Monday, August 31, 2009

The Ten-Cent Plague: The great comic book scare and how it changed America by David Hajdu

Seems to me this country loves to watch judicial proceedings on TV--OJ, Bork, Anita Hill. People who will do their damnedest to duck jury duty will call in sick to work if the "trial of the century" is playing in their living rooms. In the 50's, there were hearings on the new medium, TV, that uncovered the Mob and others that allowed McCarthy to spread his hate and bile. Less well-known, were hearings that "exposed" comic books as the main cause of a highly feared condition known as juvenile delinquency. As David Hajdu ably recounts in The Ten-Cent Plague, you'd have thought it was the end of the freakin' world.

If there is a hero in the story, it's Bill Gaines, whose father,
M. C. Gaines, is thought to have been among the first to bind up reprints of Sunday comic strips into a comic "book". Bill went into the "family business", published countless comic titles and was quite successful. However, the horror and crime genre caught the attention of do-gooders and created a firestorm of trouble, leading to these nationally televised hearings, the enactment of ludicrous laws (merely selling comics became a punishable offense in some cities and towns) and, in the worst cases, led to public comic book burnings which fed the puritanical paranoia of the time. (Book burnings!)

I had no idea the lengths members of Congress and lesser elected officials, psychologists, (especially the shameful Dr. Frederick Wertham), and other high-minded moralists went to in order to vilify a harmless medium in the name of protecting our children (sound familiar rock 'n' roll, rap or metal music? computer games ?, etc.). As Gaines said, wisely, in an open letter to his young readers in one of his comics, "It isn't that they don't like comics for THEM! They don't like them for YOU!" Call me a pinko, bleeding-heart, liberal but I'll always be suspect of anyone who is supposedly looking out for me on issues such as morality, censorship, and what I can and cannot see, read, or hear.

What the hearings really succeeded in doing was to
ruin the careers of scores of talented artists and writers, printers and publishers, who just wanted to be able to create comics and make a living. The industry as it was then died, people lost those livelihoods and, eventually, the "menace" of comic books faded away. In the mid-1960's, when we had other issues to worry us, comics were put in proper perspective and the superhero boom brought comics back.

Just today, Disney paid $4 BILLION for Marvel Entertainment.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Bad Mother: a chronicle of maternal crimes, minor calamities, and occasional moments of grace by Ayelet Waldman

I have a recurring fantasy where I become really good friends with novelist Michael Chabon. In it, the Pulitzer prize winner and I hang out and talk comic books and music and literature, both lofty and less so. He not only lets me read early versions of his next brilliant novel but he asks for my feedback. I am supportive but honest, saying things like "Come now, Michael--Jews in Alaska? That'll never sell," which he appreciates. Then we have a beer and watch an episode of Firefly on the big screen TV he bought with his Pulitzer prize winnings. I become Uncle Reed to his kids, Zelda, Groucho, Fanny and Shmuley.

Sadly, after reading Bad Mother, this
book blogger's fever dream has been dashed.

Starting with the fact that I live in Ohio and he lives in Berkeley,
I knew chances were slim, but, after reading his wife's collection of essays, I realize this won't come to pass because I don't think Ayelet Waldman and I will get along. At all. Ever.

Waldman, a novelist and former attorney, got in hot water a few years back when she published a piece in the New York Times declaring she loved her husband more than her children. The aftermath was screeching
outrage and it ended in Trial By Oprah; Waldman actually went on the Big O's show and defended herself (admirably, I understand, which makes sense since she was a lawyer).

Here she writes about how difficult it is to be the Good Mother that I guess all moms feel the pressure to try to be. I'm neither a mother or a parent but it's obvious, even to me, that aspiring to that lofty ideal can only make a tough job even tougher. So where do we part company? How about where Waldman writes about being the mom
who tried to have dodgeball done away with at her kids school. The mom who is sure her kids are not only gifted but exceptionally so. Oh, right. THAT mom. Reed Next will have no truck with THAT mom.

My fantasy aside, the
unwavering and unflinching honesty it took to write these pieces--about her diagnosis with bipolar disorder, her youthful promiscuity, her decision to end a pregnancy and other painfully frank pieces--has stayed with me long after I finished the book. She's not shying away from anything here and if she is holding anything back, there can't be much left. If there is--"hoo hoo!" as they used to say on the old Jack Benny show.

There were times when the "oh, I'm such a bad mother" motif got a little tiresome but
I was quite captivated by the book. Much to my surprise, there were places I saw myself. Despite my belief that she and I will not make good neighbors, I admire her writing and appreciate the remarkable candor she brings to these pieces. The book is a keeper.

As for Michael, I can only imagine the pals we could have been.