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

I think I brought too much to the table for this one.

That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy Hajdu’s book, because I did—I liked it quite a lot. The problem, at least for The Comic Nerd in me, is that there was very little in it that was unfamiliar.

However, for most readers, the material in this book will be new territory—and that’s what makes a book like this worthwhile. The story of the great comic book debacle of the 1950s—with its colorful cast of characters and a story that’s so far out it would seem ludicrous if it weren’t true—is one that deserves to be told, and Hajdu tells it elegantly. While comics-related journals and magazines have been telling these stories for decades—it’s the comics community’s very own Vietnam—there have been very few publicly-accessible books written about it (most are written by comics fans, for comics fans). So it’s nice to have the story dressed up so nicely for its first appearance before a mainstream audience.

My problem, though, was that my expectations were too high—and that’s my fault, not Hajdu’s. I kept waiting for a deep-drill analysis, but Hajdu was too busy running out his characters and telling their stories. And rightly so, because what stories they are.

At the dramatic core of the Plague lies the conflict between upstart comics company EC Comics (with its unconventional publisher, Bill Gaines) and the United States government. Waving the banner of Saving The Children—and armed with the psychobabble of Dr. Fredric Wertham and his book Seduction of the Innocent—an aggressive Senate subcommittee goes looking for a scapegoat for the alleged rise in juvenile delinquency, and trains its fire on the enormously successful comic book industry.

An annoyed Gaines eventually rises to the bait and, against the advice of colleagues, makes an ill-advised appearance in front of the subcommittee. Trying his best to defend horror comics, free speech, and the subjective boundaries of “good taste”—and coming down off of a Dexedrine-induced fog—Gaines implodes on the stand, providing the do-gooders with the villain they need. Defeated, the comic industry bows to a self-imposed (and completely lame) code of good taste, consigning itself to a long creative and commercial decline from which it would take nearly forty years to recover.

Hajdu chooses to focus mainly on the assault on crime and horror comics, but there are times when I wished he would have focused a bit more on the attacks directed at superheroes as well. Dr. Wertham was at his most annoying—and creepiest—when looking for perversity and hidden agendas in superhero comics (Batman shares a cave with a young boy! Wonder Woman might be a lesbian! Superman is a fascist!). Hajdu touches briefly on a few of these charges, but it would have been fascinating to learn how such ludicrous claims were being received at National (DC) Comics at the time.

Finally, Hajdu never really seems to deliver the goods he promises in the second part of his subtitle: How It Changed America. There is some discussion of the fallout from the controversy—and Hajdu includes in his appendix a fascinating list of hundreds of comics writers and artists who never worked in comics again after the implosion—but Hajdu never gets much further than describing some changes in the distribution system for magazines and the lingering presence of the comics code. Instead, he argues persuasively that comics were really just the next big boogeyman for the Establishment to wring its hands about until television and rock and roll replaced it.

Still, I enjoyed The Ten-Cent Plague very much. Hard-core comics enthusiasts may not find much that’s new, but that’s okay—this book isn’t written for us. And there’s something to be said for having such an important story told so well. Hajdu does his topic justice, writing with a journalistic verve that gives even Charles Biro’s gloriously trashy injury-to-the-eye-motif-laden comics a proper tragic heft.

Four stars (out of five).

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