Long before comic books became source material for movie and television scripts, teenagers across America escaped the confines of 1950’s suburbia through imaginations fueled by boldly colored comic books purchased for a dime at the corner drugstore. Creeps, ghouls, psychopaths and superheroes leaped from the boldly colored pages of comics, taking young boys and girls on flights of fancy, at least until their parents found them hidden in their closets. But these riveting tales challenged accepted social norms based on the conservative world view dominant in post war America, ultimately leading to a crackdown on the comic book industry.
David Hadju’s “The Ten-Cent Plague: the Great Comic Book Scare and How it Changed America” (isbn: 0312428235 ) chronicles this mostly forgotten era of generational conflict over comic books, that culminated with the passage of censorship laws that effectively destroyed the comic book industry as it then existed. Comic writing and artwork changed radically, as self-imposed comic industry censorship tamed all expressions of violence, sexuality, or criminality. Threatened by the imposition of local or state laws that would have enforced censorship of comic books, and de-facto censorship in certain communities, the neutered and tamed comic book industry lost some of its best talent.
Hadju’s book starts at the beginning of modern comic history, during America’s industrial age, when newspapers began publishing comic strips. From the beginning, comics had their detractors, as social critics scorned them for their lack of literary merit. Their creators hardly disagreed. They created comics to reach the masses, young and old, many of whom were illiterate. In large cities with daily papers, comics attracted immigrant readers who often had only a basic grasp of English. Hadju draws a connection between the earliest opposition to comics and the nativist, anti-immigrant strains of American popular culture that developed after the Civil War.
Comic books, as opposed to daily strips, arrived during the years before the Depression, largely as collections of daily comic strips. However, some comic book publishers had higher aspirations for the comic form. These founders of the comic industry envisioned high quality stories and art in comic books, but these lofty ambitions usually took a back seat to the demands of their readers. Thus, critical sentiment against comics rose as comic publishers created lurid, gory, and sexually daring stories to entice young readers. During the Second World War, however, following the example of other entertainment media, comics took on a patriotic tone to suit the times. The artistic potential of comics flourished in freedom, under the cover of patriotism.
At the same time, a backlash against the more lurid comics continued, led by Sterling North, a columnist for the Chicago Daily News. He attributed all manner of evil to comic books, calling them “a national disgrace” and labeling parents who let their children comics as criminally negligent.
After the war, as comics dropped their patriotic veneer, criticism of comics intensified. As Senator Joseph McCarthy’s gained media attention for red-baiting, and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) hearings on the influence of Communism in Hollywood captivated the nation, other politicians targeted comic books to grab the spotlight for themselves. As these events unfolded, comic book publishers fell back in defense, in some instances imposing self-censorship in hopes of protecting their livelihoods. But many of the great artists and storytellers of the era left the comic book business, leaving the industry in a rather sorry state.
Of course, the pendulum swings in both directions; as the turmoil of the sixties played out in the South, in Vietnam, and on college campuses, comic books were far from the minds of self-righteous politicians. A younger generation of comic book artists, notably Robert Crumb and Gilbert Shelton, produced comics partly as a reaction against the censored comics of the late fifties and early sixties, and as an attempt to return to the gritty expressiveness of the pre-censorship comics they grew up with. Today, the pendulum still swings in the direction of free expression, and comics have earned an unprecedented cultural cachet, inspiring movies, video games, and the acceptance of graphic novels (nothing more than a comic book with a tuxedo!) as a legitimate literarary form. Hadju’s book illustrates how easily the pendulum can swing the other way.