I’ve been meaning to get to David Hajdu’s The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America for some time, and I finally took the time to read it. (Of course, it hasn’t hurt that I’ve recently been traveling a lot, and that I’ve been able to get a lot of reading done while away.) This is a wonderful study of the turmoil surrounding comic books in the 1950s. Hadju does an outstanding job not only of enumerating the many events that make up this moment in our cultural history–the publication backstories, the outraged parents, the many comic-book burnings, the congressional hearings, the lives of the artists, and larger political agendas that serve as backdrop–but also of placing the comic-book scare within a broader context. He points out from the beginning that the concerns over comics in the 1950s were far from an isolated incident, that similar charges of “unwholesomeness” was leveled against the colored newspaper supplements around the turn of the twentieth century. Then, the charge was that comics highlighted or gave voice to the sordidness of the immigrant population coming into the country, potentially corrupting “American values” and setting a bad example. And then several decades later a similar claim was made, although this time the target was youth and the amorphous threat coming from without. As Hadju suggests, the comic-book scare of the 1950s cannot be divorced from the McCarthyism of the time, that the comic scare and the Red scare were not-so-distant relations.
A good third of the book is devoted to setting up the crest of the panic, providing the context of early twentieth-century comics, giving a brief history of the comic book as a system of delivery (i.e., its evolution from newspaper funnies), discussing the state of youth culture in the immediate post-war years, and chronicling the earliest instances of the post-war comic-book scare and its manifestations in crime and then romance comics. Perhaps the most compelling part of the book begins when Hadju picks up the story of William Gaines and Al Feldstein, and their New Trend series of horror comics. Throughout, we get detailed accounts of the lives and works of Will Eisner, Harvey Kurtzman, Charles Biro, Al Jaffe, Matt Baker, and Will Elder, among others. And of course, there are the “villains” of this drama, Sterling North, Bishop John Francis Noll, Charles F. Murphy, and especially Fredric Wertham. Overall, The Ten-Cent Plague is a carefully studied history that makes for a compelling narrative. The dramas between its covers easily rival those once published by Gaines and Feldstein…although the violence it portrays has less to do with severed heads, and more to do with mid-century censorship.