Search form

Book Review: 'The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How it Changed America'

Ellen Wolff gets deeper into Meet Dave with VFX Supervisor Mark Stetson.

"If moral fervor stirs our better angels, moral fever spurs our demons"
-- James A. Morone, Hellfire Nation

The story behind the censorship and destruction of the comic book during the 1940s and '50s has received little coverage. The dynamics behind the tale are nothing new; as the above-quoted author has noted, repression in America typically progresses from the attempted persuasion of society's sinners, to the prohibition of their activities, and finally to the invoking of state powers. David Hajdu has brilliantly recounted this unfortunate cycle in his masterpiece of cultural analysis, The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare and How it Changed America.

David Hajdu vividly recounts the little-known story behind the censorship and destruction of the comic book during the '40s and '50s in The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America.

Hajdu vividly recounts how comic books were vilified by psychologists, PTA groups, church organizations, city officials, police departments, and finally the United States government from the early 1940s through 1953. The ultimate demise of the crime and horror comic book came, in fact, at the hands of Estes Kefauver, a presidential aspirant who was then among Washington's most influential politicians.

Hajdu's triumph lies in his cogent presentation of the individuals and incidents involved in the comic book controversy. What might have been a dry history burdened with legal and sociological jargon becomes a vivid tale filled with profiles of artists and writers both renowned and obscure, interviews with the now-adult participants of book burnings, and detailed sketches of those who strove to destroy the comic books that entertained a generation.

Hajdu introduces us to Charles Biro, the phlegmatic artist who developed the prototypical crime comic Crime Does Not Pay! by giving readers unique insights into criminal psychology. At its height, this comic sold more than a million copies per issue and spawned dozens of imitators. Frederick Wertham, a wayward psychologist and the most ardent proponent of comic book censorship, is given a full biography that reveals his fascinating contradictions and self-serving agendas. Will Eisner is given his due as one of the comics' seminal and most influential figures, and the team of William Gaines and Al Feldstein, who brought the horror comic to its now-classic status while working together at Educational Comics, is brilliantly highlighted.

While introducing us to the main characters, Hajdu recounts a fascinating but ultimately losing game of cat-and-mouse between the comic book studios and their myriad enemies. The lopsided battle began in the early 1940s, when social disruption due to WWII resulted in mobs of young boys, whose fathers were at war, engaging in antisocial behavior. The term "juvenile delinquency" came into vogue, and lurid comic books were held partly to blame. Hadju does a fine job of explaining the societal backlash against comic books, many of which actually did push the envelope of violent and bloody content in order to one-up their competitors in a lucrative market.

Hajdu then details society's brutal reply in a chilling account of the 1948 mass comic book burning in Spencer, West Virginia, along with the details of a second bonfire in Binghamton, New York that same year. The author recounts how comic books, at the height of their sales, were banned in over 50 municipalities, including venues as large as Detroit and Indianapolis.

The comic book industry attempted to institute a self-enforced comics code, but the studios producing wildly successful and violent crime comics ignored or steamrolled through it at every opportunity. As the screws tightened, many companies turned to romance comics. Hajdu recalls how some of the greatest names in comics history -- Wally Wood, Jack Kirby, Alex Toth and Jack Kamen -- toiled at love stories as detailed as any romance novel, straining to keep their livelihood going.

One of the best vignettes in the book reveals how Gaines and Feldstein attempted to stay in business by publishing humor and satire, giving birth to Mad magazine. The strategy backfired when a second EC humor mag, Panic, was banned in Boston for a parody of Clement Clarke Moore's The Night Before Christmas: the Governor's Council considered the piece to be a desecration of the holiday. Hajdu includes a riveting description of how Gaines, his nerves shot after sleepless days of flying on Dexedrine and indignation, crumbled under his own contradictions during Senator Kefauver's hearings on comic books and juvenile delinquency. This incident resulted in the death of every EC publication except for Mad.

Hajdu explores the artifacts involved in ways that brilliantly illustrate the story; some of the more notorious dialogue from the comics is quoted, and there are often graphic descriptions of the gore, violence, and mayhem to be found within the pulp's pages. Hajdu also devotes much of a chapter to a detailed, well-written analysis of Frederick Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent, the inflammatory book that fueled many bans, burnings, and hearings. Hadju correctly exposes the work as a poorly researched polemic based on circumstantial evidence and scientifically unsupported opinion.

Hajdu is rather partisan, clearly on the side of the men and women who were vilified both by the law and their artistic peers for producing the 10-cent pulps that inflamed a nation. Many of them were in fact supremely talented: The original lineup on Mad featured giants such as Harvey Kurtzman, Will Elder, Wally Wood, Jack Davis and John Severin. Hajdu is quite correct in pointing out that reading comic books was truly an act of transgression by teens and young adults against their parents and elders, as was listening to rock and roll. Comics were punished more harshly because lawmakers (incorrectly) assumed they were sold only to young children.

The Ten-Cent Plague is more than just the tale of how comic books ran afoul of censors; it also recounts one of this country's flirtations with unduly repressive legislation, a kissing date with forces that shriveled democracy and drove good citizens to acts of persecution, including book burnings. The victims were neither Communists nor terrorists; they were merely comic book writers, artists, and publishers who for the most part told stories about crimes rather than commiting them. Their unhappy fate -- some 800 of them permanently lost their jobs between 1950 and 1954 -- makes this a particularly sinister chapter in our cultural history.

Perhaps the most famous image from the days of the classic horror/crime comics of the 1950s is the cover of Crime SuspenStories No. 22, May 1953. An axe murderer, face unseen, holds in one hand the severed head of a pretty blonde. Her pupils are rolled back in death, her gory mouth gaping in a final scream. The killer's other hand holds a bloodied axe, and on the floor sprawls the woman's shapely, decapitated corpse. The image was somewhat prophetic: Very soon, the blonde's fate would befall most of America's comic books and their creators. David Hajdu's account of this cautionary tale may be far less graphic, but certainly no less powerful.

The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America by David Hajdu. Farrar, Straus and Giroux: New York, NY. 2008. 448 pages. ISBN-13: 978-0374187675; ISBN-10: 0374187673.

Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.