April 2008

Richard Wirick

nonfiction

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

1952. Conservative cultural historians of the time had North Korean troops at the 37th Parallel, the H-Bomb slowly but surely assembling itself in Soviet Khazakstan, and frothy tides of heroin washing down the streets of America’s ghettos. There was Charlie Starkweather killing a lot of people in the Great Plains, and Masters and Johnson mounting small cameras in vinyl penises in their first sex clinic in St. Louis.

But what worried Bishop Fulton J. Sheen and the editors of Commentary were the 625 comic book titles New York pulp houses published every month; 28-page Goriads with titles like Crime Suspenstories, The Tormented, and Chamber of Chills. According to David Hajdu, in his amazing new The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare and How It Changed America, nearly a hundred million comics were sold every week, a number easily exceeding half the U.S. population. They reached more people than any other periodical, and certainly more than infant television. The overwhelming majority of readers, of course, were young teenagers and children.

While the film industry had its production code and Board of Catholic Censors, the comics industry, much like current hedge funds and attorneys-at-law, were largely self-regulating, with the inevitable bright flicker of foxtails in the hen house. By 1948, enough civic organizations had complained that pulp publishers formed the Association of Comics Magazine Publishers, but it was titular and feckless, its guidelines a widely-accepted farce. (Later, underground comics parodied the organization with a United Cartoon Workers of America; its logo, a bloody Bowie knife hitting the U.S. map at about Kansas, contained the motto “Don’t Fuck With Us”; the T-shirt, which I still have from working at Ray Mungo’s Liberation News Service, was drawn by R. Crumb.)

Hajdu interviews many of the comic artists, publishers, and assorted old-time odd-jobbers, critical personalities in Cold War culture and the history of ideas in Mid-Century America. Chief among their memories, the final and effective arbiter of the medium, was one Robert Hendrickson, Republican of New Jersey, who chaired the 1950-51 Kefauver Committee to investigate comic books as a species of (really) organized crime.

The Committee lasted three days and called two witnesses. Hadju, a professor at Columbia Journalism School, writes as if he were one of those reporters down under the miked conference table with a lens aimed up at the perspiring testifiers. The initial Cassandra was one Frederic Wertham, a German psychiatrist and proprieter of Harlem’s LaForgue Clinic, and whose specialty was -- you guessed it -- the criminal mind, particularly mental states of incipient sex offenders.

Wertham had evolved an entire theory of the deleterious, subconscious, but sweeping effect of comic books on American youth. His testimony drew almost entirely from his book Seduction of the Innocent, the premise being that comics caused juvenile delinquency as surely as carburetors caused air-fuel variations. He asserted that comics arouse in children fantasies of sadistic joy in seeing other people punished while you yourself remain immune. Dubious. But one marvels (no pun…) at the dead-ass accuracy of his offhand glances at the homoeroticism of “Superman,” and his view that “Wonder Woman” gave a hearty thumbs-up to bondage and domination.

Wertham was followed by none other than William Gaines, who had turned his father’s “Picture Stories From the Bible” publishing house into the producer of Two-Fisted Tales, Weird Fantasy, and, finally, print adaptations of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone. Genuinely concerned about the Kefauver Committee’s looming censorship, he proposed that comics met the ultimate Miller v. U.S. standards of non-obscene materials: they comported with certain communities’ standards of good taste, and contained ameliorating collective messages -- evil can be defeated by assiduous, upright citizens with special abilities, even if they did wear pastel tights and tiaras emblazoned with thunderbolts.

Gaines was famously high on Dexedrine during his testimony. As we lawyers say in trial practice, his credibility before the Committee was slim to none, with slim having just left town. They ground him like egg beaters, trapping him into admitting that good taste was indispensable to redemptive content, but that bad taste was the “acceptance framework” of all visually lurid, salaciously charged graphic art.

The Kafauver Committee’s Damocles sword slashed comic book production by two-thirds at mid-decade. (Gaines went on, of course, to produce Mad for a healthy forty years, but hundreds of writers and illustrators lost their jobs to the chilling effect of list excisions.) Very much like McCarthy’s blacklists lengthening and cutting short careers, the comic scare forced artists underground and into other fields. The parallel can be exaggerated. As Hajda says, “The controversy over comic books was neither a subset of the Red Scare nor a direct parallel to it.” In fact, they were a kind of opposites. HUAC and McCarthy amounted to assaults on a liberal, thinking elite of Eastern quasi-socialists; the Kefauver goons were trying to elevate, Hellenize, and eventually sanitize out of existence a “hog-wild, homegrown American Expressionism,” a festering wormhold in the Eisenhower culture’s upright timber.

Wertham didn’t want to censor comic books, but to prohibit their purchase by minors without parental consent, giving them an early sort of “R” rating. And as Hajda points out, for all the ultimate assimilation and critical sympathy comics gained in American high culture (“Crumb is our Breughel,” Robert Hughes proclaimed), the images Wertham condemned contained exactly the sort of misogyny more fittingly criticized by later feminist writers like Susan Sontag and Katherine MacKinnon.

Comics told kids that valiance could pierce through the mendacious and quotidian and enliven existence, color it with breathtaking heroics. But it also telegraphed an approval of sexual cruelty, an ambiguous tolerance of sadism, a sense of the inevitable about injustice, of the powerless somehow getting what they deserve. The '60s edified this content with a new genre of superhero, buff champions who gave short shrift to the pathological and bestial. The kinds of mutilation featured in Weird Tales (a woman’s bleeding head held by her axe-bearing dispatcher) wouldn’t have made it past the new decade’s paradigm shift.

Before the Kefauver Committee had even dissolved, the seeds of an entirely new (perceived) low cultural common denominator had been sown. In the month in 1955 that American News Company, comics’ chief distributor, cancelled all contracts and shifted to sci-fi quarterlies, TV sets had quintupled in American households, and would double from that by 1957. John Updike saw the devices as the new firelight on the hearth, the rekindled unifier of the family evening. It was probably more accurately the spreading of a new, seductive, but low-temp wildfire, a sedative delivery system ensuring mediocrity and complacency. A couple of seasons of sitcoms made the intelligentsia long again, on behalf of the little people it looked after, for a little nerve-jangling mayhem: the hearty, bloody head held aloft.

The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare and How It Changed America by David Hajdu
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
ISBN: 0374187673
448 Pages