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Review of David Hajdu's The Ten-Cent Plague

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  • "Grim" Tim
    Ron Briley: Review of David Hajdu s The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008) In The
    Message 1 of 2 , Jul 2, 2008
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      Ron Briley: Review of David Hajdu's The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great
      Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America (Farrar, Straus and
      Giroux, 2008)

      In The Unfinished Journey (2007), William Chafe asserts that the
      concept of paradox is crucial to understanding the affluent society of
      post World War II America. In the midst of prosperity, poverty
      persisted in many rural areas and the nation's inner cities. While
      popular culture extolled the cult of domesticity for housewives, more
      women than ever worked outside the home to support growing patterns of
      middle-class consumption. Conformity emerged as a dominant theme in
      suburbia, yet the period was also characterized by cultural rebels
      such as the Beats and actors Marlon Brando and James Dean. Americans
      appeared triumphant in World War II, but the atomic bomb and Cold War
      insecurities undermined post war confidence. Within the realm of
      popular culture, post war fears were represented in film noir and the
      science fiction genre. On a more adolescent level, the national mood
      of apprehension was evident in accusations that juvenile delinquency
      was the product of comic books undermining the morals of American youth.

      This refrain, which culminated in the comic industry's internal
      censorship of the Comics Code and the blacklisting of hundreds within
      the profession, is the subject of David Hajdu's The Ten-Cent Plague.
      Hajdu is a New York City journalist, whose Positively Fourth Street
      focusing upon the early career and love lives of Joan Baez and Bob
      Dylan, enjoyed commercial and artistic success. The Ten-Cent Plague,
      while concentrating upon the early 1950s, presents a history of the
      comic book industry from its inception with the "Yellow Kid" of
      William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal to the discontinuation of
      horror comics and the birth of Mad Magazine in 1955.

      The comics of the early twentieth-century mass circulation newspapers
      in metropolitan areas such as New York City resonated with the rising
      immigrant population from Southern and Eastern Europe, but these
      lower-class manifestations of popular culture were denounced by the
      respectable bourgeoisie. The creative sons (and sometimes daughters)
      of these immigrants, many of them Jewish, were often awkward socially
      but found an artistic avenue of expression and assimilation during the
      depression era in the creation of such super heroes as Superman. Comic
      book readership expanded during the Second World War with the military
      purchasing comics in bulk as reading material for the troops. With
      Superman, Wonder Woman, and Captain America battling the Axis powers,
      approximately ten million comics were sold each month during the
      Second World War.

      The contribution of comics to the war effort, however, did not prevent
      the industry from becoming a scapegoat for post war insecurities. The
      social dislocations of global conflict placed considerable strain upon
      the American family, but officials such as FBI Director J. Edgar
      Hoover insisted that problems of youth crime were the product of crime
      comics glorifying lawless behavior. For example, Hajdu observes that
      the gory Crime Does Not Pay comic drawn by Charles Biro was selling a
      million copies per issue by 1947. In reaction to the supposed threat
      posed by crime comics, local and state governments passed legislation
      limiting access to crime titles, while teachers and schools organized
      mass burnings of comic books. Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver also
      attempted to make the comic menace part of his televised hearing into
      crime, but the senator found little evidence to substantiate a
      connection between reading comics and youth crime. The public
      condemnation, nevertheless, convinced comic publishers to discontinue
      most crime titles in 1950, replacing them with romance books and
      themes of sexuality.

      Meanwhile, Bill Gaines, who inherited the Entertainment Comics group
      (EC) from his father, joined with writer Al Feldstein to create a new
      line of horror comics such as Tales from the Crypt. Adolescents loved
      these horror books which questioned the idyllic existence of their
      parents in suburbia. Describing the appeal of EC's horror line, Hajdu
      writes, "To young people of the post-war years, when the mainstream
      culture glorified suburban domesticity as the modern American
      ideal—the life that made the Cold War worth fighting—nothing else in
      EC comics, not the giant alien cockroach that ate earthlings, nor the
      baseball game played with human body parts, was so subversive as the
      idea that the exits of the Long Island Expressway emptied onto levels
      of Hell" (180).

      The perception that horror comics were attacking such sacred American
      institutions as the American family produced renewed calls for the
      censorship of comic books. Leading the charge against the comic
      industry was psychiatrist Frederic Wertham, who in 1954 published
      Seduction of the Innocent, his diatribe against the comic industry.
      Testifying before the Senate Subcommittee on Investigating Juvenile
      Delinquency, Wertham maintained that comics contributed to collapsing
      moral standards and the growth of youth crime. While Wertham claimed
      that his conclusions were based upon scientific evidence, Hajdu
      disputes that assertion by observing that the psychiatrist employed no
      formal testing procedures or control groups. He also assumed that all
      comic readers were young children rather than adolescents verging on
      adulthood. Finally, Wertham indiscriminately attacked all comics;
      arguing that super heroes such as Superman fostered fascism by
      employing vigilante tactics to deal with social problems.

      In the context of fear and McCarthyism which gripped America during
      the early 1950s, however, Wertham's somewhat specious arguments were
      able to carry the day. Concerned with threats of government
      censorship, the comic industry formed the Comic Magazine Association
      of America, placing strict limitation upon ideas and images
      questioning traditional American values and orthodoxy. Under this new
      regime, the number of comic titles published in the United States
      dropped from approximately 650 to 250 annually, while over 800 artists
      never worked again in the comic profession. Gaines and EC folded, but
      not before launching a new magazine, Mad, continuing the irreverent
      nature of the original comics. Hajdu concludes that despite their
      demise in the mid-1950s, comic artists helped create contemporary
      popular culture. According to Hajdu, "Though they were not traitors,
      the makers of crime, romance, and horror comics were propagandists of
      a sort, cultural insurgents. They expressed in their lurid panels,
      thereby helping to instill in their readers, a disregard for the
      niceties of proper society, a passion for wild ideas and fast action,
      a cynicism toward authority of all sorts, and a tolerance, if not an
      appetite, for images of prurience and violence. In short, the
      generation of comic-book creators whose work died with the Comics Code
      helped to give birth to the popular culture of the postwar" (330).

      Hajdu's study is well written and relies upon 150 interviews conducted
      with participants in the comic industry during the 1940s and 1950s.
      Many of these artists, proud of their accomplishments in the comic
      industry, were never employed again in the profession. It was a
      blacklist similar to that practiced by the film industry in a climate
      of fear and intimidation. Despite the best efforts of Wertham,
      however, comics, as evidenced by summer blockbuster films such as Iron
      Man and the Incredible Hulk, remain an influential force in American
      culture. Debates regarding the impact of video games, music,
      television, and the inner net upon youth violence and behavior
      continue to proliferate in American culture. Those who are quick to
      advocate restraints upon expression would do well to remember the
      comic book scare of Cold War America so well chronicled by David Hajdu.

      Posted on Wednesday, June 11, 2008 at 8:33 PM

      http://hnn.us/roundup/entries/51304.html
    • Michael Vance
      Thanks for sharing this, Tim.  How are ya doin ? MV ... From: Grim Tim Subject: [SmallPressPalaver] Review of David Hajdu s The
      Message 2 of 2 , Jul 2, 2008
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        Thanks for sharing this, Tim.  How are ya doin'? MV


        --- On Wed, 7/2/08, "Grim" Tim <smallpressfan@...> wrote:
        From: "Grim" Tim <smallpressfan@...>
        Subject: [SmallPressPalaver] Review of David Hajdu's The Ten-Cent Plague
        To: SmallPressPalaver@yahoogroups.com
        Date: Wednesday, July 2, 2008, 5:06 PM

        Ron Briley: Review of David Hajdu's The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great
        Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America (Farrar, Straus and
        Giroux, 2008)

        In The Unfinished Journey (2007), William Chafe asserts that the
        concept of paradox is crucial to understanding the affluent society of
        post World War II America. In the midst of prosperity, poverty
        persisted in many rural areas and the nation's inner cities. While
        popular culture extolled the cult of domesticity for housewives, more
        women than ever worked outside the home to support growing patterns of
        middle-class consumption. Conformity emerged as a dominant theme in
        suburbia, yet the period was also characterized by cultural rebels
        such as the Beats and actors Marlon Brando and James Dean. Americans
        appeared triumphant in World War II, but the atomic bomb and Cold War
        insecurities undermined post war confidence. Within the realm of
        popular culture, post war fears were represented in film noir and the
        science fiction genre. On a more adolescent level, the national mood
        of apprehension was evident in accusations that juvenile delinquency
        was the product of comic books undermining the morals of American youth.

        This refrain, which culminated in the comic industry's internal
        censorship of the Comics Code and the blacklisting of hundreds within
        the profession, is the subject of David Hajdu's The Ten-Cent Plague.
        Hajdu is a New York City journalist, whose Positively Fourth Street
        focusing upon the early career and love lives of Joan Baez and Bob
        Dylan, enjoyed commercial and artistic success. The Ten-Cent Plague,
        while concentrating upon the early 1950s, presents a history of the
        comic book industry from its inception with the "Yellow Kid" of
        William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal to the discontinuation of
        horror comics and the birth of Mad Magazine in 1955.

        The comics of the early twentieth-century mass circulation newspapers
        in metropolitan areas such as New York City resonated with the rising
        immigrant population from Southern and Eastern Europe, but these
        lower-class manifestations of popular culture were denounced by the
        respectable bourgeoisie. The creative sons (and sometimes daughters)
        of these immigrants, many of them Jewish, were often awkward socially
        but found an artistic avenue of expression and assimilation during the
        depression era in the creation of such super heroes as Superman. Comic
        book readership expanded during the Second World War with the military
        purchasing comics in bulk as reading material for the troops. With
        Superman, Wonder Woman, and Captain America battling the Axis powers,
        approximately ten million comics were sold each month during the
        Second World War.

        The contribution of comics to the war effort, however, did not prevent
        the industry from becoming a scapegoat for post war insecurities. The
        social dislocations of global conflict placed considerable strain upon
        the American family, but officials such as FBI Director J. Edgar
        Hoover insisted that problems of youth crime were the product of crime
        comics glorifying lawless behavior. For example, Hajdu observes that
        the gory Crime Does Not Pay comic drawn by Charles Biro was selling a
        million copies per issue by 1947. In reaction to the supposed threat
        posed by crime comics, local and state governments passed legislation
        limiting access to crime titles, while teachers and schools organized
        mass burnings of comic books. Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver also
        attempted to make the comic menace part of his televised hearing into
        crime, but the senator found little evidence to substantiate a
        connection between reading comics and youth crime. The public
        condemnation, nevertheless, convinced comic publishers to discontinue
        most crime titles in 1950, replacing them with romance books and
        themes of sexuality.

        Meanwhile, Bill Gaines, who inherited the Entertainment Comics group
        (EC) from his father, joined with writer Al Feldstein to create a new
        line of horror comics such as Tales from the Crypt. Adolescents loved
        these horror books which questioned the idyllic existence of their
        parents in suburbia. Describing the appeal of EC's horror line, Hajdu
        writes, "To young people of the post-war years, when the mainstream
        culture glorified suburban domesticity as the modern American
        ideal—the life that made the Cold War worth fighting—nothing else in
        EC comics, not the giant alien cockroach that ate earthlings, nor the
        baseball game played with human body parts, was so subversive as the
        idea that the exits of the Long Island Expressway emptied onto levels
        of Hell" (180).

        The perception that horror comics were attacking such sacred American
        institutions as the American family produced renewed calls for the
        censorship of comic books. Leading the charge against the comic
        industry was psychiatrist Frederic Wertham, who in 1954 published
        Seduction of the Innocent, his diatribe against the comic industry.
        Testifying before the Senate Subcommittee on Investigating Juvenile
        Delinquency, Wertham maintained that comics contributed to collapsing
        moral standards and the growth of youth crime. While Wertham claimed
        that his conclusions were based upon scientific evidence, Hajdu
        disputes that assertion by observing that the psychiatrist employed no
        formal testing procedures or control groups. He also assumed that all
        comic readers were young children rather than adolescents verging on
        adulthood. Finally, Wertham indiscriminately attacked all comics;
        arguing that super heroes such as Superman fostered fascism by
        employing vigilante tactics to deal with social problems.

        In the context of fear and McCarthyism which gripped America during
        the early 1950s, however, Wertham's somewhat specious arguments were
        able to carry the day. Concerned with threats of government
        censorship, the comic industry formed the Comic Magazine Association
        of America, placing strict limitation upon ideas and images
        questioning traditional American values and orthodoxy. Under this new
        regime, the number of comic titles published in the United States
        dropped from approximately 650 to 250 annually, while over 800 artists
        never worked again in the comic profession. Gaines and EC folded, but
        not before launching a new magazine, Mad, continuing the irreverent
        nature of the original comics. Hajdu concludes that despite their
        demise in the mid-1950s, comic artists helped create contemporary
        popular culture. According to Hajdu, "Though they were not traitors,
        the makers of crime, romance, and horror comics were propagandists of
        a sort, cultural insurgents. They expressed in their lurid panels,
        thereby helping to instill in their readers, a disregard for the
        niceties of proper society, a passion for wild ideas and fast action,
        a cynicism toward authority of all sorts, and a tolerance, if not an
        appetite, for images of prurience and violence. In short, the
        generation of comic-book creators whose work died with the Comics Code
        helped to give birth to the popular culture of the postwar" (330).

        Hajdu's study is well written and relies upon 150 interviews conducted
        with participants in the comic industry during the 1940s and 1950s.
        Many of these artists, proud of their accomplishments in the comic
        industry, were never employed again in the profession. It was a
        blacklist similar to that practiced by the film industry in a climate
        of fear and intimidation. Despite the best efforts of Wertham,
        however, comics, as evidenced by summer blockbuster films such as Iron
        Man and the Incredible Hulk, remain an influential force in American
        culture. Debates regarding the impact of video games, music,
        television, and the inner net upon youth violence and behavior
        continue to proliferate in American culture. Those who are quick to
        advocate restraints upon expression would do well to remember the
        comic book scare of Cold War America so well chronicled by David Hajdu.

        Posted on Wednesday, June 11, 2008 at 8:33 PM

        http://hnn.us/ roundup/entries/ 51304.html


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