The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America


In the years between World War II and the emergence of television as a mass medium, American popular culture as we know it was first created-in the pulpy, boldly illustrated pages of comic books. No sooner had this new culture emerged than it was beaten down by church groups, community bluestockings, and a McCarthyish Congress-only to resurface with a crooked smile on its face in Mad magazine. The story of the rise and fall of those comic books has never been fully told-until The Ten-Cent Plague. David Hajdu's remarkable new book vividly opens up the lost world of comic books, its creativity, irreverence, and suspicion of authority.

When we picture the 1950s, we hear the sound of early rock and roll. The Ten-Cent Plague shows how-years before music-comics brought on a clash between children and their parents, between prewar and postwar standards. Created by outsiders from the tenements, garish, shameless, and often shocking, comics spoke to young people and provided the guardians of mainstream culture with a big target. Parents, teachers, and complicit kids burned comics in public bonfires. Cities passed laws to outlaw comics. Congress took action with televised hearings that nearly destroyed the careers of hundreds of artists and writers.

The Ten-Cent Plague radically revises common notions of popular culture, the generation gap, and the divide between "high" and "low" art. As he did with the lives of Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington (in Lush Life) and Bob Dylan and his circle (in Positively 4th Street), Hajdu brings a place, a time, and a milieu unforgettably back to life. (This text courtesy of Farrar, Straus & Giroux.)

Excerpt:

Harry "A" Chesler, Jr., the comic-book packager, applied the "Jr." to his name or dispensed with it as he saw fit, and put quotation marks around the initial because he thought they were stylistically correct, and he was right about that. When he was asked what the "A" stood for, he said, "Anything;" indiscrimination was his middle name. Stubby and gray-skinned, he dressed in striped shirts and a suit vest that often but not always matched the pants; he kept a derby laid flat atop his head, all day, indoors; and he was usually smoking a cigar, proportionately stubby and also gray, with the label intact -- a fancy label that could impress anyone who did not know much about cigars. Chesler, a stickler for efficiency, minimized the creative effort required of his artists to render him in caricature. He set up his studio in a long, open workspace, last used by a wholesaler of buttons and zippers for the garmet trade, on the fourth floor of 276 Fifth Avenue, a ten-story, half-block-long building north of Twenty-ninth Street. Chesler filled the room with rows of used desks, which were cheaper than drawing tables, and he lorded over the shop as if it were a gangland fiefdom: Anyone arriving at work five minutes late would be docked an hour's wages; and on payday, he would sit behind the desk in his office, summon the artists, one by one, and ask each of them, "How much do you need this week to get by?"

Late in 1939, Irwin Hasen joined Chesler's staff. Hasen was just beginning to work professionally in art and, at twenty-one, was still living with his parents, who had had a furniture business go bankrupt and were rock-skipping from apartment to apartment in Manhattan to avoid going under. Hasen was an all-around artsy fellow who could have passed for Mickey Rooney's more effervescent, smaller brother. He had taken some drawing classes at the National Academy of Design and the Art Students League, but abandoned his first aspiration, fine art, as impractical. He had a good compositional sense and applied himself to his assignments for Chesler, among the first of which was a detective story about a counterfeiting ring, published by Timely. Not long after Hasen stacked the pages and submitted them to his boss, Chesler walked over to his drawing talbe and told him, "Good work, kid! That's a hell of a job you did! I'm going to play that up big!" At the end of the day, as Hasen cleared up his materials, he realized that he had inadvertently given Chesler only the top page of the story he had done. All the sheets of drawing paper underneath it were blank.

Reviews:

"The Ten-Cent Plague is the third book by David Hajdu to take a subject suitable for fans' hagiography and turn it into something of much wider interest. After his oddball, revelatory forays into the worlds of jazz ('Lush Life') and folk music ('Positively 4th Street'), Mr. Hajdu has delved into the lurid, untethered world of early comic books. "'It was a bad time to be weird,' one artist says of 1953. By then, governmental witch hunting was on the rise, and public fears of juvenile delinquency were easily fanned. While Mr. Hajdu does not defend the comics' reckless extremes, he regards some of them as more worthy of psychiatric examination than punishment. And he positions the drive to clean up comics as a response to larger fears. "This book tells an amazing story, with thrills and chills more extreme than the workings of a comic book's imagination." -Janet Maslin, New York Times

"A worthy addition to the canon of comic-book literature… A super effort." -Ron Powers, New York Times Book Review

"Thoroughly researched, engagingly written… a compelling story of the pride, prejudice, and paranoia that marred the reception of mass entertainment in the first half of the century, and a cautionary reminder of hw easily art can be demonized during insecure times." -Michael Saler, Times Literary Supplement (UK)

"To those who think rock 'n' roll created the postwar generation gap, David Hajdu says: Think again. Every page of "The Ten-Cent Plague" evinces [Hajdu's] zest for the 'aesthetic lawlessness' of comic books and his sympathetic respect for the people who made them. Comic books have grown up, but Hajdu's affectionate portrait of their rowdy adolescence will make readers hope they never lose their impudent edge." -Wendy Smith, Chicago Tribune

"The Ten-Cent Plague is David Hajdu's affectionate yet outraged account of this important but little-remembered segment of cultural history. Hajdu writes well and has performed [an] enormous service. A lively and nuanced portrait of a fascinating aspect of American culture… free of meditation and moralizing, The Ten Cent Plague keeps the focus on the remarkable men and women who produced the comics, the purveyors of junk science and Puritanism who hounded them, and the elected leaders who adopted egregiously unconstitutional legislation to drive the comic-book publishers out of business." -David Akst, Boston Globe

"Hajdu doggedly documents a long national saga of comic creators testing the limits of content while facing down an ever-changing bonfire brigade. That brigade was made up, at varying times, of politicians, lawmen, preachers, medical minds and academics. Sometimes, their regulatory bids recalled the Hays Code; at others, it was a bottled-up version of McCarthyism. Most of all, the hysteria over comics foreshadowed the looming rock 'n' roll era. "The book and its tale really stuck with me, and I think it should be on the bookshelf of anyone who loves comics history." -Geoff Boucher, Los Angeles Times

"David Hajdu's smart new book…is a stylish, informed account that shows how easy it is to think fuzzily about other people's pleasures. Hajdu evokes the [comic-book] era colorfully and wittily." - Dennis Drabelle, Washington Post Book World

"The comic-book scare is a complex story which Mr. Hajdu tells with fairness and an impressive clarity. - Stephen Goode, Washington Times

"With a wonderful eye for detail, Hajdu takes us inside the vibrant, bizarre subculture of writers and illustrators." - Jesse Singal, Washington Monthly

"A well-written, detailed look at how comic books became a phenomenon in the early 1950's and how authorities cracked down on the most popular form of entertainment in America…Hajdu's research is impressive." - Bob Minzesheimer, USA Today

"A narrative as swiftly moving and well rendered as any episode of 'Superman' or 'The Flash.' The Ten-Cent Plague is a thrilling read which shows how comic books helped set the stage for much of postwar American culture." - Will Friedwald, New York Sun

"Splendid… Hajdu's account of the creations and their creators is particularly engrossing. Equally so is his discussion of the successive waves of themes in comics: first crime and violence, then sex and romance, then horror and the macabre." - Roger K. Miller, Star-Tribune (Minneapolis-St. Paul)

"Hajdu's narrative is peopled with characters as colorful as the shamelessly shocking picture stories they created." - Dan DeLuca, Philadelphia Inquirer

"Alternately funny and appalling… a valuable reminder of a very dark, but all-too-recent era in American cultural history." - Connecticut Post

"A superb and entertaining book." - Mark Shechner, Buffalo News

"Hajdu's novelistic approach conveys a palpable sense of foreboding while managing to be fair to all. But his greatest success is making this story worth retelling." - Scott Smith, Time Out, Chicago

"Hajdu, who spent six years on this book and interviewed some 150 participants in the industry, including legends Will Eisner, Will Elder and Robert Crumb, writes with passion and sorrow." - Carlo Wolff, St. Petersburg Times

"Hajdu provides an extensive, exhaustively researched history… The narrative is colorful and compelling." - Christopher Sabatini, The Stranger

"Not only does Hajdu make a compelling case that it was not music but comic books that precipitated the Teen Rebellion, but along the way he spins a remarkable tale with a fantastic cast of characters and warnings aplenty for our own times." - Ed Ward, Paste

"Crammed with interviews and original research, Hajdu's book is a sprawling cultural history of comic books and the men who wrote, drew and published these over-the-top entertainments." - Matthew Price, Newsday

"If you think of history as dusty tomes filled with interminable facts and figures, you haven't read David Hajdu, an astute critic of popular culture with writing chops galore. In recounting the story of how and why comic books became the reviled object of congressional hearings and nationwide book burnings, Hajdu adds important nuances to our portrait of America in the early years of the Cold War." - Eric Lorberer, Rain Taxi

"Before Internet porn, gangsta rap, and even rock 'n' roll, the task of threatening the moral fabric of American society belonged to the comic book. In this wry piece of cultural history, David Hajdu has written an acute satire on the twin vices of sanctimoniousness and hysteria, which are as old as America itself." - Giles Harvey, Village Voice

"Who knew? While the right was focused on the Red Menace and the left on the Red Scare, it turns out that if you want to understand what was really going on in the mad, mad, mad world of the 1950's you should read David Hajdu's hilarious and harrowing account of The Great Comic Book Scare, including how MAD itself morphed from a comic to a magazine skewering the popular culture that with the help of a mad (in both senses) psychiatrist did its best to do the comics in. Hajdu's tale is lurid, absurd, existential, weird, and scary, and contains real-life superheroes and supervillains, and there is nothing funny about it." - Victor Navaksy, author of Naming Names

"Every once in a while, moral panic, innuendo, and fear bubble up from the depths of our culture to create waves of destructive indignation and accusation. David Hajdu's fascinating new book tracks one of the stranger and most significant of these episodes, now forgotten, with exactness, clarity, and serious wit, which is the best kind. He illuminates the lives of his protagonists — from pompous, on-the-make censors to cracked comic book geniuses — with his own graphic powers, as well as his intense intellectual curiosity. The book is a rarity, vividly depicting a noirish 1950's America but without a trace of irony or nostalgia." - Sean Wilentz, Professor of History, Princeton University

"The Ten-Cent Plague is about the best account yet of comics in America, an instant classic of cultural history." - Geoffrey O'Brien, editor, Library of America, and author of Sonata for Jukebox