The Ten-Cent Plague by David Hajdu

I am not a comic book reader but I found this history of the comic book industry on trial in the 1950s to be a fascinating story.  The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare and How It Changed America by David Hajdu covers the origins of the comic strip, the appearance of the comic book in the 1930s, and its creative heyday in the 1940s and early 1950s, and then focuses on how some Americans got scared and eventually brought about book burning, censorship and laws against publishing comic books.  The mid 1950s was a long time ago, and I was just a kid, so I don’t remember these events.  But the comic book scare coincided with the red scare, the Joe McCarthy witch hunts.  Comic books lead to another kind of scare, not over communists, but the fear of juvenile delinquents and the corruption of the young.

Most of the focus of the 1950s comic book scare was on true crime comics and horror comics.  Today when comic book conventions are covered on Entertainment Tonight, showing famous celebrities in attendance, and many of the top grossing movies are based on comic books, it’s hard to think about a time when comic books would scare Americans into having book burning rallies.

The irony here is everything that the censors hated about comics is standard fare on prime time TV today.  The censors did not want children seeing stories about crime and criminals, or reading about vampires, ghouls, zombies, werewolves, and their undead kin.  Nor did they like stories about young women running off with the bad boy types, or leaving their husbands to find exciting careers.  Parents, congressmen and censors feared that comics were undermining the status quo.  Comic books were outlawed just as rock and roll hit the scene, and then came the beatniks, hippies and all the other counter culture bellwethers.

If we could take our present day pop culture back to the 1940s and 1950s it would blow the minds of Andy Hardy/Leave it to Beaver America, and the fear mongers back then would think they had been absolutely right about censoring the comics.  They censored comics and made kids read Casper the Friendly Ghost, but it didn’t stop the cultural upheaval they feared.  Does censorship ever work?

To get some idea about the censorship of this time, watch David Hajdu talk about the last comic book EC Comics published:

The surprising element of this story for me was how much this era was loved by the comic readers of the time.  They considered the advent of censorship as the destruction of a great art form.  To be honest, I never really liked comics, but then I never read any from the golden age that the The Ten-Cent Plague chronicles.  Comics to me always equaled stories about super heroes, but before the great censorship there were hundreds of titles about endless topics, that sold in the tens of millions each month.  But this was also before the success of television.  And Hajdu doesn’t mention that the pulp magazine was also dying at this same time even without censorship.  Evidently the boob tube put the kibosh on pulp fiction, both written and graphic.

A lot of things changed in the 1950s.  Radio stories died out, and so did Saturday afternoon serials.  Culture went through tremendous change in the 1950s, as witnessed by Bill Bryson in The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, which I read about a month ago for the second time.  I do have tremendous nostalgia for that time, and even though I dislike crime and horror stories in general, Hajdu makes me want to read those pre-Code comics.  I guess I sympathize with that comic culture because I love pre-Code Hollywood movies from the early 1930s.

I listened to The Ten-Cent Plague, so I had no idea what these comics looked like.  I’m not even sure if the hardcover book had photos.  However, the comic book history is well documented on the web.  Here is the cover used in a senate hearing described in the book.  William Gaines, the publisher of EC Comics was asked by Senator Estes Kefauver if he thought this cover was in good taste, and Gaines shocked everyone by saying he did think it was in good taste.  I do have to wonder about this being reading material for children though, but then people wonder the same thing about kids and video games.  Gaines said this cover was in good taste because the artist didn’t show the severed neck on the head or body.  Since they do show those parts now in movies, I guess our movies are in bad taste.

crime_suspenstories22

I found this cover and many others at Classic Crime & Horror Covers.  That site linked me to Crimeboss, with an extensive collection of covers.  I wanted to see what the interiors looked like and found The Horror of it All.  I quickly discovered that the history of comics, and especially the pre-code era, is well documented on the internet.  Comic books are a sub-culture I know little of, and would probably be satisfied with reading one good coffee table book about its history to catch up.  The sub-culture is gigantic, and I wonder what Fredric Wertham, the author of  Seduction of the Innocent, and his disciples would make of the huge success comics have in our society today.

I’m an outsider to the fandom of comics, and I have little interest in reading comics.  I don’t mean to put them down, but they are like opera or ballet or polka music, I just never got into them.  However, there was one story Hajdu told about that I might seek out – It Rhymes with Lust, a comic book that some consider the first graphic novel.

ItRhymesWithLust

From what I can tell, the story is probably like a movie Joan Crawford or Barbara Stanwyck would have been in the 1940s, so why all the fuss?  Were ten year old kids really reading these film noir comic books?  And if comics were so pervasive in society in the 1940s and 1950s, why don’t we see characters in the movies from those times reading them?  From David Hajdu’s account, the history of the comics and their downfall was obviously more than a tempest in a teapot because many states and cities took the time to criminalize the sale of comics, and schools and PTA groups took the time to buy thousand and thousands of comics so they could burn them in PR events.  Evidently millions of people were buying comics then, so why hasn’t literature or film from those times featured stories about the sub-culture?  There were many films about early rock and roll fans, or jazz fans before that.

I found The Ten-Cent Plague a fascinating story, but I’d like to know more.  I wonder if my father or his brothers read the pre-code comics?  They never talked about them.  Except for these rare histories of the era, I wouldn’t have known these types of comic books even existed.  When the comics were banned many of the artists and writers had to hide their love of their art because they were treated like child molesters.  Is that why this sub-culture was so thoroughly forgotten?  Did America hate comics that much?

By the way, the 1988 documentary Comic Book Confidential makes a great visual supplement to The Ten-Cent Plague because they interview many of the people profiled in the book, and show some of the same court films that Hajdu described. Plus the documentary continues the history of comics after the code was enforced, which is where the book ends.  This film is available at Netflix and segments from it are at YouTube.

JWH – 6/23/11

12 Responses

  1. I find the whole pre-Code thing fascinating, not just in comic books but in films as well. Even today when there continue to be arguments about what should and should not be shown on television or put in YA books I have a hard time fathoming what that time period must have been like, the fear that people had, and the no-doubt awful experiences some must have went through during the McCarthy era.

    Whenever I think of code and pre-code I think of a couple of films, Love Me Tonight and Miracle at Morgan’s Creek. Both have some interesting “naughty” stuff that surprises me that it got past the censors and with both films I’ve watched and read things about the way that they were censored, how the film makers sneakily worked to get stuff past the censors, etc. And both are wonderful films. Still, I wish uncensored versions of both existed as they would be interesting to see.

    You are right in that most if not all of the stuff that censors decried in those days is present on prime time television. Heck, most of it is part of the nightly news. I get disgusted watching and listening to the news. I know everyone is human and everyone makes mistakes, but I can only stomach so much negativity and degradation in a day. And my tolerance for it is not high.

    • Sometimes censorship or restrictions help writers be more creative in saying the same thing with finese. Evidently the comic book code was so restrictive it took all the fun out of writing and drawing for the comics.

      One thing that surprised me was how much people loved the art from the pre-code comics. The artists back then felt that the comics were a unique American art form like jazz, that they were doing something wonderful and special, and then the world turned against them. That was sad.

      • That is sad, especially since we look back now on the work of some of those illustrators and are in awe of their talent.

        I’ve read stuff from different people who talk about being really hurt by the McCarthy-era stuff and I am sure these artists felt similar feelings of rejection. And how could you not take it personally?

  2. Great post, Jim. I never knew any of this. I guess we’ve had some progress since then, huh?

    • I never knew any of this either. Yesterday the Supreme Court affirmed that video games had the same first amendment rights as books and other artistic forms of expression. Why didn’t they see that in 1955 for comic books? I wonder if any of those comic book laws ever went to the Supreme Court.

      Even back in the 1940s they had studies and hearings that said that violence isn’t caused by kids reading violent comic books. I guess for some people the solution to social problems is always censorship.

      • I think the big problem with people who fight this kind of thing is that they are ultimately trying to get someone else to parent for them. Video games already have labels on them warning of their content. I just picked up L.A. Noire the other day. The front of the game very clearly has an M for “Mature 17+” on it and on the back it very clearly lists its content “Blood and Gore, Nudity, Sexual Themes, Strong Language, Use of Drugs, Violence”.

        Store *should* enforce the age limits on games, but I think it is asking a bit much to expect your average minimum wage checker to care enough to enforce this most of the time.

        So instead, you as a parent have to actually supervise what your kids do if you want to keep this kind of stuff from them until it is age appropriate. And I think parents have a right and responsibility to do that. But parenting should not be legislated to the point where the parents don’t have to do their job.

  3. Carl, I agree with you ultimately that it’s the parent’s responsibility, but another issue came up in the book. Hajdu reprinted letters from kids at the time or interviewed people who were kids back then and they expressed a desire to choose for themselves. They said they loved the comics because they represented a kind of kid freedom that was separate from the adult world. They also felt when adults intervened and brought about the comic code it took away their special freedom.

    Maybe the lurid subject matter of the pre-code comics, or modern video games is exactly what teenagers want. Do they have a right to it?

    • I certainly can understand that. I certainly felt a degree of freedom, not sure if that is the right word, when I could go into the library as an early adolescent and find YA fiction that had sex (very tame by today’s standards) in it or language, etc. that I’m sure my parents would have had a hard time with.

      Do they have a right to it? It is hard to say. I’m not sure what “rights” a non-adult has. I think they have a right to live in a world where books aren’t banned or censored in that sense, but I truly believe parents have a right and duty to strike some sort of balance and at least try to protect their child’s innocence up to a certain point. I see parents take very young children to very violent, scary movies all the time and I feel uncomfortable about it. Its a bad world we live in and kids will be exposed to it eventually. But it is also a beautiful world and I hate to see some of that tainted by allowing a child to indulge in an overabundance of questionable material until they are mature enough to handle it. And I think that age of maturity is different for each child, which is why parents need to be parents and quit relying on the government or on big business to do it for them.

      • I not saying we should always allow children access to everything, but I have no idea when children are old enough to choose for themselves.

        I’m reading a book Destiny Interrupted about his history of the Muslim world. They want to legislate morality in all their laws. They want to protect everyone from doing what they consider evil. Basically we believe that we’re Muslims when it comes to children. I don’t know about other kids, but all that made me do is hide my real self from my parent.

        Maybe it’s like sex education, we should be teaching kids about the facts of life before they go off and discover them on their own.

  4. That’s why I made the statement to the effect that every child is different. A responsible and involved parent is not going to have a set of hard and fast rules about when this or that is appropriate for a child but is instead going to have a relationship with their children to the point where they develop a two-way communication where children feel like they can come to their parents to discuss things. A responsible parent is going to use exposure the things that make the parent uncomfortable as opportunities to sit and talk to their child about things vs. getting all authoritative and banning their child from that book, film, game, etc. And while this might sound pie in the sky, I know many parents who do everything they can to foster that kind of relationship with children.

    I personally have the same opinion about sex ed in the schools that I do about the government deciding what is or is not appropriate for children. I disagree with both, because I think both types of situation are abdicating responsibility from the parents and we as a society are too willing to accept bad and irresponsible parenting as something that will never change and so the schools, etc. try to step in to fill that gap. I don’t think it should be that way. Not every kid is ready for sex education at age X. Some are ready before that, others later on. Same with levels of violence, sex, etc. in entertainment.

    The long and short of what I believe is that I am an advocate for strong family relationships in which a child is treated like an individual human being with their own thoughts, desires, etc. Parents should be aware of a child’s natural curiosity for everything, especially things that are deemed “forbidden” and parents should de-mystify those things by fostering open and honest communication and by being willing to allow children at the appropriate age for that specific child to decide some things for themselves.

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