Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Ten Cent Plague -- David Hajdu -- Review

The Ten Cent Plague The Great Comic Book Scare and How It Changed America by David Hajdu is about comics book censorship in America. Comic book censorship occurred at about the same time as McCarthyism. This is a book about morals and aesthetics. Specifically, it talks about how and why comic books were challenged. We get to read arguments against teaching criminal stories to childen, as well as sexual impropriety, and grotesque horror. Only superhero comics and funny stories seemed to be unaffected by this short period of censorship.

It was not uncommon for patriotic organizations, school organizations, and civic organizations to have comic book burnings during this time. Police would also raid the newspaper stands to confiscate comic books with sex, crime, or terror. Even Archie was considered salacious by the Catholic church. Many police organizations viewed comic books as encouraging juvenile delinquency. The comic books of the time often portrayed how crimes were committed and told cops and robber stories.

There seemed to be a cycle where first crime comics were challenged and many were removed from the newsstands, then romance comics were challenged and removed from the newsstands, and then horror comics were challenged. Romance comics were challenged because they represented a chance to escape from parental control and in some cases attempts at sexual freedom.

A classic claim about juvenile delinquency was that if a child saw someone rob someone in a comic book they would do it. Or if they saw someone attempt to hang someone, they would hang themselves. It is no different than saying if a child reads Superman, he might put on a cape and jump off the roof.

There is quite a bit on the famous book, Seduction of the Innocent by Fredric Wertham, a German emigrant psychiatrist who spoke out against comics. He claimed that Batman was homoerotic, Superman was fascist, and Wonder Woman was kinky. The last bit about Wonder Woman was actually true. William Moulton Marston, the creator of Wonder Woman was into sexual dominance and submission and believed that the United States was drifting towards an Amazonian matriarchy. He was a classic crackpot like many of the people for and against comics.

In order to tell the story, the author writes a lot about the the history of comics. He tells the story of Bob Kane, Will Eisner, and many other famous comic book artists. This story is centered on New York where comic books were first created. Comic books were started as an original American art form much like jazz. One of my favorite pieces in the book is the story of the first "picture novel", a book length comic called It Rhymes With Lust printed in 1950. With titles for stories like "The Laughing Sadist" n Crime Does Not Pay, we can almost understand why parents would object to some of the material.

In the 1940s and 1950s comics were sold to children at a dime apiece. They were not marketed to adults. At my library, we separate the comics for adults, and the comics for teenagers. We don't buy a lot of comics for very little kids. Most are simply too violent or sexy. A lot of what was written for teenages like Tales From The Crypt, and Haunts of Fear we would place in the adult section. A lot of the EC comics can be bought as repritns. Some of the EC science fiction titles are really fantastic and include stories from writers like Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov. A comic book with a picture of severed head and a man holding an ax is not appropriate for little kids.

The book describes legislative hearings where comic books are derided as smut and legislation is encouraged to put criminal, sexy, and immoral comic books out of the hands of children. Between 1954 and 1956 more than half of comic books disappeared from the newsstand. The number of titles published dropped from about 650 to some 250. In 1956, EC Comics closed its doors. Bill Gaines revamped his business keeping one title, Mad Magazine.

An earlier step had saved the industry, the introduction of a censorial governing body by the industry, the Comics Code Authority. Artists were no longer able to show things like hypodermic needles, pools of blood, drugs, racism, disrespect to policemen and teachers, broken families, and other things.

We sometimes forget that this period in the history of comics still affects us today. DC stands for Detective Comics, it produces mostly superhero comics. Most of the comic books produced today are still superhero comic books and funny books. I rather like the revival of comics lit and slice of life comics that has happened recently.

There is a black and white picture section in this book. They even have a picture of people burning comics. There is also a 15 page appendix of comic book artists that no longer made comics after 1956. The book is well researched; it includes extensive notes, acknowledgements, a bibliography, and a comprehensive index. The website for this book is