Reading in Progress: The Ten Cent Plague

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

This is a book I'd wanted to buy since I read it was being published - which was back in 1999. I was waiting for the ebook price to come down under $10 and that just wasn't happening (it's still in the neighborhood of $9 now). So I gave in (thanks to someone's gift of a giftcard) and got a hardback copy of it used, and still felt badly that I wasn't giving the author a cut of my purchase, because this is an area of scholarship I really appreciate. And now that I'm actually reading it I still feel that way, because a LOT of work went into this book.


I'll have a much longer post about this later because I had some fun grad school classes where we studied Fredric Wertham, otherwise known as the main villain of the Comic Book Scare years, as he's a wonderful example of how not to practice social science research. And it's a really memorable case too - which is why his bad example sticks in my head to this day. Aside from Wertham, author David Hajdu has spent a lot of time researching the history of comic books in America, and specifically a large number of comic book artists and writers who haven't had their names immortalized via fan love at conventions and don't get a mention in wikipedia. And by research I mean specifically that the author tracked down people and interviewed them. A lot of them. Both the creators of the comic books and the kids who read them. And also the kids who, in the middle of the "comic books are causing youth to turn to crime" furor, gathered to burn those comic books. As you can imagine, those are some interesting quotes, especially when they look back and try to describe their feelings.


In grad school I did various interviews and then typed up transcripts, which I'd then whittle down into fodder for various projects. I really enjoyed doing that, and you learn a huge amount when you're working to both get someone relaxed and talking, and trying to learn about a certain subject. There's always a huge amount of content you end up not using for multiple reasons (time, space, off-topic, etc). Which is why every time I read a work with so many interviews I wonder about the parts of the conversations we aren't reading. Not that I think Hajdu is withholding anything - not at all - you have to edit, it's a necessity. It's just that I bet that those interviews had many fascinating parts off topic, and I'd love to read more.


Here's where the interviews turn this book from just interesting to being an important historical document. If you google the two writers I'll quote below - Kimball Aamodt and Walter Geier -  there's not much online for either, an obituary or two, a short reference, but no articles specifically just about them and their careers. (Here's an example, a post discussing Jack Kirby references them - but it's mostly about Kirby.) Many of their coworkers seem to be similarly forgotten. Hajdu feels it's important to document these people - in the book's appendix there's a list that takes up 13+ pages (two columns of names on each page), with this sentence on the first page:


"Among the artists, writers, and others who never again worked in comics after the purge of the 1950s were..."


I'll post more about the whole Wertham/Comic Book Scare history (and lots of links and updated research) with the review - but for now let me post a couple of examples of the kind of content that's from interviews (citations are in the endnotes, by page number).


p. 160, discussing one of the genres that started getting more notice in the time when crime comics were getting most of the complaints (around 1947-1950):

"...Kimball Aamodt, whom the artist Alex Toth called "the greatest of the romance writers" for the gentle natualism of his stories.

..."Juvenile delinquency was the big thing then [that] everybody was talking about," Aamodt said. The wild kind of boys in the love stories were the delinquent types, so when a girl went in that direction in one of our stories, she was really making a statement. We didn't try to get political, but we didn't go in for the idea that the boy from the wrong side of town was wrong in every way. We tried to be a little more democratic. It was boy meets girl, but we took the writing very seriously - I was a frustrated novelist. We knew that a whole lot of kids were reading the comics and taking them very seriously, so we tried to do the same thing."

p. 162, Walter Geier, writer:

"I wrote just about every kind of comic - romance, Westerns, crime, weird adventure, he-man stuff, everything, but superheroes and teen-age humor, not because I thought [those genres] were dumb, although I did, but simply because the superhero market was dead and the editor at Archie wouldn't hire me," said Geier. "I thought romance is a complicated subject, and the young girls are pretty smart, probably smarter than boys. So I tried to give them something worthy of their attention." In a rare instance when he received a response to one of his story-length synopses, an editor told Geier, "Don't overdo it - remember, you're writing for the chambermaid in the hotel." Geier ignored him.

"That really bothered me," Geier said. "I don't know about chambermaids, but I was still pretty young then, and the young girls I knew weren't stupid."


The interesting thing about the "don't worry, it's just for the working class" reference to the chambermaid - it was the same type of "we have to dumb this down" snobbish attitude publishers had in the era of the illustrated newspapers of the 1800s.


And of course the same cry of "we must censor this to save the children!" in the Comic Book Scare itself we've all read/heard before in relation to movies/books/popular music/television/video games/[fill in new media someone decides to freak out over here] - but more on that when I actually finish the book.