The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How it Changed America, by David Hajdu

Winston Churchill once said that the worst argument against democracy was talking to the average voter for five minutes.

This book outlines one of those irritating periods (and there have been so many) when the emotions of the electorate overwhelmed facts or common sense, in this case nearly destroying an entire industry.

David Hajdu follows the history of the comic, from its roots in “Hogan’s Alley” (where The Yellow Kid first appeared, giving a name to “yellow journalism”) through the first introduction of comic books as free gifts with cereal (an invention of the father of Mad Magazine publisher William Gaines) and into the age of the super-hero comic book.

There had been regular assumptions by the public and some fact-free theorizing by public experts that the original cartoons were ruining American youth, with the same regularity that everything from the waltz to rock-and-roll were destroying American youth. Hajdu says the original furor over “funny pages” died down at the start of the Second World War, when the comics and their heroes turned patriotic. After the war, however, with the growing success of comic books and the intense competition to create something new, there was a growing belief that the medium was causing juvenile delinquency. This despite the fact that juvenile crime rates began decreasing once fathers began returning from the war.

Hajdu goes into wonderful details about the oddball personalities who built the industry, as well as the equally oddball experts and politicians who targeted the industry in the 1950s and basically emasculated and destroyed it. (I have often wondered why, as a person raised in the late 50s, the only comics available were generally Casper and Little Lulu.)

Long before “fake news” the experts began making up facts about the damage that comics, their plots, their artwork, their writing, and even their loud colors, were distorting young minds. It didn’t matter that none of their contentions were scientifically tested. It fit the assumptions of many Americans who were convinced that there was a problem even if none existed. The real turning point came when the company that William Gaines inherited EC Comics (originally Educational Comics and later Entertaining Comics) realized that there was a potential market to make comics like the horror radio programs that ran in the 1940s. “Tales from the Crypt” and “Weird Science” joined their already popular crime series. But the often bloody and gruesome drawings and macabre stories (the stories no worse than many Poe stories) led to a growing backlash and eventually hearings in the US Senate.

It is a tragic story in many ways, with stories of many who lost their jobs in the industry and never recovered. Hajdu also touches on the aftermath and the gradual recovery with innovators like Stan Lee and Robert Crumb.

It’s a fascinating book that reflects on the times, politics, and the urge to have fun creating something new. Good reading not just for those interested in comics but those interested in modern history, society, and politics.