Monday, January 23, 2017
Book Review 379: The Ten-Cent Plague
Those who did not have to live through the early ‘50s can hardly imagine how stifling the state of public opinion was then, nor how terrified the population was of seeming, in even the most trivial ways, out of step. Americans were frightened of commies, sex, Joe McCarthy and ideas generally.
It was not assumed that people were loyal citizens, they had to take oaths on it (although, since it was believed that commies held oaths in no esteem, the point of the oaths was difficult to discern). Americans were not just terrified, they were confused and stupid. And proud of it. Children, as I was then, were not required to take oaths but we did have to endlessly repeat a Pledge of Allegiance. We started imprinting In God We Trust on coins, but, really, we didn’t trust anybody.
If there was any part of American life where this stultification was absent, it was the comic books. Although devoid of ideas, they were stuffed with attitude, and the common scolds who dominated American public opinion did not like it.
But, as David Hajdu reports in “The Ten-Cent Plague,” they had a hard time doing anything about it.
The Catholic Church made a run at it around 1940, which was just six or seven years since the comic book was invented, but didn’t get far. War took people’s minds off things and, up to 1940 and beyond, the mass of public opinion was anti-Catholic and so not inclined to rally to a Catholic-led witch hunt.
“The Ten-Cent Plague” is more a joyous history of what comics were than an excoriation of the illiberal attempt to corral them. (It is also, regrettably, not nearly as carefully edited as Hajdu’s joyous history of the singer/songwriters, “Positively 4th Street.”) Hajdu cannot seem to bring himself to give more than a barebones account of the anticomics movement.
He places comics in the same milieu that formed the wet core of the Roosevelt coalition: urban, northeastern, modestly educated, largely immigrant and outsider. (That may be why I don’t remember the lurid comics that set off the schoolma’ms. Brookhaven Pharmacy in rural Georgia, where I got my fix of Scrooge McDuck on the rare occasions when I had a dime, probably didn’t carry the violent horror comics that alarmed the straitlaced; at least, I cannot recall them although there were westerns, romances and Baby Huey in abundance.)
Where comics were read, they were read in megadoses. Sales totaled around 90 million copies a month, in a population of 140 million. The core reading population, from about age 13 to early 20s (although apparently there were substantial numbers of adults readers, too) was much smaller, so the average American teen must have been buying roughly a comic a week.
Hajdu accepts without question the claim that each purchased comic was read by 6 to 10 people. Similar claims were made then by Life and ridiculed mercilessly by Walt Kelly (who developed “Pogo” in funny animal comics), so the total readership might have been 2 billion eyeballs a month. Or not.
Some hundreds of persons fed the stream, mostly from Manhattan: writers, limners, inkers, printers, colorists etc. “The Ten-Cent Plague” concludes with a list of workers “who never again worked in comics after the purge,” 66 names to a page, and it goes on for 14 pages.
A lot of them were Jews, although there were also rugged kids from heartland America, like Jack Cole (Plastic Man), whose parents allowed him to bicycle across country from Ohio alone as a young teenager; my, how we’ve changed. When the renewed assault came, there was a strong stench of the antisemitism that still pervades American Protestantism.
The Catholic Church supported but did not try to lead the second assault on the comics. By the early ‘50s it had tied its political hopes to McCarthy and its crusade against American values to an attempt to control films. Each family in the parish was pressured to subscribe to the anticomics Our Sunday Visitor newspaper and young Catholics like me were required to promise not to watch lubricious or antinazi movies, but the priests did not make the children pledge not to read comics.
There were plenty of illiberal organizations eager to take over for the church. The Girl and Boy Scouts were prominent, and the far-right American Legion balanced its support of baseball with antipathy to the First Amendment.
The characteristic protest of the anticomics movement was the public book burning. As Hajdu shows, the book burners were frankly aware of and comfortable with its association with Naziism.
Their figleaf of respectability was provided by Fredric Wertham (by a very mild irony, an immigrant himself), who was the kind of psychiatrist who gave psychiatry its reputation for phoniness at the time.
Hajdu gives us less about Wertham than we want but the basic story is nasty enough.
Wertham’s inquiries (which were not serious enough to be called studies) were conducted on juvenile delinquents in Harlem, where he found that comics led to deviance. Given what we know about white doctors and black kids, we are entitled to doubt that the subjects were in fact antisocial.
Wertham published popular books but never attempted to get into peer-reviewed journals. To the credit of the professionals, some academic and clinical psychologists criticized Wertham’s claims in public, but they were barely heard. In the ‘50s, viewing with alarm almost guaranteed an attentive audience.
Hajdu presents the conflict as between small-town people and urban values. It does seem that the book-burnings were almost all in suburbs and tank towns, but the book-burners were supported by the big-city presses. The ur-document (aside from Wertham’s books) that all banners referred to was a series on the comics menace in the Hartford Courant. Anticomics legislation passed in two of the three biggest cities in the country, Chicago and Los Angeles (although in that era both cities were politically in the hands of rightwingers).
And then Hajdu’s story . . . stops. One day the comics were a vital part of young America, and on the next the distributors stopped distributing, or the retailers returned bundles unopened, and all the comics publishers closed down. Except for a short interview with Robert Crumb in exile in France, nothing of consequence remained to report about. There was no fallout.
There’s another whole book’s worth of fallout. William Gaines, whose EC had printed some of the most startling of the horror comics, had been experimenting with a new kind of magazine, Mad, and when he shut down EC he continued Mad.
Kids who were fascinated by the possibilities of telling stories graphically still had a place to go, no holds barred, and Gaines did not accept advertising.
Hajdu barely mentions it, but comics were almost alone among American publications in not relying on advertising money. This is not surprising. With a readership for whom a 10-cent purchase was a big deal, comics had almost no appeal for advertisers. Gaines got by entirely on newsstand revenue and was thereby the freest editor in the nation. When he decided to editorialize against the war in Vietnam, he infected some of the most restless, creative, don’t-give-a-damn kids in America.
The rightwingers had won their battle against comics, independent thinking and free expression. Within eight years, they had lost the war. Underground comix, inspired by EC and Mad, went right for the heart of rightwing religion and illiberalism from the start, with Foolbert Sturgeon’s “Adventures of Jesus.”