Book Review By Janet Maslin
“The Ten-Cent Plague” is the third book by David Hajdu to take a subject suitable for fans’ hagiography and turn it into something of much wider interest. After his oddball, revelatory forays into the worlds of jazz (“Lush Life”) and folk music (“Positively 4th Street”), Mr. Hajdu has delved into the lurid, untethered world of early comic books. A representative story cited here is “The Wild Spree of the Laughing Sadist,” from the mockingly titled magazine “Crime Does Not Pay.” It depicts a boy so murderous that his victims included the family goldfish and parakeet.
Before the comics were beset by the prolonged crackdown that is described here, they were created in a spirit best summarized by Mickey Spillane, one of Mr. Hajdu’s many colorful interviewees. (That prolific pulp-fiction king, who died in 2006, wrote a few cops-and-robbers comics stories beginning in 1940.) “If it’s any good, somebody will pay for it,” Mr. Spillane said, “and a kid’s dime buys the same cup of coffee.”
Those kids’ dimes became greatly controversial in the 1940s, when parent-baiting comics prefigured what would become a thriving and defiant youth-oriented culture. “They instilled a pride of ownership rooted not in adult conceptions of value, but in their absence,” Mr. Hajdu observes in a style that is incisive and entertaining. As for crime, it “permeated the tales of heroism in nearly all comic books, since it was the thing crime fighters fought.”
So the comics cranked out the gangsters, monsters and mutants that would galvanize crusaders defending young readers’ virtue. “The time has come to legislate these books off the newsstands and out of the candy stores” went the rallying cry by formidable figures like Frederic Wertham, whose 1954 tract “Seduction of the Innocent” helped focus the attack. This kind of condemnation led to the book burnings and McCarthy-esque hearings of the mid-1950s that are at the heart of Mr. Hajdu’s investigation. His book includes a long list of comics contributors whose livelihoods were destroyed by the purge.
“The Ten-Cent Plague” proceeds chronologically. Its early sections explain how the comic book began as an experiment, then made its way into the cultural mainstream. “The ghetto of comics was becoming a boomtown,” Mr. Hajdu writes as he looks at the ethnic roots of the early comics’ creators, the subtexts of their imaginings and the Wild West business atmosphere in which they found themselves.
This part of the book, with its thumbnail biographies of the pioneers, is heavily geared to aficionados. But the creators were anything but dull. Will Eisner, who became a comic book entrepreneur in his teenage years and went on to become one of the field’s legendary artists, says of his partner, Jerry Iger: “Monday morning there was always some babe that would show up in net stockings, and she’d say: ‘I met your partner. He gave me a job.’ ”
The book goes on to revel in the creative effusions that followed. Graphics are analyzed with acuity and gusto. (“The main cover image was a fever dream of bedlam.”) So is the blossoming of subcategories like the “narratives of young women assaulted by ‘weird menaces’ (that is, those with otherworldly methods of removing their victims’ garments)” or category-melding titles like “Cowboy Love.” Even the Sunday-school comics meant to counteract the sordid ones are examined for their over-the-top exuberance. “David defeats the Philistines by slaying and beheading Goliath!” went an early, insufficiently tame Bible comic headline.
As the comics’ most defensible and durable creations, the superheroes generated mimicry in unlikely quarters. Those who began noticing the comics’ gleeful licentiousness acquired their own version of superpowers. Of one schoolboy who led a book-burning, anti-comics protest, Mr. Hajdu writes, “Hawley and his fellow crusaders so embraced superhero comics’ ethos of eradicating evil that they employed it against other comics.” And it worked, partly because the comics’ creators were too giddy with success to realize what trouble they were inciting.
“It was a bad time to be weird,” one artist says of 1953. By then, governmental witch hunting was on the rise, and public fears of juvenile delinquency were easily fanned. While Mr. Hajdu does not defend the comics’ reckless extremes, he regards some of them as more worthy of psychiatric examination than punishment. And he positions the drive to clean up comics as a response to larger fears. “There was no mistaking the commonality of what was starting to happen in comic books and what was going on in the rest of the world,” he quotes the comic book editor Frank Bourgholtzer as saying. But on a scale of postwar public panic attacks, he places this one somewhere below the Red scare and above U.F.O.s.
“The Ten-Cent Plague” examines the early power of television to fan these flames as Senate subcommittee hearings, led by Senator Estes Kefauver, were conflated in the public consciousness with the Kefauver hearings on organized crime. At the center of this crisis was Bill Gaines, the publisher whose EC empire was crushed by the specter of censorship after his testimony about a drawing of a woman’s severed head helped crystallize the debate.
Yet he went on to have the last laugh. Horror and terror had been among Mr. Gaines’s staples, but the use of those words in titles was banned outright in 1954; New York State added “crime” to the list in 1955. However, Mr. Gaines had a humor comic book, and to escape regulation he decided to call it a magazine. That magazine, Mad, went on to skewer any target it chose with happy impunity.
But for many of those described here, the party was abruptly over. In a stroke of needless melodrama, Mr. Hajdu frames the comics’ collapse with a prologue glimpse of one artist whose career was extinguished: Janice Valleau Winkleman, who for 50 years never told anyone, even her daughter, that she had once had a career in comics. She warrants Mr. Hajdu’s sympathy and admiration. But the events recounted in “The Ten-Cent Plague” need no such histrionics. On its own, this book tells an amazing story, with thrills and chills more extreme than the workings of a comic book’s imagination.