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Like communism, 1950s comic books scared the U.S. government

I grew up in the 1950s, when comic books were a unique window on the world.

My father, a sociologist who taught at Ohio State University, had Fredric Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent in his bookshelf at the top of the stairs. Seduction was a bestseller of the Eisenhower era, when rock 'n' roll was beginning to rear its unruly head and Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy was starting to roil the chronically paranoid waters of U.S. politics.

My parents didn't demonize comic books. Other kids weren't so fortunate and had to hide theirs under the pillow, and many of the comic book artists who invented such characters as Superman, Batman, Plastic Man and Wonder Woman weren't lucky at all.

Led by Wertham and troubled by the youthful vigor and occasionally questionable taste of some comics (especially those produced by the brain trust at EC Comics), the guardians of morality neutered comic books, throwing hundreds of artists and writers out of work and alienating millions of fans.

The Ten-Cent Plague tells that story, garish, infuriating and sad.

"The panic over comic books falls somewhere between the Red Scare and the frenzy over UFO sightings among the pathologies of postwar America," says author David Hajdu, who also has written books about Bob Dylan (Positively 4th Street) and Duke Ellington collaborator Billy Strayhorn (Lush Life). Ten-Cent Plague, an angry, detailed inquiry into early culture wars, covers the early '50s, a superficially placid, distant time some view as a golden age.

In chronicling the brief era of anything goes in American comic books, Ten-Cent Plague illuminates how the forces of conformity and conservatism conspired to stamp out individuality and creativity in the name of "values" (sound familiar?).

The clampdown reached its apotheosis in 1954, when the U.S. Senate Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency (the acronym is less familiar than HUAC, the thrust similar) began hearings — and pilloried William Gaines, head of the legendary, subversive EC Comics.

By the end of the hearing, the Comics Code had Botoxed the subversion out of the form, and Gaines was a broken man.

Mad magazine was left to carry on the hyperbole and satire of the best EC comics — only because Gaines and Mad mastermind Harvey Kurtzman turned it from comic to magazine, thereby ducking the prudish Comics Code.

Besides delving into the politics of the time, Hajdu details comic book burnings in the late '40s and early '50s in West Virginia and Washington, when concerned parents encouraged kids to contribute their comics to giant bonfires. (A similar kind of censorship happened in the late '70s, when radio disc jockeys stoked antigay bias by encouraging conflagrations of disco records.)

As McCarthy did with communism, Hajdu suggests, Comstockian legislators from both parties saw an opportunity to make political hay by demonizing comic books, aligning with the opportunistic Wertham in calling all such work "crime comics."

Some criticized Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent for bad methodology; some even questioned his moralistic, scolding attitude. But it was too late. EC Comics ceased publishing in February 1956; the number of comic book titles published in the United States dropped from about 650 to about 250 between 1954 and 1956.

Hajdu, who spent six years on this book and interviewed some 150 participants in the industry, including legends Will Eisner, Will Elder and Robert Crumb, writes with passion and sorrow. He suggests that comic books were a sanctuary for creative people, a reflection of vernacular culture and a unique, cheap source of entertainment until issues of crime, sex and violence began to permeate their pages.

All that reflected was a society changing so rapidly it alarmed moral sentinels, both self-appointed and official. Their effect comes through most clearly in the appendix, 13 pages of names of people who used to work in comics but never did after 1956. It reads like a war memorial.

Carlo Wolff is a freelance writer from Cleveland and author of "Cleveland Rock & Roll Memories."

The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare And How It Changed America

By David Hajdu

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 400 pages, $26

Like communism, 1950s comic books scared the U.S. government 04/14/08 [Last modified: Monday, April 14, 2008 2:20pm]
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