(The latest in my series of retreads of old posts from past blogs comes not from The Word from on High, but from the group blog of Columbus, Ohio cartoonists group Sunday Comix. I'd originally written it for a proposed magazine about comics that the group was going to put out, but which never materialized. I posted it on the group blog because I thought the piece deserved to be read, and I re-present it now because I think the readers of Gutter Talk might like a chance to read it as well.)
The heart of David Hajdu’s The Ten Cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare and How It Changed America is the story of Janice Valleau Winkleman. We first meet her, in the book’s prologue, living with her husband Ed in a Florida retirement village. But this retiree harbors a secret past that not even her children were aware of: She once made her living drawing comic books. Hers is one of over 800 names listed in the book’s appendix of people who were driven from the medium forever by the backlash against comic books that culminated in the 1954 Senate subcommittee hearings on Juvenile Delinquency and the subsequent adoption by the industry of the draconian Comics Code,the most restrictive set of content restrictions ever enforced on any medium, which drove many publishers, most notably EC Comics, to abandon the field. Throughout the narrative, Hajdu returns to Winkleman’s story, tracing her career from her first job at MLJ Comics (known as Archie Comics these days), obtained at age 19 through connections at the art school she attended, to her final, reluctant, decision more than a decade later to walk away from the industry for good. Though she eventually took up painting as a hobby, Winkleman would never again attempt to make a living as an artist, in comics or anywhere else. When asked why, she responds, “I was scared to death. Don’t you know what they did to us?” Hajdu does indeed know, and in the remainder of this unforgettable book, he lets us know as well.
To be honest, and this isn’t a criticism but merely a caveat, the book doesn’t really live up to its subtitle. This isn’t really a story of how the backlash against comic books changed America, but of how that backlash was an extreme and tragic example of the changes that swept all aspects of American culture and society at the midpoint of the 20th century. The book’s greatest strength is Hajdu’s ability to convey his sweeping social history in starkly human terms. His focus is squarely on the people, from industry giants such as Spirit creator Will Eisner and William Gaines, publisher of EC Comics and a central figure in the controversy, to those like Winkleman, who toiled in relative or even complete obscurity, not even allowed, in most cases, to sign their name to their work, whose lifes were forever altered by the events he details. He also provides insight into the characters and motivations of those who fueled the backlash against comics. These instigators include the infamous Dr. Frederick Wertham, whose sensationalistic book of spurious pseudo-pyschology, Seduction Of The Innocent, provided much of the grist for the anti-comics mill of the Senate subcommitte and other comics detractors, and the ambitious Senator Estes Kefauver, who hoped to use the publicity generated by these hearings to jumpstart his bid for the White House. Aiding them at the grassroots level were the mostly well intentioned, if ultimately misguided, community and religious leaders who took their protests to the extreme of organizing mass burnings of comic books in mostly small towns across the nation, and the children, members of what at the time was the intended audience for comic books, who aided them, sometimes reluctantly and with regret but surprisingly often willingly and with relish, in their crusade by gathering up comic books to fuel the funeral pyres and applying pressure on local merchants, often in the form of a threatened boycott, to stop selling them.
Through striving, and succeeding, to put a human face on this tragic yet, outside of the community of comics professionals and dedicated fans, nearly forgotten episode from our recent history, Hajdu has produced not only one of the most important books of comics and social history yet published, but he has crafted a page turner of a story as involving and compellingly readable as Michael Chabon's Pulitzer Prize winning novel covering the same historical period, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay, to which I would heartily recommend The Ten Cent Plague as a companion volume.