Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Ten-Cent Plague

The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America
by David Hajdu
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008

Hillary Brown
It's very hard to start off this review, partially because it's a book book, with words and no pictures (except for a small signature of b/w stuff in the middle) and is fairly long; partially because David Hajdu's book, as its subtitle implies, has Big Issues in mind; and partially because everyone and his/her brother has already weighed in on it: Louis Menand in the New Yorker, Jeet Heer in Slate, Bart Beaty at the Comics Reporter (a multi-part series!), etc. What do we say, we nonintellectuals and nonexperts? I'll say that I liked the book a good bit, despite its repetitiveness at times (it's easy to mix up this hearing with that hearing or remember how Estes Kefauver was involved in what, especially some time after reading it). It's mostly well-written, although it skates between total pop history and total academic history, with a few too many facts for the former and a little too much glossiness for the latter. The point of view most reviews seem to take is irritatingly contrarian: "Wertham wasn't so bad. He was a good guy. He didn't like racism, he was misused by the committee, Hajdu shouldn't pillory him [whether he does or not is up for debate], and, besides, the comics that ended up being destroyed weren't really art anyway." I understand the need to play devil's advocate, to think about points counter to those being made by an author you're reading, to try to say something new, but seriously, people? How can you read Hajdu's account of adolescent-led bonfires of comic books and campaigns of intimidation and come down on the side of the book burners?

Garrett Martin
Who's coming down on the side of the book burners? Beaty's not. Neither is Menand. They're just pointing out some facts about Wertham that generally aren't well-known these days, and that Hajdu mentions but generally elides. I've known about Wertham and his book since I was in elementary school, but all I've ever heard about him are one-sided attacks from the comics industry and First Amendment defenders. I had an utterly negative impression of the man, and although I won't be singing his praises anytime soon, he doesn't seem to be the totally scorn-worthy son-of-a-bitch that I and most comics fans thought he was. Hajdu does portray Wertham in a more balanced and nuanced light than most pro-comics writers, but he still basically presents the doctor as a straight-up villain, as a savvy self-marketer and demagogue who uses comics to increase his own rep and book sales. And since those assertions can't be factually proven, I don't think there's anything irritatingly contrary about writers criticizing Hajdu's mostly one-sided depiction of Wertham. Also, I don't remember Wertham having anything to do with any of the book-burnings. Didn't most of them happen in the late '40's, before he ever wrote Seduction of the Innocent? Did Hajdu mention any statements Wertham made supporting the bonfires?

Anyway, I agree that this'll be a hard review to get through. Let's give it a shot, though. It's a really quick and enjoyable read, full of great quotes from various Golden Age creators both famous and obscure, and makes a convincing argument for the culture war over comics being a harbinger of the generation gap and cultural upheaval to come over things like drugs and rock music. Still, I don't think I can respect it as a work of serious scholarship. You mention the book's odd limbo-state somewhere between pop and academic history. It's real, and I kind of have a problem with it. Like Beaty points out in his Comics Reporter piece, Hajdu did a lot of legitimate research into the comic-burnings of the '40's, with copious first-person accounts from participants and ring-leaders. But then he neglects to mention various aspects of the Senate hearings that didn't necessarily support his thesis. It's weird to do a lot of research in an overlooked area while not making full use of another openly available and widely researched source. Now, a sober, academic chapter on the hearings would probably be about as exciting as EC's post-code comics, but methodology is important, and you can't really have it both ways. So you have to wonder, what is the purpose of this book? Is it a serious piece of cultural scholarship, or a spirited editorial in defense of the comics? Obviously Hajdu's aiming for both, but he only sporadically supports his points with facts and evidence.

HB: Maybe I'm just an anti-censorship nut (caveat: I am), but I felt that Beaty and Menand, in pointing out the upside of Dr. Wertham, really minimize the downside. On the other hand, I didn't come to this with impressions from elementary school. It is a little ironic for Hajdu to criticize Wertham for faulty scholarship while missing some apparently big stuff in his own book, but it seems to me, admittedly without having read Wertham except in paraphrase, that the doctor's academic sins are worse. He clearly didn't advocate for book burning, but he seemed to draw a pretty strong causative connection between comics and juvenile delinquency, and his title alone ("Seduction of the Innocent") is loaded with stuff that makes my eyes bug out. I'm sure, being a scholar of the weird, that you've at least picked up a copy of Vance Packard's The Hidden Persuaders, and Wertham's argument and, even more so, the ways in which it was used come off a little bit like seeing the word "sex" imprinted 100 times on a Ritz cracker. Whether or not art is an influence on morality and behavior seems to be a point Hajdu is particularly interested in, as when he pinpoints Bill Gaines's mistake in testimony as admitting that they might be linked then backtracking. It's also something I'm studying, and I guess my point is: I don't care. That is, it shouldn't matter whether they're linked or not. It's much too complicated to figure out, and I'd rather there be more art in the world than less. I'm not big on Wertham because he seemed to be arguing, at least somewhat, for less.

The book burning stuff is definitely one of the best parts of The Ten-Cent Plague, especially the interviews with participants, and Hajdu contextualizes it pretty well with regard to the time without necessarily explicitly saying 1950s = fascism in America. And the portrayal of the early EC gang is strong as well. You really get a sense of the seat of the pants quality of EC as an illustration of the entire industry. A lot of the rest of the book hops around a bit much in time, and I wouldn't mind seeing a bit more on the connection of the WPA Federal Art Program to comic books, but good history is darn hard to write. It's incredibly difficult to combine facts, narrative, good writing, and a somewhat neutral outlook, and I can't think of the last bit of history I read that scored well on all accounts. Do you think the book's getting better reviewed in the popular press than in the comics press? I wouldn't be surprised.

GM: Well, that's the difference, then, as I am decidedly and avowedly pro-censorship. Actually, no, I'm opposed to that, too, but I don't have a problem with ratings scales like those used by the MPAA and the ESRB. Beaty says Wertham was arguing for something similar with comics; I have no idea how true that is, but it wasn't a bad idea, and Marvel now has its own in-house ratings that are somewhat similar. Anyway, I don't know how I feel about Wertham. Yeah, his science was suspect, and I disagree with his views on comics, and by stoking the public furor over them he stunted the maturation of the medium and/or artform for decades. Still, without the overreaction of the public we maybe never would've seen the advent of the Silver Age and those ridiculously fantastic superhero comics that spawned or informed so much of what I loved growing up. And you know what, honestly? Those EC comics are really overrated. The art is sometimes great, and the stories often powerful in their brutal concision, but too often the twist endings are a big let-down, frequently either blatantly obvious or almost non-sensical. Yeah, they were subversive in the early '50's, but their value remains more historical than artistic. Mad's the only EC comic that really holds up all that well, no matter how outdated the references and jokes are.

Anyway, Hajdu does a great job handling EC's history, and after reading some of those quotes I grew amazed at how many of those old EC guys are still alive. Feldstein, Jaffee, Elder, Jack Davis (a Georgia grad!), John Severin, Jack Kamen, and Al Williamson are all still kicking in their 80's or late 70's. It's also really depressing to see how many people have died since Hajdu interviewed them over the last few years. I counted at least eight names in the list of interviewees who have died since 2005, including EC's business manager Lyle Stuart, Will Eisner, and Arthur Drake. But this is the most satisfying and enjoyable part of The Ten Cent Plague, the great number of quotes and personal stories Hajdu has collected that gives a good first-person view of the era in question. I do think the structure of the book is a bit disjointed, and ends too abruptly after the enactment of the Comics Code, but between the chapter on the comic bonfires and the recollections from the artists involved, The Ten-Cent Plague is certainly a useful piece of comics history.

And, yes, I would think that critics who aren't necessarily comics enthusiasts, or who are writing for mainstream outlets, would be more positive about the book, if only because they would be approaching it with more of an open mind. Honestly, though, the only articles I've seen outside the enthusiast press are by comics critics like Jeet Heer and Douglas Wolk (whose review for the Boston Phoenix can be found here), so, shit, I've got no idea! What do you think? And how badly did you want to run out and pick up those pricey hardcover EC reprints they've been putting out lately?

HB: You act as though Jared and I don't already have one and lust after more. We also have a much older hardcover black-and-white collection of Aces High, which gets dissed briefly in passing in the Hajdu (as one of the lame comics Gaines tried to put out after the Code was instituted). I haven't read it yet, but I certainly will. Basically, I think you're probably right about much of the EC stuff being rubbish, but, dude, much of early Spider-man is kind of rubbish too. Comics didn't really start developing until later, right? And a lot of them still suck. Saying "most examples of the genre" suck is pretty much a waste of time in any field because it's almost always true. It's also interesting that Hajdu disrespects Silver Age stuff by quoting Stan Lee as saying that he wasn't trying to challenge anyone with his superhero stories when he started doing them again. My guess is that you can take that with as much salt as you can anything Stan Lee says.

Note: Jack Davis is not only a Georgia grad, but still does stuff on campus, which is pretty incredible. That probably contributes a good deal to my sympathy for the artists and writers who lost their jobs due to the Code and the changing of the industry. Also, Al Feldstein should be at Heroes Con in Charlotte, which Team Brown is considering attending.

I was going to ask you if you thought they'd reprint It Rhymes with Lust at some point, but now I see that they already have. The story of that and of the romance comics in general was also very appealing to me, as it's not the kind of thing you tend to hear about from most comics nerds, or at least not the ones I know.

How do I feel about ratings on comic books? Do they really come into effect? Will surly cashiers who want to undermine society and, thus, work in comic book shops really refuse to sell images of sex and violence to impressionable youth? Or is it a moot point since those youth have to get their moms to drive them everywhere anyway?

GM: Any intelligent shopkeep would probably refuse to sell adult comics to kids if they knew about that shit that dude in Rome, Georgia, has gone through.

Lee/Ditko Spider-Man, and early Marvel in general, is certainly rough and corny in spots, but most of those comics had something great and distinctive about them at the beginning, be it the art, the concept, the character, whatever. EC's crime and horror comics gets praised all-encompassingly, though, even though they were amazingly repetitive and rarely as clever as you'd expect. Granted all I've read are a few of the Gladstone reprints from the early '90's, but even as a kid I was slightly disappointed in 'em.

HB: And thus we trail off... Although I did remember while posting this that I wanted to praise the cover art by Charles Burns, who is an absolutely marvelous choice for the job, considering how much his work appears to have been shaped by the sex and grossness of EC and yet how darn arty it is. Take that, Dr. Fred!


hillary said...

Here's another review. Or, um, attack on Wertham. He doesn't talk about the book very much.

Smoggo said...

this story is waiting for a major hollywood treatment with PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN as BILL GAINES.
also, would enjoy ya'lls take on a less heralded comics history legend...that of the air pirates documented in THE PIRATES AND THE MOUSE: DISNEY WAR AGAINST The COUNTERCULTURE.

hillary said...

While trying to figure out who would play Will Elder, I came across this picture, so, um, Alan Cumming? I like this game.

The book you mention looks very interesting. I guess we're trying, at least for the moment, to stick to stuff that's relatively recently published, but I'm sure we'll both take note.

garrett said...

and something that slightly connects that book to the Ten-Cent Plague: EC artist Wally Wood drew that infamous Disney orgy poster.