It has never been easy to publish comic books for all ages in America. While other countries incorporated the medium into their reading habits long ago, comics and graphic novels have remained, here in the States, the domain of the young --- at least in the popular mindset. And while many have pointed out that comics have grown up --- and that there’s a wealth of material available for all age ranges --- it’s more accurate than not that comics grew up a long, long time ago…and they paid a great price for it.
David Hajdu takes a look at that dark time in THE TEN-CENT PLAGUE, his insightful examination of the effect of McCarthyism on comic books.
Prior to the investigation, comics were expanding at an amazing pace. Sales were high, and a wide variety of books were sold, ranging from superheroes to romance to horror to true crime. It’s those latter two that seemed to push the envelope a little too much for some people’s tastes. With J. Edgar Hoover and other law enforcement officials openly discussing their fear of a growing amount of juvenile delinquency, parents all over the country were fearful. And ready to listen to some (perhaps well-intentioned) fear-mongering from Dr. Fredric Wertham, a psychiatrist who headed up the Association for the Advancement of Psychotherapy. Wertham considered comics a source of evil, having a detrimental effect on the impressionable minds of the young, and it didn’t take much for him to convince Congress, teachers and parents of the same thing.
Those of us who grew up reading comics heard a lot about Wertham --- he was the reason every issue we bought contained a seal stating it was “Approved by the Comics Code Authority” --- but the majority of new graphic novel readers might be unaware of his work. His famous “Seduction of the Innocent” became a catchphrase among comic readers, and it sums up the heart of his argument. As Hajdu fairly presents, Wertham wasn’t the oppressive censor he was often made out to be. In fact, he was somewhat progressive in his views. He truly believed that comic books were causing irreparable damage to the psyches of American youths, and he took it upon himself to lead the charge against them.
The result was a seriously weakened industry that couldn’t tell all the stories it wanted to tell. Creativity was limited, and sales were affected as a result. It has taken decades for comics publishers to make the headway needed in the States to change all that --- most notably through underground comix beginning in the ’60s and after a “British Invasion” in the ’80s ushered in a new direction (and attracted an older audience).
Hajdu has a natural storytelling ability that keeps all of this subject matter from ever getting too dry. He wisely avoids heavy-handedness in favor of a more objective approach, smoothly presenting opposing sides with empathy.
Graphic novels continue to draw a wider and more diverse audience day by day. The throngs of new readers now drawn to the medium will learn much about the art form in this dense work. That understanding may help them see how graphic novels even now aren’t that far removed from that seemingly long-ago time. And many more will wonder where the art form would be now if it hadn’t been stifled just when it was beginning to branch out.
Reviewed by John Hogan on January 23, 2011