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A TNR Debate: 'The Ten-Cent Plague'

Part One: Are we living in American comic books' true golden age?

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: Douglas Wolk

To: David Hajdu

Dear David,

I very much enjoyed The Ten-Cent Plague--thank you for writing it, and for agreeing to this dialogue! I'm particularly impressed at the amount of original research that went into it--the sheer number and variety of primary sources is striking, and it's marvelous to see the story of this peculiar historical incident in the words of the artists, writers and readers who were directly affected by it.

I'm curious about your subtitle, though: How do you think the shockwaves from anti-comic-book sentiment in the '50s--as opposed to the vivid, unrefined stuff it was a reaction against--actually did change America? You argued in a Newsarama interview a few weeks ago that comics have yet to be accepted as an art form in America; you mentioned, for instance, that no cartoonist has yet been a Kennedy Center Honoree (although those are for the performing arts). But Ben Katchor won a MacArthur fellowship, the "Masters of American Comics" museum show a few years ago was a pretty big deal, Alison Bechdel's Fun Home was Time's Book of the Year--cartooning has enormous cultural cachet right now, especially for a medium that likes to pretend it has none.

It seems to me that the comics landscape in America is the best it's ever been; particularly over the last few years, there's been an incredible flowering of artistic sensibilities, approaches and audiences for the medium. Will Eisner, as you point out, made the case for comics as a potential art form right from the dawn of the American comic book. I'd say his dream has come true. But for most of the period you're discussing in The Ten-Cent Plague, comics' commercial aspect was much more significant than their artistic aspect. (I love the bit where you rattle off the names of 22 ripoffs of Charles Biro's Crime Does Not Pay: Crime Must Pay the Penalty, Justice Traps the Guilty, Criminals on the Run, Lawbreakers Always Lose ... ) And your epilogue, an interview with Robert Crumb, suggests something that happened after the mid-'50s comics purge: Mad, the last survivor of EC Comics' push toward artistic innovation in pulp comics, became a magazine, and its young fans like Crumb were pointed toward nostalgia for the pre-Comics Code days (Crumb describes himself as "a nostalgist at a young age") and steeped in Mad's counterculture, outsider outlook. Do you think we might have seen something like the present era of American comics earlier without the clampdown of the '50s, or did the comic-book scare--and Crumb and others' subsequent creation of a countercultural underground in comics--lead to the kind of artistic innovation that was only possible outside the capitalist hothouse of the newsstands?

It's almost axiomatic that any book someone wants to burn is worth preserving, and your descriptions of the mass burnings of comics in America are wonderfully shocking. You cast Dr. Fredric Wertham, the psychiatrist who wrote the 1954 anti-comics screed Seduction of the Innocent, as the chief villain of your book, and he certainly did stoke the (literal and metaphorical) flames with his rhetoric--claiming that "Hitler was a beginner compared to the comic-book industry," for instance. But the phrase that kept coming up in the comic book scare was "juvenile delinquency," which (as you note) was a phenomenon that pretty much came into being in the '40s. The idea of "youth culture" arose around the same time--youth were a new, half-understood category between children (who need to be protected from harm) and adults (who are ostensibly free to follow their own tastes). Do you think that the anti-comics crusaders of the '40s and '50s were acting in bad faith, or that they simply went overboard? Was some of the material in the hilariously lurid comics you describe actually inappropriate for children, as opposed to "youth" or teenagers? To put it another way: Was Dr. Wertham right, in at least some way?



 Please click here for the next part of the discussion.

Douglas Wolk is the author of  Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean.

By Douglas Wolk & David Hajdu