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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THE BIG PICTURE

You expect the big picture, and it's our job at Mother Jones to give it to you. And right now, so many of the troubles we face are the making not of a virus, but of the quest for profit, political or economic (and not just from the man in the White House who could have offered leadership and comfort but instead gave us bleach).

In "News Is Just Like Waste Management," we unpack what the coronavirus crisis has meant for journalism, including Mother Jones’, and how we can rise to the challenge. If you're able to, this is a critical moment to support our nonprofit journalism with a donation: We've scoured our budget and made the cuts we can without impairing our mission, and we hope to raise $400,000 from our community of online readers to help keep our big reporting projects going because this extraordinary pandemic-plus-election year is no time to pull back.

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