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A TNR Debate: 'The Ten-Cent Plague'

In this TNR debate, Douglas Wolk, the author of Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean, and David Hajdu, music critic for The New Republic and author of the new book The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America, discuss Hajdu's book, the potentially malevolent effects of lurid horror comics on '50s teenagers, and the current state of the art form.

Please click here and here to read the previous entries in this debate, and here to view a (newly-expanded!) slideshow of lurid early-'50s comic book covers.

From: Douglas Wolk

To: David Hajdu

Dear David,

I'll admit it: Asking whether the comics crackdown of the '50s precipitated or delayed the artistic renaissance in the medium was a trick question. I suspect both are at least sort of true. The advent of the Comics Code split American comics into two states: Where once the form had been a monolith of ten-cent entertainment for children and the newish category of "youth," the Comics Code Authority seal was a wall partitioning off comics that were formally meant for children (and were generally owned by corporate concerns) from comics that were distinctly not meant for children--and, crucially, were generally owned by their creators. Will Eisner's great innovation with The Spirit, besides his cartooning itself, was his insistence on owning his own creative work. (And, admittedly, the work of the other people who wrote and drew The Spirit when he wasn't around ... ) That ownership isn't quite a prerequisite to mature work and innovation, but it sure seems to make it a lot more likely.

In fact, and I realize this is a little bit heretical to say, very few of the pre-Code comic books that inspired mass burnings actually pointed toward serious, sustained work for older readers. Yes, some of the EC comics were terrific (Harvey Kurtzman's war comics are still devastating), and Eisner's best Spirit stories are about as good as it gets. I'm sure that there are other early American comic book artists who still have yet to get their due, too. (Have you read I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets, the collection of Fletcher Hanks' circa-1940 work that came out last year? In 2008, it's indelible and ragingly bizarre; I wonder if it passed for normal at the time.) Even a lot of the best pre-Code comics, though, were thoroughly uncontroversial kid stuff. One of the most gifted storytellers in American comic books in the '40s and '50s was Carl Barks, who wrote and drew Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge and wasn't even permitted to sign his own name to his work.

If what you mean by the "critical attention" that artists like Eisner and Jack Cole lacked at the time is extensive academic study and gallery walls--well, mass-culture entertainment of any kind hasn't gotten much of that until very recently. Other American cartoonists of their era had at least a modicum of buzz: Milton Caniff, Bill Mauldin, and Al Capp were legitimate culture heroes, and George Herriman's Krazy Kat was a favorite of the cognoscenti. (Of course, they drew comic strips, which were meant for everyone who read newspapers, not kid-stuff comic books.) But calling Arnold Drake, Leslie Waller, and Matt Baker's tepid "It Rhymes With Lust" a graphic novel (I'd hesitate to crown it "the first") isn't any sort of qualitative judgment: the deciding factors are that it's long and squarebound--a "graphic novel" in the very dullest and most literal modern sense. And Krigstein has made it into the comics canon more or less on the strength of a single magnificent eight-page story, "Master Race." (Quick, name two other stories he drew!) Here's another alternate-history question for you: If there hadn't been a conflict over morality in entertainment going on, how do you think the comic books of the '50s might have been received at the time?

The issue of violence as play, which is a lot of what Dr. Wertham and his ilk objected to in the comics of their time, is a big and disturbing question--certainly, a lot of the most popular entertainment of the present day puts the audience literally behind the trigger. (I know people who are planning to take a few days off work later this month to dive into Grand Theft Auto IV.) One of the reasons people turn to art, though, is to experience intense, painful and seductive things as fantasies, and then turn off the screen or close the covers and return safely to their real lives. (The problem may be that actual bloodshed is now presented in the same way as fantasy bloodshed, which is another question altogether.) Do you think comics--as opposed to movies, TV, radio and pulp fiction--particularly inured the American audience to violence?

You make the case that "the function of comics was to challenge the standards of adult society," but I suspect that the comics of the '40s and '50s reinforced the standards of adult society at least as much as they challenged them: newsstands sold Justice Traps the Guilty, not Do What Thou Wilt Shall Be the Whole of the Law. Kids who read them were meant to get excited by the might of justice, and the way that everything ultimately worked out to conform with "the American way." The fantasy was that any rupture in the social fabric, no matter how tantalizingly enormous, could be made right by the state. What, then, was it about comic books that mad

e them so threatening to the older generation whose way of life they claimed, at least, to defend?

Thanks again--it's been a pleasure!


Please click here for the next part of this discussion.

By Douglas Wolk & David Hajdu