Most Americans are at one and the same time moralists and latitudinarians, and from time to time these tendencies get out of sync and cause a collective convulsion. One of the most interesting and least well remembered of these convulsions took place in 1954, when public concern over the baleful effects of comic books on the juvenile mind reached such a height as to inspire a Senate hearing at which Bill Gaines, the publisher of Crime SuspenStories, assured a roomful of skeptical politicians that his product was “a work of art.” Frederic Wertham, a psychiatrist who had just published a book called Seduction of the Innocent which claimed that violent comics turned their readers into juvenile delinquents, begged to differ: “I think Hitler was a beginner compared to the comic-book industry. They get the children much younger.”
I know about these hearings because Robert Warshow published an essay in COMMENTARY called “Paul, the Horror Comics, and Dr. Wertham” in which he described with a typically thoughtful blend of wit and moral awareness how his 11-year-old son had become a fan of Crime SuspenStories and its companion publications:
Children do need some “sinful” world of their own to which they can retreat from the demands of the adult world; as we sweep away one juvenile dung heap, they will move on to another. The point is to see that the dung heap does not swallow them up, and to hope it may be one that will bring forth blossoms. But our power is limited; it is the children who have the initiative: they will choose what they want.
Fifty-four years later, David Hajdu, a historian of popular culture, has written a book called The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America (Farrar Straus Giroux, 434 pp., $26) in which the clash between Gaines and Dr. Wertham is put in historical perspective. Hajdu’s point of view is fairly standard as these things go-he describes the 50′s as an age of “postwar paranoia” and believes that the comic books of the period deserve to be taken seriously as a species of popular art-but his discussion of the short-lived frenzy over the alleged effects of comics on their consumers is both well written and, for the most part, sensible. You don’t have to share Hajdu’s reflexive distaste for the buttoned-down cultural orthodoxies of the Eisenhower Era to read The Ten-Cent Plague with pleasure and profit.
That said, I was struck by a certain narrowness of perspective on Hajdu’s part. While he appears to know everything worth knowing about the comic books of the period, his suggestion that their critics were cultural McCarthyites fails to acknowledge that the comic-book scare cut sharply across political lines. Close readers of The Ten-Cent Plague will note that the liberal establishment of the day was no less concerned about the effects of comic books on American youth, a fact that Hajdu glosses over a bit too quickly. No less revealingly, he appears to be unaware of the existence of Warshow’s oft-cited essay on horror comics, an omission that makes one wonder what else he has overlooked in his somewhat starry-eyed attempt to portray the creators of Crime SuspenStories and its companion publications as “cultural insurgents” who “helped give birth to the popular culture of the postwar era.”
I was no less struck by the fact that The Ten-Cent Plague contains only a handful of black-and-white illustrations, none of which gives a clear sense of what the horror comics of the 50′s were like. Mere verbal descriptions cannot convey their quality, though Warshow came close:
There is a picture of a baseball game in which the ball is a man’s head with one eye dangling from its socket, the bat is a severed leg, the catcher wears a dismembered human torso as chest protector, the baselines are marked with stretched-out intestines, the bases are marked with the lungs, liver, and heart, the rosin-bag is the dead man’s stomach, and the umpire dusts off home plate with the scalp.
Hajdu tiptoes cautiously past this particular example of the genre, describing it as “a baseball game played with human body parts.” I might have been more impressed by his broad-gauge indictment of 50′s culture had he been more willing to specify the exact content of the publications whose cultural transgressiveness he lauds so passionately.