Review: The Ten Cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare and How it Changed America
Friday, August 6, 2010 at 10:10AM

I've always loved comic books, ever since my folks bought me a multi-pack at Walmart in the late 1980s.    Almost immediately, I found that comics became a means to relationships.  Many of my longest friendships over the years were fortified by comic books.  Chatting during my wedding reception, the Minister of Intrigue and I realized that comics were the thing that first got our now-19 year friendship going.  Similarly, DHP and I have had many intense discussions over as many years about Sandman, Preacher, and more. Although comics have always had characteristics that attracted me--unique art, compelling storytelling, collectibility, etc...--what made them so important to me was the sense of community.

David Hajdu's new book "The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America " is about the community that first created comic books.    It is also a story of how a combination of mob mentality, political opportunism, and junk science almost destroyed that community.  As such, it ends up being kind of a tragedy, even as it glorifies human creativity and stands as a powerful polemic for free speech. 

The Ten-Cent Plague tells the story of the rise and first fall of comic books in America, beginning with their origins in the early 20th century as cheap entertainment, popular with (and often depicting) immigrants and poor people.  It concludes with the  Senate hearings on juvenille delinquency in 1954 that led, almost directly to the creation of the Comics Code Authority (CCA).  You can find the CCA symbol:

 on almost any comic from around 1960 until 2000 or so.  After the code appeared, comics changed completely.  Its creation and harsh implimentation led to the collapse of the comics publishing industry, and the unemployment of thousands of creators.  They only resurfaced in the 1960s, when a new generation of creators like Stan Lee found ways to connect with youth through superheros like Spiderman and the X-men,  that flew under the radar of the CCA.

Haidu wisely draws the narrative from the point of view of the people who lived it, and his book is filled with interviews with comic creators, editors, publishers, and fans.  Among those quoted include Will Eisner (one of the first comic creators to see the potential of comics as a serious art form), Al Feldstein (A prolific artist and editor at the infamous E.C. comics, and later at Mad Magazine), Jerry Robinson (an early Batman artist and Inker), and many, many more.  These quotes are the real treats of this book, for a comic fan like me, but they also provide a personal context to what could easily be a more abstract, historical chronicle. 

It's clear that these people loved what they did, and honed their craft to a high level.  It's also clear what a chilling effect the CCA had on this group.  One of the most heartbreaking sections of Haidu's book is actually after the epilogue, where, on 15 pages, with two columns on each page, he lists the names of the individuals who were never able to work in comics again because of the comic book scare.  Aside from this blacklisting, there were more tangible responses to the comic scare.  While no legal action was ever taken at a national level, there were numerous state and local ordinances that prohibited the selling of comics to minors (or to anyone, in some cases), as well as comic book burnings across the country, led by parent and church groups. 

E.C. Comics' story forms the final arc of the book.  Initially founded by M.C. Gaines, "Educational Comics" (eventually "Entertaining Comics") is credited with publishing "Famous Funnies", arguably the world's first commercially successful comic book.  Upon the elder Gaines' death, the business was taken over by his son William, who shifted its publishing roster from books like "Picture Stories from the Bible" toward the then popular genres of Crime and Romance comics, and  eventually, with the help of Al Feldstein, created E.C.'s now famous "New Trend" line of horror, science fiction, and suspense comics.  Such titles included "Vault of Horror", "Shock Suspenstories", "Weird Science", and the still-famous "Tales from the Crypt". 

I'm lucky enough to own an original copy of this book, which hangs above my desk as I write this. These books were characterized by well-written, nuanced stories and highly stylized art from some of the greatest artistic talent that comic books have ever seen.  Many of the stories were often strong morality plays that railed against racial discrimination, sexism, mob violence, and drug abuse.  They were also gory and lurid, on the level of maybe a 1980s slasher movie.  This combination made them popular with older teenagers, and with GI's who enjoyed the more mature themes and complex morality that E.C. brought to bear. 

This popularity led E.C. and Gaines into direct conflict with the comic book scare, and his battle against censorship, including his famous testimony at the Senate Committee hearings, provide the climax of the book.  E.C. lost that battle, and ended its popular "New Trend" line, except for Mad, which it continues to publish to this day, outside of the CCA purview because of its magazine format. 

History has certainly come around to E.C.'s side. "Tales from the Crypt" has seen a new life as an episodic television show that retold many of E.C.'s chilling talesOriginal issues are extremely rare and collectible, and reprints, both in comic book and hardcover form, are popular.  And Gaines is revered as a stalwart defender of free speech, paying the price for his beliefs. 

All in all, "The Ten Cent Plague" is a fascinating book, both for comics fans, and for folks interested in one of the more colorful and unique aspects of American popular culture.

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