Hey everyone, Slick Dungeon, here back to review another book. This time I am reviewing the book that was on the very bottom of my TBR list. I always meant to read this book but hadn’t gotten around to it. Reading the book at the very bottom of my to be read list was also the first item in my book challenge for the year which you can find here.
The book I read was The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How it Changed America. That’s quite a mouthful but it was a great read. It’s a non-fiction account of the period in the 1950’s in America when there was rising concern that comic books were contributing to the juvenile delinquency of the country. The idea was that books that depicted horrific acts and showed criminals committing crimes were causing kids to imitate those actions in real life. This was mostly spurned on by a book called Seduction of the Innocent written by a psychiatrist named Frederick Wertham.
There’s a lot more to the story than that but essentially, there was a crusade that was enacted and culminated in not only hundreds of thousands of comic books being burned but also led to legislation that banned the distribution of certain types of comic books (pretty much most of them) and caused the comic book industry to adopt its own censorship organization that nearly destroyed comic books as an art form entirely.
While Wertham had some real credentials and was a leader in many ways in his field, when it came to his book about the link between comics and juvenile delinquency, he only used cases he had come across, and his methods were anything but purely scientific. He excoriated comic books, called nearly all of them crime comics, no matter what the subject actually was and made bold proclamations about how these books were ruining children’s minds.
Interestingly, Wertham also was friends with and highly respected Richard Wright, the author of the fabulous book, Native Son. Somehow, it never seemed to occur to Wertham that if Wright’s book were drawn in comic book form, he would not want children to read that either. In fact, there are plenty of instances of classic literature, right down to nursery rhymes that depicted as much violence as some of the comics that were complained about. The difference? One was drawn and sold for ten cents and the rest was considered classic literature.
If, like me, you are an avid comic book reader, you probably know much of the history found in Ten Cent Plague already, however, it is still worth a read. The author David Hadju gives a brief but somewhat oversimplified history of the early start of comics from the first strips in newspapers, to the popularity of Superman right through the explosion of crime and horror comics that were mostly printed by EC comics.
What’s interesting in this book is just how heroic EC actually comes out in the story. They were blamed for causing the antipathy and hatred of comics by concerned parents but they were also about the only company really fighting back, saying that no one was talking to the actual readers of comic books. Particularly, Bill Gaines who was the head of EC at the time went to testify in front of a senate committee and stated that a comic book that had an ax murderer holding up a severed head was in good taste, “for a horror comic”.
That more or less sealed the deal for censors and then the Comics Code Authority was born. It restricted what could be put in comics and made the whole industry a lot less free. The Ten-Cent Plague only touches on it briefly but the whole industry would have gone under if it had not been for Stan Lee and his cohorts at Marvel for reviving the industry with new and interesting superheroes.
EC basically lost everything, except for Mad Magazine which they kept and used to poke fun at everything and everyone. It’s a magazine, not a comic book because it would not have passed through the Comics Code Authority’s restrictive standards. It has the goofy face of Alfred E. Neuman on it so that censors would think it is just a goofy kids magazine, never realizing that inside the pages of Mad was biting satire that was often more politically relevant than some of the major newspapers of the time.
The most difficult section of The Ten-Cent Plague to get through is the part where Hajdu talks about book burnings. Often times, kids were not told that the comic books would be burned. Most of the adults who were on the crusade of destroying these hadn’t read them and couldn’t articulate why they were bad but obviously seeing these covers with the words CRIME, HORROR and WEIRD in capital block letters must have been doing something to their children. It wasn’t all adults though, there were plenty of kids who thought that these books were no good and organized drives to do so themselves in several towns across the country. These were typically good kids trying to do the right thing because what they were seeing in the news was that comics were bad.
The fact that less than a decade earlier books had been burned in Germany prior to and during the second world war didn’t seem to matter to those who wanted to censor comics. They didn’t see it as the same thing but there are distinct parallels. The same parents that would encourage children to read Hamlet would be horrified by a child reading a comic book titled Crime Does Not Pay. Yet, there is plenty of violence and crime in Hamlet. I guess it’s worse if there are pictures to accompany it?
Anyway, The Ten-Cent Plague is a good read even if you are not that interested in comic books, it’s a strange and unique look at a part of American history that we should probably take the time to learn from.
After reading this book, I want to go out and read some pre-code EC comics. They’re pretty interesting, the horror ones are quite gruesome in fact, and over the top. They did not deserve to be burned though and Bill Gaines didn’t deserve to be chased more or less out of comics but it’s what happened.
If you don’t want to go read The Ten-Cent Plague, then do yourself a favor, go out and find a comic book. Read it and enjoy it and think for a moment about the fact that it very nearly did not exist due to the hysteria of a minority of people who never even read the books in the first place.