June 26, 2008

Book review: "The Ten-Cent Plague," by David Hajdu

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The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America (book; 2008)
By David Hajdu
Farrar, Straus and Giroux / ISBN: 978-0-374-18767-5

Fifty years after the fact, it seems that most of us have at least a general idea of the censorious, semi-fascist things that happened in this country during the 1950s, a time when the general populace became very interested in shrugging off the dark noir sweater of World War II and embracing the shiny plastic Modernist reality of a superpower America; this was the period of the Communist witch-hunts, after all, of the Hays Code dominating the movie industry, of the national cultural landscape suddenly overwhelmed by such clean postwar blandness as "Leave It to Beaver." And indeed, this was also the period when Congress, churches and psychologists decided to gang up and declare war against the comic-book industry, a story that has become hazy and ill-defined in our contemporary times, a topic that conjures up nostalgic images of kids with crewcuts and Daniel-Boone caps gathered around book-burning parties in the back lots of public schools, of cheesy pulp covers that look tame to modern eyes and that make us amusingly wonder why everyone got their panties in such a bunch back then in the first place.

The Ten-Cent Plague, by Tim Hajdu

So it's great, then, not to mention historically important, that a book like David Hajdu's The Ten-Cent Plague has gotten written and published; because as he so smartly reminds us, not only were the efforts to outlaw independent thought back then a lot more insidious and damaging than we collectively remember, but there was also a very good reason these censors got so upset in the first place, a very good reason people like Estes Kefauver and Joseph McCarthy were able to manipulate the public into such a frenzy. Because as Hajdu reminds us, the war against comic books in the '50s was actually a war against children altogether, during the first time in history that children actually developed an identity of their own, apart and separate from what we think of as adults. Let's not forget, after all, even the term "teenager" itself wasn't coined until the postwar period; before then, any person younger than marrying- and job-age was mostly considered a little half-formed animal, a little "human-in-training" that was to be silently tolerated but certainly not listened to, talked to or otherwise acknowledged. (And let's also remember, before the invention of modern medicine, most children only had a 50/50 chance of even surviving to adulthood in the first place; this is something so many of us always forget, when looking back and wondering how adults could be so cruel and callous towards children back then.)

As Hajdu methodically shows us, the development of comics into its own industry is in fact a mini-history of postwar culture in general; through a ton of original interviews and lots of anecdotal evidence, he leads us by the hand through the invention of Sunday-newspaper comics supplements in the late-1800s (originally created to appeal to non-English-speaking immigrant adults); then into the process of collecting these "strips" into publications of their own; and then the gradual marketing of such material almost exclusively to children -- something that could've only been done for the first time during this period anyway, because of the US finally being a rich-enough country that even its children suddenly had their own spending money. That's something else important to remember, in this age of ours where teens are considered to be their own marketing demographic (and in fact are considered by most marketers to be the most important demographic of all); that the development of comic books was the also the first time anyone ever thought of simply appealing directly to children for their money, versus appealing to their parents which had always been done before.

Combine this, then, with a series of unscrupulous publishers, an industry that few were actually paying attention to in the 1930s and '40s, the simultaneous popularity of dime-novels and pulp magazines for adults, and the initial discovery of the marketing lessons we now know about kids (i.e. sex and violence sell, and sell big), and you suddenly have a strange situation on your hands; a situation where the absolutely most violent and sex-laden publications in the entire country were these very comics being sold to children, during a period when adults were becoming more and more threatened in the first place by the idea of kids developing independent thought. The story of what happened next is fascinating and complex, one that lasted an entire decade and resulted in the permanent endings of hundreds of artists' careers; and this is the story that The Ten-Cent Plague mostly deals with, the story of Congressional hearings and the Comics Code Authority, the story of Jewish and black and gay and socialist artists getting driven out of town on a rail, the story of how America was determined to reinvent itself after the morally ambiguous mess of the film-noir period and WWII, even if that meant censorship and public burnings in the style of the Nazis they had just defeated.

And Hajdu handles this story...mmmmostly well in The Ten-Cent Plague, although his style is uneven enough that I feel the need to make a mention of it. The best parts, for example, easily are the ones where he gets into the origins of so many of these now-famous developments, and especially all the original interviews he conducts here in order to get the stories; to cite just one good example, his coverage regarding the formation of MAD magazine is gripping and fascinating, told in a way I've never heard it told before. But there are other moments in this 400-page manuscript that feel awfully padded-out, stuff that simply didn't hold my attention as someone only casually interested in this subject; there are places where Hajdu quotes entire deposition transcripts, other places where he gives detailed bios of the most minor figures you could possibly imagine. I mean, I'm glad all this is there; just from a scholarly standpoint this book is a goldmine, chock-full of primary research and obscure facts. It's just that a lot of that stuff is not going to appeal to the general non-academic reader, and in fact will likely make a lot of people's eyes glaze over a bit while trudging through it. (I mean, sheesh, just the notes and bibliography take up 70 pages of their own.)

This is not something I would change about The Ten-Cent Plague, but unfortunately something that does make its score go down a bit; it means basically that you're going to need a natural interest in the subject to begin with in order for this book to be really engaging, not something you can simply pick up and immediately be sucked into, no matter who you are. That said, it's definitely something I recommend, and to a wide range of people too -- not only comics fans, most of whom are going to love the off-the-cuff stories from these '50s masters found throughout, but also those who want to understand the postwar years in this country better, those who are interested in other '50s rebellious subjects like juvenile-delinquent movies, and those who are simply interested in watching how exactly a new artistic medium gets born, develops, and ages into maturity. (In fact, while reading this book I couldn't stop thinking about the videogame industry of our own times, and how its development has in many cases eerily mirrored the development of comics throughout the first half of the 20th century -- from silly diversion to million-dollar industry, and then suddenly into unexpected artistic maturity and respect, exactly what you're seeing for example with this year's Grand Theft Auto IV.) It's not for everyone, but The Ten-Cent Plague is certainly worth taking a chance on, especially if you're one of the people just described.

Out of 10: 8.7

Read even more about The Ten-Cent Plague: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 3:16 PM, June 26, 2008. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |