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

David Hajdu
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)

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Book Description

29 Aug 2008
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.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.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.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (29 Aug 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374187673
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374187675
  • Product Dimensions: 3.7 x 15.8 x 23.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 973,670 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


“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

About 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 Farina and Richard Farina." --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars How Comic Books Met Debilitating Censorship 23 Jun 2008
At various times, Americans have chosen to believe that comic books create juvenile delinquency and encourage all kinds of immoral behavior by corrupting the young, as described in the book with a questionable basis, Seduction of the Innocent. The Ten-Cent Plague describes a free-wheeling industry that entertained youngsters and people in their twenties with anti-establishment themes and stories.

Despite little or no research to support these views and the Supreme Court upholding the First Amendment, legislators listened to a few psychiatrists and church and scout leaders who believed otherwise and put stiff penalties on those who put out the most popular comics (especially crime, horror, and romance). Distributors and newsstand dealers didn't want to go to jail over comic books, and they knuckled under to the pressure. Publishers quickly began to go broke. The industry tried to save itself with a rigid self-censorship code that made comics bland and did little to restore sales. Hundreds of comic titles died, and many talented people left the industry under a dark cloud.

Mad Magazine was one of the few survivals, and only because it converted from a comic book to a magazine (which wasn't subject to the same penalties).

It's a chapter in American history that few know about or understand. David Hadju does a solid job of describing it. I was a child during most of this and was aware of the protests against comic books, but didn't realize what the effects were.

This book could have been quite a bit shorter and punchier. I was disappointed that so many simple events (like a comic book burning) were treated in such detail. It was a little ho hum after awhile.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
I have a fascination with America in the fifties; the so-called "Land of the Free"reached a terrible point where it had a conservative right-wing culture, which lead to anti-communist McCarthyism era of the Red Scare, Th Hollywood Blacklist, and the HCUAA. It is interesting to see how a society can so easily breakdown to such paranoia. And this breakdown is perfectly capture in this book. The author has done a great job in not only doing the research of this era, but also conveying the tragedy of the victims, helpless to survive.
And yet, he also showed that there was not a total damnation of the medium by the public. In fact, there was some that called it a potential art.
This book has a second story of the family trouble behind the long dead EC Comics, and how those who worked on it were rebellious against the traditional culture at that time, which brilliantly served to convey the personal, eye-witness experience of this trouble.
After reading this book, I was more informed about this turbulent than before. I recommends this to not only enthusiast of comic book history, but also to people who want to learn about a most trouble time.
Down with Book Burning!
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118 of 125 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "I think Hitler was a beginner compared to the comic-book industry!" 18 Mar 2008
By Kerry Walters - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
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.
30 of 31 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Thoroughly Entertaining and Thought-Provoking! 21 Mar 2008
By Dorian Tenore-Bartilucci - Published on
With THE TEN-CENT PLAGUE, David Hajdu does for comic books what his previous books did so brilliantly for music. Hajdu's research is exhaustive without being exhausting to read; THE TEN-CENT PLAGUE has the readability and vivid characters of a great novel as Hajdu tells his entertaining, thought-provoking account of the censorship debate over comic books in the 1950s, and how it trickled down into other aspects of pop culture and generation-gap clashes between youths and their parents. Instead of simply rehashing what comic fans already know, Hajdu digs deep into other areas, talking in-depth to the first-hand witnesses to these events, like the early comic creators who lost their jobs once people like Fredric Wertham and Estes Kefauver denounced comics as a corruptor of America's children -- you know, before heavy metal and video games and Fill In Your Favorite Bad Influence Here came along. :-) Hajdu brings the era and its struggles to life in a page-turner brimming with insight and affection. THE TEN-CENT PLAGUE is a must-read not only for fans of comics and pop culture, but for anyone intrigued with how censorship and power struggles shape society.
14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The evils done in the name of "good" 25 May 2008
By mrliteral - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Probably one of the greatest evils in society are the self-righteous moralists who want to rid the world of what they perceive as sinful, usually saying it's "for the children". Usually, the things they want to actually get rid of are merely items that encourage free thought or seemingly contradict their own narrow dogma. Thus today, we get those who want to ban Harry Potter books not because of any proven harm, but merely the fact that they don't fall into their own interpretation of good and evil. It's not enough to choose to ignore the items, but also to deprive others of their joy.

David Hajdu's The Ten Cent Plague details one such situation that occurred in the early 1950s and focused on comic books. This was an era when comics were at a creative and commercial peak, dealing with not only the superhero genre, but also horror, crime, war and romance. While some of it was over-the-top, it also provided entertainment and occasionally delivered a message as well.

The main villain in this piece is Fredric Wertham, author of Seduction of the Innocent, a book that alleged links between comic books and juvenile delinquency, links that were often weak at best, and completely fabricated in other cases. In this Legion of Doom, however, Wertham is merely the biggest name, but there are others as well, driven to hound the comic book industry out of existence. They would use book-burnings, boycotts and the police to get their way, and to a large extent, they would win. Due to their efforts, the Comics Code was instituted, resulting in comics that went from being fun (if edgy) to watered-down pap fit for only the youngest kids. It was like replacing Bugs Bunny and Homer Simpson with Baby Huey and the Care Bears.

It would take decades for the comic books to get back much of the creativity they lost, and commercially, they would never be as dominant again. Yet there were still heroes in this era - most notably Bill Gaines - but they could never quite grasp the significance of Wertham and company until it was too late. Around the only positive that came out of this period was Mad Magazine, which Gaines was able to squeeze past the Comics Code by changing its classification from comic book to magazine.

Hajdu's writing is always engaging. I would have liked a few more illustrations but that's a minor quibble. Overall, this is a good book of relatively modern history, not only giving a good look at another era, but also providing a valuable lesson that too many times, the ones who say they are protecting "the children" from evil may be doing the actual evil themselves.
14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars As We Finally Recover Our Sanity, and Our Love of Comics, Here's a Truly "Weird Tale" of How Bigotry Nearly Burned Out the Genre 24 Mar 2008
By David Crumm - Published on
Here's something truly "Weird," "Scary" and "Amazing!" It's a history with a gripping-but-true story of American hysteria that most Americans probably have forgotten - or perhaps never knew -- until Columbia University journalism professor David Hajdu thoroughly researched America's crazy crusade against comics.

In the growing literature about Americans' love affair with comic books, Hajdu has staked a major cultural landmark with his new, "The 10-Cent Plague." As a journalist myself for more than 30 years, I've closely watched the ebb and flow of American comics and graphic novels. I can tell you this: Hajdu's cultural history is so fresh and so solid that, henceforth, anyone interested in understanding the strange twists and turns of our post-World War II culture will have to include his history of comic hysteria on any "must-read" list.

If you haven't heard Hajdu on NPR or read any of the growing number of magazine and newspaper articles about his book, the use of the term "hysteria" may sound - well, "Insane." But the tragic truth is that, starting in the late 1940s only three years after the defeat of the Nazis in Europe, Americans in towns across our nation felt it was their sacred duty to build comic book-burning bonfires, encouraging and sometimes compelling students to stand up for virtue at these conflagrations. Hajdu points out that this showed a terrifying blindness to world history - eerily reminiscent of the zealous book burnings in Germany in the 1930s.

A few wise American observers in that era recognized this historical irony - but, as shocking as this sounds, Hajdu documents that the mainstream of American media amounted to a frenzied mob in some Grade-B horror film. Almost no one was willing to defend comic books - and, as strange as this may seem, such current pillars of free speech as The New York Times, the New Yorker and the Hartford Courant actually poured fuel on the comic book pyres. If you doubt this, check out Hajdu's detailed reporting. He cites enough examples to make all of us in American media hang our heads these days to think of how wrong our venerable institutions could be.

This was, indeed, a very strange outbreak of paranoia and bigotry, which Hajdu deconstructs with fascinating anecdotes along the way. It was partly a flowering of fear about emerging youth culture that began as far back as the war years. It was partly a fear of the "sort of people" involved in producing comic books, who were considered socially unsavory - an ugly bias vaguely aimed at "lower-class" and immigrant Americans.

Along the way, much damage was done. New laws were passed to stamp out comics. Police action was taken against comic books and comic writers, artists, editors and publishers. Congressional hearings were held. Things got so ugly that Hajda devotes 14 pages in his appendix to listing the names of hundreds of men and women in comic book publishing houses "who never again worked in comics after the purge of the 1950s."

Why should we care? Well, first, this truly is a "good read." Hajdu obviously has been influenced by his love of comics and pulp fiction in general. He writes this history in a suspenseful narrative style that vividly paints key scenes for us, such as the first mass burning of comics in 1948.

Second, and more importantly, this is a cautionary tale against censorship, which cost the religious community far more than it gained by righteously crusading against pulp. During World War II, for example, Hajdu documents that Catholic leaders had discovered that comics served as important educational media for millions of young Catholics, especially those challenged by the English language. Thousands of parishes across the U.S. began using Bible-story comics for evangelism. Unfortunately, within a few years, a handful of overly zealous Catholic leaders jumped into the vanguard of a take-no-prisoners campaign to destroy comic producers.

It's only now - half a century after the purge - that comics are rebounding in a big way and, finally, there's growing interest in spiritual circles in drawing young readers into timeless truths with the powerful words and images of comic artistry.

The cover of Hajdu's book shows a teen-age boy sitting up late in bed, flipping the pages of a creepy comic book. It's a great cover design! I bet you'll find yourself sitting up late to finish "just one more chapter" of Hajdu's wild history of that explosive era.
16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Censorship in four colors 18 Mar 2008
By Shelby - Published on
This book is an interesting overview of the "beginning of the end" of the great1950s' crime and monster comic craze that featured horrific comic book titles like Dick Briefer's The Monster of Frankenstein and The EC Archives: Crime Suspenstories Volume 1 (The Ec Archives), both of which quickly gets cancelled due to the creation of the self-imposed Comic Code Authority. The fuss starts when Fredric Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent (a scathing assault on the comic book industry due to its use of sex, violence and deviate behavior - all of which was aimed at children) is published and garnishes enough controversy to warrant a Senate committee hearing. The result: decades of censorship and wimpy white-bread superheroes cast as role models for the youth of America. THE TEN-CENT PLAGUE is a must read for any golden age comic fan.
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