Books & Comic books 24 Apr 2008 07:47 pm

Cleaning kids’ minds, one fire at a time

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Here is my print column for the week, published on April 24, 2008, in The Alliance Review:

In 1954, Operation Book Swap was in full swing in Canton, Ohio.

A project of a committee formed by Mayor Carl F. Wise, the program encouraged Canton-area kids to trade comic books for books. Nearly 30,000 comics were collected and exchanged for hardcover copies of novels like “Heidi” and “Swiss Family Robinson.” City leaders unceremoniously hauled the brightly colored comics to the dump.

Operation Book Swap was northeast Ohio’s response to a national mania, the alleged filth being poured into kids’ minds by supposedly unscrupulous comic-book publishers, one chronicled in David Hajdu’s new book, “The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America.”

Hajdu believes the comic-book purge of the early 1950s — in many communities, comics weren’t taken to the dump, they were burned publicly — was a forerunner of the generation gap popularized years later by parental dismay over rock and roll. The precursor of Elvis’s shaking pelvis was a four-color world held together by two staples, with an admission price of one dime.

In the 1950s, superhero comics were on the decline and crime and horror comics were coming into their own. Publisher Lev Gleason was selling around a million copies a month of a comic book that introduced wide-eyed youngsters to violent bad guys plying their trade against the innocent, supposedly to reinforce the title of the comic, “Crime Does Not Pay.”

But as John Milton learned while writing “Paradise Lost” a few centuries earlier, it’s a lot easier to dramatize evil than goodness. Hajdu notes that the word “Crime” on the magazine’s cover was much larger than the rest of the title, an accurate representation of the emphasis inside between crime and punishment.

Similarly, the EC Comics company struck it rich by selling revenge stories with O. Henry-style twists in magazines like “Crime SuspenStories” and “Tales from the Crypt.” At a Senate hearing on comic books (the very existence of which proves government always has found topics besides the important ones to occupy its time), publisher Bill Gaines defended an EC cover that showed a woman’s severed head held aloft by her killer. He said it would be in bad taste only if the killer were “holding the head a little higher so that the neck could be seen dripping blood.”

Psychologist Frederic Wertham spearheaded the jihad against comics. His 1954 book “Seduction of the Innocent” branded Batman and Robin as homosexuals, Superman a fascist, and Wonder Woman a sadomasochist. He claimed that comic books caused juvenile delinquency because all the juvenile delinquents he had worked with read comic books. His findings ignored that almost all kids read comics, and that many grew up to be perfectly normal and well adjusted.

By reaching back to the early years of the 20th century, Hajdu shows how disapproval over comics was cyclical. As early as 1909, Ladies’ Home Journal was concerned about the content of the Sunday newspaper funnies, calling them “inane and vulgar” and “nothing short of a national crime against our children.” Similar concern was voiced decades later with the introduction of the comic book, a reaction that reached full flowering in the 1950s with the passage of laws in many communities that made it illegal to sell certain “prohibited” comics titles to minors.

Ultimately, the comic-book industry formed a self-censorship agency, the Comics Magazine Association of America, and created a code banning almost everything that had made comics so appealing to kids. Readership declined (the rise of television was also responsible) and comic books were never again the cultural force they had been.

The final pages of “The Ten-Cent Plague” are a roll call of writers and artists who never worked in comics again after the mid-’50s purge, creators whose stories were burned by over-zealous parents and politicians who, only a decade earlier, had successfully won a war against a regime that also found it necessary to incinerate books.

It is an irony that does not go unnoticed by Hajdu, who has written the definitive account of the mass-market censorship of an art form that nobody cared too much about because it was the exclusive province of the young.

2 Responses to “Cleaning kids’ minds, one fire at a time”

  1. on 30 Apr 2008 at 1.» Economy-sized scares said …

    [...] Comics is the perfect companion piece to David Hajdu’s Ten-Cent Plague, which I reviewed here. It is a 538-page black-and-white compendium of scary and often bloody comic-book tales published [...]

  2. on 03 May 2008 at 2.Steve Wiandt said …

    I tried to e-mail you about this Chris (maybe it was a Friday and you didn’t read it). But I just wanted to say again that this was a good column.

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