Sunday, May 17, 2015
The Ten-Cent Plague!
David Hajdu's The Ten-Cent Plague - The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America is simply put, a great read. Hajdu's writing is adept and he succeeds in pulling you along in a long and sometimes convoluted history of comics and censorship as it developed over the course of the early 20th Century. Most of the history about this era I've encountered has been written by folks very sympathetic to the comic book cause, true believers. Hajdu doesn't seem to write this saga as an insider, but more of an observer who deftly introduces us to many of the important players who over the course of many years leading to the great changes in the middle 50's brought comic books into modern culture and then sought to make them go away, often with a match.
I've never read a more meticulous and steady presentation of the way in which the comic book scare developed. Hajdu carefully sets up his saga by showcasing how such calls for censorship and fear-mongering about comics had been a staple of American life since the advent of the comic strip itself at the turn of the century. Nearly half the tome takes us carefully through many "scares" and calls for action from the many quarters of American society who seem to think that kids are just a panel away from insurrection.
When Hajdu does at last get to the late 40's and the investigation of crime comics, and then later to the advent of EC Comics which trucked in horror, he carefully lays out how the circumstances coalesced and how comic folks themselves were somewhat culpable for the wave which consumed many of them utterly. I did not realize how crucial the first issue of Panic was in the fear-mongering which resulted in the ultimate creation of the Comics Code.
I had read before how Bill Gaines's peculiar testimony before the Senate committee looking into comics was less than effective, but Hajdu does a great job of taking you inside the events and giving them a context and even at times mild drama which I've never encountered before. He shows how many of Gaines attempts to quell the rising storm are misguided and ineffective, and how that failure is a lack of perspective on the part of the naive Gaines.
Other than a real seeming disdain for Dr. Frederic Wertham, the author of the infamous Seduction of the Innocent, I really found Hajdu's feelings about the players in the story to be fair and non-judgmental. Many writers, with a comic book bias, always tell the story from a they-done-us-wrong perspective, but Hajdu avoids that attitude and instead seems to offer up a fair-minded perspective which makes the history ring true.
I only detected one error myself in Hajdu's meticulously researched volume, and it was of exceedingly small matter. Perhaps the best aspect of the narrative is how Hajdu deftly and with concision introduces so many comic book folks and others who become key to different parts of the story. In a few lines Hajdu time and again is able to offer up a clear picture of individuals and even a feel for their personalities.
I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Every comic book fan must read this great history of one of the most seminal aspects of the hobby we all enjoy.