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Scare tactics

When comics were too crude for school
March 24, 2008 3:17:04 PM

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The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America | By David Hajdu | Farrar, Straus and Giroux | 348 pages | $26
In the years after World War II, American society was in flux, and its kids were rebelling full-speed ahead. The older generation, looking for something to blame for juvenile delinquency other than, say, bad parenting and schools, zeroed in on an easy target: Crime Does Not Pay, Shock Suspense Stories, Young Love, and their kind — the vivid, gaudy, low-class comic books their children were reading.

That’s the story behind David Hajdu’s The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America. After a few chapters describing the dawn of the American comics industry, he turns his attention to the parallel evolution of the publishers who tried to churn out stuff kids would flock to, the creators who balanced “art” against “product,” and the bluenoses who played on public fear for children’s well-being to make themselves known as defenders of virtue.

A steady ripple of anti-comics sentiment was crystallized in the early ’50s by Fredric Wertham’s book Seduction of the Innocent — there were TV news “exposés,” mass comic-book burnings, local bans on comics, and Senate hearings at which Bill Gaines, who published the legendarily in-your-face EC Comics line, tripped himself up. Gaines’s testimony was built around a contradiction, as Hajdu smartly points out: he argued both that comics were harmless fun that couldn’t really affect their readers at all and that they were morally uplifting, educational tools that could make their readers better people.

He couldn’t have it both ways, and the industry threw itself on its sword, instituting the Comics Code, which stipulated, for instance, that “policemen, judges, government officials, respected institutions shall never be presented in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority.” “Naturally,” an editorial note in the final issues of EC’s most hellraising comics snarked, “with comic magazine censorship now a fact, we at EC look forward to an immediate drop in the crime and juvenile delinquency rate of the United States.”

Hajdu (author of a biography of Billy Strayhorn and the Dylan-and-friends chronicle Positively 4th Street) is a lively, meticulous writer: he based the book on more than 150 interviews with cartoonists and readers who lived through the era, and his delight in describing lurid images is infectious. (About a cover drawing from Crime Does Not Pay, he writes: “Gambling, alcohol, sex, shooting, brawling, knifing — Charles Biro packed in nearly everything that mid-century America considered sinful except jazz and homosexuality, although we can guess what kind of music would have been playing in that bar, and what were those two men doing on the balcony, anyway?”) But he doesn’t have a lot to add to what was already known about the class war he describes.

What’s also disappointing is that Hajdu doesn’t follow up on the second half of his subtitle: he credits comics with helping to create “the popular culture of the postwar era” but doesn’t have much to say about how the comics scare went on to affect popular culture. Aside from putting a lot of cartoonists out of work (a 15-page appendix is simply a list of names of people who never again worked in comics after the mid ’50s) and forcing EC to convert its most enduring comic, Mad, into a magazine in order to survive, the scare seems not to have had much of a lasting effect outside the industry. (Or, in the long run, within: the Comics Code still exists, but it’s toothless and all but abandoned.) It was comics themselves that changed America; the scare Hajdu lovingly details barely impeded that change.

David Hajdu | Brattle Theatre, 40 Brattle St, Cambridge | April 3, 6 pm | $5 | 617.661.1515

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