Created in the mid-'30s as a means to re-package newspaper funnies for promotional purposes, the comic book quickly developed a life beyond its creators' wildest dreams. The brightly colored stories of violence and costumed heroics grabbed the minds of children across the country by providing a level of entertainment which, for all its clumsy inexperience, was unlike anything else. Artists and writers responded by flocking to an art form with no expectations—so long as the pages hit the printers on time, there were no guidelines to follow, and more importantly, no social strictures on who could do what. But that freedom couldn't last forever, and in the early '50s, a nation obsessed with solving exaggerated social problems found the perfect scapegoat at the local newsstand.

David Hajdu's The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare And How It Changed America follows comics from their infancy—when creators like Will Eisner developed their talents safe in the knowledge that no one out of grade school would give a damn—through the industry's boom period and the seemingly inevitable fallout, when politicians and cultural mouthpieces blamed horror and crime comics for the spread of juvenile delinquency. Hajdu describes mass book-burnings and congressional hearings with an easy drama that makes them unsettlingly close to home; apparently, censorship and vote-hungry politics never go out of style. The victims of the purge are also well-drawn—William Gaines, owner of the EC line that faced the brunt of the criticism (Tales From The Crypt, Crime SuspenStories, etc.), comes off less as a visionary than as a short-sighted chemistry teacher in way over his head.

Advertisement

If there's a villain in Plague, it's Frederic Wertham, author of the infamous 1954 comics exposé Seduction Of The Innocent; a psychiatrist with some shoddy research and a knack for self-promotion, Wertham gave the growing hysteria an illusion of scientific validity. Hajdu has a knack for vivid, compassionate characterizations, and while Plague occasionally gets bogged down in the details, it never loses sight of the excitement of the time, and how quickly that excitement turned to panic. A little more study of the actual comics in question would've been nice, but as a snapshot of an era, Plague is top-notch. If only its concerns didn't seem quite so relevant.