Interview with David Hajdu, The Ten-Cent Plague (Picador Press)
In a new book, The Ten-Cent Plague, author David Hajdu sheds light on what was once a much-maligned, and today remains a much-overlooked facet of cultural history: The unprecedented popularity of the horror and crime comic among the nation's post-war youth. He talks to us about the impetus behind his book and the way the anti-establishment sentiment expressed in early comics have helped shape today's society.
Why did you feel this area of popular culture that needed to be revisited at this time?
It's an acutely topical subject. There's lots of talk online right
now about whether there will be another sequel to the Grand Theft Auto game series this year. If you want to know how we got to the era of GTA 4 and the prospect of GTAs 5 and 6 - and who knows how many more - it helps considerably to look at the comic books of the early postwar years. One of most popular comics of the time, Crime Does Not Pay, was essentially Grant Theft Auto 0.1. What I'm talking about is not just the graphic portrayal of violence or luxuriating in the prurient, but the conception of violence as a kind of play - a
game, something fun. Crime as kicks. The comics of the 1940s and 1950s are not much like the comics of today - and nothing like the comics about valiant heroes such as Superman and Wonder Woman that established the medium in the late '40s. They were, in may cases, gruesome and horrific - and, in many of the same cases, also artful and sophisticated.
Is it hard to relay the intensity of the opposition experienced by the comic industry at this time to modern audiences?
It is very, very hard, because we have no frame of reference today. No form of art or entertainment has ever stirred the kind of hysteria that comics stirred in the '40s and early '50, and I mean none - not rock and roll, not hip-hop, not video games, not even pornography. America essentially went crazy over comic books. The hysteria over comics ran so deep and wide that by 1948, there were more than fifty acts of legislation banning or restricting the sale of various kinds of comics around the country. Los Angeles county outlawed crime comics, and a news dealer was arrested for selling a copy of Crime Does Not Pay. By 1954, there were more than a hundred laws against comics on the books in America. Communities all over the country organized protests against comics, and many of them climaxed in public book-burnings. Several of these events took place around Wisconsin, in fact - though comics protests were scarcely restricted to the state. One of the earliest comic-book
burnings took place in Wisconsin Rapids - in November 1945, just a few months after the end of World War II, and they continued in localities such as Stone Bank for 10 more years. Ten years of public book-burning. It is very, very hard to process these facts today, but all those burnings happened - in our country.
Do you think the antipathy towards facets of popular culture could ever become as extreme again?
I doubt it, though I'm better at studying history than I am at
predicting the future. Popular culture is far more atomized, less centralized, than it used to be. No form of art or entertainment today dominates popular culture the way comic books once did. Comics were the most popular form of entertainment in the country. There were 60 million to 100 million comic books purchased in this country every month, and each of those comics was passed around to eight or 10 people. Comic books utterly dominated popular culture in the early postwar years - and what went on in their pages was a radical challenge to the aesthetic and moral values of the culture at large.
What do you think was considered more at threat: public morality or taste - in which case, doesn't that threat continue to our time?
Great question. Much of the criticism of comics was couched as a defense of public heath or welfare. But it was always about taste, and the core issue was the idea that aesthetic values - and even moral values - are relative. Two centuries after Hume, aesthetic relativism became front-page news in literally hundreds of papers around the country.