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April 22, 2008

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


By Bart Beaty

David Hajdu's The Ten-Cent Plague is an interesting contribution to the history of comics, and the international attention that it has focused on the debates about comic books in the 1950s has been significant. Hajdu's book joins Martin Barker's A Haunt of Fears, Amy Kiste-Nyberg's Seal of Approval, John Lent's Pulp Demons, and my own Fredric Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture in a lengthening list of books addressed to this important moment in comic book history.

I read The Ten-Cent Plague with great avidity. Hajdu is a compelling storyteller, and his interviews with some of the key players at the time add important shadings to our understanding of the period. There are places where the book really excels, not the least of which is in the important research on the comic book burnings that began in the 1940s, an area that is often mentioned but seldom dealt with in the depth that Hajdu brings to the issue.

At the same time, however, the book has certain shortcomings, and I'd like to address these over a few posts. I would characterize the failings of the book in three broad areas: 1) it leaves out some of the really important elements of the story that it is telling; 2) by constructing the book as a morality tale with Bill Gaines as the hero and Fredric Wertham as the villain, too much is simplified; and 3) I think that Hajdu is largely wrong on the subject of why the comics industry "collapsed" in the mid-1950s. I'll be talking about each of these areas over the next three days.

So, to start, what went missing in this book?

For me, the most surprising thing about The Ten-Cent Plague was that it was missing the entire second day of testimony in the April 1954 Senate hearings. Given that the entire book builds to these hearings as the culmination of the drama, this seemed an extremely curious absence. I initially thought, "Well, he wanted to end with Gaines to put all the emphasis on the Gaines/Wertham relationship." If I were guessing as to his motive, that would be my wager. But it makes for a strange reading experience, particularly when he returns to the discussion of the third day of the hearings (which was in June), a day on which very little happened that is relevant to the broader themes of Hajdu's book (they mostly focused on distribution on that day).

In fact, while Hajdu walks through the testimony on Wednesday, April 21 in a great degree of detail (he spends almost a tenth of the book on that day), he skips some of the most interesting parts. Gaines was not the last person to testify on the afternoon of the 21st. He was followed by two of the greatest of all American cartoonists, Walt Kelly and Milton Caniff, appearing on behalf of the National Cartoonists Society. Surprisingly, they came not to praise comic books, but to bury them.


Earlier in his book, Hajdu cited Caniff's eloquent defense of comics in 1950, at which time he compared them to folk tales. Four years later, he told the Senators that the NCS valued Wertham's opinion "very highly" as he sought to distance the noble comic strip -- vetted, of course, by responsible newspaper editors everywhere and suitable for the family home -- with the savage comic book. Caniff refused to make a blanket condemnation of crime comics, it is true, but his testimony did the comic book industry no favors by so clearly drawing a line between what he did and what they do.

Kelly voiced similar sentiments, recognizing the "great danger of the magazines in question." Hajdu points out in Ten-Cent Plague that no comic book artists testified at the hearings, which is not strictly true as Kelly worked in the comic book industry (though not in 1954), but cartoonists did testify and they did not rise to the defense of EC or any other publisher of crime and horror comics. Far from it. In discussing the work of Johnny Craig, and how his work violated the NCS code, Kelly offered to "invite [him] outside" to settle matters.

There were two primary thrusts of the Kelly/Caniff testimony. First, that comic strips are clean even if comic books are dirty. Second, that the good in comics will ultimately prevail over the bad. To back this up, Caniff cited the Disney (Dell) comics, which accounted for up to one-third of the total industry at that time and were, of course, the cleanest of the clean. Dell is probably the most significant absence in Ten-Cent Plague. The industry leader at the time, they are barely mentioned in Hajdu's book, perhaps because the success of the family friendly material that they published does little to support Hajdu's primary thesis.

Indeed, Hajdu marginalizes Dell in the most curious fashion. On page 190, for example, he writes that Stan Lee had "helped make Timely the most successful publisher in comics by 1952, with sales half again as great as that of its closest competitor, Dell, and twice that of National/DC." This is worth unpacking. First, Timely ceased publishing comics in 1951 and was replaced by Atlas (which later became Marvel). Second, while Timely's sales declined after the public lost interest in the initial wave of superhero comics during World War 2 they were by no means in bad shape. Monroe Froehlich told the Senate committee that the 35 titles that they published in 1954 averaged a total cumulative sale of 10 million copies (285,000 copies per title). Helen Meyer of Dell, on the other hand, testified a few hours later that they sold 25 million copies per month, or 32% of the total industry. So it is difficult to know what Hajdu means when he claims that Timely was the most successful publisher in comics at that point in history.

imageIt is also difficult to know why he never really talks about Dell, nor mentions the testimony of Meyer (who was quite critical of Wertham -- the company had repeatedly threatened to sue him if Dell were mentioned in Seduction of the Innocent). Meyer's defense of Dell was extraordinary -- certainly the flipside of Gaines' defense of EC -- but she was also blunt in her feelings about her competitors: "We abhor horror and crime comics. We would like to see them out of the picture because it taints us."

In framing his story around the battle between Gaines and Wertham, Hajdu needlessly covers up important elements of the comic book story. Certainly, the neglect of Dell seems inexcusable, given their overall importance in the field at that time. Further, the choice to neglect anti-crime and anti-horror comic book voices from within the comics field seems particularly egregious. Hajdu paints a picture of an industry beset by prudes and censors and largely united in their self-conception, but that was far from the case. The truth is a lot more complicated.

For those interested, the entire three days of testimony from 1954 can be found on the web here.

Next Time: The case for Dr. Wertham.
posted 11:00 am PST | Permalink

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