No Laughing Matter
Author David Hajdu talks censorship of the funnybooks
by Aaron Ragan-Fore
THE TEN CENT PLAGUE: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America, nonfiction by David Hajdu. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008. Hardcover, $26.
As one of the hardcore comic book faithful, on some level I already knew of the events chronicled in David Hajdu’s new book, The Ten Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How it Changed America. I like to think I absorbed the knowledge directly through my fingertips in 1992, when I first held a copy of Superman #75, the comic that hooked me. But I suppose it’s more likely I learned the tale from the vast folk memory of comic book shop talk and online message boards, a central repository of geek collective unconscious.
The high points of the story are legend among my tribe: the premature demise of EC Comics and dozens of other publishers in the 1950s at the hands of puritanical proto-“family values” interests; the rise of Mad magazine as a wickedly smart countercultural stress outlet; and, looming large, the specter of a buzzkilling German-born psychiatrist named Frederic Wertham.
To celebrate the American Library Association’s Banned Books Week, Hajdu speaks at 6 pm Friday, Oct. 3, at the Eugene Public Library (which, I might add, sports an extensive collection of graphic novels). He’ll be introduced by Jan Eliot, Eugene resident and creator of the Stone Soup comic strip.
It’s no surprise Hajdu employs a superheroic simile in describing the genesis of his book. “I wasn’t struck by a bolt of lightning, like Barry Allen,” says the writer, alluding to the secret origin of the super-speedy character the Flash. Rather, the book idea gestated for seven years, even as Hajdu was completing another project.
“While I was working on Positively 4th Street,” a book about the Greenwich Village folk music scene of the 1960s, says the author, “I started thinking about the nature of popular culture in a broader sense.” That thread lead Hajdu to a wholly American invention, the comic book, and a time in the 1950s when the content of crime, horror and even romance comics was seen as so incendiary it had to be regulated, censored and sometimes even burned.
The Ten-Cent Plague opens with a wistful comic book artist forced out of her profession in what should have been its halcyon age. Then come the culture critic blowhards and the well-intentioned, shortsighted parents and the hordes of children chanting around schoolyard comic book bonfires. And then, amazingly enough, comes the legislation and the Congressional inquiry.
Why were comic books so threatening to the status quo? They spoke the language of children, immigrants, minorities and the poor, Hajdu argues, and dared to openly address violence, sex, race, rebellion and all those other realities so pesky to Eisenhower’s America. “Through the near death of comic books and the end of many of their makers’ creative lives,” writes Hajdu, “postwar popular culture was born.”
Hajdu says he’s attracted to projects about “people on the fringes of culture,” such as Lush Life, his book about Billy Strayhorn, Duke Ellington’s little-known composer. The eccentrics, academics and artists on both side of the debate Hajdu explores in The Ten-Cent Plague certainly fit that characterization, including the tsk-tsking Wertham, whose 1954 anti-comics treatise Seduction of the Innocent served as a rallying cry for the “think of the children” set; and Bill Gaines, pill-popping and autocratic publisher of the gore-spattered EC Comics, whose anything-goes crime and horror periodicals reached unparalleled heights of both formal artistry and madcap lunacy before an untimely end in the face of a stiflingly restrictive watchdog group, the Comics Code Authority.
Retellings of the 1950s comics scene often arrange Gaines and Wertham at opposite poles of some titanic struggle with Gaines a sort of heroic martyr, falling on his sword in the name of art while doing battle with the forces of small-minded censors represented by Wertham. Hajdu finds that a limiting characterization of nuanced cultural forces.
“I’ve tried not to make him the supervillain of the book, like the Lex Luthor [character],” Hajdu says of Wertham, a surprisingly compassionate social activist who famously raised questions about just why Batman and Robin ran around together in tights, anyway. “I really tried not to demonize him or glorify him,” Hajdu says. “He doesn’t deserve either.”
A tale of witch hunts, media censorship, and a soapboxing U.S. Congress snooping into what its constituents are reading might sound familiar to Americans of the 21st century. But Hajdu doesn’t like positioning his book as a cautionary parable. He’ll cogently argue that comic books of the 1950s birthed our modern popular culture, but he doesn’t presume that developing that thesis qualifies him to guess what’s coming down the pike.
“One thing I suspect is true: that whatever comes next will be kind of unthinkably scary,” he says. “And that’s its job. Its job is to shake a grownup like me up.”