So thundered psychiatrist Frank Wertham in his 1954 Seduction of the Innocent, a book which accused comic books of breeding juvenile delinquincy (quoted on p. 6 of Hajdu's book). Today, Wertham's comparison between Hitler and comic books seems ludicrous. But at the time, millions of Americans took it seriously, and it brought down the comic book industry.
David Hajdu's wonderful The Ten-Cent Plague is a history of the culture war over comics that spanned the decade after the second world war. By the mid-40s, he claims, comic books were beyond doubt the leading form of popular entertainment, selling an astounding 80 to 100 million copies each week. Some 650 titles were released each month, and the industry employed around 1,000 writers, artists, and editors. The leading comic book publisher was EC, headed by the genius William Gaines.
The genre in those days, lead by EC, focused primarily on horror and crime, and some of the covers, interior artwork, and story lines could get gruesome: pools of blood, severed heads, stony-faced and scary killers. The artwork and storylines could get sexy too: heroines in filmy negligees, the occasional cleavage or bare foot showing. Middle class parents, egged on by a few religious leaders and political conservatives, began to express concerns, and those concerns grew into a national crusade against the "corrupting" influence of comic books. Editorials raged against them, politicians speechified against them, the Senate held hearings, and schools and churches sponsored comic book bonfires.
In an effort to salvage what it could, the comic book industry organized the Comics Magazine Association of America in 1954, and promised to watchdog its product by promoting "wholesomeness and virtue" (p. 319). But the resulting CMAA Code, written to placate the blue-noses, destroyed the comic book. Cops and other authorities were never to be depicted with "disrespect." No comic book could use the words "horror" or "terror" in its title. All "lurid, unsavory, or gruesome illustrations" were forbidden. Ditto on the depiction of the "walking dead, vampires, ghouls, werewolfs, and cannibals." Ditto on "words or symbols which have acquired undesirable meanings" (pp. 291-292).
You get the drift. The enforcement of this Code transformed comic books into "funny books." Interesting art and storylines disappeared in the wake of the Code, to be replaced with comics about anthropomorphized animals. But the kids (and adults) who'd avidly read the old comic genre wanted little to do with its antiseptic replacement. By the mid-1950s, title release per month had dropped to one-third its mid-1940s level, and 8 out of 10 comic writers, artists, and editors were out of work. Most of the titles released by EC disappeared overnight.
William Gaines rebelled against the death of the comic by publishing MAD, which in a roundabout way (sketched by Hajdu in his final chapter) inspired the underground revival of the comic book in the late 1960s. But before that resurgence, one of the most brutal massacres of any culture war fought in America gutted an entire genre of popular art, and in the process intimidated and de facto blacklisted hundreds of talented artists.
Hajdu's book is a fascinating, frightening read. My guess is that few of us--even those of us who, like me, were kids during the comic book purging era--are familiar with the witch hunt that Hadju chronicles. It's well worth knowing about, particularly in an era when a new front of the current culture wars seems to open almost every week.