David Hajdu’s The Ten-Cent Plague serves as a fascinating cultural history of Cold War-era America. Hajdu’s book, subtitled “The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America,” illustrates the strange paradoxes at work in the post-WWII zeitgeist. Under the veneer of the conformity and suburban affluence of the Eisenhower years, a counter-cultural movement was finding its voice in the unlikely medium of comic books. Hajdu traces the history of the comic from its beginnings at the turn of the twentieth century through the end of the 1950s. Working in part from Gilbert Seldes‘s thesis that comics exemplified a type of “critical democratization” of art (along with “the movies, ragtime, vaudeville [and] popular song”) that “challenged aesthetic elitism,” Hajdu explains how such a maligned medium became a conduit for social change.
Although Hajdu covers the early strips like “Katzenjammer Kids” and “The Yellow Kid,” tracks the rise of Walt Disney and the pulp beginnings of Will Eisner, and explores the rise of seminal superheroes like Superman, the majority of the book is devoted to the national panic that arose from the massive popularity of crime and horror comics in the 1950s. Many of these comics were published by Bill Gaines’s EC comics. Bill Gaines became a crusader against the false morality of the Comics Code Authority (ironic side note: Gaines actually created the CCA as an attempt to bypass censorial influence, a maneuver that backfired) and its champions like Frederic Wertham whose pseudopsychological tome Seduction of the Innocent led to Congressional hearings on comic books, of all things. Hajdu explores not only the underlying civil rights battle on this censorship front, but also the themes of civil rights to which these comics were ultimately sensitive. Hajdu makes a persuasive case for comics as the foment of the anti-establishment youth culture of the 1960s–a beginning many cultural historians choose to identify exclusively with rock and roll and television. The epilogue of the book neatly dovetails this theme, moving from the establishment of Stan Lee’s Marvel Comics, a group that would feature outsiders and misfits of every stripe and color, to the bizarre and outlandish comix of Robert Crumb, who attests that “Mad was probably the biggest influence of all” on both himself and most of the other underground comix artists. So even though Gaines–the erstwhile hero of Hajdu’s narrative–has to give up EC–his legacy influenced not only the mainstream heroism of Marvel, but also forever affected the underground current of the counter-culture.
Hajdu’s writing is both erudite and populist, well-researched with a thorough bibliography and index but also highly narrativized, the sort of nonfiction that reads at a tidy clip. In short, the book works on two levels, both as a scholarly undertaking, ready for handsome quoting in any MA’s term paper for Graphic Narratives, but also as simply a good beach read for those fascinated–or astounded–by the paranoia of America’s McCarthyian past. If you’ve read Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, you may know a bit of this history, and The Ten-Cent Plague would be an entertaining way to learn more. Most die-hard comics fans will know the background here, but will surely want Hajdu’s book to get the full story. An entertaining, often funny, and even sometimes enraging narrative. Recommended.
The Ten-Cent Plague is now available in paperback from Picador Books.