Comic books were controversial from the start, even before they were comic books. David Hajdu begins The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How it Changed America with the invention of the comic strip. For better or worse, this is an American invention, something Joseph Pulitzer came up with to encourage a growing immigrant population, that did not speak English, to buy and read his newspapers. The first Sunday funnies arrived in full color in the New York World featuring the adventures of Hogan’s Alley and it’s main character The Yellow Kid, so-called because he always dressed in yellow. Right away some people objected. The comics portrayed authority figures as inept, they were low art, they would lead to lower literacy rates, essentially the same criticism that had already been leveled at dime novels.
Comic strips were never intended to last. Every Sunday, eventually every day, brought a new batch, and, while their popularity grew, almost no one considered them art worth saving. Would-be comic strip artists presented publishers with portfolios of their work, typically eight sample strips on two full pages. An inventive publisher collected these sample strips and sold sets of them in single volumes to be given away as mail-in prizes and in advertizing suplements. The comic book was born.
At the price of a single dime and aimed at a market of children who could just afford the price, comic books soon had monthly sales figures well over one million copies. Because their readers collected and traded their collections, each sale represented ten readers. The stories and the artwork were both aimed at readers under the age of 14 so it should surprise no one that both became subject to parent disapproval. The romance comics were too racy, the horror and crime comics were too violent, the superhero comics were too racy, too violent and led one to have unrealistically high expectations. Movements to censor comics were born, died and born again several times.
It wasn’t until after the end of World War II that anti-comic book activists achieved their goals. By this time a generation of Americans had grown up reading comic books, and it is disappointing to find that they did not come to their rescue. Comic books got no respect in those days; they’ve only recently began to get any at all. They were not viewed as having either artistic or literary merit; so when they came under attack, defending them brought only great embarrassment to the defender.
Soon churches, schools, and local PTA’s were convincing children to burn their comic books in large ceremonies that sometimes took hours to reduce once treasured collections to ashes. Some of these book burnings happened on school grounds. Movement organizers soon set their sights on various statehouses, New York’s in particular, in a series of attempts to pass legislation against comic books. After several tries, they succeeded, and it became illegal to sell comic books containing certain content in most states. This content included: the unique details and methods of a crime, scenes of horror, the walking dead, vampires, werewolfism, salacious illustrations and suggestive postures. Respect for parents, the moral code, and for honorable behavior was required as was an emphasis on the value of the home and the sanctity of marriage. As one can imagine, few children wanted to spend their dimes on comic books that met these requirements. Sales fell dramatically, all but a small handful of comic book publishers went out of business altogether, and well over 1000 writers and artists lost their jobs never to work in their chosen fields again.
It’s very interesting to note that as the comic book business was crashing to a close, Mad Magazine was being born. What began as a comic book was so popular and so successful that its publisher converted it into a more expensive monthly magazine. Magazines were not subjected to the same censorship laws comic books were.
While Mr. Hajdu’s book never reaches the gripping level of story-telling comic books once did, it is a highly readable account of their rise and fall. This is a largely forgotten section of American history. Did you know that some of the first televised Congressional hearings were part of the anti-comic book crusade? I had no idea, myself. Nor did I know about the rise of comic books as an outgrowth of the Sunday funny papers.
Mr. Hadju present this history as an engaging narrative full of very interesting characters on both sides of the comic book debate. That someone could become worked up enough over comic books to start a war on them, seems unbelievable now, but people like the Rev. Thomas F. Doyle and Dr. Fredric Wertham did just that. Mr. Hadju explains their motivations and their work honestly and fairly, but he is clearly on the side of the comic book–his heroes are artists like Will Eisner and Stan Lee and even publishers like Bill Gaines whose inept televised testimony basically doomed comic books. While I count myself as a big fan of Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay which takes place in the world of comic book publishing, there was much that I still did not know. The Ten-Cent Plague educates as it entertains. It makes for excellent non-fiction reading.
This review first ran on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B., back in the summer of 2009. I’ve been migrating all of my old reviews over to this new site since I started here last fall. There’s still over 250 to go. Gosh, I’ve written a lot of book reviews.