[22 April 2008]
After shedding light upon Bob Dylan’s Greenwich Village and Duke Ellington’s alter ego, critic David Hajdu was ready to delve into another “shadow of the American popular”: the comic book scare of the 1940s and ‘50s, which led to book burnings, censorship and the disenfranchisement of over 800 comic book artists and publishers as well as millions of child (and adult) readers.
In The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare And How It Changed America, Hajdu revisits the boycotts, bans, and congressional hearings that ended the golden days of comic book artistry, a blow which sent the industry reeling for over a decade, foreclosing career opportunities for many talented writers and illustrators. These artists would be eclipsed in American popular memory by more visible iconoclasts like Dylan, Marlon Brando, and Elvis Presley, yet their story is a fascinating one, perhaps even more so because they were so effectively silenced by their detractors.
In the days before youth culture became a consumer category, Hajdu explains, comic books “were radical among the books of their day for being written, drawn, priced, and marketed primarily for and directly to kids, as well as for asserting a sensibility anathema to grown-ups.” Because they were considered junk by the adult mainstream, their creators were able to experiment with concepts and techniques, free of the scrutiny of art scholars or literary critics.
But when these experiments took a darker turn after World War II, incorporating aspects of film noir and pulp fiction in tales of crime, lust, and horror, literati and child development “experts” indicted comic books for the spread of juvenile delinquency. (Witness psychiatrist Fredric Wertham’s scathing remark that “Hitler was a beginner compared to the comic-book industry.”) Like the video games of today, comic books were a convenient scapegoat for the issues festering in the space between children and their parents. Public censure of the comic book industry worked to galvanize this generation gap, laying the groundwork for the establishment backlash against rock ‘n’ roll later in the decade.
A critic at The New Republic and contributor to publications such as Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and The New York Review of Books, Hajdu draws upon exhaustive research to render not only a superlative history of the scare itself, but also a vivid picture of comic book production on the eve of its undoing and the complex personalities of those touched by it. His description of chanting American children throwing issues of Superman or Dick Tracy onto bonfires is chilling, but the most affecting aspect of the story may be the short-lived camaraderie and competition in the comic book sweatshops that made life worth living for those who didn’t fit in elsewhere—including immigrants, women, and people of color. For these artists, comic books were not only a means of artistic expression (as evinced by the elaborate fantasy worlds of true crime or gothic “New Trend” horror comics); they were also a medium through which social position and potentiality could be explored, whether in outright satire or the pages of girl-geared romance comics.
In the email interview below, Hajdu took time out of writing and teaching at Columbia University to discuss his work on The Ten-Cent Plague, an experience that led him to conclude that the ill-fated struggle for comic books was “worth the fight.” His readers will surely concur, not only because of the amazing artwork born of the comic book boom, but also because the story of the scare yields insight into the wages of ignorance, paranoia, and censorship at any point in human history, past or present.
How did you come to write about the comic book scare? Had you heard about it as a child, or was that already forgotten history when you were growing up?
I think I probably heard as much about it as anyone—a section in a book about the 1950s, a chapter in a book of comics history. The scholar Amy Nyberg did a fine dissertation on an aspect of the scare, the Comics Code, which was published, and others tackled pieces of it over the years.
But there was never a book dealing solely and fully with the scare. Somehow, despite all the books about the McCarthy era and the Hollywood blacklist, the parallel story of the comic-book scare had been largely untold. I consider myself very lucky to have had the opportunity to do this book—at a time when dozens and dozens of key participants in the events were available to provide their testimony.
Actually, I didn’t realize how much of the story had been untold until I was waist-deep in the research. After a few years of research, I realized that the controversy over comics started long before the ‘50s, that there was far more legislation against comics – more than 100 acts—and that the effects of the scare were devastating. Literally hundreds of comics artists and writers were driven out of the field as a result of the purge, and many of them had never spoken about how profoundly their lives had been changed.
What would you consider to be the common thread that connects The Ten-Cent Plague to your other two books, Positively 4th Street and Lush Life?
I’ve had the same agent and the same wife. Otherwise…I try not to think of my writing as a body of work. I think that thinking carries with it risk of self-absorption.
That said, all three books are, in different ways and to differing degrees, excursions into the shadows of American popular. I’m interested in outsiders of varying sorts.
In writing this book, did you find it difficult to “shift media” from music to print, or jazz and folk to comic books?
Yes, absolutely, and that’s one of the reasons I wanted to do it. After my first book, which was about jazz, I purposely chose another world of music to write about, in large part because it would be another world for me to learn about. Then, after two books about music, I wanted to deal with another art form, in large part to learn something new myself. There’s a degree of intellectual greediness in that, I suppose.
I should add, though, that I’ve drawn ever since I was a kid. In fact, I had my own comic strip—an underground-style strip called “The Endless Odyssey of Skip Tomaloo”, in my high-school newspaper. It was juvenile—but so was I! Around the same time, the first things I ever had published were illustrations for the local newspaper, the Easton Express, near my hometown of Phillipsburg, New Jersey. They weren’t half-bad, and they weren’t half-good.
One of the interviews I did for The Ten-Cent Plague was with the EC artist Jack Davis, and during our conversation, in his studio in Georgia, he was sketching idly on a notepad, and so was I. At the end of the interview, I asked Davis what he was drawing, and he showed me—a caricature of me! An accurately humbling one, by the way.
Meanwhile, I had been drawing him! So we exchanged drawings. I treasure Davis’ depiction of me, appropriately, and I suspect he used mine to wrap fish, appropriately.
Did you make any particularly surprising discoveries over the course of your research for The Ten-Cent Plague?
One of the big shocks to me was how widespread were the comic-book burnings that took place between 1945 and 1955. I knew that there were a few incidents of burning comics, but I never imagined that they took place all over the country for a full decade.
I went to the towns where three of the burnings were held—Binghamton, New York, Spencer, West Virginia, and Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin—and I found and interviewed quite a few of the people who took place in them. The descriptions they gave me were harrowing—kids marching around fires, reciting incantations, in some cases just a few months after the end of the Third Reich.
Were there any individuals in the book that were particularly striking to you, or whose stories you felt particularly compelled to share?
One of the challenges of the book was the considerable task of limiting the number of characters. I interviewed more than 150 people, and I wanted to tell all their stories. I’m thinking of perhaps posting transcripts of the interviews online, if I can figure out how to do that.
Aside from “New Trend”, my favorite chapter of the book was the one about romance comics, because it challenged my assumption that, until recently, comic books were a “guy thing”. Did you come across many women who had read and enjoyed comic books as children? Or does it appear that the romance comics were more significant for the space they afforded the artists themselves to experiment with gendered perspectives and everyday encounters?
I’m delighted to hear that! I’m especially glad to have done that chapter. Romance comics were considered scandalous, because they romanticized independent thinking—and lusty thinking, at that—as well as romance. Yes, girls and young women were the primary, though not the only, readers of romance comics, and the research conducted in the early postwar years showed that nearly every young person, male or female, read comic books.
While you do a commendable job of presenting the people in the book as complex, contradictory, and conflicted subjects worthy of understanding, it seems that two groups stand out as the real protagonists in the story: the artists who made the comic books, and the children (and adults) who read them. What, if anything, stood out for you about their disenfranchisement, and the ways in which they went on with their lives after the decline of comic books?
It was wrenching to hear how dearly so many one-time comics artists and writers missed working in the medium. Artists such as Mort Leav described making a good living in advertising for decades, but never again feeling the kind of creative fulfillment he felt as a young man making crazy pictures in the freewheeling young comics industry.
I wondered why, since they felt that way, people such as Leav never returned to comics after the purge, in the ‘60s, and I asked them about that. The answer I almost always got was that comics didn’t seem to provide the same kind of outlet, anymore. Leav and others just weren’t interested in doing Superboy, as Wally Wood did. The comics industry didn’t recover from the purge—not for decades, at least. And some of the artists driven from the field never quite recovered.
What was the general response to this project among the people you interviewed for this book? Did you encounter any resistance from the artists, writers and readers that you consulted? Conversely, was there a call for a book like yours to be written among artists,
collectors and comic book fans such as cartoonist Robert Crumb, whom you mention in the text?
I was very happy—and relieved—to find nearly all the artists and writers I approached highly approachable. Unlike my experience researching my last book, Positively 4th Street, there were no Thomas Pynchons to interview, this time.