Dear reader, life is too short for crap books.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

"You Can't Have a Negro": The Ten-Cent Plague by David Hajdu

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

On one side were Americans dizzied by Red paranoia and terrified by the perceived threat of juvenile delinquency. On the other, a burgeoning field for young artists that offered nearly total freedom and creative control. Postwar America was just the right place for the gory, irreverent horror, crime, and romance comics, and at the same time, no place at all.

For years, the hundreds of titles produced by publishers like EC, National/DC, Marvel, and Timely were devoured by young readers, and either ignored or dismissed by the adults who weren't writing and drawing them -- something juvenile, but benign that kids would eventually grow out of. But then, the grown-ups started to pay attention, Fredric Wertham published the methodically shoddy, but polemically brilliant Seduction of the Innocent, and things got messy.

Hajdu's The Ten-Cent Plague is a cultural-historical examination of the crackdown against comics and the emergence of the Comics Code, which lamed everything up good and proper. This is what the book purports to be about, but it is also the least interesting part.

What makes The Ten-Cent Plague worth checking out is its exploration of the rise of the comics publishing houses, and the writers, artists, and publishers who determined their courses and individual styles. After the Comics Code put many titles off the rack and publishers out of business, literally hundreds of people were forced out of the comics business for good. For the book, Hajdu interviewed over 150 of these individuals, as well as comic book readers -- the very people who were excluded from the studies of the 1940s and 1950s that "proved" a link between comic books and juvenile delinquency.

The brightest spot in the book is Hajdu's account of EC (Entertaining Comics), the most notorious of the horror and crime comics publishers. Formerly Educational Comics, EC became the home of Shock SuspenStories, Weird Fantasy, Tales from the Crypt, and most enduringly, Mad, when science teacher Bill Gaines took over the business after his father's death. Gaines was an unlikely, and at first, unwilling leader, but he gradually became caught up with the fervor of his artists, and eventually became one of the industry's biggest defenders and champions. When the CMAA told him to edit one of his stories, saying, "You can't have a Negro," Gaines called up its head, Charles F. Murphy:

"Gaines said, 'Fuck you,' hung up on Murphy, and published the story intact.

'That was Bill's last act as a comic-book publisher,' said [Al] Feldstein."

Though EC's gruesome illustrations (for example, a baseball player hitting a ball with a severed limb) were found notably offensive by Wertham and Co., their war comics, edited by Harvey Kurtzman, refused to glamorize war. Hajdu writes, "Parents no doubt watched their children reading Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat and figured that the kids were being spoon-fed jingoism, unaware of the books' diet cynicism toward the American military and sensitivity to the impartial cruelty of war."

And how could you not love a company that sent out the following call for writers?:

"You should know this about our horror books. We have no ghosts, devils, goblins or the like. We tolerate vampires and werewolves, if they follow tradition and behave the way respectable vampires and werewolves should.

We love walking corpse stories.

We'll accept an occasional zombie or mummy.

We relish the contres cruels story...

No cops and robbers stories. Virtue doesn't have to triumph over evil."

Really, I would have loved an entire book about this. Leave out the pseudo-science, the Congressional hearings, the comic-book burnings hosted by misled youth, but then again, you can't tell the story of EC, and other publishers like them, without them.

Hajdu seems to realize this, and Wertham and the Comics Code encompass only the last 75 pages of the book, and really seem a little thin compared to his vibrant chapters devoted to the writers themselves.

All I can say in the end, and unlikelier words have never passed through my lips, is, "Ah, to have been a 12-year-old boy in 1951." It would have been good readin'.


Nathan said...

this sounds awesome. library hold placed.

mary_m said...

I had a feeling you'd like this one, Nathan!

Nathan said...

Ok, just half-way through so far. I do have to remark that the cover illustration by Charles Burns has to be the best jacket illustration so far of 2008. Makes me want to have a portrait of my childhood dog AND Eisenhower on my bedroom wall. Abby would love it.