David Hajdu’s History of the Comic-Book Panic

A new book looks at the four-color mayhem that put comic books in the crosshairs of censors and senators.


In 1954, comic-book publisher William M. Gaines was widely branded a degenerate following this exchange at a Senate hearing on juvenile delinquency:

Senator Estes Kefauver: “[This comic depicts] a man with a bloody ax holding a woman’s head up, which has been severed from her body. Do you think that is in good taste?”

Mr. Gaines: “Yes, sir, I do, for the cover of a horror comic. A cover in bad taste, for example, might be defined as holding the head a little higher so that the neck could be seen dripping blood from it. . . . ”

Senator Kefauver: “You have blood coming out of her mouth.”

Mr. Gaines: “A little.”

For comic-book scholars (all right, fanboys), this confrontation has always felt a bit surreal—a scarlet-letter story from the gray days of the Eisenhower administration. But in The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America, David Hajdu offers captivating insights into America’s early bluestocking-versus-blue-collar culture wars, and the later tensions between wary parents and the first generation of kids with the buying power to mold mass entertainment.

Hajdu begins with early newspaper comic strips, which William Randolph Hearst trumpeted in 1896 as “polychromatic effulgence that makes the rainbow look like a lead pipe!” In a typically sharp observation, Hajdu points out: “Magazine articles derided comic strips as infantile, brutal, unsophisticated, and subliterate; and the funnies were all that, though by design—a possibility lost to critics applying the standards of other forms of art and literature created for one class to a new form invented for another class.”


One wishes this lively book were longer.


World War I and the Depression pushed WASP fears of this new medium off the editorial pages, but the late-’30s advent of Superman and other cheaply printed phantasmagorias—propagated mostly by Jews, Italians, and other denizens of New York’s melting pot—horrified the burghers anew. Hajdu has a grand time with one Sterling North, whose 1940 screed in The Chicago Daily News contrasted his own family’s book-reading ritual—”We spread out all over the floor of the living room and the sunlight comes in through the many-paned windows”—with the “hypodermic injection of sex and murder” delivered by comics. Hajdu notes that the comic-book “sweatshops of Fourth Avenue had little access to sunlight,” and that North, a writer of genteel children’s stories, “appeared discontented with the prospect that young people might prefer a kind of book wholly unlike the ones he was writing.”

By 1941, comics were grossing approximately $12 million a year, six times the take from children’s books. In an age before television and rock ‘n’ roll, comics were a magnet for a kid’s allowance. War once again diverted the censors from comics, but by the late ’40s the guardians of probity were coming back like gangbusters. Hajdu’s thorough research documents public comic-book burnings, which flared in numerous communities across the nation, and identifies the nuns and scout leaders who cajoled often uneasy children into lighting the bonfires. Fanning the flames was New York psychiatrist Fredric Wertham’s 1954 anti-comics tome, Seduction of the Innocent, which placed the blame for rising rates of juvenile delinquency squarely on comic books.

Although comics fandom routinely pegs Wertham as a shrill prig, he was actually unembarrassed by sexual deviance and publicly defended at least one adult-themed novel from obscenity charges. This sadly contradictory German immigrant treated some violent juvenile offenders in his free Harlem clinic, and Hajdu might have fleshed him out a bit more, but Seduction‘s turgid mix of anecdote and conjecture proves too juicy a target. “Wertham chose to release his findings not in one of the peer-review publications in his field, such as The American Journal of Psychiatry,” writes Hajdu, “but, rather, in Ladies’ Home Journal, where the text of his book fit companionably among articles such as ‘Revolution in Mothballs’ and ‘Can This Marriage Be Saved?’ ” Directly after Seduction‘s publication, Wertham wowed the Senate hearings with his anti-comics spiel.

One wishes this lively book were longer. Hajdu concludes with a roll call of the hundreds of artists and writers who were never again published after the industry instituted a draconian code of conduct, wiping out hundreds of titles and neutering content for a decade. (We also learn that Gaines emerged triumphant as the publisher of the ridiculously lucrative Mad magazine.) And Hajdu’s interview with R. Crumb about the underground comix of the ’60s and ’70s feels too brief. These later artists, who grew up on the rambunctious and salacious pre-code stuff, subsequently avenged the evisceration of their beloved art form through violent and perverted tales that clubbed convention like a baby seal. That might be Hajdu’s next entertaining and erudite work, a testament for would-be censors everywhere—perhaps titled Careful What You Wish For.  ❖