The 10-cent Plague

Posted: August 21, 2009 in Books
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The 10-cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare and How it Changed America

By David Hajdu

Review © 2009 G.N. Jacobs

Stop me if you’ve heard this weepy song heard at least once a week in many comic book stores nationwide: “I used to have X title, but my Mom accidentally (or intentionally) pitched the books out.” Those of us that like comics all have all sung that song. For me it was the first printing of the Star Wars movie adaptation, a few Sergeant Rocks, an equal number of Howling Commandos and a representative sample of Batman, Spiderman, Avengers, Ghostrider and Superman.

No, I wouldn’t solve any financial problems with my collection and I don’t really blame Mom, because like most ten-year old boys I didn’t really understand what I had beyond something fun to read until I lost it. I do blame a certain stepfather who cut up my Star Wars books for the pictures to paste up on a board that was intended to encourage me to work out more as discipline for stupid petty crap no one remembers why it was important. What made comic books so hated among adults even in the 1970s that it was OK to appropriate things we bought with our own allowance money and perpetrate nothing less than a property crime?

I had to grow up and get back into comics as an adult to learn the name I sought: Frederick Wertham PhD. Pity, the man is long dead, but the hate and anger is very black. It would almost be worth committing grievous sins to get assigned to his room in Hell. Well, at least David Hajdu captured the silly and frightening times of the 1950s where we hunted Reds (almost) and comic books into extinction in his book The 10-cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare and How it Changed America.

I became progressively angrier with long dead people with each passing page as my mind made connections to other examples of American fear mongering that are more recent. Witch hunting didn’t just die out when Sen. McCarthy embarrassed himself on TV; turn on the news and see if there are parallels. The principles are the same: lie about the enemy, exaggerate the threat and play to parents who aren’t monitoring their own kids. That I got angry says all that needs to be said about the technique in the book: excellent.

I spent a whole night in one sitting reading this book on my Kindle racing through first person accounts of the poor kids coerced by people willing to believe anything written by a man with a PhD. Hajdu makes his case very clear that Wertham’s book The Seduction of the Innocent was based on almost no actual science with double blinds or other responsible study. Simply put, the “trusted expert” blamed comic books for bad kids, when all kids good or bad read comic books invalidating the thesis in any responsible experimentation regime.

But, it was the 1950s and who needs responsible science that may rock the boat in a society still at war with everybody? Parents didn’t even try to understand that societies change or they die and that comic books popular with their children were just something different, not bad. I kept my eyes open for the inevitable hypocrisy of black and white doctrinaire platforms whether it was comic books or a strict interpretation of Islam. People still collected and hid their comics from parents while Dad hid his Playboys.

Hajdu’s best scenes came out of the interviews with the kids who burned their books, because someone twisted their arms, and the comic book creators ruined by the televised hearings. However, as fascinating as the book is retelling what happened and possibly why, the book didn’t make as good a case for comic books being good as is now the accepted opinion. While some of the reasons for comics being positive things are included in explanations of why comics became popular in the first place, I felt an epilogue chapter that explains with footnotes how American thought on comics has changed now that the fear mongers changed gears to go after in order: Rock, TV, The Passion of Christ, Rap, Video Games, Muslims and now healthcare reform was in order.

I wanted to hear from the experts who’d been voices in the wilderness during hearings that use such phrases like Catharsis, Emotional Preparation for Adulthood, Interim Step to Full Literacy and Mythic Archetypes. These words are said about all art forms that show works that don’t always conform to the silly and safe notion that we must protect our kids from everything. Well, the one omission aside The 10-cent Plague is one must read book.

Now, where did I leave my time machine for going back to rescue my comics?

  1. Darlene says:

    Nice work kid. If I loved comic books, I’d read this.

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