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Autumn 2014
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By Stefan Kanfer

The Voodoo That They Did So Well: The Wizards Who Invented the New York Stage.

Books and Culture

Stefan Kanfer
Pyrrhic Victory
A new comic-book history chronicles a war between good taste and free expression.
2 May 2008

The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America, by David Hajdu (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 448 pp., $26)

For most comic-strip historians, Eden existed for five glorious decades. The good times began at the turn of the century, with splashes of color in the Sunday funnies headed by surreal, breakthrough pop-artworks like Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo and George Herriman’s Krazy Kat. In the 1930s, the comics expanded beyond their comfortable homes in newspapers, taking up residence in a pulp-magazine format aimed at kids: “comic books,” in the parlance of the trade. Revolving shelves displayed vibrant covers with a staple in the middle, just like the slick periodicals Mom and Dad got in the mail. For one thin dime, minors could choose from hundreds of different entertainments, including the farces of Popeye and the Katzenjammer Kids, the splendidly detailed adventures of Terry and the Pirates and Prince Valiant, and, of course, the epic feats of such gaudy icons as Batman and Robin, Wonder Woman, Superman, and Captain Marvel.

And then along came Satan. He took the form of Dr. Frederick Wertham, a psychiatrist who examined these productions and came away shocked and angry. In his view, the once-innocent comics had become infected with three intolerable “isms”—sadomasochism, sexism, and racism. The doctor wasn’t content to criticize from the sidelines; his sensational book, Seduction of the Innocent, included many examples of sociopathic behavior plucked from comics, including gruesome cruelty to children, women, and African-Americans. Seduction appeared in 1954, the same year that Blackboard Jungle, Evan Hunter’s scarifying tale of teenage violence, reached bookstores. By then, FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover had made headlines warning of postwar youth “running wild.” In an article in the Los Angeles Times, Hoover observed that “some of the crimes youngsters are committing are almost unspeakable. Prostitution, murder, rape . . .”

In another period, Wertham might have been dismissed as an enemy of the First Amendment or as a social hysteric. Not in the mid-1950s. The doctor was invited to testify before the U.S. Senate, where he condemned comics as “a contributing factor in many cases of juvenile delinquency.” An official cleanup began, over the protests of young readers. Soon the industry had to abide by a Comics Code Authority that neutered heroes and, in general, eliminated any villains harsher than Farmer McGregor.

The publisher of Educational Comics—which specialized in horror and suspense titles—wrote a sarcastic editorial: “We give up. WE HAVE HAD IT! Naturally, with comic-book censorship now a fact, we at EC look forward to an immediate drop in the crime and juvenile delinquency rate in the United States. We trust there will be fewer robberies, fewer murders and fewer rapes!” The publisher’s protest went for naught. Between 1954 and 1956, the number of comic-book titles plunged from about 650 to 250. One unemployed artist went looking for a job—any kind of job. “If you said you drew comic-books,” he recalled, “it was like saying you were a child molester.”

All this and more animates David Hajdu’s lively The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America. The author, a Columbia School of Journalism professor, tries to maintain a tone of cool objectivity. But his sympathies are clearly with the creative folks and their customers. He sees the immediate post-Code period as a time when artists were hobbled and writers wrote pap—the halt leading the bland. The author provides enough diversion for three books, but he renders the volume’s villain as a cartoon character, rather than a serious thinker.

That’s a pity. Wertham was humorless and arrogant, and his heavy German accent didn’t help humanize him in the years following V-E Day. He found himself mocked by fellow psychiatrists for pushing one theory as if it were a proven fact: in a now-notorious passage, Wertham wrote that a certain comic book’s stories were “like a wish dream of two homosexuals living together. . . . Only someone ignorant of the fundamentals of psychiatry and psychopathology of sex can fail to realize the subtle atmosphere of homoeroticism which pervades the adventures of the mature ‘Batman’ and his younger friend ‘Robin.’” Wertham feared that such fictions would seduce a whole generation of impressionable children. But most of Wertham’s colleagues recognized Bruce Wayne as the Caped Crusader, not the Pied Piper. By making overinflated claims, Wertham lost his credibility.

Nevertheless, the doctor was on to something. Every honest consumer of 1940s and 1950s comic books can recall protagonists like Tarzan and Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, who guided ignorant and obedient “natives.” Even Will Eisner’s brilliantly illustrated Spirit featured a dim-witted black henchman named Ebony White, who spoke like a walk-on in an Amos ’n’ Andy show. As for misogyny, helpless (and invariably large-busted) young women were the favorite target of innumerable criminals and extraterrestrials. Artists spared no pictorial detail in rendering their humiliation and terror. Wertham was not wrong to stigmatize these publications, and the authorities were right to try to keep the worst of them out of children’s hands.

Yet in a coarsening culture, high values could not endure. Decades after the Code was imposed, underground films pushed vulgarity and celebrated violence. Standards gave way to the anything-goes atmosphere of the late sixties. All too soon, expensive underground comic books, with X-rated scenes undreamed of half a century ago, replaced the banished ten-cent periodicals. If there is anything the contemporary “graphic novel” cannot show, it has yet to be named.

Hajdu believes that “the comic-book war was one of the first and hardest-fought conflicts between young people and their parents in America, and it seems clear, too, now, that it was worth the fight.” But those who look at the current fare in films, TV, the Internet, and newsstands might wonder what was gained in the victory. The history of comics reveals, wittingly or otherwise, how much we have lost. The Ten-Cent Plague does, too.

Stefan Kanfer, a contributing editor of City Journal and a former editor of Time, is the author of a dozen books, most recently The Voodoo That They Did So Well, a collection of City Journal essays about the Gotham stage.

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