Archive for Sunday, March 2, 2008

Scare tactics

Book recalls era in postwar America when comics came under attack by government

March 2, 2008

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

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

David Hajdu is author of "The Ten-Cent Plague."

David Hajdu is author of "The Ten-Cent Plague."

Hey, Kids! Dad was an abusive drunk, mom had a public boyfriend, and angelic, blond-haired little Lucy hated them all.

So she shot dad, planted the gun, lied her face off in court, and the judge gave mom and paramour Stevie the hot squat. The last panels in the story "Orphan" show Mom and Stevie dying in the electric chair (separately) and one happy Lucy.

All this and more for a dime. Shock Stories, Entertainment Comics Group, April/May, 1954.

There were worse comics out there, dripping with crime, gore, sex and terror and leading to state and local censorship laws, church and school-inspired book burnings, thuggish youth posses policing malt shop magazine racks and televised U.S. Senate hearings.

Even "Archie" comics fed school yard pyres under codes that, evenly applied, would have torched some of the world's great literature.

Whatever the concerns, and as horrific as some comics were, David Hajdu's new book, "The Ten-Cent Plague," argues with persuasion that the reaction amounted to a full-blown assault on the First Amendment at a time when the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, McCarthyism, the Red Scare, The Bomb and more had a cowed, off-balance postwar America.

The question arises: Was the "plague" the printed product or the volatile reaction to it? Hajdu leans to the latter.

Comics grew out of the turn-of-the-century New York newspapers, which often shot low and seldom missed.

When "The Yellow Kid" appeared in Joseph Pulitzer's New York World in the late 1800s, it fostered the term "yellow journalism" and numerous comic strip knockoffs that caused parents, clergy and some editors to decry them as depravity and the devil's path to delinquency.

But Hajdu says the early comics "spoke to and of the swelling immigrant populations in New York and other cities. The funnies were theirs, made for them and about them."

If grown-ups didn't like it, tough. Thus began, he writes, the generation gap, a long battle well worth fighting.

A Depression-era kid could usually scrape up a dime for a comic featuring a noble action figure such as Wonder Woman of scanty garb, which segued into the crime, lust and horror that reflected film noir and pulp fiction of later times.

Hajdu presents a readable, reasoned and detailed narrative of how it happened that will appeal to comics fans, civil libertarians, blue noses and history buffs, perhaps for different reasons.

Because of, or despite, the nature of such works as "Crypt of Terror," "The Corpse in the Crematorium" or "I Joined a Teenage Sex Club," by the late 1940s American teens were buying at least 100 million copies a month, shared and read by several others.

By 1952, more than 20 publishers were producing nearly 650 titles a month, and competition was cutthroat.

But cutthroat wasn't enough. If one comic cover featured sliced throats, next month's competitors needed severed heads, preferably dripping.

In the 1940s, states and cities were passing tough laws controlling sales and content. Washington state licensed comic book dealers.

To head it off, the industry developed a code, which collapsed. A much stiffer one that followed trimmed the field to stuff no kid cared about.

"Archie" artists were told to rein in Veronica's bustline and add some inches to her skirt.

Meanwhile, Bill Gaines, who proudly initiated the horror genre in comics in 1950, and Harvy Kurtzman went to work on Mad, which got under the radar by being a magazine, not a comic book.

"From its debut in the magazine section of the newsstands in 1955, Mad honored its charter to squirt soda in the face of mainstream America," Hajdu writes.

It worked because it was high-school humor that talked to kids yet tugged establishment whiskers.

Meanwhile, juvenile attention turned to television, and comics, now tamer, recovered slowly.

The "plague," however defined, was over.

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