Book Review: Readings
Reviewed by Rick Klaw, Fri., March 21, 2008
The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed Americaby David Hajdu
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 435 pp., $26
During the 1950s, many creative institutions came under societal and governmental scrutiny: movies, books, and especially comics. David Hajdu recounts this troubled time in The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America.
During the late 1940s and early 1950s, these 10-cent illustrated pulp magazines – intended primarily for children – featured stories of superheroes, teen angst, crime, romance, and horror. Many individual issues sold in the millions of copies. To the ire of many "right-thinking" adults, these tales often contained such unsavory elements as sexual innuendo, detailed crime depictions, and excessive violence. Parent groups routinely blamed comic books for "juvenile delinquency." The hysteria reached a fever pitch with the publication of Fredric Wertham's controversial vilification of comic books, Seduction of the Innocent (1954). The ensuing televised congressional hearings almost destroyed the industry, forcing hundreds of publishers out of business and nearly 1,000 people out of work.
Hajdu deftly chronicles these events through interviews with the era's comicdom creators as well as newspaper accounts of the various incidents. The heartfelt and insightful discussions offer a unique glance into a previously well-documented series of events. As the events unfold, Hajdu sites evidence from both sides of the comic-book debate, presenting a cautionary tale of creativity vs. control. By the end of Hajdu's account, the industry is in ruins, nearly destroyed, and therein lies the flaw in an otherwise compelling book.
Comic books as an art form obviously survived, eventually evolving into a respected medium. Hajdu makes a feeble attempt in his epilogue to explain comics' resilience by interviewing Robert Crumb as a savior of the industry. While Crumb's contribution to comic books certainly ushered in the modern era of graphic novels, his work was far from the only impetus for the industry rebirth. A more thorough examination of how comics survived would have provided an upbeat ending to an otherwise bleak story and further enhanced the fascinating narrative of The Ten-Cent Plague.