Book Review: The Ten-Cent Plague

Back before Spider-Man and the X-Men, comic books were the villains.

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In this earnestly diligent cultural history, David Hajdu chronicles the hysteria that once surrounded the lowly comic book. In the early 1950s, superheroes shared the magazine racks with underdog horror, crime, and romance comics. Titles like It Rhymes With Lust and Crime Does Not Pay depicted a sleazy, yet moralistic, universe where teens mashed at sex parties, the girl next door murdered her abusive father, and many a glowering mug or moll thrust a red-hot poker into the eyeballs of many a deserving snitch. Ultraviolent and anti-social, they were the video games of the McCarthy era. The nation’s bluenoses rushed to protect wayward youths by burning their comic books—sometimes literally.

Hajdu ably details the pyrotechnics of this culture clash, interviewing dozens of the cartoonists and writers who found themselves accused of what psychoanalyst Fredric Wertham had called “the seduction of the innocent.” The climax came with televised Senate hearings in 1954, where Bill Gaines, the publisher of—ahem—Educational Comics (and Mad magazine), was confronted with the cover of EC’s Crime SuspenStories featuring a man standing above a supine woman, gripping a blood-splattered ax and her severed head. “Do you think that is in good taste?” demanded Democratic presidential hopeful Estes Kefauver. Gaines, strung out from an all-night amphetamine binge, stammered, “Yes, sir, I do.”

After that, a draconian Comics Code essentially banned everything but bunny wabbits and Goody Two-shoes in tights. More than 800 comic-book creators were put out of work. For Hajdu, these urban, ethnic, working-class “cultural insurgents” were the great comic-book witch hunt’s forgotten victims. Then, of course, there were the kids, who had to wait a decade for the underground comics that recaptured the anarchism of their ’50s forebears.

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DEMOCRACY DOES NOT EXIST...

without free and fair elections, a vigorous free press, and engaged citizens to reclaim power from those who abuse it.

In this election year unlike any other—against a backdrop of a pandemic, an economic crisis, racial reckoning, and so much daily crazy—Mother Jones' journalism is driven by one simple question: Will America move closer to, or further from, justice and equity in the years to come?

If you're able to, please join us in this mission with a donation today. Our reporting right now is focused on voting rights and election security, corruption, disinformation, racial and gender equity, and the climate crisis. We can’t do it without the support of readers like you, and we need to give it everything we've got between now and November. Thank you.

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