I was always around comics growing up; with the exception of the 6-part Double Dragon series, however, I was never really a collector myself. I spent a lot of time around them, though, usually pawing through boxes at the annual sale at the local comic book shop, or reading my brother’s once he was done with them. By the time my brother and I read comics, the mainstream was dominated by superheroes. Granted, we had entered an era where it was all right to have blood and sex and swearing again, and I suppose I always assumed that’s the way it was.
David Hadju’s The Ten-Cent Plague is the story of the rise and fall of comic books—queerly, it stops short of chronicling their inevitable rise (D.C. and Marvel, especially), focusing mostly on their origins and the hysteria they generated during the 40s and 50s.
Comics began as funnies, more or less: crude drawings with limited text, mostly aimed at new immigrants with poor English skills. They were about and for the lower class, and generated little more than distasteful sniffs from the educated, who saw them as merely another vulgar habit of the underclass. Within a few decades, however, there was a thriving industry that produced a wide array of monthly rags: from illustrated Bible stories to Archie to a variety of horror and crime comics that were, it seems, relatively lurid and often prurient. They may very well seem tame by modern comparisons, but comic book covers featuring severed heads might elicit some shock and awe regardless of generation.
Thus, comic books quickly went from an intellectual issue (read: “Children are reading this trash when they could be reading good books!”) to a moral issue (read: “Comic books are directly responsible for juvenile delinquency!”). So, just after WWII, with thoughts of Nazi book burnings fresh in the public mind, a lot of well-meaning morons held comic book burnings, enlisting or pressuring local youth into surrendering/collecting comics for the blaze.
On the political front, a few loud-mouthed psychologists and politicians eventually made loud cries, and poorly-worded bans of “offensive” literature (Comstock would be proud) went into effect in cities and states all over the country. It was a mess, and it choked the comic book industry to within an inch of its life.
This is the short version of it all; Hadju has done some impeccable research, and it’s all very interesting, but I have to admit that there was a lot of name dropping, time spent chronicling artist after writer after publisher in tangents that went nowhere. This book needed some editing to make it more readable; it’s as if Hadju had so many points to make that he forgot to tell a cogent story.
The eerie parallels between video games in the 1990s/2000s and comic books in the 1930s-1950s didn’t fail to catch my attention. Hadju never makes the point explicitly, but when reading about grandstanding housewives and so-called “experts” on comic books, I can’t help but picture Jack Thompson and his tirades against violent video games, blaming them for everything from violent crime to food spoilage. I suppose every medium has to go through the sort of nonsense.
The Ten-Cent Plague was a good and informative book, but suffered at times from a dryness (that may only speak to my relative inexperience with comics) and a tendency toward unhelpful tangents. I still recommend it, but I warn readers that there’s a fair amount of text to wade through the doesn’t add to the book.