- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 20, 2008

THE TEN-CENT PLAGUE: THE GREAT COMIC-BOOK SCARE AND HOW IT CHANGED AMERICA

By David Hajdu

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $26, 435 pp. illus.

REVIEWED BY STEPHEN GOODE

In the fall of 1948, David Mace, an eighth-grade student at Spencer Elementary in Spencer, W.Va., began a local crusade against comic books. For years, he’d read comics and enjoyed them, but one day that fall a teacher told him comic books had an “evil effect” on the minds of impressionable young people.

The teacher’s suggestion was enough for 13-year-old David, who decided that something had to be done to confront the menace, and the sooner the better, writes David Hajdu in “The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America.”

The enterprising Mace organized a team of a dozen like-minded students and started a door-to-door campaign in the small mountain town of 2,500. Their plan: To collect as many comics as people would turn over to them — and destroy them. The crusaders gathered more than 2,000 and tossed them onto a 12-foot-high stack behind the school.

On Oct. 26 and before a crowd of 600 students, Mace asked: “Do you, fellow students, believe that comic books have caused the downfall of many youthful readers?” In unison, the students replied, “We do.” Mace, lighting a cover of a Superman comic, set fire to the books he’d come to regard as dangerous. According to an eyewitness account, flames rose to more than 25 feet.

The Spencer, W.Va. comic-book burn wasn’t the first in mid-20th-century America. Other smaller conflagrations had taken place at Catholic schools. But it was the first to hit the national press and became an opening salvo in a war against comic books across America. On one side were comic book artists, editors and publishers aligned with large numbers of comic-book readers (mostly young males, but far from entirely) and smaller numbers of civil libertarians.

This group saw comic books as a distinctly American art form, like jazz, vital and creative. They regarded comic-book burning as sinisterly akin to the burning of books in Nazi Germany, barely 20 years earlier. Comic-book opponents were a motley assortment of religious groups, both Catholic and Protestant, secular civic and private organizations, such as the American Legion, and government officials at all levels: Federal, state and local.

The opponents, Mr. Hajdu notes, saw a connection between comic-book reading and the rising rate of juvenile delinquency and serious crime, which grew steadily during World War II. Indeed, for many comic-book haters comic books were perhaps the most visible sign of (and in large part responsible for) of an America gone off-course, an America whose irreverent young were now bereft of all patriotism and respect for parents.

Did comics have this kind of power? Mr. Hajdu writes that in 1952, at their peak, there were over 650 comic books published monthly. Tens of millions were bought each month (the exact number is hard to come by, Mr. Hajdu says). Readership was much larger since comics tended to be shared among as many as six or more readers.

The comic-book scare is a complex story which Mr. Hajdu tells with fairness and an impressive clarity. Many comics were harmless. “Little Lulu” comes to mind. But as Mr. Hajdu shows, many comic book artists and writers had great freedom to produce what they wanted, and this freedom was stimulated by a desire to attract readers.

The greater the terror, the horror and all-around general weirdess the pages conveyed, the greater the readership, or at least that is what was thought. A case in point, writes Mr. Hajdu, was Charles Biro’s “Crime Does Not Pay,” which first appeared in 1942.

In 1947 Biro’s comic — Mr. Hajdu describes this as a typical story — published “The Wild Spree of the Laughing Sadist — Herman Duker.” The six-page spread began with a large drawing of a man — Duker — clutching a sexy blonde by the hair with his left hand. The blonde has one black eye. Blood drools from her mouth. On a nearby table lies a man’s severed head, eyes rolled back. There’s a bullet hole in the man’s forehead and a knife slash across his face, while Duker giggles, “Hee, hee, ha, ha, hee, hee!”

Multiply that story times several hundred — many comics carried similar spreads — and it’s clear why many parents, if not most, might not want children to read comics. But were they damaging to children’s minds?

Mr. Hajdu shows how expert opinion divided: Some psychiatrists, for example, said that they found that perfectly healthy kids they worked with were very often heavy readers of comics. Others claimed to find a definite link between comics and social pathology. For these experts, comic-reading led to violent behavior and crime.

In the end, it was comic books that lost the war. Investigations by U.S. Senate and House of Representative committees produced largely negative reports on comics. State legislatures in New York, Maryland and elsewhere outlawed what legislators regarded as the worst of them, as did municipal governments in Los Angeles and many other cities.

But the harshest comic book critic of all turned out to be a committee set up by the comic book industry itself. This committee, Mr. Hajdu notes, forbid artists from even picturing the sweat on a baseball player’s brow in the name of good taste. By 1955, the number of comic books published monthly had dwindled to 250 titles, and this number continued to drop. Nearly 1000 artists, writers and others involved in comics had lost their jobs (Mr. Hajdu lists their names in an appendix.)

The author is at his best when he describes the principal figures involved on both sides of the issue: Great comic-book artists like Matt Baker and Will Elder, for example, or the German-born psychiatrist Fredric Wertham, who claimed that comic books were behind the antisocial behavior of every young criminal he’d ever encountered.

Matt Baker, an enormously talented artist and indefatigable worker, produced many memorable comics and was responsible for “It Rhymes With Lust,” a novel done as a comic book, nearly 30 years before the now popular graphic novels. The equally gifted Will Elder (Billy Eisenberg, originally) did the brilliant, antic sketches published in “Mad,” perhaps the most irreverent of all comics of that time.

The profoundly anti-comic Wertham wrote “Seduction of the Innocent,” the most influential of many anti-comic studies and a national best-seller.

This fine book ends with a visit in the South ofFrance with the great R. Crumb, the contemporary artist most influenced by early comic book art. In R. Crumb’s studio, Mr. Hajdu noticed stacks of “Little Lulu” comics of a half century and more ago.

Stephen Goode, a Milton, Del. resident, is at work on a novel set in Renaissance Italy.

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