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Buddy, Can You Spare a Dime?

Reading David Hajdu's book The Ten-Cent Plague—published in 2008 but still very much in print—I was most impressed by the evidence of what powerful tools ProQuest and other databases have become. The book is filled with details about the campaign against comic books that took place more than a half century ago,details that have been pulled from newspapers across the country that have become accessible thanks only to large-scale scanning. Those details are frequently horrendous, reminscent of Nazi book burnings.

The first challenge a writer faces, when describing the waves of anti-comic-book hysteria that swept the country in the late '40s and early '50s, is to explain why anyone should give a damn. That's because the comic books most firmly in the censors' sights, like Al Feldstein's EC horror comics and Charles Biro's Crime Does Not Pay, were awful trash. And not just that, but awful trash whose readership was made up largely of children.

Fredric Wertham was right: the horror and crime comics were awful. Did they do harm? They certainly didn't do any good. Their foes attacked on too wide a front, but the anti-comics crusaders believed that even "good" comics were too poor as reading material to require making any fine distinctions.

So why give a second thought to the turmoil that drove the comics from newsstands and drug stores? Why should we care about the comic-book bonfires? Hajdu essentially offers two reasons.

The first is sympathy for the people who made the comics, whom he presents as cheerful little craftsmen who were innocently depicting disembowelings and beheadings until Wertham and his compeers. descended upon them and reduced them to sacking groceries or other demeaning work.

The other reason Hajdu offers for caring—the more persuasive reason, I think—is the threat that the comic-book bonfires posted to freedom of speech and press. As for the comic books themselves, Hajdu nods toward some of them as worthy of respect, but not in a way that encourages taking him seriously. He nods to Will Eisner, for one, but he doesn't distinguish between Eisner's prewar and postwar work. Not everyone agrees that the postwar work is superior (I certainly think it is), but there was a difference, and you can't tell that from what Hajdu writes about The Spirit. The Ten-Cent Plague was derived from pieces written for the New York Review of Books, Salon, and comparable sources, and New York literary standards impose strict limits on how seriously comics can be taken.

If, like me, you think some of the comic books published in the postwar years still reward reading and re-reading, you lament the anxiety, the dread of giving offense, that began to consume publishers and editors in the early '50s and made it far more difficult for the field's few real artists to do good work. You lament the destructive effects on cartoonists like Carl Barks, whose work was no more damaging to children's moral fiber than The Wind in the Willows. You lament the wonderful cartoonists, like Eisner and Harvey Kurtzman, who quit the comic books that were their natural habitat for less tumultuous publishing environments. It's in that quivering anxiety that I see the effects of a real "plague."

[Posted August 16, 2018]