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April 24, 2008


CR Review Special: Bart Beaty On David Hajdu's The Ten-Cent Plague, Part Three

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By Bart Beaty

Yesterday I suggested that one of the important results of David Hajdu's The Ten-Cent Plague was the resurrection of the industry myth that Fredric Wertham killed, or severely harmed, the comic book industry in the 1950s. What is most disappointing to me is not that Hajdu smears the reputation of a man who did so much good during his lifetime, but that he had so much evidence in front of him and still came to the wrong diagnosis about this industry.

At times in his book it seems that Hajdu is unwilling to acknowledge that the American comic book industry of the 1950s was remarkably flawed. While, to my mind, he doesn't quite bring the early days of the comic book industry to life the way that Gerald Jones or Michael Chabon have done, he does, nonetheless, relate a number of great stories about that period. He seemingly wants to paint a picture that is heroic and noble, but, let's face it, too much of the reality was simply unseemly for that to be the case.

The American comic book was the product of failed aspirations, and artists struggling to get by. While comic strip artists often gained wealth, fame and even renown, many comic book artists and writers resented the work that paid their bills, longing to move on, and up, from the muck and the mire. Hajdu himself has Patricia Highsmith deploring the work that she did in the industry as having nothing to do with the literature that she is best known for, and she would not be alone in her disdain. Yes, there were artists and writers who took great pride in their work in the comic book form, but it would be erroneous to present their stories as the norm.

Hajdu complains that Wertham did not take comic book artists seriously: "By portraying comic-book creators as hapless victims of Dickensian overlords, Wertham hid a refusal to consider their legitimacy as artists behind a defense of their honor as artists." This struck me as odd, since Wertham was one of the few who tried to speak up for the state of comic book artists at the time.

"Hapless victims of Dickensian overlords" has the snappy ring that Hajdu brings to his prose, but is it actually an incorrect characterization? Were the artists hacking out work in the Eisner-Iger shop "legitimate artists," or were they in fact victims of bosses who paid poorly for their ideas, took credit for their work, and could dismiss them on a whim? Surely, any argument that the prevailing working conditions for artists in the early days of the American comic book industry were morally justifiable would be laughable. Hajdu himself paints a picture of Victor Fox requiring artists to literally beg for their promised wages and then bouncing their checks. Dickensian overlord? So, 'victims' and 'Dickensian', at the very least, don't seem too far off to me.

I said yesterday that Wertham's arguments often suffered from the fact that he protected the anonymity of his patients, and the same is true insofar as Holt-Rinehart's lawyers protected the legal rights of Wertham's informants in the industry. Take the case of Jerry Siegel, co-creator of Superman and a man who was cheated out of perhaps billions of dollars. There has been a great deal of celebrating the recent court decision in his favor so long after his death. During his lifetime Siegel wrote to Wertham to bring attention to the working conditions in the comic book industry, laying out the sad story of his treatment by National, and highlighting the checkered nature of the pasts of some industry leaders. Wertham's earliest drafts of Seduction went into the facts of the Siegel case in detail, quoting from the letters, but because Holt's lawyers could not contact him as the book went to press, his name, his quotations and his story were removed since, as the writer of the letter, he alone controlled the legal rights to disclose the contents. As a result, Wertham's evidence became less powerful and the standard operating procedure of the comic book industry trundled merrily along.

Hajdu surely knows that the ethics of the industry at the time were dubious, but he goes out of his way to suggest that EC was different. Bill Gaines, he points out, bought gifts for artists who met certain performance thresholds, and bonused his crew in the form of trips -- something that Harvey Kurtzman, it seems, resented. Kurtzman is the odd man out in Ten-Cent Plague, and his views are not dealt with substantially, nor is the fact that he attended a Wertham-organized symposium on comic books in 1948 to defend the industry, but, as the transcripts indicate, found a great deal of common ground with the doctor, at least on the subject of the poor quality of the vast production of the day.

imageTen-Cent Plague frames the anti-comics crusade largely as an effort to wipe out EC, with Hajdu dedicating a tremendous percentage of his text to that single publisher. The anti-EC crusade was a view long promulgated by Gaines in interviews and in pro-EC fanzines, of which there were many, in the decades that followed the creation of the comics code. It is funny, therefore, not that Kurtzman and Wertham might agree on many points (and by no means all), but that EC was so aggressive in courting Wertham's aid.

In May 1954, after the first two days of Senate hearings, Gaines' croney, Lyle Stuart, viciously smeared Wertham in the pages of Expose, only to recant four "breaches of fact in a single sentence" in the next issue. Surely, Wertham threatened to sue? No, quite the contrary, he didn't even complain, seemingly dismissing Stuart's paper as a scurrilous rag. Indeed, it was Stuart himself who apologized in June, and then, in August, contacted Wertham on behalf of a comic magazine publisher with an offer that would add to his income and prestige -- as head of the Comics Code Authority. Of course, Wertham turned the offer down.

But this was not the end of the EC-Wertham connection. In November 1954, Stuart again contacted Wertham, this time leaking him comic book covers with the new code seal and criticizing Code administrator Charles Murphy. Finally, in January 1955, Al Feldstein spoke with Wertham's wife on the phone and then sent him some comic books. According to Wertham's notes, Feldstein and EC wished for Wertham to use his influence on behalf of the company. To do what is, unfortunately, not recorded for posterity, but the timeline coincides with the period where EC was having trouble with the Code administrators.

The story that Hajdu tells is EC vs. Wertham, but the reality was much murkier. EC saw in Wertham someone from whom they could at least seek aid (although he seemingly wanted nothing to do with them), and they continually sought his assistance. It's hardly the epic battle that latter day fans have made it out to be.

Then why is it presented as such? Well, largely because comics fans have long seen the mid-1950s as a time of a great loss, and great losses require great battles to explain them. While it's true that this period witnessed a tremendous contraction of the field, the cause wasn't exclusively, or even predominantly, the code.

What caused the sales of comics to drop in the mid-1950s was a combination of factors. Hajdu mentions the most important of these, but underplays it: television. The rise of television goes literally hand-in-hand with the declining fortunes of other entertainment media (radio, film, comic books). A second factor, the massive shake-up in the magazine distribution industry, crippled a large number of publishers, including EC. Third, the hearings and the publicity generated by anti-comics movement undoubtedly led some parents to take a closer look at the entertainment enjoyed by their children, and undoubtedly cost some the opportunity to continue as readers. When the industry lost those children it was damaging, because, for the most part, the industry thrived on sales to children and marketed almost exclusively to them.

The very title of Hajdu's book hints at the core of the problem: The Ten-Cent Plague was, indeed, a disaster related to pricing. Comics were inexpensive so that children could buy them. As costs rose, rather than raising the price, publishers cut the package, stripping away pages to continue selling at a dime to children. Dell, never a code member, lost its status as market leader when they finally raised their price, and they never recovered (television undoubtedly hit them hardest of all publishers as well). The comic book industry fell in the 1950s because it myopically chased the dimes of children, and only children, unable to even conceptualize another market. It is not by accident that Michael Chabon made his visionary graphic novel creator something of a madman.

Thierry Groensteen has recently argued that one of the important reasons that comics have struggled to find respect is the "treachery of the publishers," who curtailed the growth of the medium by pursuing the safest and surest audience: children. This seems particularly true when considering the mid-century American comic book industry, which was largely run by con artists and scammers looking for an easy buck. When the heat came, they simply moved on.

How much easier, however, to believe that the industry was knee-capped in its infancy by a crazed psychiatrist than face the reality that many publishers and artists did not share the love of comics that contemporary fans bring to their work? Rather than face the reality of which the Siegel case recently reminded us, it is far simpler to locate the villain outside the industry. Better to present Bill Gaines as a martyr. But Gaines was no saint, and Wertham no devil. In truth, EC sought the aid of their loudest critic, and he, in turn, kept a framed Mad story on the wall of his office.
 
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