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A TNR Debate 'The Ten-Cent Plague,' Part 4

How did ownership of their creations influence comics creators?

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, 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.

Dear Douglas,

Thanks again for the stimulating discussion.

You make a good point about ownership as a creative stimulus. I would add that there are varying kinds of ownership, and comics artists and writers were denied more than one of them in the first decades of the comics medium. One thing the veterans of the adventurous EC Comics line have talked much about was that Bill Gaines, as publisher of the EC line, encouraged artists to employ their own visual styles, instead of mimicking a house style, and he allowed them to sign their work, instead of hiding their identity. These acts were significant at the time and helped engender a sense of ownership among EC artists, even though Gaines retained all the copyrights to the work he commissioned. Speaking of EC artists, the first three Krigstein titles that come to my mind are "Master Race," which you mentioned, "Monotony," which I describe in some detail in my book, and "The Flying Machine," which Greg Sadowski has written well about. For those reading over our digital shoulders, I'll take this as a chance to give a nod to Sadowski's two serious and beautiful books on Krigstein.

You and I agree on much, it seems to me. But one point of divergence between us is clearly how we see crime comics. Until the crackdown on the lurid comics that sprang up in the mid-1940s, crime comics were fixed on the doings of criminals, not on the methods of their captors.

The protagonists were murderers, thieves, racketeers, and other crooks. The titles were smokescreens, and the retribution paid the bad guys in the end was obligatory, tacked on in the last panel of a six-page story.

In 1948, five years before the publication of Frederic Wertham's "Seduction of the Innocent," nearly fifty municipalities across the country passed laws and took civic action against comic books. Their main target was crime comics, on the grounds that what those comics gloried in (and, to some degree, romanticized) was wrongdoing--not virtue, but vice.

Your "alternative history" question is intriguing, though I just don't know how to answer it. There was a raging conflict over morality going on in the postwar years, and it seems to me of a piece with the debate over comics.

Thanks tons and all best,


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.

By Douglas Wolk & David Hajdu