New in Books
The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed
by David Hajdu
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux) $26.
When the '50s establishment tried to sod over impolite certainties like sex and death, those certainties inevitably resurfaced as strange and perverted foliage. Comic books are the most colorful example: In the years immediately following their invention, they became a maniacal showcase of murder, monsters, and impossible female proportions. Hajdu provides an extensive, exhaustively researched history of the medium's inception, rise, and ultimate demise at the hands of the unreasonably prude.
Which is not to say that comics of the late '40s and early '50s are not gruesome. Often they are, horrifically so. But the manner in which they were attacked and eradicated avows a society that believed itself to be so susceptible to depravity that it could be pushed over the edge by exposure to a few cheaply printed panels of pop art. These people were deathly afraid of the funnies!
That comic books were poured onto bonfires by the barrelful in the decade surrounding the publication of Fahrenheit 451 is disturbing enough evidence of the paranoid unrest of the postwar populace, but the methods by which adults coerced their children into compliance is downright devious. These extreme efforts in the name of decency were made all the more ridiculous, knowing that the same coalitions would next be raised against the destructive forces of rock with a greatly diminished degree of success.
Hajdu's book is a tome, but it is a remarkably readable one. Notwithstanding his propensity for extraneous information and the fact that on several occasions he unnecessarily repeats himself (we are introduced at least twice to the fact of EC Comics publisher Bill Gaines's abuse of Dexedrine), the narrative is colorful and compelling. The creators of comics, poor New York immigrants and minorities, are vividly portrayed. Their plight could serve as a primer on suppression. The culminating courtroom scene, the deathblow to the industry, is downright cinematic.
David Hajdu reads Thurs April 17 at Town Hall, www.nextbook.org, 7:30 pm, $6–$8.