The Ten Cent Plague by David Hajdu


In 1954 the American comic book industry, beset by vicious political and grass-roots criticism, formed the restrictive Comics Code Authority, a self censoring body whose launch brought the Golden Age of comics to a screeching halt. The Ten Cent Plague is a well written and thoroughly researched account of the formation of the CCA.

Due largely to coincidences of geography, comics were not a big part of my childhood. It’s not that I didn’t want them. It’s just that growing up where and when I did, there was simply no place to get comics easily with any kind of regularity. Assuming we don’t count Asterix and Tintin books from the school library, I might have had as many as half a dozen comics (random issues, not volumes), probably fewer, before adulthood. My friends, who all seemed to know much more about comics than I did, had a lack of enthusiasm for them that I mirrored outwardly to fit in, while secretly wishing I could learn more about these cool picture-stories.

But my once secret interest has grown up with me and I’m grateful that I now live in a world where access to comics is easy. Not only do I now live within walking distance of the excellent Larry’s Comics (“New England’s 5th largest, 11th nicest comic shop”), but with the advent of Amazon and other online retailers, the world of comics is at my fingertips. It’s a great time to be alive!

The panic leading up to the formation of the CCA was something I’d heard a little about, mostly from mentions in Lois Gresh and Robert Weinberg’s books, The Science of Superheroes and The Science of Supervillains. At the 2012 Boston Comic Con former Mad Magazine editor Al Feldstein had a bit to say about it, but to me it was still just this weird thing that somehow separated the Golden Age from the Silver Age that I didn’t really understand. I sought out The Ten Cent Plague after reading Grant Morrison’s mention of it in Supergods.

As with most things associated with young people, comics have been frequently demonized by establishment types. Even going back to the first newspaper strips at the very beginning of the 20th century, the self appointed arbiters of decency have made it their own business to hold comics in high contempt. The criticism picked up in the 1940’s when comics were scapegoated as a cause of “juvenile delinquency.” Bear in mind that this was during, and right after the second world war, when American families were ripped apart. Fathers and brothers went to war; formerly stay-at-home mothers went to work. When the war was over, the mothers were laid off; many fathers didn’t come back at all, and the ones that did often came back changed, scarred by shrapnel or PTSD. And of course then the world was quickly thrown into the cold war, with the looming threat of sudden nuclear annihilation.

To the extent that there was any increase in delinquency at all (which is highly debatable to begin with), these disruptions to the American family and traditional life are a far more likely source than the comics that virtually all kids read in the days before television. It’s hard for us to grasp now how popular comics were in those days. The top titles had consistent monthly circulations in the millions, and there were hundreds of titles. Today, print comics are a niche accessory. In the 1940’s they were a primary form of entertainment for young people. It was a thriving and competitive industry.

Since most kids read comics, any time a kid misbehaved it was easy for the grups to say the comics must have made him do it. Because kids would never misbehave on their own and parents shouldn’t be held responsible for their children’s misdeeds, right? Prompted by the fraud psychiatrist Frederic Wertham, and led largely, but not exclusively by private catholic schools, the neighborhood anti-comics drives began. “Good kids” were recruited to collect comics from neighbors by the hundreds and commit them to bonfires while reciting oaths prayers. There were articles in the popular press decrying comics. Soon there were Congressional hearings (yes, hearings, plural). The nation was officially freaking out.

Over comic books.

If there was any positive outcome from the CCA, it was that it lead directly to the birth of Mad Magazine. Mad is and was, of course, a comic book by any other name. But by calling it a humor magazine, and employing magazine distribution channels, publisher Bill Gaines was able to get around the CCA and publish a bitingly subversive and satirical comic that kids like me could get at any local grocery store, drug store or other respectable retailer that would never sell normal comics, even after the CCA. It was refreshing to hear longtime Mad editor, Al Feldstein, at 2012 Boston Comic Con speak unapologetically with complete contempt for the CCA. He, Gaines and the artists and writers of Mad are heroes to me. They made me the upstanding sarcastic cynic I am today. But the cost was so high! Hundreds of creative people’s careers were destroyed in the panic. It took decades for the comic industry to find its way back to  a free and truly creative path.

Al Feldstein, at the 2012 Boston Comic Con spoke about something that is not mentioned in The Ten Cent Plague. He said part of the reason for the creation of the CCA was that many of the comic publishers were also publishing hard pornography on the side, and were afraid that if this fact came to light through the hearings etc., they would be finished. Although one of the targets of the panic was romance comics, which some prudes called pornography, I don’t think that’s what Feldstein was referring to. Or perhaps I misunderstood.

If I have a criticism of the book it’s that, somewhat uncharacteristically for me, I wish the book was angrier. The Ten Cent Plague is a chronology of facts, without much opinion, which I would normally prefer. But I continually found myself rolling my eyes, grumbling under my breath and gritting my teeth while thinking about how the comic panic was really just one of the continuing cycle of attacks on youth culture. As an aspiring heavy metal musician in the 1980’s, I remember Tipper Gore’s Parents Music Resource Council; the periodic video game controversies; movie and television freak outs… Perhaps the real heroes are the American youth, with their ability to continually find new ways to piss off the adults while under constant attack.

After reading The Ten Cent Plague (actually, I listened to the audiobook on Audible), I mentioned it to my parents, who would have been in their mid twenties and starting a family at the time. They claimed to have no recollection of any hoopla over comics. Granted, the news cycle at that time was not what it is today. The primary sources of news then were newspapers and radio. But that the panic ultimately had no impact on their memory seems somewhat telling about the nature of these attacks on the young. That their cyclic nature is built into their forgetability.

In The Ten Cent Plague, David Hajdu makes sure at least some of us will remember.

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