The Ten Cent Plague

The Ten Cent Plague: the Great Comic Scare and How it Changed America
David Hadju
2008
Read by Steven Rudnicki
The whole “how it changed America” bit is a bit heavy handed. I would say that the thesis of this book is more how America changed comic books, but whatever.
If you are a comic fan or even if you are just a bit batty for them (see what I did there?) you have probably heard of Seduction of the Innocent. You know, that incendiary book that spearheaded a movement to regulate comics to inanity, the main thesis being that all comics containing any whiff of violence, sex or nefarious undertones (Freudian exaggerations included) will immediately turn children down the path of inevitable Satanism? It’s talked of in comic book circles mainly because author Fredic Wertham takes particular pleasure in tearing down the DC Trinity, saying that Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman promote fascism, homosexuality and sado-masochism, respectively. Okay, so the last two are kind of on the mark, but the rest of it is baloney. Basically this book was kind of responsible for the change from Batman killing criminals to Joker making Batman and Robin wear donkey costumes as his idea of a “crime” (this really happened). And why did Batman and Robin get hypnotized SO often to fight crime in the past and with fictional characters? Regulations brought on by good ol’ Wertham did it, that’s why!
Ten Cent tells the tragic tale of a completely new medium blossoming into its own creative force, only to be crushed under the castrating rubber band of censorship and McCarthy Era paranoia. It starts with the birth of comic strips: a gimmick for newspapers to finally grab the attention of that pesky illiterate class. Since it was geared towards the illiterate, comics mostly centered on stereotyped immigrant hooligan types. Surprisingly, it was more of a homey reiteration of their culture, and not necessarily insulting.
The early objections of comic books are pretty interesting. When the comic book industry was invented in the 1930’s, they were geared towards kids because their cheapness (10 cents) made them easy targets for kids with money for the candy store. Candy and comics. I already have a problem with this. Looking back on my childhood years, I have kind of come up with the theory that one of the reasons why I loved candy so much is it was my only outlet for independence before the age of 18. I mean, can’t drive, can’t drink, can’t go anywhere or do anything without supervised schooling, regimented extracurricular activity, parental approval of every action. What kind of decisions do kids make on their own? And of course comics are challenged in the 50’s so now what do children have? Just candy.
I digress. A great, miraculous thing happened with this new medium: since comics were geared towards children, nobody gave a rip about them. Adults immediately wrote them off as kid stuff and never touched them. So suddenly there was this new, marketable outlet for artist types that allowed almost complete creative license. Minorities, women, struggling writers and artists that were disillusioned with the more regulated businesses flocked to comics. A lot of them were in it for the money, and they pumped out comics in a mass producing, factory atmosphere. One person for the script, one for the drawing, one for the lines, one for the coloring: that sort of thing. But many also took this on as an art form, and embraced it as a new way to innovate storytelling. Batman was of the mass producing kind… you can tell by the dopey storylines and occasional skin colored leggings if you take a look at the early editions. Ten Cents makes a point that the comic book Spirit was ahead of its time, though, with storylines that are interesting and thought provoking. It kind of makes me want to read the Spirit, despite its horrendous looking adaptation by Frank Miller. Ten Cents also highlights EC Comics, company that made mostly horror and romance comics of reportedly good quality.
Yes, sex and violence and hype sold, even in the forties. They did what they thought would get kids to buy comics: yay, Capitalism! Hadju makes a point that superheroes may be vigilantes but they also have very rigid moral structures. Maybe that’s why I like them. Superheroes relate to the childish desire to bypass silly adult red tape for a greater moral purpose, says Hadju. Very interesting.
The early objections seem to be not so much the unregulated freedom in showing half naked ladies and bloody heads, but the fact that it existed at all. People thought they were low class, like the comic strips in the newspapers. Adults never read them even when they started to criticize them.
Comics slipped under the radar for quite a while, until post World War II. The book gives a few interesting ideas on why there was such widespread derision of the art form, mainly blah blah xenophobia, paranoia, McCarthy Era widespread censure, etc. I mean, we talk a lot about 50’s suburbia but I guess it never hit me how scared everyone was back then.
Werthum was just a means to an end. He didn’t ever read any comics, he didn’t do any students, he just made up some Freudian bullshit in a book and started pushing it full force through the government.
The scariest part of the Ten Cents was watching how far they took it. The book focused on a single publisher that seemed to be specifically targeted: they made something like “Weird Tales” and “Tales of Horror.” The new regulation banned the words “Weird” and “Horror” from titles. Just absolutely arbitrary decisions. Comic book industry was backed into the corner and decided to regulate themselves, but they had to put the guy spearheading the regulation campaign as the president.
There are stories of censurers taking out knives from the hands of attackers, and making restrictions on themes that have nothing to do with morality. A black astronaut, for example, was asked to be taken out.
I really liked reading this. It’s great to watch a country and a media over time. We tend to rush to judgment on early comics and shake our fingers at the authors for digressions against feminism, etc. This is a great book to pick up if you want to lecture to your friends on media, America Society, comics, etc. I know I’m not the only one out there that loves to do that. Yeah, I see you, Nerd Boy. Read this before your next visit to the comic book store. Maybe then your “friend” the store manager will want to hire you.
(PS: sorry if this seems like a disjointed review. I found this is my draft box and decided to finish it.)

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