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The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America

The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America

4.1 14
by David Hajdu

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The story of the rise and fall of those comic books has never been fully told -- until The Ten-Cent Plague. David Hajdu's remarkable new book vividly opens up the lost world of comic books, its creativity, irreverence, and suspicion of authority.

In the years between World War II and the emergence of television as a mass medium, American popular


The story of the rise and fall of those comic books has never been fully told -- until The Ten-Cent Plague. David Hajdu's remarkable new book vividly opens up the lost world of comic books, its creativity, irreverence, and suspicion of authority.

In the years between World War II and the emergence of television as a mass medium, American popular culture as we know it was first created—in the pulpy, boldly illustrated pages of comic books. No sooner had this new culture emerged than it was beaten down by church groups, community bluestockings, and a McCarthyish Congress—only to resurface with a crooked smile on its face in Mad magazine.

When we picture the 1950s, we hear the sound of early rock and roll. The Ten-Cent Plague shows how -- years before music -- comics brought on a clash between children and their parents, between prewar and postwar standards. Created by outsiders from the tenements, garish, shameless, and often shocking, comics spoke to young people and provided the guardians of mainstream culture with a big target. Parents, teachers, and complicit kids burned comics in public bonfires. Cities passed laws to outlaw comics. Congress took action with televised hearings that nearly destroyed the careers of hundreds of artists and writers.

The Ten-Cent Plague radically revises common notions of popular culture, the generation gap, and the divide between "high" and "low" art. As he did with the lives of Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington (in Lush Life) and Bob Dylan and his circle (in Positively 4th Street), Hajdu brings a place, a time, and a milieu unforgettably back to life.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“A vivid and engaging book.” —Louis Menand, The New Yorker

“David Hajdu, who perfectly detailed the Dylan-era Greenwhich Village scene in Positively 4th Street, does the same for the birth and near death (McCarthyism!) of comic books in The Ten-Cent Plague.” —GQ

“Who knew? The right was focused on the Red Menace and the left on the Red Scare. But, if you want to understand what was really going on in the mad, mad, mad world of the 1950's you should read David Hajdu's hilarious and harrowing account of The Great Comic Book Scare. Hajdu's tale is lurid, absurd, existential, weird, and scary, and contains real-life superheros and supervillains, and there is nothing funny about it.” —Victor Navasky, author of Naming Names

“THE TEN-CENT PLAGUE is about the best account yet of comics in America, an instant classic of cultural history.” —Geoffrey O'Brien, author of Sonata for Jukebox

“Every once in a while, moral panic, innuendo, and fear bubble up from the depths of our culture to create waves of destructive indignation and accusation. David Hajdu's fascinating new book tracks one of the stranger and most significant of these episodes, now forgotten, with exactness, clarity, and serious wit, which is the best kind. He illuminates the lives of his protagonists -- from pompous, on-the-make censors to cracked comic book geniuses -- with his own graphic powers, as well as his intense intellectual curiosity. The book is a rarity, vividly depicting a noirish 1950's America but without a trace of irony or nostalgia.” —Sean Wilentz, Professor of History, Princeton University

“Marvelous . . . a staggeringly well-reported account of the men and women who created the comic book, and the backlash of the 1950s that nearly destroyed it....Hajdu's important book dramatizes an early, long-forgotten skirmish in the culture wars that, half a century later, continues to roil.” —Jennifer Reese, Entertainment Weekly (Grade: A-)

“Incisive and entertaining . . . This book tells an amazing story, with thrills and chills more extreme than the workings of a comic book's imagination.” —Janet Maslin, The New York Times

“A well-written, detailed book . . . Hajdu's research is impressive.” —Bob Minzesheimer, USA Today

“Crammed with interviews and original research, Hajdu's book is a sprawling cultural history of comic books.” —Matthew Price, Newsday

“To those who think rock 'n' roll created the postwar generation gap, David Hajdu says: Think again. Every page of The Ten-Cent Plague evinces [Hajdu's] zest for the 'aesthetic lawlessness' of comic books and his sympathetic respect for the people who made them. Comic books have grown up, but Hajdu's affectionate portrait of their rowdy adolescence will make readers hope they never lose their impudent edge.” —Wendy Smith, Chicago Tribune

“Sharp . . . lively . . . entertaining and erudite . . . David Hajdu offers captivating insights into America's early bluestocking-versus-blue-collar culture wars, and the later tensions between wary parents and the first generation of kids with buying power to mold mass entertainment.” —R. C. Baker, The Village Voice

“Hajdu doggedly documents a long national saga of comic creators testing the limits of content while facing down an ever-changing bonfire brigade. That brigade was made up, at varying times, of politicians, lawmen, preachers, medical minds, and academics. Sometimes, their regulatory bids recalled the Hays Code; at others, it was a bottled-up version of McCarthyism. Most of all, the hysteria over comics foreshadowed the looming rock 'n' roll era.” —Geoff Boucher, Los Angeles Times

“A compelling story of the pride, prejudice, and paranoia that marred the reception of mass entertainment in the first half of the century.” —Michael Saler, The Times Literary Supplement (London)"

Ron Powers
The meticulously researched evidence of how easily America can be gulled into trashing its defining ideals in the name of Americanism—as if we needed any reminders—are among the highlights of Hajdu's book…The Ten-Cent Plague is a worthy addition to the canon of comic-book literature: a super effort, if not a superduper one.
—The New York Times Book Review
Dennis Drabelle
Horror and other raffish comics, and the campaign to stamp them out, are the subject of David Hajdu's smart new book, The Ten-Cent Plague (one thin dime being the price of the average comic in those days). Hajdu has consulted surviving artists and writers from the period, many of whom were unable to work again in the comics business after the crackdown. The result is a stylish, informed account that shows how easy it is to think fuzzily about other people's pleasures…Hajdu evokes the era colorfully and wittily.
—The Washington Post
Janet Maslin
The Ten-Cent Plague is the third book by David Hajdu to take a subject suitable for fans' hagiography and turn it into something of much wider interest…this book tells an amazing story, with thrills and chills more extreme than the workings of a comic book's imagination.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

This meticulous exploration into comics and the censorship campaigns of the late 1940s and 1950s proves interesting and accessible to even neophytes of comics. Hajdu reveals a complicated and controversial history interlacing public opinion and "research" on the effects of comics by cultural critics such as Sterling North and Frederic Wertham with interviews of artists, publishers and consumers of comics at the time. Stefan Rudnicki's deep gravely voice with its smooth release and pace compliments the sometimes exhaustive Hajdu. However, Rudnicki's quoting voice can be both tiresome and questionable as he instills accents that are not necessarily suggestive from the text, and often they are indistinguishable from other similarly accented voices. Surprisingly, though the topic is highly visual in nature, listeners won't necessarily feel they are missing out on the illustrations and photos in the book. Simultaneous release with the FSG hardcover (Reviews, Dec. 10). (Apr.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

Tarnish still lingers on the graphic narrative from anticomics crusades peaking in the 1950s. Remembering the past will hopefully prevent a replay, and this detailed history by Hajdu (Positively Fourth Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Fariña, and Richard Fariña) fills the bill admirably as a prompt. Several trends powered the crusades: a bright and talented but ignored out-class working in comics, a rising youth culture before television and rock music, a national Cold War witch-hunt mentality, and the prewar intelligentsia's desire to retain their cultural hegemony over all ages and ethnicities. Comics took serious critical heat as early as 1906, but it was the escalation of crime and horror comics in the 1940s and 1950s that became linked to "juvenile delinquency" (especially by psychiatrist Fredric Wertham) and led to legislation, book burnings, the Comics Code Authority, and the evisceration of the industry, with hundreds of people put out of work. Hajdu documents this painful, fascinating story and includes over 80 pages of notes and sources. Highly recommended for all public and academic libraries. See also Pulp Demons: International Dimensions of the Postwar Anti-Comics Campaign, edited by John Lent, for reverberations around the world, and Bart Beaty's Fredric Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture. [See Prepub Alert, LJ11/15/07.]
—Martha Cornog

Product Details

Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.10(d)

Read an Excerpt


Sawgrass Village, a tidy development about twenty-five miles east of Jacksonville, Florida, is named for the wild marsh greenery that its turf lawns displaced. It has 1,327 houses, each of them pale gray on the outside. On the inside, the one at 133 Lake Julia Drive is a dream shrine—a temple not to the past, like many other homes of retirees, but to a life imagined and denied. All the walls in its eight rooms, as well as the halls, are covered with framed paintings by Janice Valleau Winkleman, who moved there from Pittsburgh with her husband, Ed, in 1982, when he ended his four-decade career in sales (first, chemicals, then steel products). She had been painting almost every day for nearly thirty years. Having shown artistic talent at an early age, she had taken some formal training in fine art and illustration, and, at age nineteen, she began working professionally, drawing for Quality Comics in Manhattan. Then, one evening eleven years later, she came home from work and never went back.

For more than fifty years after that, Winkleman made no mention of the fact that she had had artwork prominently published as Janice Valleau. Her daughter Ellen grew up reading comic books without knowing that her mother had once helped create them.

In 2004, the Winklemans’ living room held seventy-four paintings—vigorous watercolor seascapes with violent waves, rendered in heavy blues and blacks; an acrylic of two seagulls suspended in flight, positioned upright in a golden-brown sky and surrounded by other gulls darting about them in every direction; watercolor after watercolor of old sailing ships, moldering in dry dock; a few abstracts of angular shapes and patterns done in pastel; portraits of exotic, alluring young women, one of them topless, with her face either unfinished or painted over. The images—at once lovely and tortured, all skillfully done but madly varied—could occupy a graduate art student or a psychoanalyst for some time.

At age eighty-one, Winkleman was a fragile woman, weakened by age and illness, though she still painted when she felt up to it, usually one or two days each week. “I like art—it’s important to me,” she said in a small but firm voice. Her eyes were bright behind grand, squarish glasses that covered most of her face. She sat straight-backed in a thin-cushioned metal chair that went with the desk in a half-room that also had her easel and taboret, a few boxes of art supplies, and a tea set. Her hands formed a teepee on her lap. She wore a pressed linen house dress and well-used tennis shoes, and she kept her legs crossed tightly with her calves angled back under the chair, as if to hide the shoes. Hanging in a frame on the wall to her right was the original pen-and-ink art to the first page of a Blackhawk comic-book story drawn by one of her old studio mates, Reed Crandall. In the days when they were working together, Winkleman had sneaked the page home in her portfolio, because she admired Crandall’s dynamic compositions and sure line.

“I wanted to be a magazine illustrator, but I loved comics, too,” she said, pointing her teepee toward the Blackhawk page. “I would have been happy being in any kind of art at all.”

Why, then, had she stopped working professionally half a century earlier? The paintings all over her house show that Winkleman had the skill and the versatility to have done commercial illustration. She had the experience in comics and the affection for the medium to have continued in that field. With the imagination she applied to some of her canvases, she might even have pursued fine art professionally. Why not?

“My God,” she said. She separated her hands and slapped them on her lap, then slowly brought them back together. “I couldn’t go back out there—I was scared to death. Don’t you know what they did to us?”

In the mid-1940s, when Janice Valleau was thriving as an artist for Quality Comics, the comic book was the most popular form of entertainment in America. Comics were selling between eighty million and a hundred million copies every week, with a typical issue passed along or traded to six to ten readers, thereby reaching more people than movies, television, radio, or magazines for adults. By 1952, more than twenty publishers were producing nearly 650 comics titles per month, employing well over a thousand artists, writers, editors, letterers, and others—among them women such as Valleau, as well as untold members of racial, ethnic, and social minorities who turned to comics because they thought of themselves or their ideas as unwelcome in more reputable spheres of publishing and entertainment.

Created by outsiders of various sorts, comics gave voice to their makers’ fantasies and discontent in the brash vernacular of cartoon drawings and word balloons, and they spoke with special cogency to young people who felt like outsiders in a world geared for and run by adults. In the forties, after all, the idea of youth culture as it would later be known—as a vast socioeconomic system comprising modes of behavior and styles of dress, music, and literature intended primarily to express independence from the status quo—had not yet formed; childhood and young adulthood were generally considered states of subadulthood, phases of training to enter the orthodoxy. Comic books were radical among the books of their day for being written, drawn, priced, and marketed primarily for and directly to kids, as well as for asserting a sensibility anathema to grown-ups.

Most adults never paid much mind until the comics—and the kids reading them—began to change.

During the early postwar years, comic books shifted in tone and content. Fed by the same streams as pulp fiction and film noir, many of the titles most prominent in the late forties and early fifties told lurid stories of crime, vice, lust, and horror, rather than noble tales of costumed heroes and heroines such as Superman, Captain Marvel, and Wonder Woman, whose exploits had initially established the comics genre in the late thirties and early forties. These unprecedented dark comics sprouted from cracks in the back corners of the cultural terrain and grew wild. Unlike the movies and the broadcast media, comic books had no effective monitoring or regulatory mechanism—no powerful self-censoring body like the film industry’s Hays Office, no government authority like the FCC imposing content standards. Uninhibited, shameless, frequently garish and crude, often shocking, and sometimes excessive, these crime, horror, and romance comics provided young people of the early postwar years with a means of defying and escaping the mainstream culture of the time, while providing the guardians of that culture an enormous, taunting, close-range target. The world of comics became a battleground in a war between two generations, delineating two eras in American pop-culture history.

“Comic books are definitely harmful to impressionable people, and most young people are impressionable,” said the psychiatrist Fredric Wertham, author of an incendiary tract, Seduction of the Innocent, which indicted comics as a leading cause of juvenile delinquency. “I think Hitler was a beginner compared to the comic-book industry.

“The time has come to legislate these books off the newsstands and out of the candy stores.”

Churches and community groups raged and organized campaigns against comic books. Young people acted out mock trials of comics characters. Schools held public burnings of comics, and students threw thousands of the books into the bonfires; at more than one conflagration, children marched around the flames reciting incantations denouncing comics. Headlines in newspapers and magazines around the country warned readers: “Depravity for Children—Ten Cents a Copy!” “Horror in the Nursery,” “The Curse of the Comic Books.” The offices of one of the most adventurous and scandalous publishers, EC Comics, were raided by the New York City police. More than a hundred acts of legislation were introduced on the state and municipal levels to ban or limit the sale of comics: Scores of titles were outlawed in New York, Connecticut, Maryland, and other states, and ordinances to regulate comics were passed in dozens of cities. Soon, Congress took action with a set of sensational, televised hearings that nearly destroyed the comic-book business. Like Janice Valleau, the majority of working comics artists, writers, and editors—more than eight hundred people—lost their jobs. A great many of them would never be published again.

Through the near death of comic books and the end of many of their makers’ creative lives, postwar popular culture was born.

Page-one news as it occurred, the story of the comics controversy is a largely forgotten chapter in the history of the culture wars and one that defies now-common notions about the evolution of twentieth-century popular culture, including the conception of the postwar sensibility—a raucous and cynical one, inured to violence and absorbed with sex, skeptical of authority, and frozen in young adulthood—as something spawned by rock and roll. The truth is more complex. Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry added the soundtrack to a scene created in comic books.

It is clear now that the hysteria over comic books was always about many things other than cartoons: about class and money and taste; about traditions and religions and biases rooted in time and place; about presidential politics; about the influence of a new medium called television; and about how art forms, as well as people, grow up. The comic-book war was one of the first and hardest-fought conflicts between young people and their parents in America, and it seems clear, too, now, that it was worth the fight.

Excerpted from Ten-Cent Plague by David Hajdu. Copyright © 2008 by David Hajdu. Published in March 2008 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

Meet the Author

David Hajdu is the author of Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn and Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Fariña and Richard Fariña.

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The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 14 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
More like the ten dollar plague
Guest More than 1 year ago
David Hajdu's book 'The Ten-Cent Plague' is an instant classic of research into the world of comics and a classic study of the social hysterias that seem to erupt occasionally in America and elsewhere. Hajdu explores the outcry against EC Comics and their cartoon brethren in the late forties and in the fifties. A strange wedding of religious conservatives and 'a few' mental health professionals, the crusade against comics is a forgotten piece of American social history. With scholarship and perception, Hajdu delineates the ambivalent relationship America already had with the comic form in the early 20th century and goes on to chart the rise and fall of the madness that was the crusade against comic books. In this time, comics were considered to be major sources of moral and psychological corruption, leading the nation's youth to become like characters in Irv Shulman's 'Amboy Dukes' or worse! So loud were the mouths against comics in America, the crusade actually spread to Canada and even 'of all places' Great Britain. Lives and careers were ruined and a whole industry was scared right down to its toenails. Ever wonder why DC Comics stuff was so tame and juvenile in the 1950s? The answer is that they, like everyone else in the industry, were scared. A mental health professional came forth with the idea that comics were corrupting the nation's youth and an unholy alliance between reactionary clergy and psychiatry was born'never mind that the psychiatrist in question was rarely supported by his professional peers'. This idea of the corruption of the youth seems to have resonated repeatedly in 20th century America. Remember in the late 1980s that religious conservatives made allegations that some parents were initiating their children into sexually abusive Satanic cults? Never mind the whole idea of 'oppressed memories' is objectively questionable and never mind that some psychiatrists and psychologists strongly questioned the idea. Nevertheless, some mental health professionals joined with the religious conservatives and the burgeoning anti-cult movement to start a 'Satanic' panic. Earlier in the eighties, there had also been a scare about supposed Satanic messages hidden in the grooves of vinyl records. Most mental health professionals dismissed it, but a few quacks went along with the idea. Once again, we see the theme of the Seduction of the Innocent. I tell you, real Satanists'usually ironic and intelligent people for the most part' and real pedophiles must have been laughing their guts out. I wonder what the great Hawthorne would have thought had he lived to see the 'Crusade against Comics'or the Satanic parents scare or the 'hidden Satanic messages' nonsense. He would undoubedly have perceived that it had deep roots in America's Puritan history and no doubt would have got a few novels/romances out of such twaddle. David Hajdu's book is a great study of social madness. He charts the rise and fall of this mind-boggling social phenomenon and scrupulously notes every single life ruined by it all. This is a sad and long overdue book on this topic. The scholarship in this book is, to my eye, beyond reproach. Hajdu keeps solid track of the facts while never losing sight of the people acting out their fates on one side of the issue or the other. This book is of interest to all comic fans - a must, in fact. And the book should be of interest to sociologists and mental health professionals. Mental health professionals might indeed wonder why so many of their kind-no matter how nominal-went along with so many 'seduction of our youth' panics. One doesn't need to be a Laingian to suggest that the perceived integrative function of psychology/psychiatry has an inherently conservative nature that makes for a however superficially surprising natural alliance with religious conservatives. Notice how Hajdu details implicitly the anti-democratic features of the religious conservative movement - thou shalt not critic
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It kinda seems good im 50/50
Guest More than 1 year ago
I am seriously disappointed in this history of comic books as a part of popular culture. It is very boring and not worth reading.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The Golden Age of Comics is generally thought to have ended in the late 1940s. The Silver Age of Comics started with 1956 with the reintroduction of the Flash in Showcase #4 (DC Comics). So what happened in between? The answer lies in David Hajdu's Ten Cent Plague, a book that sheds light on an oft-forgotten piece of American history.Hajdu, using interviews of many prominent figures from the era, traces comics through the 1940s and early 1950s, when public outcry over the content of the books at the local newsstand led to censorship, mass burnings and even Senate hearings. Laws were enacted banning the sale of comics in cities across the United States and school children were encouraged to collect comics to throw on a bonfire at their local school. This was McCarthyism before McCarthy (though, interestingly enough, the final Senate hearing occured on the same day as the first hearing led by McCarthy). Through it all, Hajdu outlines the attitudes and struggles by many in the comics industry to keep their livelihoods afloat.This is a book that is a must for any comics fan. Covering the era between the Golden Age and Silver Age, Hajdu fills in the gaps in current comics history. His accounts of the burnings and outrage are chilling. That a country which was founded (in part) on freedom of speech and the press could allow book burnings is, to put it mildly, frightening. This books serves as both a history and a cautionary tale for anyone afraid of public hysteria gone too far.
TEST NOOKUSER More than 1 year ago
A great way to learn the roots of the comic book industry. A wonderful and entertaining read!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Fred Ermanovics More than 1 year ago
Don't forget Tipper Gore in the list - 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. Remember the PMRC? Duh!
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