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Monday, Feb. 2, 2009

Crazy Over Comics

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Despite the occasional incident, it seems society as a whole has developed a much thicker skin when it comes to dealing with the seamier aspects of popular media. Sure, many parents may bemoan the toxic effects of video games and Internet chat rooms, but few mediums have sparked the same frenzied outpouring as comics did in postwar America.

"No form of art or entertainment has ever stirred the kind of hysteria that comics stirred in the '40s and early-'50s," says David Hajdu, author of The Ten-Cent Plague. "America essentially went crazy over comic books."

In his new book Hajdu sheds light on what was then a much-maligned, and today remains a much overlooked, facet of cultural history. His book suggests that comics predated even rock 'n' roll as a powerful symbol of anti-establishment sentiment. In their bold and often lurid pages the imagination was awakened to a new world of possibilities, one where disorder reigned and the boundaries between good and evil became less reassuringly cut and dried than the notions of morality on which previous generations had been weaned.

"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-crime as kicks," Hajdu says. "The comics of the 1940s and 1950s are not much like the comics of today… They were, in many cases, gruesome and horrific-and, in many of the same cases, also artful and sophisticated."

His book offers detailed accounts of the authors and publishers of these comics, as well as the intense public anger that dogged them for years. This anger was expressed in a rash of book burnings, protests and more than 50 acts of legislation banning or restricting the sale of various comics, resulting in a complete transformation of the comic industry. In our time it's just as difficult to conceive of the overwhelming popularity of comic books as it is to imagine the violent antipathy they excited.

"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," Hajdu says. "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."

Hajdu will visit the Harry W. Schwartz Bookshop on Downer Avenue on Feb. 10 at 7 p.m. To read an exclusive online interview of the author, click here.