TEN-CENT PLAGUE: THE GREAT COMIC-BOOK SCARE AND HOW IT CHANGED AMERICA
to believe that they once had public book burnings in America . . .
Or more, specifically comic book burnings. That was back in the early
1950s when a public scare spear-headed by a shrink named Fredric Wertham
and his book Seduction of the Innocent linked comic books to
juvenile delinquency. One infamous “educational” short film of the era
shows how a group of young boys ties a smaller boy to a tree and tortures
him . . . after reading comic books. (Ironically this short film was directed
by Irving Kershner of Empire Strikes Back
and Robocop 2 fame!)
Today Wertham’s assertions – amongst others about the homoerotic subtext
of the relationship between Batman and Robin – may be the punch line to a
long-forgotten joke, but author David Hajdu in his book Ten-Cent Plague
- The Great Comic-Book scare and How It Changed America
tells how these allegations were taken seriously not just by a
nutcase fringe, but by mainstream American society.
Comic books were
hugely popular before the backlash. It was not unusual for a title to boast sales in
the 10 million range. However the books were mostly read by children and
adults at the fringes of society. The majority of the American adult
population however looked down on comics as being something “for kids” at
best and the direct cause of violent crime at worst. In Ten-Cent Plague
Hajdu tells how children during the backlash lied at school about their dads being comic book
artists; one boy preferring to say that his father worked at a shoe
Of course things weren’t helped by the fact that some of the comics were
pretty wild - and not just by the standards of the time! Famously facing a
governmental hearing EC Comics publisher Bill Gaines tried to convince the
hearing that a cover of a crime comic he published of a man holding a
woman’s decapitated head in one hand and a bloodied axe in the other was
somehow in “good taste.”
Ultimately things became so bad that almost the entire industry went
under. Boycotts and bad publicity forced many retailers to stop stocking
comics altogether. To survive, the industry imposed self-censorship in the
same way that Hollywood did – in the guise of the so-called “Comics Code.”
The code was even more stringent than the infamous Hays Code that
determined censorship of Hollywood movies at the time.
"A decapitated head in one hand and a bloodied axe in the other
was somehow in 'good taste' . . ."
One stipulation of the Code grated in particular, namely that “policemen,
judges, government officials and respected institutions shall never be
presented in such a way as to create disrespect for established
authority.” Can you say “police state?”
Bill Gaines’ EC Comics tried to do business by ignoring the Comics Code
altogether and published their titles without the Comics Code seal.
However all their comics were returned by retailers who were
too afraid to stock them. Ultimately EC Comics found that they couldn’t
operate under the strict Comics Code guidelines and cancelled all their
titles – except one. That one was of course Mad Magazine, which
ignored the Code altogether thanks to a technicality: it changed its paper
size to that of a standard magazine instead of a comic book and was thus
distributed as a magazine and not a comic book.
The 1950s comic book scare like the Red Scare destroyed many careers and lives in the process. Hundreds of talented
artists and writers involved in the business never found work in the
industry again, and had to resort to jobs such as security guards, cab
drivers and the like instead.
Hajdu writes with an immediacy that strikingly brings to life the spirit of
the era. He shows how this backlash against comic books had its roots in
an earlier pre-WWII era when the funnies were denigrated as
“ungrammatical” trash by conservative cultural commentators who insisted
that children should read more wholesome books such as Heidi and
Swiss Family Robinson instead.
Of course traces of this stigma lingers to this very day even though
comics’ profile as Public Enemy No. 1 has long since been taken over by
the likes such as gangsta rap and violent videogames. It is
this same stigma which however makes the medium appealing to many comic book
readers to this very day. We just wouldn’t want it any other way . . .
The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How
It Changed America
by David Hajdu
Hardcover: 448 pages
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (March 18, 2008)