Subjective Ramblings and Peripheral Thoughts from the Edges of a Comics Studies Project
Journalist David Hajdu’s The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America was first published in 2008, but despite its age and the rapid and constant growth of comics scholarship and popular history, it remains one of my go-to books for oral history of the comics industry in the 1950s. Written in an engaging way, it remains one of the better meetings between journalism and history in the library of comics writing and makes for a good read while at the same time touching on many topics of interest for the comics historian or interested layman.
The book starts off with a brief introduction to the history of American comics before settling into more detailed sketches of the post-WWII industry. Through the course of three hundred some pages, Hajdu discusses the rise of different popular trends in comics publication, including crime, horror, and romance comics, but the main topic is the road, some would say, to temporary ruin of the medium in America. Through readings of newspapers, magazines, official transcripts, and more, as well as interviews with people involved in the story, The Ten-Cent Plague is a history of the moral panic about comics that reached its peak in 1954 – with the Senate hearing on juvenile delinquency in which comics played a large role, the publication of Fredric Wertham’s (infamous) anti-comics book Seduction of the Innocent, and the establishment of the comics industry’s heavy-handed self-censorship Comics Code Authority – and its aftermath.
What emerges in the book, through its descriptions of comic book burnings, public debates, a surprising amount of comics-related legislation, and the fates of comics creators who were driven out of work never to return, is a history that almost seems too strange to be true. The book at times comes close to elevating some of the players a bit too far off the ground (and tearing some down a few too many pegs), but for anyone who wants to know how and why comics for a time came to be viewed as a danger to America’s youth, or for anyone who wants to know how the industry looked in the early postwar era in general, Hajdu’s book is definitely worth a read.