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Monday, April 7, 2008

Seduction of the Innocent?

When comic books scared America

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One way of looking at the history of U.S. popular culture is to see it as periodic eruptions of condemnation of what young people—or others of “limited sophistication”—like to see, hear, read and do. Such an episode is described in The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), David Hajdu’s splendid account of America’s “comic-book scare” of the early 1950s.

It is weird—to use one of comic books’ favorite words—to read about events that one has experienced. I grew up on 10-cent comic books—indeed, they set me on the path toward a hopeless love of all printed matter—and Hajdu captures both what I recall of my adolescent reaction to comics and my later understanding of what society did to them. From my point of view, Hajdu’s book is dead-on.

It is also dead-on because Hajdu, previously the author of Lush Life and Positively 4th Street, has mined every sort of documentation to illuminate the subject and the era, from the comics themselves to studies about them to interviews with surviving comics creators and much more.

Comic books grew in the 1930s out of comic strips, which had stemmed from turn-of-the-century color Sunday supplements (the “Yellow Kid” and the like), which were themselves condemned by those in cultural and legal authority. They in turn had been successors of dime novels—likewise condemned in their time.

In the mid-1940s, between 80 million and 100 million copies of comic books were being issued each week. They spoke especially to young people who felt like outsiders in a world run by and for adults—even more so in an era before a strong youth culture took hold.

Because comics were primarily consumed by kids, they were looked down upon—or, rather, overlooked altogether. As a business, comics were not big, but they were extensive. By 1952, more than 20 publishers issued nearly 650 titles per month.

Based largely in New York, the business attracted workers who felt that the more established forms of publishing and art were closed to them. In a word, outcasts: immigrants, women, Jews, Italians, blacks, Latinos, Asians. Those in the comic business were outcasts creating a product for outsiders.

Hajdu’s account of the creations and their creators—notably such great cartoonists as Will Elder, Will Eisner, Jack Davis and Harvey Kurtzman—is particularly engrossing. Equally so is his discussion of the successive waves of themes in comics: first, crime and violence, then sex and romance, then horror and the macabre (at which Bill Gaines’ EC Comics excelled).

An early and influential blast against comics came in 1940 from Sterling North. He later became a well-known children’s author (Rasca), but at the time he was a book critic for the Chicago DailyNews. In a review of children’s books, North included a vilification of comic books. Titled “A National Disgrace,” it decried the “poisonous mushroom growth” of comics. North’s critique received national attention, and its disdain was echoed in criticisms throughout the decade.

The “scare” began around 1948. Accusations began to pile up, particularly the complaint that reading comics led to juvenile delinquency. There were church and community campaigns against comics, replete with book burnings, and more than 100 acts of legislation by state and municipal governments.

The self-appointed leader of this crusade was psychiatrist Fredric Wertham, whom Hajdu effectively discredits. He shows that as a work of scholarly research, Wertham’s anti-comics tome Seduction of the Innocent is a total zero. Yet many reviewers, including North, hailed the book.

The campaign against comics was always about something other than cartoons, or, indeed, crime and immorality. It was about class, money and taste, about traditions, religion and biases. It was a battle between young people and parents.

And it was pretty much over by 1956; the comics industry had all but collapsed under various pressures and hundreds of creative people had lost their jobs. Funny thing is, the campaign left no discernible improvement in delinquency rates or public taste. Hajdu’s subtitle may overstate the case, but if the comic-book scare did in fact change America, it was an instance of fixing something that wasn’t broken.