The story of the rise and fall of those comic books has never been fully told -- until The Ten-Cent Plague. David Hajdu's remarkable new book vividly opens up the lost world of comic books, its creativity, irreverence, and suspicion of authority.
In the years between World War II and the emergence of television as a mass medium, American popular culture as we know it was first created—in the pulpy, boldly illustrated pages of comic books. No sooner had this new culture emerged than it was beaten down by church groups, community bluestockings, and a McCarthyish Congress—only to resurface with a crooked smile on its face in Mad magazine.
When we picture the 1950s, we hear the sound of early rock and roll. The Ten-Cent Plague shows how -- years before music -- comics brought on a clash between children and their parents, between prewar and postwar standards. Created by outsiders from the tenements, garish, shameless, and often shocking, comics spoke to young people and provided the guardians of mainstream culture with a big target. Parents, teachers, and complicit kids burned comics in public bonfires. Cities passed laws to outlaw comics. Congress took action with televised hearings that nearly destroyed the careers of hundreds of artists and writers.
The Ten-Cent Plague radically revises common notions of popular culture, the generation gap, and the divide between "high" and "low" art. As he did with the lives of Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington (in Lush Life) and Bob Dylan and his circle (in Positively 4th Street), Hajdu brings a place, a time, and a milieu unforgettably back to life.
After writing about the folk scene of the early 1960s in Positively 4th Street, Hajdu goes back a decade to examine the censorship debate over comic books, casting the controversy as a prelude to the cultural battle over rock music. Fredric Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent, the centerpiece of the movement, has been reduced in public memory to a joke particularly the attack on Batman for its homoeroticism but Hajdu brings a more nuanced telling of Wertham's background and shows how his arguments were preceded by others. Yet he comes down hard on the unsound research techniques and sweeping generalizations that led Wertham to conclude that nearly all comic books would inspire antisocial behavior in young readers. There are no real heroes here, only villains and victims; Hajdu turns to the writers and artists whose careers were ruined when censorship and other legal restrictions gutted the comics industry, and young kids who were coerced into participating in book burnings by overzealous parents and teachers. With such a meticulous setup, the history builds slowly but the main attraction EC Comics publisher Bill Gaines's attempt to explain in a Senate committee hearing how an illustration of a man holding a severed head could be in "good taste" holds all the dramatic power it has acquired as it's been told among fans over the past half-century.