The ten-cent plague: the great comic-book scare and how it changed America

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Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008 - Comics & Graphic Novels - 434 pages
28 Reviews
In the years between World War II and the emergence of television as a mass medium, American popular culture as we know it was first created—in the pulpy, boldly illustrated pages of comic books. No sooner had this new culture emerged than it was beaten down by church groups, community bluestockings, and a McCarthyish Congress—only to resurface with a crooked smile on its face in Mad magazine.

The story of the rise and fall of those comic books has never been fully told—until The Ten-Cent Plague. David Hajdu’s remarkable new book vividly opens up the lost world of comic books, its creativity, irreverence, and suspicion of authority.

When we picture the 1950s, we hear the sound of early rock and roll. The Ten-Cent Plague shows how—years before music—comics brought on a clash between children and their parents, between prewar and postwar standards. Created by outsiders from the tenements, garish, shameless, and often shocking, comics spoke to young people and provided the guardians of mainstream culture with a big target. Parents, teachers, and complicit kids burned comics in public bonfires. Cities passed laws to outlaw comics. Congress took action with televised hearings that nearly destroyed the careers of hundreds of artists and writers.
The Ten-Cent Plague radically revises common notions of popular culture, the generation gap, and the divide between “high” and “low” art. As he did with the lives of Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington (in Lush Life) and Bob Dylan and his circle (in Positively 4th Street), Hajdu brings a place, a time, and a milieu unforgettably back to life.

David Hajdu is the author of Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn and Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Farina and Richard Farina. He is the music critic for The New Republic, and he teaches at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.

A New York Times Book Review Notable Book
A San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of the Year
A Christian Science Monitor Best Book of the Year
A St. Louis Post-Dispatch Best Book of the YearA Los Angeles Times Favorite Book of the Year
A Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year

In The Ten-Cent Plague, David Hajdu looks at the rise and fall of comic books, the art defined by creativity, irreverence, and suspicion of authority. In the years between World War II and the emergence of television as a mass medium, American popular culture as we know it was first created—in the pulpy, boldly illustrated pages of comic books. No sooner had this new culture emerged than it was beaten down by church groups, community bluestockings, and a McCarthyish Congress—only to resurface with a crooked smile on its face in Mad magazine.

The Ten-Cent Plague shows how—years before the rock and roll music of the 1950s—comics brought on a clash between children and their parents, between prewar and postwar standards. Created by outsiders from the tenements, garish, shameless, and often shocking, comics spoke to young people and provided the guardians of mainstream culture with a big target. Parents, teachers, and complicit kids burned comics in public bonfires. Cities passed laws to outlaw comics. Congress took action with televised hearings that nearly destroyed the careers of hundreds of artists and writers.  Hajdu aims to revise common notions of popular culture, the generation gap, and the divide between “high” and “low” art. "Horror and other raffish comics, and the campaign to stamp them out, are the subject of David Hajdu's smart new book, The Ten-Cent Plague . . . Hajdu has consulted surviving artists and writers from the period, many of whom were unable to work again in the comics business after the crackdown. The result is a stylish, informed account that shows how easy it is to think fuzzily about other people's pleasures . . . Hajdu evokes the era colorfully and wittily."—Dennis Drabelle, The Washington Post

"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 . . . this book tells an amazing story, with thrills and chills more extreme than the workings of a comic book's imagination."—Janet Maslin, The New York Times

"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 Ten-Cent Plague is a worthy addition to the canon of comic-book literature."—Ron Powers, The New York Times Book Review

"A lively read, The Ten-Cent Plague digs deeply into the social context surrounding the 'comic-book panic' of the first half of the 20th century . . . The greatest strength of The Ten-Cent Plague is the breadth of the author's primary research, particularly his interviews with 'more than 150 comic-book artists, writers, editors, publishers, readers, and others.' The stories these men and women tell are by turns hilarious, heroic, horrific, and heartbreaking. I've read dozens of versions of the 1954 tale, but more than any other writer, Hajdu allows us to understand what it was like for the people who worked at producing these not-so-funny books . . . Hajdu's book expands our understanding of the personal consequences of 'the great comic-book scare.'"—Gene Kannenberg, Jr., The Chronicle of Higher Education 

"Horror and other raffish comics, and the campaign to stamp them out, are the subject of David Hajdu's smart new book, The Ten-Cent Plague (one thin dime being the price of the average comic in those days). Hajdu has consulted surviving artists and writers from the period, many of whom were unable to work again in the comics business after the crackdown. The result is a stylish, informed account that shows how easy it is to think fuzzily about other people's pleasures . . . Hajdu evokes the era colorfully and wittily."—Dennis Drabelle, The Washington Post Book World

"The Ten-Cent Plague is David Hajdu's affectionate yet outraged account of this important but little-remembered segment of cultural history . . . The Ten-Cent Plague is an admirable account of these events. Hajdu writes well and has performed the enormous service of interviewing more than 150 comic-book publishers and creators, which coupled with his archival research enabled him to produce a lively and nuanced portrait of a fascinating aspect of American culture . . . By and large free of meditation and moralizing, The Ten-Cent Plague keeps the focus on the remarkable men and women who produced the comics, the purveyors of junk science and Puritanism who hounded them, and the elected leaders who adopted egregiously unconstitutional legislation to drive the comic-book publishers out of business."—Daniel Akst, The Boston Globe 

"As David Hajdu reports in his vivid and engaging book The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America, more than twenty publishers were putting out close to six hundred and fifty titles a month. Eighty to a hundred million comic books were sold every week; according to contemporary reports, the average issue was passed along to six or more readers . . . It seems plausible to say, as Hajdu does, that in the early nineteen-fifties comic books reached more people than magazines, radio, or television did. Most of those people were children."—Louis Menand, The New Yorker 

"As David Hajdu's new book, The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America, shows, there was a time when comics were universally regarded as the boogeyman of literature, an epidemic-like scourge that was believed to be the major cause of juvenile delinquency, illiteracy, bad grades, mass idiocy, and what was understood to be the general moral decay of society. Comic books were not only blamed for warping the fragile young minds of children, they were all but accused of ruining their eyesight and stunting their growth. There are obvious parallels to the Red Scare of the same period, as Mr. Hajdu shows. Yet there were also different forces at work: Mr. Hajdu convincingly makes a case that comic books, long before pop music, were the first form of American culture created exclusively for children. When the self-proclaimed protectors of children's welfare put comic books almost entirely out of business in 1954–55, they weren't merely controlling what America's youth read and thought, they were trying to prevent what later became known as the generation gap from ever developing. In a narrative that's as swiftly moving and well-rendered as any episode of Superman or The Flash, Mr. Hajdu interweaves two tales. First is the evolution of the comics themselves, from the Yellow Kid and other newspaper cartoons at the turn of the century to the earliest collections of comic strips in magazine form around 1935, to the development of the comic book genre that proliferated immediately before, during, and after World War II—superheroes, crime, and police stories, teenage humor, and romance. At the same time, Mr. Hajdu chronicles the simultaneous, steadily growing movement to suppress the comics, to make sure that children were only exposed to ideas that were pre-approved by teachers and preachers . . . In the end, the moral guardians won the battle by putting the comic book industry out of business (for a time), but lost the war: Soon enough, the generations would be divided by rock 'n' roll, civil rights, and Vietnam. Ten-Cent Plague is a thrilling read which shows how comic books helped set the stage for much of postwar American culture."—Will Friedwald, The New York Sun

“In April 1954, Gaines, like one of the Mafia dons who also operated out of his neighborhood, found himself testifying before a Senate subcommittee. Gaines’ congressional appearance is one of the climactic moments in The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America, David Hajdu’s history of the very serious attack on funny books. Here, Hajdu doggedly documents a long national saga of comic creators testing the limits of content while facing down an ever-changing bonfire brigade. That brigade was made up, at varying times, of politicians, lawmen, preachers, medical minds and academics . . . The Ten-Cent Plague traces the shrill sound of alarm all the way back to 1906, when Ralph Bergengren harrumphed in the Atlantic Monthly that the comic strip Katzenjammer Kids and its four-color ilk were committing multiple crimes against society . . . The most memorable crusades against comics, though, took place in the 1940s and 1950s as part of a response to surging ‘juvenile delinquency,’ a term Hajdu smartly deconstructs. . . Of course, comic book creators are less scintillating that the musicians Hajdu has written about in the past. When he focuses on them, however, he frames the loopy players in this tale with flair.”—Geoff Boucher, Los Angeles Times

“To those who think rock ’n’ roll created the postwar generation gap, David Hajdu says: Think again. ‘Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry added the soundtrack to a scene created in comic books,’ he declares in his intelligent, entertaining history, The Ten-Cent Plague, which traces this populist art form from the appearance of the first comic book in 1933 to the industry’s near-destruction in the mid-1950s . . . A former editor at Entertainment Weekly, author of a biography of jazz composer Billy Strayhorn (Lush Life) and a group portrait of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Richard and Mimi Farina (Positively 4th Street), Hajdu takes popular culture seriously without taking it for something it isn’t. Every page of The Ten-Cent Plague evinces his zest for the ‘aesthetic lawlessness of comic books and his sympathetic respect for the people who made them. Many still in their teens, the children of immigrants and the working class, they were outsiders and misfits, Hajdu brings them and their work to life with a skillful blend of judicious quotes from interviews, colorful character sketches and appreciative descriptions of their often-garish creations . . . From Crumb and his peers came the underground comix of the ’60s, direct progenitor of today’s graphic novels. A despised medium for kids is today a lively branch of popular culture unabashedly consumed by adults; graphic novels even get attention in prestigious book reviews. Comic books have grown up, but Hajdu’s affectionate portrait of their rowdy adolescence will make readers hope they never lose their impudent edge.”—Wendy Smith, Chicago Tribune

"As in Positively 4th Street (2001), Hajdu's account of the intertwined lives, loves and musical careers of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Richard Farińa and Mimi Farińa, The Ten-Cent Plague is an intrepid excavation of pop-cultural history. Hajdu didn't just interview the victims; he tracked down newsstand owners, a number of the young book burners--even the chair of the American Legion's 'Book Swap,' which offered children who turned in their comics a choice of approved reading like Heidi or The Swiss Family Robinson. The Ten-Cent Plague unravels the Comic Book Scare with novelistic flair and great sympathy for people whose only crime was 'to tell outrageous stories in cartoon pictures.'"—D. D. Guttenplan, The Nation

"David Hajdu's exhaustiely researched The Ten-Cent Plague documents a little-known but important period in America's history: the time when comic books defined a generation and introduced the idea of a counterculture . . . Utilizing interviews from roughly a billion notable people—from Eisner to Bill Gaines to Stan Lee to Al Jaffee to Robert Crumb—Hajdu's history is detailed and insightful . . . It's impossible not be engrossed in this chunk of forgotten American history—one that echoes with not only the deeds of the likes of Joseph McCarthy, but also of Alfred E. Neuman."—Erik Henriksen, The Portland Mercury

"One way of looking at the history of American popular culture is to see it as episodic eruptions of condemnation of what young people, and others of limited sophistication, like to see, hear, read and do. Such an episode is described in The Ten-Cent Plague, David Hajdu's splendid account of America's 'comic-book scare' of the early 1950s. It is weird—to use one of comic books' favorite words—to read about events that one has experienced. I grew up on 10-cent comic books—indeed, they set me on the path toward a hopeless love of all printed matter—and Hajdu captures not only what I recall of my adolescent reaction to comics, but also my later understanding of what society did to them. Hajdu's book is dead-on. Hajdu has mined every sort of documentation to illumine the subject and the era, from the comics themselves to studies about them to interviews with surviving comics creators, and much more . . . Hajdu's account of the creations and their creators—notably such great cartoonists as Will Elder, Will Eisner, Jack Davis and Harvey Kurtzman—is particularly engrossing. Equally so is his discussion of the successive waves of themes in comics: first crime and violence, then sex and romance, then horror and the macabre (at which Bill Gaines' EC Comics excelled)."—Roger K. Miller, The Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

"The comic-book scare is a complex story which Mr. Hajdu tells with fairness and an impressive clarity. Many comics were harmless. Little Lulu comes to mind. But as Mr. Hajdu shows, many comic book artists and writers had great freedom to produce what they wanted, and this freedom was stimulated by a desire to attract readers . . . The author is at his best when he describes the principle figures involved on both sides of the issue: Great comic-book artists like Matt Baker and Will Elder, for example, or the German-born psychiatrist Fredric Wertham, who claimed that comic books were behind the antisocial behavior of every young criminal he's ever encountered . . . This fine book ends with a visit in the South of France with the great R. Crumb, the contemporary artist most influenced by early comic book art. In R. Crumb's studio, Mr. Hadju noticed stacks of Little Lulu comics of a half century and more ago."—Stephen Goode, The Washington Times 

“In 2008, it’s hard to believe that comic book could be the centre of heated political disputes, but in early days of the Cold War, comics were as controversial as communism. In his splendid new cultural history The Ten-Cent Plague, respected U.S. cultural critic David Hajdu vividly brings this half-remembered debate to life, showing that the fierce struggle over comics was an important battle in a cultural war over youth and freedom that continues to rage to this day.”—Jeet Heer, The Globe and Mail (Toronto)

"Hajdu's The Ten-Cent Plague is a thoroughly researched, engagingly written account of a modern witch-hunt: the public hysteria over horror and crime comics in the United States during the early 1950s."—Michael Saler, The Times Literary Supplement

"David Hajdu offers captivating insights into America's early bluestocking-versus-blue-collar culture wars, and the later tensions between wary parents and the first generation of kids with the buying power to mold mass entertainment . . . Hajdu's thorough research documents public comic-book burnings, which flared in numerous communities across the nation, and identifies the nuns and scout leaders who cajoled often uneasy children into lighting the bonfires . . . One wishes this lively book were longer. Hajdu concludes with a roll call of the hundreds of artists and writers who were never again published after the industry instituted a draconian code of conduct, wiping out hundreds of titles and neutering content for a decade."—R. C. Baker, The Village Voice

"The comic book panic of the 1950s was neither the first nor the last occasion when anxieties about children's exposure to American pop culture got out of hand. Anthony Comstock fulminated against dime novels in the 19th century and the government continues to battle federal court judges over the enforcement of the Child Online Protection Act in this one. According to David Hajdu, author of The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America, the attack on comic books—culminating in a sensational televised congressional committee hearing in 1954—is particularly important because it marks the birth of the rebellious youth culture of the 1960s. It was over the issue of comics, he argues, that the generation gap first emerged. The Ten-Cent Plague is partly a history of mid-20th century comics and the people who made them, an amusing assortment of eccentrics, hustlers and dreamers . . . What The Ten-Cent Plague has over any previous treatment of the subject is an impressive depth of research."—Laura Miller, Salon

"Inspiring countless films, homages, essays, and one Pulitzer-winning novel, the comic book has become such a hip intellectual cause célčbre over the last decades that it's easy to forget it was once the most reviled medium in America. Now comes David Hajdu's smart, sobering history, The Ten-Cent Plague, a staggeringly well-reported account of the men and women who created the comic book, and the backlash of the 1950s that nearly destroyed it . . . By the mid-'40s, comics had become an industry, selling between 80 and 100 million pulpy copies a week, mostly to children. To re-create the hurly-burly of the early years, Hajdu quotes dozens of sources, more than most readers will want to follow. But his clear-eyed analysis of the actual comics is marvelous, as he moves from Will Eisner's innovative Spirit series to the gritty realism of Charles Biro's crime titles to the emergence of the gruesome horror books of the early '50s, with their 'coded challenges to the prevailing standards of normalcy' . . . As depicted by Hajdu, a former EW editor, this is a scene as torturous, strange, and darkly funny as any Tale From the Crypt. Within a year, EC was out of the comics biz and the industry voluntarily agreed to censorship rules ('romance stories shall emphasize the value of the home and the sanctity of marriage') that effectively drained the spirit from a vital, vernacular American art form. Hajdu's important book dramatizes an early, long-forgotten skirmish in the culture wars that, half a century later, continue to roil."—Jennifer Reese, Entertainment Weekly 

“For more than a decade, countless parents and teenagers made bonfires of comic books, reducing everyone from Captain Marvel to Archie to ashes . . . Amid the outcry, millions of 10-cent comic books vanished from store shelves and 800 people lost their jobs. ‘[All] they did was tell outrageous stories in cartoon pictures, a fact that makes their struggle and their downfall all the more strange and sad,’ writes David Hajdu in his revealing new history The Ten-Cent Plague . . . Journalism professor and biographer Hajdu does a fine job of bringing a forgotten chapter of 1950s hysteria back to life.”—Randy Dotinga, The Christian Science Monitor

“In The Ten-Cent Plague, Hajdu makes the interesting case that postwar comics were the first shot in a coming youth revolt. By the early 1950s, cities were banning comics. Prodded by their parents, kids were burning them. The Senate was investigating them. Hajdu indicates that the sex and mayhem stories that caused such a ruckus represented the flip side of the superheroes’ adventures. He suggests that we see them as expressions of a particularly Jewish—though likely unconscious—mistrust of assimilation, of its enforced conventions and unavoidable authority. So if DC’s Superman appealed to the nerd in all of us, the sleazy comics peddled by companies like EC spoke to an inchoate but increasingly independent youth culture. The new buying public of rebels without a cause—the same kids who would turn Elvis into a superhero of a different kind—scared the daylights out of their parents. Even though there was no overt proof, psychologists, politicians and the chief crime fighter in the land, J. Edgar Hoover, claimed that reading comics led directly to juvenile delinquency. In 1954, psychologist Frederic Wertham published his most famous work, Seduction of the Innocent, which made it sound as if he wanted to protect our children from the pernicious influence of the comics. But Hajdu maker an excellent case that the anti-comics brigades wanted protection from our children . . . Hajdu’s book winds up in the mid-1950s with the exemplary case of EC’s Mad magazine. Mad’s caustically anarchic humor—sometimes gross, and often puerile—matched up Jewish snarkiness with adolescent rebellion. It was a hit. Having incurred the anger of the powers that were, EC turned Mad into a ‘real’ magazine, upped its price and found a different distributor. EC and Mad lived to fight another day . . . In the final chapter of The Ten-Cent Plague, R. Crumb is quoted as saying that he never got over Mad. We have never gotten over Superman, either.”—David Kaufmann, The Forward

“The right was focused on the Red Menace and the left on the Red Scare.  But, if you want to understand what was really going on in the mad, mad, mad world of the 1950's you should read David Hajdu's hilarious and harrowing account of The Great Comic Book Scare.  Hajdu’s tale is lurid, absurd, existential, weird, and scary, and contains real-life superheros and supervillains, and there is nothing funny about it.”—Victor Navasky, author of Naming Names

The Ten-Cent Plague is about the best account yet of comics in America, an instant classic of cultural history.”—Geoffrey O’Brien, author of Sonata for Jukebox

“Every once in a while, moral panic, innuendo, and fear bubble up from the depths of our culture to create waves of destructive indignation and accusation. David Hajdu's fascinating new book tracks one of the stranger and most significant of these episodes, now forgotten, with exactness, clarity, and serious wit, which is the best kind. He illuminates the lives of his protagonists—from pompous, on-the-make censors to cracked comic book geniuses—with his own graphic powers, as well as his intense intellectual curiosity. The book is a rarity, vividly depicting a noirish 1950's America but without a trace of irony or nostalgia.”—Sean Wilentz, Professor of History, Princeton University

"After writing about the folk scene of the early 1960s in Positively 4th Street, Hajdu goes back a decade to examine the censorship debate over comic books, casting the controversy as a prelude to the cultural battle over rock music. Fredric Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent, the centerpiece of the movement, has been reduced in public memory to a joke—particularly the attack on Batman for its homoeroticism—but Hajdu brings a more nuanced telling of Wertham's background and shows how his arguments were preceded by others. Yet he comes down hard on the unsound research techniques and sweeping generalizations that led Wertham to conclude that nearly all comic books would inspire antisocial behavior in young readers. There are no real heroes here, only villains and victims; Hajdu turns to the writers and artists whose careers were ruined when censorship and other legal restrictions gutted the comics industry, and young kids who were coerced into participating in book burnings by overzealous parents and teachers. With such a meticulous setup, the history builds slowly but the main attraction—EC Comics publisher Bill Gaines's attempt to explain in a Senate committee hearing how an illustration of a man holding a severed head could be in good taste—holds all the dramatic power it has acquired as it's been told among fans over the past half-century."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

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Review: The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How it Changed America

User Review  - T. Edmund - Goodreads

The great comic book scare and how it changed america the byline promises. The first two chapters don't deliver nor start to deliver, instead we delve into the beginnings of the comic book industry ... Read full review

Review: The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How it Changed America

User Review  - John Porcellino - Goodreads

A heartbreaking and in-depth look at the Comic Book Scare of the 1950s, when politicians and do-gooders took it upon themselves to cripple a flourishing industry. As a cartoonist, I knew the basics of ... Read full review

Contents

Prologue
3
Society Iss Nix
9
ItWasWork
32
Copyright

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About the author (2008)

David Hajdu is the author of Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn and Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Farina and Richard Farina. He is the music critic for The New Republic, and he teaches at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.

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