'The Ten-Cent Plague' by David Hajdu
In staged documentary-style footage from the 1950s, a group of boys
is shown torturing a child in the woods -- purportedly due to
The most memorable crusades against comics took place in the 1940s
and 1950s as part of a response to surging "juvenile delinquency," a
term author Hajdu smartly deconstructs.
In his view, it's an umbrella label, "a way to define a range of
phenomena involving young people that, to the prevailing adult
authorities, seemed to represent a falling short, a delinquency, in
youthful behavior. It defined by negation: Like most criticism of the
comics, the words 'juvenile delinquency' characterized their subject
by its failure to meet expectations not by what it was, but by what
a disappointment it was."
How comic book creators tested the limits of content in the face of
an ever-changing bonfire brigade.
By Geoff Boucher
March 16, 2008
Bill Gaines was supposed to be a chemistry teacher, but blood, ink
and Dexedrine sweat carried him down a different path. He had a
passion for science and a quirky mania for measurements; to organize
his desk, he used a ruler and T square, arranging his blotter,
stapler and letter opener in a precise pattern. None of that
mattered, though, after his father, comics publisher M.C. Gaines,
died in a boating accident on Lake Placid in August 1947. Gaines'
mother implored her son, who had been finishing his studies at New
York University, to take over the family business, Educational
Comics, a torpid little enterprise based in a low-rent office on
Lafayette Street in New York's Little Italy.
Gaines moaned that he was running the "smallest, crummiest outfit in
the field," but within a few years he had made a name for himself and
EC Comics, as it came to be known. This was due to a startlingly deep
reserve of creative talent -- including Harvey Kurtzman, Wally Wood,
Frank Frazetta, Johnny Craig and John Severin -- and a flair for
gore, mayhem and gruesome twist endings. Working with Al Feldstein,
one of his partners in comics crime, Gaines would stay up until dawn
on diet medication, tearing through magazines and short stories
looking for ideas he could pinch for EC's "Crime SuspenStories" or
"Tales From the Crypt."
Somehow, the teacher-in-training had become a merchant of lurid pulp
and, in the eyes of some culture crusaders, a predator. In April
1954, Gaines, like one of the Mafia dons who also operated out of his
neighborhood, found himself testifying before a Senate subcommittee.
Gaines' congressional appearance is one of the climactic moments in
"The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed
America," David Hajdu's history of the very serious attack on funny
books. Here, Hajdu doggedly documents a long national saga of comic
creators testing the limits of content while facing down an
ever-changing bonfire brigade. That brigade was made up, at varying
times, of politicians, lawmen, preachers, medical minds and
academics. Sometimes, their regulatory bids recalled the Hays Code;
at others, it was a bottled-up version of McCarthyism. Most of all,
the hysteria over comics foreshadowed the looming rock 'n' roll era;
like Elvis and his pelvis, the funny books encoded adult titillations
in packages sold to a young audience.
"The Ten-Cent Plague" traces the shrill sound of alarm all the way
back to 1906, when Ralph Bergengren harrumphed in the Atlantic
Monthly that the comic strip "Katzenjammer Kids" and its four-color
ilk were committing multiple crimes against society. "Respect for
property," he wrote, "respect for parents, for law, for decency, for
truth, for beauty, for kindliness, for dignity, or for honor are
killed, without mercy." That was almost half a century before Gaines
and his gleeful crew sharpened up their axes.
The most memorable crusades against comics, though, took place in the
1940s and 1950s as part of a response to surging "juvenile
delinquency," a term Hajdu smartly deconstructs. In his view, it's an
umbrella label, "a way to define a range of phenomena involving young
people that, to the prevailing adult authorities, seemed to represent
a falling short, a delinquency, in youthful behavior. It defined by
negation: Like most criticism of the comics, the words 'juvenile
delinquency' characterized their subject by its failure to meet
expectations -- not by what it was, but by what a disappointment it was."
The establishment response to delinquency was perhaps most vividly
expressed in the pages of this very newspaper, which in June 1943
published a breathless opinion piece by none other than FBI chief J.
Edgar Hoover, who warned that the war raging overseas wasn't the only
threat to America's future.
"This country is in deadly peril," the iconic G-man (or his
ghostwriter) declared. "For a creeping rot of disintegration is
eating into our nation. I am not easily shocked nor easily alarmed.
But today, like thousands of others, I am both shocked and alarmed.
The arrests of 'teen-age' boys and girls, all over the country are
staggering." The piece went on to tell of boys shoplifting, stealing
cars and robbing filling stations, as well as girls who drank in
taverns, got "coarse and vulgar" and ended up in "houses of ill fame."
It's hard now not to chuckle at that language, at both the message
and the messenger. "We are fighting a war to establish the Four
Freedoms for the generation now coming to maturity," Hoover
concluded. "We had better make sure that they have the
self-discipline to live in a free world."
Hoover's column is just one of the aromatic artifacts that Hajdu digs
up for the book, and he does a good job cherry-picking the details.
By 1949, for instance, the police department in Cleveland (where
Superman's creators lived) had two full-time police officers on the
"comic-book beat." In April of that year, a poor fellow by the name
of William Dickey was arrested at his Florence Avenue drugstore in
Walnut Park for selling a comic book to a teenager. The title of the
comic, fittingly, was "Crime Does Not Pay."
If anything, though, Hajdu goes too wide with his viewfinder, adding
example after example of municipal maneuvers and genre trends. He
might have found a more human aspect to the story had he lingered
longer on individuals such as Gaines, who went on to great success
with Mad magazine after EC Comics imploded in the wake of his
grilling on Capitol Hill.
Of course, comic book creators are less scintillating than the
musicians Hajdu has written about in the past. (He is author of the
dazzling 1960s folk-scene portrait "Positively 4th Street: The Lives
and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Farina, and Richard
Farina" and the equally compelling "Lush Life: A Biography of Billy
Strayhorn.") When he focuses on them, however, he frames the loopy
players in this tale with flair. Take this fantastic description of
the Munich-born psychiatrist Frederic Wertham, author of the screed
"Seduction of the Innocent," and the zealous Anita Bryant of the
anti-comics movement: "A compact middle-aged man with brushed-back
gray hair and a high forehead hatched with scowl lines, he peered
slightly to one side through opaque horn-rimmed glasses. He was
wearing a plain, dark tie and a white lab coat, and his expression
suggested puzzlement and displeasure. . . . With this image, the
emerging crusade against comic books had a face."
Wertham was as much a cartoon as the characters in the comics he
railed against. Were he still around, he would be positively stricken
by, say, Grand Theft Auto, the modern equivalent of EC's blood lust.
Yet despite the bonfires and the shuttered publishers, the comic
books in "The Ten-Cent Plague" have fared far better than the good
doctor and his sour peerage. Gaines is now part of a garish gallery
of pop culture agitators that includes Sam Fuller and R. Crumb,
Eminem and Quentin Tarantino, N.W.A and Howard Stern. More than that,
it would take tens of thousands of dollars to put together a library
of those vintage EC Comics -- if only because, like defiant martyrs,
so many of them went up in smoke. *
email@example.com Geoff Boucher is a Times staff writer.
Step aside, Elvis; comics changed it all
Though he exaggerates their importance, the author unearths a
forgotten story of censorship.
The Ten-Cent Plague:
The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America
By David Hadju
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
434 pp., $26.
Mar. 16, 2008
Reviewed by Dan DeLuca
David Hajdu loads the lowly comic book with a mighty burden.
Conventional wisdom has it that when the time came to set off the
youthquake of the 1950s, Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry were the
agents of change, with help from Marlon Brando, James Dean, and the Beat poets.
Hajdu is here to tell us different.
He is a perspicacious critic whose excellent previous books include
Lush Life, a biography of jazz composer Billy Strayhorn, and
Positively Fourth Street, a study of the '60s Greenwich Village folk
music circle revolving around Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Mimi and
Hajdu begins his thoroughly researched book The Ten- Cent Plague with
pioneering turn-of-the-20th-century newspaper strips like The Yellow
Kid and Little Nemo in Slumberland.
He then chronicles the rise of superhero stalwarts such as Superman
and Wonder Woman in the 1930s and '40s, and ends with the crackdown
on crime and horror comics in the 1950s.
In the book's prologue, Hajdu writes that "through the near death of
comic books and the end of many of their makers' creative lives,
postwar popular culture was born."
Going further, he argues that the comics controversy - a "largely
forgotten history of the culture wars" - defies the "now-common
notions about the evolution of twentieth century popular culture,
including the conception of the postwar sensibility . . . as
something spawned by rock and roll. The truth is more complex. Elvis
Presley and Chuck Berry added the soundtrack to a scene created in
Hajdu, who will discuss his book at 7 Tuesday night at the Free
Library of Philadelphia, makes a case for the importance of comics in
creating the pop-culture world we live in. His slow-building
narrative is peopled with characters as colorful as the shamelessly
shocking picture stories they created.
(Unfortunately, Ten-Cent Plague is not literally as colorful as the
often brazenly subversive comics whose creation it chronicles. It
does boast a fiendishly funny full-color jacket by Philadelphia
artist Charles Burns, but it contains a scant eight black-and-white
pages of photos and illustrations, thus frustrating any instinct of
readers to see for themselves what iconic comics such as Will
Eisner's naturalistic Spirit actually looked like.)
Ten-Cent Plague tells of "cultural insurgents" whose work often
inspired hysteria as it pitted comic-reading kids against parents and
sanctimonious cultural commissars like Fredric Werthham.
Werthham's 1954 screed against the evils of comics, The Seduction of
the Innocent, convincingly debunked by Hajdu, was a key weapon -
along with the Ladies' Home Journal and a congressional committee
headed by Sen. Estes Kefauver - in a crusade that brought the comic
industry to its knees.
Hajdu builds to the failed, Dexedrine-fueled testimony of EC Comics
head and Mad Magazine founder William Gaines before the Kefauver
committee in 1954, which led to the institution of an upright Comics
Code that doomed the industry to irrelevance in the arriving age of television.
Along the way, Hajdu makes room for such youth-culture flashpoints as
the Los Angeles Zoot Suit riots of 1943 and the juvenile delinquency
scare of the '50s as it related to Marlon Brando's 1953 depiction of
a leather-clad motorcycle rider in Laszlo Benedek's The Wild One.
Hajdu doesn't quite succeed in convincing us that the comic culture
wars were as paramount in shaping the postwar pop cultural prism as
he makes them out to be.
It's undeniable that the clashes between comic publishers and their
watchdogs were precursors of the cultural conflagration that fear of
hip-shaking licentiousness set off in the immediate wake of the
collapse of the comic industry.
But while Hajdu does laudable work in bringing an instructive,
forgotten story to light - and one that bears remembering at a time
when video games and hip-hop are similarly excoriated - he
overreaches in claiming that comics were the womb from which pop
culture as we know it sprang to life.
As if aware of that himself, Hajdu backs away slightly at the end. He
concludes that comics "helped give birth to the popular culture of
the postwar era," rather than asserting that they set the scene for
which rock- and-roll provided the soundtrack.
That sounds more like it.
David Hajdu will be at the Free Library of Philadelphia, 1901 Vine
St., Tuesday night at 7. No admission charge. For information, call
Contact music critic Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628 or firstname.lastname@example.org.