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.
From: David Hajdu
To: Douglas Wolk
Thanks for the kind words, and thanks, too--for all your fine work on music as well as comics. You ask about my subtitle, and how specifically the ‘50s comic-book scare changed America. I think the whole of the controversy over comics had a profound effect on American popular culture, and, when I say that, I'm talking about the work--the drawings, the language, and, above all, the unruly sensibility they embodied--as well as the world of the people who made that work, the world of young people who took it in, and the world of adults who objected to it. The crusade against comics crystallized what was subversive about comics--how, exactly, comics were agents of change in both aesthetic values and social attitudes.
To a significant degree, the function of comics was to challenge the standards of adult society, and the reaction to their success helped clarify that function to comics artists, writers, and readers. I interviewed quite a few kids, or one-time kids, who were comics readers in the years around the Second World War, and a great many of them told me that they didn't realize how subversive comics were until adults started objecting to them. Those kids treasured those comics all the more, then, and they came to feel an even deeper sense of kinship with comics artists and their sensibility of their work. Also, after the crackdown on the lurid comics of the war years and early postwar years, those comics largely disappeared, and their influence grew in the minds of young people who once relished them and found them taken from them. Anybody who's been on the wrong side of a break-up knows how the act of denial amplifies our ardor for the lost.
What I was trying to get at in that interview you mention was the fact that, while comics now have cultural currency, many of the important innovators of the form didn't live to see their work accepted in mainstream society. Their creative offspring are, for the most part, the benefactors of comics' late-life ascent to legitimacy. You're right about Ben Katchor and Alison Bechdel, of course. But they had forerunners who would have appreciated more acknowledgment or serious critical attention during their lifetimes. I'm thinking not only of Eisner, of course, who craved--and deserved--serious attention in the 1940s. I'm thinking of Matt Baker, a wonderful artist who drew the first graphic novel decades before Eisner tried anything of the kind, and I'm thinking of Bernard Krigstein and Jack Cole.
You ask if the ’50s comic scare--and its effect on later creators like Robert Crumb--helped bring about the artistic flowering the field has seen lately, or if that would have occurred anyway, possibly sooner. I don't have enough evidence to lead me to one theory or the other. What do you think?
And, finally, on the subject of whether the books might have legitimately been a bad influence on the youth of America, I don't think there's anything axiomatically wrong with the idea of depicting evil-doing in art or entertainment for young people. To the contrary, evil is an essential element of art, because it's an essential part of life. We all know from Augustine that, by confronting evil, we see the necessity of good. The issue is always how evil is portrayed, and that's a complicated subject. We process art very subjectively, and people of differing generations--or differing cultures, and the two generations involved in the events in my book constitute two cultures--don't have the tools to decode and understand the popular art of other generations all that well.
That said, I think some of the crime and horror comics were extreme--and dangerous to readers of all ages in their portrayal of violence as play. I think we've grown inured to violence in this country, and one of the reasons I wrote The Ten-Cent Plague was to explore the reasons for that. Werham was a propagandist, a self-promoter, and a sloppy scientist; but he was not evil. He was wrong-headed but not entirely wrong.
David Hajdu is the music critic for The New Republic and author of The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America.
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By David Hajdu & Douglas Wolk