The Ten Cent Plague

In the comic book universe, one evildoer hovers above all others. No, not Lex Luthor or the Joker, but the real-life German immigrant psychiatrist Fredric Wertham, a midcentury scold who almost single-handedly altered the history of this popular art form. In the eyes of many comic fans, Wertham was Senator Joseph McCarthy, your high school guidance counselor, and your churchgoing parents all rolled into one. And he managed to shut down much of a thriving industry with the help of crazed housewives, self-righteous politicians, and plenty of well-intentioned do-gooders who considered comic books an incentive to violence and sexual misconduct, as well as a threat to God, country, and family. David Hajdu, whose previous books concern two other all-American art forms — jazz and rock ‘n’ roll, here chronicles this strange episode in domestic hysteria with a journalist’s attention to detail and a critic’s eye for the best the form has to offer.

The story that The Ten-Cent Plague rehearses has until now been largely the concern of the genre’s obsessive enthusiasts. In Hajdu’s capable hands, the tale rises to the level of true social history, documenting an early battle in the culture wars that continue to bedevil us today. The first “comic books” produced in the 1930s were compilations of short strips that had already appeared in newspapers. These sequential narrative panels were not uniquely American, but they took off at the turn of the century in the age of Pulitzer and Hearst, who ferociously fought for readers. By the time publishers saw a market for reprints, certain strips had proved more than disposable entertainment and had begun to garner critical praise. Gilbert Seldes, in his seminal celebration of American popular culture, The Seven Lively Arts (1924), includes a groundbreaking appreciation of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, the surreal and slangy antics of an androgynous cat and mouse. And Sunday color supplement readers encountered all sorts of brilliant graphics, from Winsor McCay’s lush dreamscapes to Hal Foster’s realist-style adventure tales.

The trouble began when comic book publishers ran out of reprint material and solicited new artwork. Unlike the more sophisticated newspaper strips, which many adults admired, the cheap (ten-cent) magazines, printed on newsprint, bound with staples, and sporting a wrap-around color cover, were pitched to kids. So the mostly craven publishers and printers indulged pretty much anything that would sell, paying little attention to subject and even less to style. The irony, of course, is that a whole new generation of talented artists and writers emerged from this wide-open field. As the children of immigrants, many of the young creators felt excluded from the respectable world of fine art and commercial illustration. The low-paying comic book industry nurtured talents as diverse as the Bronx-born Will Eisner, a true genius of the form who challenged comic narrative conventions in his pathbreaking series, The Spirit, featuring a hip post-superhero crime buster; and Charles Biro, a lowbrow hack from Manhattan’s Yorkville who churned out sleazy crime titles faster than he could copy the art from other sources. His Crime Does Not Pay, derived from lurid tabloid accounts of actual crimes, engendered countless imitations, with such titles as Crime Can’t Win, Crime Must Lose, and All-True Crimes Cases. As the superhero market slowed own (at roughly 1 million copies per month), the crime titles thrived, despite — parents would later say because of — the glorification of gangsterism.

Outrage over superheroes and gangster stories inspired numerous social watchdogs to action — parish priests sermonized over comic books’ alleged immorality; parents organized public burnings of titles they thought undermined their authority; and politicians considered banning books outright. By 1948, with comic books selling through the roof, the industry made a few gestures towards self-control, emulating the example of Hollywood, which responded to calls for censorship by establishing the Hays production code, with its self-regulations concerning the depictions of crime, sex, and general morality. The Association of Comics Magazine Publishers (ACMP) came up with a number of reasonable suggestions, but only a third of publishers joined the organization, representing less than a third of the 300 titles published monthly. So rules against “sexy, wanton comics” and “scenes of sadistic torture” — to name just two — went unheeded. In fact, a number of publishers stepped things up a notch. Biro, for one, expanded into romance titles that featured lots of “headlight” shots; that is, drawings of sultry women with large breasts.

Women’s magazines and religious organizations continued to rail against comics into the ’50s, but the real showdown came at midcentury, as government stepped into the breach. It wasn’t the first time — local politicians across the country had modest success imposing bans, often focusing their attentions on the means of distribution, the neighborhood newsstand or stationery store. In 1950, a Special Committee to Investigate Crime in Interstate Commerce, chaired by Senator Estes Kefauver, the legendary reformer from Tennessee, considered the issue of juvenile delinquency, which many alleged resulted from the increased reading of crime comics among teenagers. This early attempt to link cause and effect petered out, and those testifying made it clear they only feared crime books and not newspaper strips or the many funny animal titles on the market. But waiting in the wings were two formidable foes: Dr. Wertham and William Gaines, the young owner of Entertaining Comics (E.C.), a company he inherited from his father, M.C. Gaines, the man often credited with publishing the first comic book back in the ’30s.

Together with editor and artist Al Feldstein, another child of New York City immigrants, Gaines created what many (including me) believe to be the finest line of comic book titles ever published. Under their stewardship, E.C. turned from the Bible stories, cowboy tales, and silly titles for “tiny tots” that M.C. published. His educated son wanted to try something new — he and Feldstein created the science fiction titles Weird Science and Weird Fantasy and the hugely successful horror books The Haunt of Fear, The Vault of Horror, and Tales from the Crypt. The key to their success, as it was for other artists, was their youth — these were comics written by young people for young people. Gaines soon hired another local boy, the brilliant Harvey Kurtzman, to edit the highly realistic and carefully researched war titles Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat. Kurtzman also developed the company’s first humor title, Mad, which for its first 20-plus issues was a comic book, not the magazine it is today. In its early days, Mad featured ingenious parodies of other comics (“Superduperman,” “Starchie”) and goofy illustrations of popular poems (“The Face on the Barroom Floor,” “The Raven”). Soon, its scathing criticism of the consumer culture supplanted the more harmless fare. In any case, when everything came to a head in 1954-55, E.C. comics would be at the center of the ruckus.

In 1954, Wertham published his much-heralded volume, Seduction of the Innocent: The Influence of Comic Books on Today’s Youth. This anecdotal study, with no footnotes or bibliography or index, indicted an entire industry. Nothing was spared: superheroes were found to be fascist (Superman), homosexual (Batman), and sadomasochistic (Wonder Woman). Crime comics, in Wertham’s view, lead directly to criminal behavior, and he illustrates this with stories of juvenile misdeeds, all supposedly inspired by what they read in comics. He also claims that comics create nothing but contempt for authority and inserts in the middle of his book a number of visual illustrations, mostly single frames from comics, pulled almost entirely out of context. Prominent among his examples were panels from E.C. drawn by two of its very best artists: Jack Davis’s grisly, humorous drawing of a baseball game played with body parts, and Johnny Craig’s gory depiction of a hanged man.

Outraged, Gaines counterattacked, openly mocking Wertham in his comic book editorials, and offering to testify when comics again became the subject of government hearings. Only this time, the hearings succeeded. Gaines made a mess of his testimony, while Wertham was given a wide berth. The industry caved; most publishers quit; and, in Hajdu’s estimation, some 800 artists and writers looked for work elsewhere. The “Comics Code of Authority,” a much more detailed pamphlet of dos and don’ts than the earlier ACMP code, came into full effect — no book without this certificate of decency printed in its upper corner would be distributed to newsagents. But Gaines had the last laugh: by turning Mad into a magazine, he avoided regulation and created one of the most lucrative titles in publishing history. And in Hajdu’s sound estimate, Gaines and the many talents he discovered and nurtured helped create the best of postwar popular culture.

Hajdu surveys a wide landscape with great narrative skill, and he peppers his text with the testimony of numerous artists and editors on both sides of the cultural divide. He also tracks down some of the kids who were coerced into the many comic book burnings across the country, and to a person they regret their participation. But I think Hajdu errs in some of his political judgments, for Wertham was far from the right-wing scourge comics fans have depicted. The founder of a much-praised psychiatric clinic in Harlem, Wertham shared the left-wing scorn for popular culture common among German immigrant intellectuals, including the well-known Marxists of the Frankfurt School. My copy of the rare first edition of The Seduction of the Innocent comes with a glowing review, pasted on the endpapers, by none other than C. Wright Mills, the darling sociologist of the New Left who, along with many lefties of the time, considered mass culture a capitalist corruption. We know better now, perhaps, and Hajdu rightly faults Wertham’s backward and unscientific reasoning, even if he misinterprets the doctor’s motives. When comic books for adults reemerged in the ’60s and after, many artists cited the influence and inspiration of E.C. in particular. Comic books for grown-ups — from serious graphic novels to sexually charged fantasy titles — are here to stay, even if they haven’t all outgrown their lowbrow and juvenile origins.