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The Ten-Cent Plague

David Hajdu

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In 1952 two competing editors at EC Comics, working for Bill Gaines - Harvey Kurtzman and Al Feldstein. Kurtzman unhappy bc Feldstein was paid more (bc his comics sold more). K did Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat. Gaines told him he'd get more monery if he cd come up with a third title, so he invented Mad: Humour In A Jugular Vein. Pinched the face of Alfred E Neuman from an old bio textbook. At first parodied his own comics, but when ran out of material started satirising movies and modern life.

(NY Times)

The Ten-Cent Plague is the third book by David Hajdu to take a subject suitable for fans' hagiography and turn it into something of much wider interest. After his oddball, revelatory forays into the worlds of jazz (Lush Life) and folk music (Positively 4th Street), Mr. Hajdu has delved into the lurid, untethered world of early comic books. A representative story cited here is The Wild Spree of the Laughing Sadist, from the mockingly titled magazine Crime Does Not Pay. It depicts a boy so murderous that his victims included the family goldfish and parakeet.

Before the comics were beset by the prolonged crackdown that is described here, they were created in a spirit best summarized by Mickey Spillane, one of Mr. Hajdu's many colorful interviewees. (That prolific pulp-fiction king, who died in 2006, wrote a few cops-and-robbers comics stories beginning in 1940.) 'If it's any good, somebody will pay for it," Mr. Spillane said, "and a kid's dime buys the same cup of coffee."

Those kids' dimes became greatly controversial in the 1940s, when parent-baiting comics prefigured what would become a thriving and defiant youth-oriented culture. "They instilled a pride of ownership rooted not in adult conceptions of value, but in their absence," Mr. Hajdu observes in a style that is incisive and entertaining. As for crime, it 'permeated the tales of heroism in nearly all comic books, since it was the thing crime fighters fought.

So the comics cranked out the gangsters, monsters and mutants that would galvanize crusaders defending young readers' virtue. "The time has come to legislate these books off the newsstands and out of the candy stores" went the rallying cry by formidable figures like Frederic Wertham, whose 1954 tract "Seduction of the Innocent" helped focus the attack. This kind of condemnation led to the book burnings and McCarthy-esque hearings of the mid-1950s that are at the heart of Mr. Hajdu's investigation. His book includes a long list of comics contributors whose livelihoods were destroyed by the purge.

The Ten-Cent Plague proceeds chronologically. Its early sections explain how the comic book began as an experiment, then made its way into the cultural mainstream. "The ghetto of comics was becoming a boomtown," Mr. Hajdu writes as he looks at the ethnic roots of the early comics' creators, the subtexts of their imaginings and the Wild West business atmosphere in which they found themselves.

This part of the book, with its thumbnail biographies of the pioneers, is heavily geared to aficionados. But the creators were anything but dull. Will Eisner, who became a comic book entrepreneur in his teenage years and went on to become one of the field's legendary artists, says of his partner, Jerry Iger: "Monday morning there was always some babe that would show up in net stockings, and she'd say: 'I met your partner. He gave me a job.'

The book goes on to revel in the creative effusions that followed. Graphics are analyzed with acuity and gusto. ("The main cover image was a fever dream of bedlam.") So is the blossoming of subcategories like the "narratives of young women assaulted by 'weird menaces' (that is, those with otherworldly methods of removing their victims' garments) or category-melding titles like 'Cowboy Love'. Even the Sunday-school comics meant to counteract the sordid ones are examined for their over-the-top exuberance. "David defeats the Philistines by slaying and beheading Goliath!" went an early, insufficiently tame Bible comic headline.

As the comics' most defensible and durable creations, the superheroes generated mimicry in unlikely quarters. Those who began noticing the comics' gleeful licentiousness acquired their own version of superpowers. Of one schoolboy who led a book-burning, anti-comics protest, Mr. Hajdu writes, "Hawley and his fellow crusaders so embraced superhero comics' ethos of eradicating evil that they employed it against other comics." And it worked, partly because the comics' creators were too giddy with success to realize what trouble they were inciting.

"It was a bad time to be weird," one artist says of 1953. By then, governmental witch hunting was on the rise, and public fears of juvenile delinquency were easily fanned. While Mr. Hajdu does not defend the comics' reckless extremes, he regards some of them as more worthy of psychiatric examination than punishment. And he positions the drive to clean up comics as a response to larger fears. "There was no mistaking the commonality of what was starting to happen in comic books and what was going on in the rest of the world," he quotes the comic book editor Frank Bourgholtzer as saying. But on a scale of postwar public panic attacks, he places this one somewhere below the Red scare and above U.F.O.s.

The Ten-Cent Plague examines the early power of television to fan these flames as Senate subcommittee hearings, led by Senator Estes Kefauver, were conflated in the public consciousness with the Kefauver hearings on organized crime. At the center of this crisis was Bill Gaines, the publisher whose EC empire was crushed by the specter of censorship after his testimony about a drawing of a woman's severed head helped crystallize the debate.

Yet he went on to have the last laugh. Horror and terror had been among Mr. Gaines's staples, but the use of those words in titles was banned outright in 1954; New York State added 'crime' to the list in 1955. However, Mr. Gaines had a humor comic book, and to escape regulation he decided to call it a magazine. That magazine, Mad, went on to skewer any target it chose with happy impunity.

But for many of those described here, the party was abruptly over. In a stroke of needless melodrama, Mr. Hajdu frames the comics' collapse with a prologue glimpse of one artist whose career was extinguished: Janice Valleau Winkleman, who for 50 years never told anyone, even her daughter, that she had once had a career in comics. She warrants Mr. Hajdu's sympathy and admiration. But the events recounted in The Ten-Cent Plague need no such histrionics. On its own, this book tells an amazing story, with thrills and chills more extreme than the workings of a comic book's imagination.

(NY Times 2)

My first hallucinatory experience had nothing to do with drugs, unless you consider comic books to be a form of drug. On a spring morning in 1953, I strolled into Mrs. Shelburne's sixth-grade classroom at the Mark Twain School and spotted a classmate covertly flipping through a Superman comic. Only it wasn't quite Superman. Not the Man of Steel I idolized, but a grinning thug-imposter in red cape and blue tights, gut-punching a helpless geezer on crutches as his false teeth flew out and a mob of citizens cheered, and a babe far leggier and bustier than Lois Lane leered her approval. The monster's name bulged in thick red letters atop the panel: Superduperman. My good-guy stomach rolled. Everything stretched and went slantwise; a parallel universe yawed open, like jaws, and threatened to suck me inside. Then Mrs. Shelburne waddled into class; the kid stowed the comic; the jaws evaporated. Too soon, I realized dizzily. Wait! I wanted in!

This shock-baptismal of my grade school self into the new house-of-mirrors comic that was Mad (it was the magazine's fourth issue I'd glimpsed) reinforces several themes in David Hajdu's Ten-Cent Plague. It suggests how deeply the comics had implanted themselves in kidhood consciousness in only their second decade as a normative pop-cultural universe; how shocking and yet irresistible we found each new and more subversive permutation; and how recklessly indifferent to adult America's ever hardening hostility were the wild misfit artists who, even as I buckled under Superduperman's (and Lois's) seditious antics, were dancing into the flames of self-destruction.

Flames, quite literally. As in book burnings, comic-book burnings. My pals and I were mostly clueless that our dimes were supporting an industry that, virtually from its inception, had driven to hysteria the real-life defenders of the American Way. Comics were "furnishing a pre-fascist pattern for the youth of America," a critic fumed in 1941; another, as World War II drew toward a close, declared that in the derring-do of these so-called superheroes, the "vigilante spirit is rife; ... the Gestapo method is glorified." Fighting fascism on the homefront by building book bonfires is among the half-forgotten travesties of our yeasty paranoid style in America; an irony that beggars the tepid limits of those naughty Mad satirists.

The meticulously researched evidence of how easily America can be gulled into trashing its defining ideals in the name of Americanism - as if we needed any reminders - are among the highlights of Hajdu's book. The comics' impact on American life is an inexhaustibly fascinating topic - which is probably why it has nearly been exhausted as a topic. Hajdu, the author of the well-received Positively 4th Street is but partly successful at making it fresh again.

As his subtitle suggests, Hajdu intends to establish the transformative impact of comics on society. This is a well-worn path, and one that his own evidence stubbornly proves to be headed in diametrically the wrong direction. It was society that again and again transformed the comics; it was society, represented by churches, reformers and the United States Congress, that sought to all but eradicate the comics from the cultural landscape.

America's exploding youth population was hungry for a cultural referent of its own when comic books came along (in 1933, 1934 or 1937, depending on how one defines the form). It was the kids, not the surprised writers and illustrators, who decided the comics spoke to their repressed outlaw souls. (In 1948 alone, 80 million to 100 million comic books sold each month.)

Moreover, as Hajdu's exhaustive reportage makes clear, the comics were repeatedly transformed by the shifting concerns (and anxieties) of their host nation. At the same time that censorious authorities labored to make their very name synonymous with deviancy and macabre trash, comic books proliferated in countless genres, from zany clowns and cute ghosts to biblical characters to the creepy Crypt-Keeper and the Vault-Keeper, as their creators searched for responsive chords within the booming youth market. Even their dominant motifs shifted with the prevailing winds: from the primitive noirish panels of the '30s to the superheroes-as-anti-Axis superpatriots of the war years, to the violent crimebusters of the late '40s, to the weepy romance heroines who replaced the out-of-favor tough guys, to horror and science-fiction monsters as America's postwar paranoia deepened, and then on to Mad and its imitators as a hipster subculture began to bubble up from the depths of the repressed ’50s. Let us not even get started on Donald Duck.

Hajdu clearly cherishes the great comic-book scare. He reveres the blunt street-level expressiveness of the immigrants, the lower-class urban Jews and the other societal fugitives who poured their raw passions into their new jazzlike idiom; and he likewise respects that idiom's neglected aspirations to high art. He illuminates such idealists as Arnold Drake and Leslie Waller, two aspiring novelists who thought of comics as 'picture novels' a quarter-century before the concept became a vogue. "The attitude was, for an adult to read a comic book was a mark of ignorance," Drake tells him. "But Les and I knew we were geniuses, so we thought we would simply change the world." The pioneering artist/publisher Will Eisner had used similar language in 1941.

It was not to be. The forces of offended decency hovered over comic books virtually from their inception. A bluenosed literary journalist in Chicago, wonderfully named Sterling North, attacked the genre in May 1940, in his essay 'A National Disgrace (And a Challenge to American Parents).' North condemned the "poisonous mushroom growth" of color comic magazines over the previous two years. Not even the nebula of superheroes was exempt; in fact, Superman and his caped colleagues were nothing more than sadists and bullying vigilantes.

World War II drained off much of the reformers' energy and attention. But at the dawn of the jittery 1950s - just when comics sales were peaking at (according to one estimate) a billion copies a year - the reformers remobilized and pounced. In 1954 a new prophet of doom, the self-promoting psychiatrist Fredric Wertham, published 'Seduction of the Innocent: The Influence of Comic Books on Today's Youth.' Dovetailing with the antifascist/protofascist wave of comic-book bonfires around the country, and with the spread of censorship boards and arrests of newsdealers in towns and cities, Wertham's intellectually shoddy book dwarfed A National Disgrace in its influence. "I think Hitler was a beginner compared to the comic-book industry," Wertham suavely remarked, even as his jingoism prompted urban police forces, churches and eventually Congress to join the chanting burners and cripple a flourishing industry, ruin the livelihoods of hundreds of artists and demonstrate (not for the last time) how fragile are the integuments of American democracy.

A frustrating obstacle to full readerly engagement in The Ten-Cent Plague is Hajdu's otherwise touching affection for the men and women who wrote and drew the comic books. He seeks to memorialize them - all thousand-odd of them, individually, it sometimes seems, by emptying his notebook of their names, sound-bite quotations and thumbnail descriptions: their pencil mustaches, cigars, derby hats, pageboy cuts and pet monkeys. This is kind, but it clogs the narrative and diffuses the attention owed the giants like Eisner; Jerry Iger; M. C. Gaines and his son, Bill; and the ill-starred co-creators of Superman, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, who prematurely sold their copyright on the greatest comic character of them all. That said, The Ten-Cent Plague is a worthy addition to the canon of comic-book literature: a super effort, if not a superduper one.

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