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.

No comments: