Saturday, December 20, 2008

David Hajdu, "The Ten-Cent Plague" (2008).

I was a bit surprised a week or so ago to learn that my father had bought me a "pre-Xmas present". He told me to look for a package, and explained that he sent me the gift because he thought I would be particularly interested in it. I had no idea what to expect, and so I awaited it with anticipation. When it arrived, I can honestly say I was puzzled. It was a a book by David Hadju (with whom I was completely unfamiliar), and it was entitled The Ten-Cent Plague. By scanning its jacket (which featured a great drawing by Charles Burns, one of my favorite cartoonists) I learned that it was a history of a period during the early development of the comics. It focused on the 1930's through the 50's, during which the new artform came under increasingly intense criticism.

While I am certainly a fan of (what I can only refer to as) "alt-comics", I didn't have a lot of curiosity about genre comics, with superheroes and the like. Still I resolved to plow through Hajdu's study, and hoped that it would give me some insight into the stuff I choose to read now. It started off with a fairly comprehensive look at the invention of the form, and an explanation of how a brand new industry sprouted to produce these "picture books". At the very start, comics did not necessarily focus on men in tights at all, but rather tended to reflect the existing genres of entertainment- horror, crime, war, romance, early sci-fi, and comedy. They were almost exclusively targeted to adolescents.

Hajdu did a good job at conveying the spirit and the attitude of the early comic creators. Fortunately for his book, many of the major players from the beginning were still alive for him to interview, including Will Eisner, Charles Biro, Bill Gaines, Al Feldstein, Bernie Krigstein, Will Elder, Harvey Kurtzman, etc. These now iconic figures spoke of their free-wheeling approaches to a brand new entertainment medium. As comics reached the end of their first decade of existence, they were so novel that the field was wide open, and for all intents and purposes without limits other than market-driven concerns. This freedom allowed sales to increase astronomically and individual creativity to flourish.

Many of the businessmen, artists, and writers that made comics were from minority groups that had nowhere else to become successful. As a result a lot of the content reflected an outsider perspective that tended to glorify facets of society that many conventionally-accepted adults found troubling. But the kids loved it! The more extreme, the better- gore, lust, perversity, violence, and general mayhem prevailed. And then the authorities noticed, and a reactionary backlash followed. The Catholic Church, professors of education, psychiatrists, and some of the more prudish politicians began to bemoan the general lack of respect for authority exhibited in comics. They began to accuse the comic companies of contributing to juvenile delinquency.

Obviously there are modern-day parallels to other forms of youthful amusement. Over the years, movies, television, cartoons, rock-and-roll, and videogames have all taken their turn at being vilified. Society is always looking for a scapegoat for the "wicked ways" of its members... especially the kids. However the level of vitriol and shrill hysteria over comics was amazing to read about. It didn't take long for the powers-that-be to work together with the cultural guardians, and crush the independence and sheer fun of comics. It took decades for the form to recover even a smidgen of its relevance and energy. Ultimately The Ten-Cent Plague tells a larger story about who we are, and who we've been, as a nation.

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