatest intellectual narcotic on the market… Every hour spent in reading comics an hour in which all inner growth is stopped."

Relying upon extensive interviews with those in the comic book industry and historical records, Hajdu shows the evolution of the war, its ebb and flow and its combatants and victims. The Ten-Cent Plague takes us from the earliest comics, such as “The Katzenjammer Kids” in the Sunday papers, through the evolution of not only comic books but how they spawned publications like Mad magazine. Once they graduated from booklet reprints of the Sunday funnies, comics relied heavily on crime stories, whether it was a detective, Superman or some other character. But adults began to view these comics not as cautionary tales but ones that undermined the morals of youth.

As early as 1940, one newspaper series accused "these lurid publications" of depending upon "mayhem, murder, torture and abduction." In the years immediately following World War II, these claims found a wider audience among a populous no longer focused on a war (one in which comic book crime fighters helped battle the Axis). With no evidentiary basis, juvenile delinquency was laid at the feet of the crime comics. Communities throughout the country took steps to ban comics containing "objectionable material." The city of Cleveland even assigned two police officers to a permanent comic book detail.

Government wasn't alone. The Catholic Church and other organizations took stands against comics. They encouraged the public to boycott stores that sold comics and encouraged children to bring in comic books perceived as objectionable. The latter frequently led to public burnings of comic books. That, however, provoked a bit of a backlash, with the bonfires perhaps too closely resembling the all too recent book burnings by the Nazis.

Hajdu also shows how the comics industry wised up. In addition to creating a largely ineffective code, "romance" became the new focus. And like much of popular culture, imitation was the standard. At the end of 1947, only one romance comic was being published; three more were added in 1948. With the increasing criticism of crime comics during those years, though, there were 148 romance comics in 1950, issued by 26 different publishers. That didn't necessarily make them any less subversive. At a time when domestic bliss was the mainstream story line, the comics rarely focused on happy couples. Rather, the stories often tended to suggest that domestic life in the suburbs was the equivalent of the "levels of Hell."

But the romance fad, too, began to wane. The new focus became horror and the macabre. By the end of 1952, nearly one-third of all comics were of the horror genre, with more than a dozen publishers churning out 150 horror-oriented titles. And as the blood and gore increased, things got hot again, so hot that Congressional hearings were held across the country in 1953 and 1954, some of which were televised.

This is where The Ten-Cent Plague may be at its best. Hajdu compares and contrasts McCarthyism and the renewed attacks on comics as a cause of juvenile delinquency. "It was a bad time to be weird," one comic book artist told Hajdu. "You were either a Communist or a juvenile delinquent." He examines the lack of foundation for the "scientific" studies of the leading critic of the effect of comic books on youth. The book vividly details the televised hearings in April 1954, particularly the events leading to and the testimony of Bill Gaines, the owner of EC Comics. With one impromptu answer to a question, Gaines unwittingly helped seal the fate of comic books, the enactment of laws throughout the country regulating comic books and the adoption of a comic book code with provisions that, among other things, forbid "disrespect for established authority."

The impact was dramatic. Some 18 months after Gaines' testimony, EC Comics, once one of the major players in the industry, issued its last comic book. The only survivor was Mad, which EC moved to the magazine section of the newsstands. EC wasn't alone. Between 1954 and 1956, more than half the comic books sold on newsstands disappeared and the number of titles dropped by nearly two-thirds. One of the more sobering aspects of the book is an appendix listing more than 800 individuals who were among the "artists, writers, and others who never again worked in comics after the purge of the 1950s."

While The Ten-Cent Plague can tend to drag a bit at times, it seems to gain momentum as it moves toward this climactic moment. Moreover, Hajdu doesn't focus just on the events but gives a feel for the people involved in the profession. And without coming right out and saying so, he leaves us with the conviction that if the country is messed up today, it certainly isn't due to comic books.

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About Tim Gebhart

Tim Gebhart is a book addict living in Sioux Falls, S.D., where he practices law to provide shelter for his family, books and dogs.