Difficult to believe that they once had public book burnings in America . . .

Or more, specifically comic book burnings. That was back in the early 1950s when a public scare spear-headed by a shrink named Fredric Wertham and his book Seduction of the Innocent linked comic books to juvenile delinquency. One infamous “educational” short film of the era shows how a group of young boys ties a smaller boy to a tree and tortures him . . . after reading comic books. (Ironically this short film was directed by Irving Kershner of Empire Strikes Back and Robocop 2 fame!)

Today Wertham’s assertions – amongst others about the homoerotic subtext of the relationship between Batman and Robin – may be the punch line to a long-forgotten joke, but author David Hajdu in his book Ten-Cent Plague - The Great Comic-Book scare and How It Changed America tells how these allegations were taken seriously not just by a nutcase fringe, but by mainstream American society.

Comic books were hugely popular before the backlash. It was not unusual for a title to boast sales in the 10 million range. However the books were mostly read by children and adults at the fringes of society. The majority of the American adult population however looked down on comics as being something “for kids” at best and the direct cause of violent crime at worst. In Ten-Cent Plague Hajdu tells how children during the backlash lied at school about their dads being comic book artists; one boy preferring to say that his father worked at a shoe factory instead.

Of course things weren’t helped by the fact that some of the comics were pretty wild - and not just by the standards of the time! Famously facing a governmental hearing EC Comics publisher Bill Gaines tried to convince the hearing that a cover of a crime comic he published of a man holding a woman’s decapitated head in one hand and a bloodied axe in the other was somehow in “good taste.”

Ultimately things became so bad that almost the entire industry went under. Boycotts and bad publicity forced many retailers to stop stocking comics altogether. To survive, the industry imposed self-censorship in the same way that Hollywood did – in the guise of the so-called “Comics Code.” The code was even more stringent than the infamous Hays Code that determined censorship of Hollywood movies at the time.

"A decapitated head in one hand and a bloodied axe in the other was somehow in 'good taste' . . ."

One stipulation of the Code grated in particular, namely that “policemen, judges, government officials and respected institutions shall never be presented in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority.” Can you say “police state?”

Bill Gaines’ EC Comics tried to do business by ignoring the Comics Code altogether and published their titles without the Comics Code seal. However all their comics were returned by retailers who were too afraid to stock them. Ultimately EC Comics found that they couldn’t operate under the strict Comics Code guidelines and cancelled all their titles – except one. That one was of course Mad Magazine, which ignored the Code altogether thanks to a technicality: it changed its paper size to that of a standard magazine instead of a comic book and was thus distributed as a magazine and not a comic book.

The 1950s comic book scare like the Red Scare destroyed many careers and lives in the process. Hundreds of talented artists and writers involved in the business never found work in the industry again, and had to resort to jobs such as security guards, cab drivers and the like instead.

Hajdu writes with an immediacy that strikingly brings to life the spirit of the era. He shows how this backlash against comic books had its roots in an earlier pre-WWII era when the funnies were denigrated as “ungrammatical” trash by conservative cultural commentators who insisted that children should read more wholesome books such as Heidi and Swiss Family Robinson instead.

Of course traces of this stigma lingers to this very day even though comics’ profile as Public Enemy No. 1 has long since been taken over by the likes such as gangsta rap and violent videogames. It is this same stigma which however makes the medium appealing to many comic book readers to this very day. We just wouldn’t want it any other way . . .

Highly recommended.

The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America
by David Hajdu


Hardcover: 448 pages
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (March 18, 2008)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0374187673
ISBN-13: 978-0374187675




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