Wars of Comics and Culture in 'Ten-Cent Plague' In The Ten-Cent Plague, David Hajdu chronicles what he calls "a forgotten chapter in the history of the culture wars" — the heated controversy over comic books.
NPR logo

Listen to this 'Talk of the Nation' topic

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/89914205/89916931" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Wars of Comics and Culture in 'Ten-Cent Plague'

Listen to this 'Talk of the Nation' topic

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/89914205/89916931" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

NEAL CONAN, host: This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. The emergence of a youth culture after the Second World War provoked a backlash that we've come to call the "culture wars." At the time, a lot of grownups believed that Elvis, Bill Haley and Chuck Berry put American kids on the road to perdition, the road to juvenile delinquency, James Dean, Bob Dylan, hip hop and grand theft auto. In a new book, David Hajdu argues it all began on the four-colored pulp pages of comic books.

In the late 1940s, almost every kid read comics. There were super heroes like Superman and Wonder Woman, but gangsters, too: mutants, blood, gore, scantly-clad women all for the price of one thin dime. The story of how those 10-cent funny books came to be perceived as a threat, how the backlash devastated the business and cost hundreds of men and women their jobs and how comic book creators contributed to the near death of their industry is the subject of "The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How it Changed America." The crackdown included mass burnings of comic books, moral panic, Senate hearings, and finally, a familiar gap-tooth smile MAD Magazine.

Later in the hour, being frugal isn't fun, right? Well, not so. Just ask the "Frugalista." The blogger joins us to talk about saving your pennies with glee. But first, the fight over comic books. If you have questions about the evolution of comics and graphic novels, if you're on one side or the other of this generation gap, call and tell us your story. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also comment on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.

David Hajdu is professor at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism. He joins us now from NPR's bureau in New York. It's nice to have you back on the program.

Professor DAVID HAJDU (Journalism, Columbia Graduate School; Author, "The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How it Changed America"): Neal, it's an honor to be here. I'm very nervous being on the air with you but it really is a privilege, thanks.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Nervous about me?

Prof. HAJDU: Yeah, you're Neal Conan.

CONAN: Well, honestly, also a comic book collector, so you're in double trouble now. Anyway, this is a story of, as you put it, it's about a lot more than comic books.

Prof. HAJDU: Yeah, that's true. The phrase "comic-book" in the title of my book is only a modifier. It's an adjective. The noun is "scare." And the book is really about the scare over comics, the hysteria over comics that, as you mentioned before, was an early battle on the culture wars, and was really a battle between two generations, the pre-war generation and the post-war generation and competing sensibilities, sense of moral values, sense of aesthetic values, and it was focused on comic books.

I don't think it was ever really about comic books. I think it was about a cynicism towards authority and other things that we think of when we think of what it means to be young, when we think of what it means to be a young person. You know, you mentioned James Dean before. Do you remember "Rebel without a Cause"?

CONAN: Sure.

Prof. HAJDU: When the hubcaps were stolen from his car by some juvenile delinquents? This is before Rock and the explosion of Rock and Roll. I don't know if you remember what he says, but he says to the perpetrators, to the juvenile delinquents there, you're reading too many comic books. So even James Dean, in those days, associated bad behavior with comic books. The whole country did.

CONAN: Well, and certainly that it was subliterate and violent and well, you know, that only simpletons would read comic books.

Prof. HAJDU: That's - those are the same charges as you mentioned earlier that were made against comic strips in the early part of the century, but it wasn't long before comic strips started to have a little social cache, and as comic strips matured and reached older and older readers, they were taken more seriously. The problem with comic books was that they also expressed cynicism toward authority, kind of a - or wild and crazy, and expressed, kind of, pride in outsider status. But also, they were made by young people for young people, and young people can afford them and they seemed to preclude old people. They seemed to - and they did, in fact, exist in a culture that excluded older people. And that was one of the things, I think, that struck terror in the hearts of parents. Here is this thing that they didn't understand and seemed to be designed for them to not understand.

CONAN: Here's an email we got from Pat in St. Louis, Missouri. "My brother and his friends had all of them, all of the first editions and all of the special editions of "Superman," "Green Lantern," "Batman." Every one you could think of. When they got tired of them, they handed them down to me. I love them all, even the "Archie" and "Casper" comics. My father, however, was not in agreement. I constantly had to hide them from him. One day, I was not as careful at hiding them as I should have been and he saw a corner of a couple of them sticking out of my hiding place and made a bonfire out of them. If I still had them, I could probably have retired for what those old comic books are going for. I never could understand why he was so dead set against comic books, and still think about that day, though it was 40 years ago or so, but maybe this conversation will help give me some perspective."

Prof. HAJDU: You know, I thought of comics as kind of benign, myself. I grew up in the 1960s but there was a day when I came home from school and I went down to the basement to spend the afternoon with my beloved trove of comics, "Super Boy" comics mostly, that I kept in a box, and it was gone. My father had thrown it away and to this day, he's 84 now, to this day we've never discussed it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. HAJDU: I didn't have the strength of character to bring it up to him. What my father - my father probably acted out of the same kind of feelings that your listener's parents were, and they had a different frame of reference, and their frame of reference was formed by this set of events that I described that took place in the 1940s and early '50s, where comics were very different from the "Super Boy" comics or the superhero comics that I was reading and a lot of kids read today. They weren't moralistic stories about crime fighting and daring do and valor. They were more centered on crime-doing. They were very noir-ish and dark and lusty and absorbed with violence.

CONAN: Tell us about a comic called "Crime Does Not Pay," which you'd think was one of these, you know, no bad deed ever goes unpunished, but with a little bit more than that.

Prof. HAJDU: First of all, we can't do justice to the title on the radio. It's something you really need to see - oh, I'll try. The word "crime" was literally eight times the size of "does not pay." It was CRIME does not pay. And that was not just the title, but that was the orientation of the book. The stories were typically six pages, and for all but the last couple of boxes, the last couple of frames, these stories would tell about murderers, serial killers, arsonists, sadomasochists and I mean, literally, sadomasochists.

There was a story called "The Wild Spree of the Laughing Sadists," and the protagonists were the villains, the protagonists were the wrongdoers, and the critics of these comics thought, and I think it's not a crazy idea, that this emphasis on the wrongdoers engendered a kind of sympathy for the wrongdoers, and the readers were encouraged to relate to the wrongdoers.

Yeah, I think it's not a simple matter because I think kids can decode these things. And I think we do need to confront the presence of evil. But it's not a crazy claim, either. And it's the same kind of claim that people make, and I'm inclined to some sympathy with, when we see kids playing, you know, grand theft auto and games where, today - that exist today, where they're the serial killers, or they're the thieves. So, I mean, this issue, this debate over comics is a very complex one. And I think there's some value to both points of view.

CONAN: That comic was published by a man named Bill Gaines, who's one of the central figures in your book.

Mr. HAJDU: Mm hm. Yeah. Crime - Bill Gaines published a line of comics called "EC," including some crime comics. Lev Gleason was the publisher of "Crime Does Not Pay." They're easily conflated and confused.

CONAN: I apologize.

Mr. HAJDU: No, no, no, no. I've done the same thing, because their comics had much the same kind of sensibility. The difference with "EC" was that they were more subversive than "Crime Does Not Pay" in other ways. And they were explicitly subversive in their cynicism toward the suburban ideal and toward marriage as an institution and toward adulthood as a state that warranted authority and earned authority.

There were countless stories. Dozens upon dozens of stories in "EC Comics" where young men and women marry, reach the middle class, lived in beautiful surroundings, and found their lives a state of unbearable torment. And they - for which they could find release only by killing each other and maybe killing others in the neighborhood. There were also. sort of. monster stories and that seemed really gruesome and horrific and scary. But in most cases, the monsters were misunderstood outsiders.

They were aliens, strangers in a strange world who came here, who were really benign, but because of their gruesome exterior were misperceived. And it's kind of a coded embrace of the "outsider ethos" or "outsider ethic," that grew to flourish in the post-war era and is now absolutely central to youth culture. And there's a lot more in the pages of these comics that are a part of what we think of when we think of the sensibility of youth culture today. ..TEXT: CONAN: And as you mentioned, well, the creators of things like "Crazy Cat," those old comic strips, were hailed as modern artists and precursors of all kinds of artistic movements. Bill Gaines found himself hauled up in front of Congress and forced to testify before Estes Kefauver.

Mr. HAJDU: That's right! Bill Gaines' faith in comic books and his belief that comic books were a legitimate art form or serving the public good and had value as a release and as an escape hatch to young people and that they had artistic value as a narrative form and even as a graphic form, ran so deep that there were congressional hearings over the horrors of comics. And Gaines volunteered to testify.

And believe me, that was a rare thing. Comics had few advocates in those days. By this point, by the early 1950s, there were over a hundred pieces of legislation, either outlawing comics of various kinds or restricting the sale of comics all over the country. In the county of Los Angeles, crime comics were illegal. A news dealer was arrested for selling a crime comics. In the state of Maryland, crime comics were illegal. A news dealer was arrested again.

CONAN: I'm going to have to ask you to stay tuned. Our exciting story will continue in just a moment, because we are running out of time in this segment. Stay with us, David Hajdu. We're talking about his book, "The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How it Changed America." If you'd like to join us, 800-989-8255. Email, talk@npr.org. I'm Neal Conan. It's the Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. In 1948, one of the most feared and controversial threats facing American children was not communism or juvenile delinquency. It was comic books. We're talking about the war on comic books with David Hajdu. His new book is called "The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How it Changed America." You can see some of the illustrations that sparked the comic-book war in a photo gallery at our web site, at npr.org/talk. If you are on either side of this generation gap, or if you have questions about the evolutions of comics or graphic novels, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also share your story on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.

When we left our last episode, you were talking about Bill Gaines and his testimony before the Kefauver subcommittee, the Senate's subcommittee. And about how he was one of the few willing to defend comics.

Mr. HAJDU: That's right. The hysteria over comics built over some time. It started around 1940, and by the early 1950s, it was furious. And originally, there were municipal acts against comics, community groups against comics, sermons, PTA organizations, the American Legion got involved. And then there were state laws passed, and over a hundred by the early 1950s. And finally, the Senate got involved. And the sentiment was such that Senator Estes Kefauver and the chair of the Senate subcommittee, judiciary subcommittee on juvenile delinquency, Robert C. Hendrickson, had received so many letters about comics. There were hundreds upon hundreds of them. They decided that something had to be done.

And the Senate hearings were conducted. They were kind of parallel to the hearings on the communist infiltration of Hollywood during the era of the blacklist. Bill Gaines volunteered to testify. And he spent all night crafting his testimony with the help of his business manager, Lyle Stuart, who I interviewed about these events. And in order to help him stay up late, he took some Dexedrine and - which he also was taking as a prescription drug to keep his weight down. And during his testimony, he went into Dexedrine withdrawal and started to fade. And the testimony was devastating.

But just as devastating as the fact that he went into withdrawal was the - how vigorous his defense of comics was and the specificity of his defense, because he was asked to defend a comic that showed a victim of a decapitation. And the murderer was holding a woman's head up. And Senator Estes Kefauver asked, how can you defend this? And Gaines said, I defend this on the grounds of good taste. And Kefauver said, how can you possibly - this nearly verbatim - how could you defend this on the bounds of - grounds of taste? And he said, well, it's in good taste for a crime comic.

And that comic - horror comic, forgive me - that comic ended up on the front page of the New York Times the next day and Time Magazine, and in editorials all over the country. And what caught the country's attention was the very notion that values can be relative and that society couldn't dictate values to young people. And young people could have their own set of values, and that they could not only be different from those of those parents, but they could be crafted as a challenge to the values of their parents.

Now, we think of - take all that for granted, today. And we think of that as what it means to be a young person. But that was a radical thing in those days. And the result was that the comic-book industry was - nearly collapsed. And dozens of companies were driven out of business, hundreds of people driven out of work, including "EC Comics," which nearly collapsed.

CONAN: Let's get a caller on the line. Let's go to Dustin, Dustin with us from Casper, Wyoming.

DUSTIN (Caller): Neal, as always, great show. Thanks for having me on.

CONAN: Thank you.

DUSTIN: I wanted to really make the comment that the generational conflict you're talking about hasn't changed as much as people might think, even with the comics' morality having changed. My mother, when I started collecting comics at an early age - I'm in my early 30s now, but I've always collected, I have a huge collection. And most of what I learned as far as my vocabulary, my moral stance, you know, everything, who I am, came from those comics, pretty much, which is maybe geek of me to say, but....

(Soundbite of laughter)

DUSTIN: My mother was convinced they were satanic.

CONAN: Satanic?

DUSTIN: Yeah. So, there was a big push about "Dungeons and Dragons" at the time, being satanic, and the comic books were evil, and I had just convinced her to know that the Marvel Comics "X-Men" books I was reading were, in fact, not satanic, when in the mid-'80s, Marvel came out with a huge universe crossover, universe white crossover, called "Inferno," where demons from hell tried to take over the universe.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DUSTIN: So I think he(ph) goes in for quite some time.

CONAN: That's fascinating. Has she gotten over this?

DUSTIN: At this point, she doesn't have a lot of say in it. I'm still collecting, and she still rolls her eyes.

CONAN: And I have to ask you, Dustin, as a collector, don't you - doesn't a little part of you smile every time you hear about somebody's father who threw away their invaluable collection of comic books?

DUSTIN: It makes mine that much more valuable.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: There you go.

DUSTIN: Well, I agree.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Dustin.

DUSTIN: Thank you, sir.

CONAN: "Satanic" was a word thrown around quite a bit at the time. Tell us about a kid named David Mace(ph), who you describe in the book.

Mr. HAJDU: Yeah. David Mace was somebody I went to see in Spencer, West Virginia. And 60 years ago, in 1948, Mace was one of many kids who led ritual bonfires of comics in his community. Now, he was a comic book fan. He liked comics. But he had - one of his teacher enlisted Mace to gather - because Mace was like a leader among his peers - to lead the kids in an uprising against comics. And Mace felt that - kind of morally bound to do the right thing. And he organized his friends. And they gathered thousands of comics, I think 25 - well, I don't remember the exact number - but thousands of comics, in a community that only had a couple of thousand people in it.

They built an enormous bonfire, and Mace led the schoolchildren. The entire school was closed, and all the kids poured out into the grounds of the school, and Mace led the kids in a vow, not only to never read comics but to burn all the comics in their possession. And it sounds a little, more than a little scary to think of kids burning books. But this was not an isolated incident in one rural community. There were dozens of these events over a period of 10 years. The first ones were in 1945, December 1945, just a few months after the end of World War II. They continued through 1955. I went to the locations of several of these, and I interviewed some of the kids. And the descriptions are absolutely harrowing, truly harrowing.

CONAN: Let's talk with Lane. Lane with us from Senora, in California.

LANE (Caller): Yes.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

LANE: I was raised in the early '50s. My father was a professor at college, taught math. And every solitary morning, my brother and I were given a word to look up and use that night in a sentence. We were paid a penny. But the word could not come out of a comic book because he felt that was - there was no literature at all in comic books.

CONAN: Well, he had a lot of company.

LANE: But it's always interesting to me because I would sometimes steal them from friends or would - when I would go to people's houses to spend the night, I would always look at their comic books. But I knew that that word that I might learn could not come from that comic book because we always had to say where we had got, you know, where we had received the word, where we learned it. As long as it didn't come from a comic book, it was acceptable.

Mr. HAJDU: Did you ever learn any words from comics, secretly?

LANE: Probably not, really. But even if I did, it was not something I know that I could use.

Mr. HAJDU: "Excelsior" is a good comic word.

LANE: It's very interesting. And today, I'm a writer and author and I've been a teacher, and I always think about comic books. And I know that as a teacher, I didn't care where kids learned to read. A comic book was wonderful.

CONAN: I have to say, I learned all my German from comic books.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: (German spoken) Retamt ameraconner(ph)

LANE: Maybe I could speak a second language if I'd learned to read comic books. But I find it interesting because I know there are some people that still feel that way. Until my father died, he did not want anybody reading a comic book. There was too much good things written, in his mind.

Mr. HAJDU: Well, that was the very first, among the very first criticism of comics. And among the first major articles written about the horrors of comics was one written by a children's book author named Sterling North, in 1940. And his main charge against comics was that they induced illiteracy. He also thought they were bad for the eyesight. But that was a fairly common charge at one time. Thanks.

LANE: Well, I know mine was just that I - there were too many things to read, and we always had books around. We had no television. And that it just couldn't come from comics. So I understand what these people say, and unfortunately, I never had - I couldn't say, because we weren't allowed to collect them.

CONAN: Lane, thanks very much for the call.

LANE: Thank you. And I love your show. Bye.

CONAN: Here's an email from Mike in Kansas City. "I'm 42-year-old African-American man in Kansas City. I've always loved comics. My earliest memory, however, were my Uncle Lane(ph) taking my 'Tarzan' comics and tearing them up, saying no white man can go to Africa and become King of the Jungle. He replaced them with 'Archie,' which wasn't nearly as exciting for me."

And I think we can all understand that. But nevertheless, he does raise a point. In addition to being wildly lurid, some of those early "EC" comic books you were talking about, a lot of these comic books were misogynistic or certainly racially anachronistic.

Mr. HAJDU: You know, that's absolutely true. And - although, many of the comics are defensible on the grounds of free speech and also for giving kids a vehicle to work through issues of right and wrong and to express their kind of healthy skepticism toward authority. There was a kind of extremism in those comics, there's no question. I mean,extreme violence, sexism, misogyny.

For instance, not only in the "Tarzan" comics, there was a more popular genre of comics that also took place in the jungle. It's called "Jungle Girl" comics, in which the comics were ruled by shapely, white, blond women, who were invariable superior in every way, not just in this troubling kind of physical presence, but also morally and intellectually superior. Very problematic.

At the same time, the comics that we probably think of being most sexist are romance comics. And they really weren't so. I made a study of romance comics. I went back to the original comics. They were - among the comics - romance comics were among the comics that were most overt in instilling - it's not just a cynicism toward authority, but a sense of independence and free thinking in young people.

In romance comics, young girls defied their parents, they defied men, they defied social values and rules of social propriety. And they were much more venturesome and serious than we probably think. Not all, but many of them were much better than we probably think.

CONAN: I still would have loved to have been privy to that conversation when your mother called and asked, what are you studying, son? Romance comics.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HAJDU: Yeah, well, that's true. You know, Will Eisner, who I interviewed for the book, who was an important early comics pioneer, told me that to say you were a comic books artist 1940s was like saying, I'm a child molester. You know, I'm a super. And there was a kind of shame associated with being a comic book artist.

I went and interviewed about 150 people for the book, many of whom are comics artists and writers, as well as early comics fans. And the comics artists and writers who I talked to still were a little uncomfortable at first, in many, many cases, talking about what they did. You know, their field was so tainted, came under so much criticism that until they trusted me and trusted that I was OK, they were even embarrassed to express some pride in what they did.

CONAN: Our guest is David Hajdu. His new book "The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How it Changed America." You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

And let's go to Adam, Adam calling us from Los Angeles.

ADAM (Caller): Hi, great topic today.

CONAN: Thank you.

ADAM: Well, I just had a quick comment. I've always kind of found it fascinating that the - I guess the parallels between, kind of, the comic book industry, where it's come from, where it is today as compared to the video game industry. A lot of the same concerns that people had with comic books way back when, and a little bit today, same concerns people are having with video games today. Even to the point now where legislation is trying to be passed to ban certain sorts of video games or types of games. And it sounds very similar to the way - the same sort of path that comic books have taken.

Mr. HAJDU: I think that's true. I think there are some similarities, and that relatively speaking, comics of the '40s and early '50s were just as extreme as video games seem today. They are also graphic and unique for their time. There was no other form of entertainment in the '40s that showed violence, such lurid violence so graphically and in full color.

But I have a question for you about video games, because I haven't made a study of video games like I've studied comics. Video games seem different in that they're more participatory. I mean, so you're at the controls doing the stuff. I mean, you're now the thief or the serial killer. Does that make video games different in some way to you? What do you think?

ADAM: Well, I don't know. I've been playing video games for about 15 years, so I've kind of grown up with them. And, you know, I've always kind of looked at it as not so much it's different, it's just - well, I guess it is different. It's just - it's another art form, it's another way of expressing a story, you know, it's a different way of showing characters.

Yes, it is a little bit more involved, you get to, you know, participate as one of these characters. You get to learn and grow with this character as time goes on, instead of just, you know, as a bystander looking on like you would with comic books. So I guess it does make it a little bit more dynamic. But so many of those similarities between the two and the way people look at them, I guess I've always found it interesting.

Mr. HAJDU: Well, one similarity is undeniable is that - what they have in common is that they scare the living daylights out of adults. If that's their function, then they've both succeeded.

CONAN: Thanks very much, Adam.

ADAM: Yeah, not a problem. Great show.

CONAN: OK, bye-bye.

We should - we're winding up now, and obviously there's a lot more to talk about, but we mentioned Bill Gaines before and that awful experience that he had testifying before the Senate committee. But of course, he eventually had the last laugh. He had - one of his comic books was a thing called "MAD" which then he decided - well, maybe I should make this into a magazine and I wouldn't get into so much trouble?

Mr. HAJDU: That's right. The tragedy of this story that my book tells is what happened to comics, artists and writers during the crackdown. As you mentioned earlier, hundreds of artists and writers who felt that comics were the only place where they were welcome, and they could express what they had to say, were driven out of work.

But the happy ending is that Gaines, confronted with, you know, an overly restrictive code that was enforced by the comics industry itself as a way to salvage itself. It was driven - had to discontinue all of his crime and horror and suspense and science fiction titles. But he kept one. He kept MAD. And the way that he got around the comics code authority was that he reformatted it as a magazine, so it wasn't a comic book anymore. He didn't have to submit it to the comics code organization. So he re-priced it at 25 cents, he reformatted it, and even more significantly, he designed it as a vehicle to kick in the pants the conservative authority that had hurt him so much.

CONAN: And his motto, of course: What, me worry? David Hajdu, thank you so much for being with us.

Mr. HAJDU: Thanks for having me, Neal.

CONAN: And his book, again, is "The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How it Changed America." Coming up, if clipping coupons is not your thing, well, we've got some advice from the "Frugalista." Frugal can be fabulous. Stay with us, I'm Neal Conan, it's the Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.