The Ten-Cent Plague
by David Hajdu
2008 • 448 pages • Farrar, Straus and Giroux
I hate it when mediums and genres are conflated. It smacks of intellectual laziness to me to insist that cartoons are inherently for children, or, in an example more pertinent to today’s book, that comic books are synonymous with superhero comics. Percentage wise, that audience and that genre, respectively, dominate each medium, but they are not inherently better suited to that thing than any other medium. With the cultural ascendency of Marvel and (in my anecdotal experience) an increased interest in comics in general, it’s important to remember the medium’s roots—and the controversy it once engendered.
David Hajdu’s The Ten-Cent Plague starts at the dawn of comic books—which starts, naturally, with comic strips in newspapers—and follows the medium through a turbulent period in American history, when comic books were blamed for the supposed onslaught of juvenile delinquency, comic book burnings actually happened (barely a decade or two after World War II!), and comic book publishers were seen as unsavory at best and demonic at worst. And this is all long before Spider-Man took Marvel to the top in the sixties.
What makes comic books in the forties fascinating is that they are, as Hajdu points out, a youth culture artifact before youth culture was properly invented in the United States. (That would be in the fifties, when middle-class and upper-class teenagers began having enough disposable income to warrant advertising directly to them. My source on this is not digging through midcentury New Yorkers in college, but the commentary track to Back to the Future. Pop culture is magic.) Adults, erroneously dismissing comic books as kids’ stuff, created the environment in which horror, crime, and romance became the top sellers. Of course, it was only when those things began pushing back at the status quo—a romance comic featuring a heroine who marries a hero from the wrong side of the tracks here, a horror comic that asks you to sympathize with the monster—that people began to take notice and begin blaming good old-fashioned teenage rebellion on books aimed for children. Comic books embraced that identity, often contrasting their readers against adults and the mainstream, none moreso than the launch of Mad in 1952. (It began as a comic book before making the jump to a magazine in order to dodge the Comics Code Authority.)
But this history is not so cut and dried. One thing about history that a lot of people forget is that progress is not a straight line—it stutters forward, loops back in on itself, takes two steps forward again, one step back. While I do like to think that, on the whole, humanity gets more and more enlightened as time goes on, it always pays to remember that people in the past supported ideas and ideologies both repressive and open-minded. There were heated debates about the distribution of supposedly damaging comic books, because nearly everyone involved could see that censoring comic books could easily be the first step towards censoring other mediums. Other measures were tried, both by the comic book industry itself and local governments, with even President Eisenhower warning that the only good censor for someone was themselves. But Fredric Wertham’s fevered The Seduction of the Innocent landed and his brand of unsubstantiated science brought everything to a new, terrifying level, where comic book creators felt they couldn’t tell anyone what they did and occasionally feared for their safety.
The push and pull eventually diminished comics to a shadow of its former self, with the Comic Codes Authority keeping it on a short leash well into the ascension of the supposedly more politically safe superhero comics—although that, too, would change, albeit subtly and much later on. As the book ends, Hadju puts it in perfect, if brief, perspective by zooming out to glance at the international reactions to this mess. Fascinatingly, Europe, already fearful of America’s growing power in Europe after World War II, simply saw comics—the whole lot, both the “bad” comics and the “good” comics—as just another way for America to get its tenterhooks into their cultures.
Due to the time period it covers, there’s plenty of cringe-worthy material, especially of the old straight male artists drooling over the sexy ladies they draw. That’s be to expected, although not ever excused. Unfortunately, Hajdu occasionally gets in on it, characterizing some sultry female characters as “proto-post feminists” (…so… feminists? Feminists) and using the March sisters as a comparison to invoke an environment full of envious but affectionate competition. (I am not sure Hadju and I have read the same version of Little Women.) I do also wish that the illustrations included were in some semblance of a chronological order, instead of laid out for optimum spacing.
I rented this book from the public library.
I work for a division of Macmillan.