Reviewed by Dennis Drabelle
Sunday, March 23, 2008
THE TEN-CENT PLAGUE
The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America
By David Hajdu
Farrar Straus Giroux. 434 pp. $26
In the 1950s, when Hollywood was marketing its old movies to TV stations, Universal Studios' horror pictures formed a special package. They became the foundation for "Friday Night Fright" and "Spook Spectacular" and similarly titled programs in cities across the country, sometimes hosted by emcees costumed as vampires or ghouls. But while younger kids might cower before "Frankenstein" and "Dracula," older kids like me found them pretty tame. We'd already seen much scarier stuff in the horror comics we got to read before censors ripped them out of our hands.
Horror and other raffish comics, and the campaign to stamp them out, are the subject of David Hajdu's smart new book, The Ten-Cent Plague (one thin dime being the price of the average comic in those days). Hajdu has consulted surviving artists and writers from the period, many of whom were unable to work again in the comics business after the crackdown. The result is a stylish, informed account that shows how easy it is to think fuzzily about other people's pleasures.
Horror comics had a brief lifespan: from 1950, when Bill Gaines, proprietor of EC Comics, introduced them in order to boost flattening-out sales, to 1954, when the industry adopted a self-regulating code and many states passed censorship laws. In the interim, psychologists had reviled comics of all sorts, a Senate committee had investigated them, and the comic-book auto-da-f¿ had become a civic fad. It's true that comic books were zany, rude and violent. But that, of course, was precisely what kids liked about them. Compared to our school readers, in which sanctimonious twits sleepwalked through anodyne plots spun out in deadening prose, comics offered verbal and visual sophistication, along with exotic settings, mind-bending stories and scantily clad specimens of both sexes.
Ministers, shrinks, cops and parents had to cite more than just their personal tastes in going after comic books, so they came up with a theory: The rise in juvenile delinquency during the 1940s was due to kids imitating what they read and saw in comic books. There was no hard evidence for this, only the loosely anecdotal kind: When questioned, many young violators confessed to having read comic books. Yet since they had that in common with almost every kid in America, it would have made about as much sense to blame their criminality on the rubber in their Keds.
Amazingly, the anti-comics crusade targeted even those caped crusaders Superman and Batman, who drew the ire of Dr. Fredric Wertham, author of the book-length diatribe Seduction of the Innocent. According to Wertham, the superheroes encouraged kids to flout authority. Hajdu suggests that the comics' anti-establishment streak reflected the outsider status of so many comics creators, who were Jewish, Italian, black or even female, while also appealing to kids, powerless almost by definition. One editor said what he resented most was the presumption that "everybody who read comics was a child or an idiot," whereas many in the industry had in mind an audience that ranged from about age 14 on up.
As with movies, the problem was that no mechanism existed by which entertainment for a mature audience could be kept away from little kids. And just as Hollywood had neutered itself by adopting a code that sanitized all movies, so the comics industry instituted a no-exceptions code, along with a seal of approval. The comics code was so uptight that the words "horror" or "terror" couldn't even be used in titles anymore. A nascent cartoon publication called Mad violated so many provisions that it would have had to go out of business if its owners hadn't reclassified it as a magazine. With the code in place and comics saddled with an unsavory reputation, the comic book industry went into a decline from which it never recovered.
Hajdu evokes the era colorfully and wittily. He cracks that FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who toed the anti-comics line, was "always on hand to defend the public welfare no matter what the doing might require in additional staffing and funds for his bureau." But Hajdu doesn't deliver on the tag end of his subtitle. In my estimation, the ham-handed suppression of comic books changed America by incubating one of the grudges my generation was to hold against our elders. It's no accident that underground comics became a favorite form of rebellious expression in the 1960s. *
Dennis Drabelle is a contributing editor of Book World.