Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Ten-Cent Plague by David Hajdu

As part of my duties as an Eisner judge this year, I'm reading a lot of comics, yes -- but I'm also reading several books about comics. And, since I seem to be obsessive about mentioning every media product I consume, I'll be covering those as well.

(This post was originally going to sit as I added thoughts on other books, but I've now written 600 words on one book alone, so I'll just post it as is.)

The Ten-Cent Plague by David Hajdu (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, March 2008, $26.00)

I'd heard mixed reports on this book, which is one reason I hadn't gotten to it before the Eisner crush, but I found it a California roll of a book: a big, tasty core of excellent reporting wrapped in a thin, slightly bad-tasting skin of mythologizing.

Hajdu has done an immense amount of research, and when he concentrates on the facts -- which does, most of the time, in the bulk of the book -- he's effortlessly authoritative and engaging, covering a myriad tiny details with amazing concision and clarity. But the prologue is pure rabble-rousing for the comics-reader who already knows the outlines of the story, a quick sketch of an woman who drew comics in the '40s and '50s but now -- fifty years after her career ended! -- is depicted as huddling in fear of nebulous anti-comics forces in her Florida retirement. The last chapter of the main narrative ends with a rush, as the Comics Code descends and everything, obviously, becomes horrible, and the curtain drops quickly. (There's also a short epilogue, a quick vignette of a visit Hajdu made to R. Crumb in France. If it's there for any purpose other than namedropping, it's presumably to tie Crumb back to the horror and crime comics that were the focus earlier in the book, but that link isn't made strongly, and the book otherwise fails to prefigure the undergrounds or to mention comics after 1954 at all.)

The main thing wrong with Ten-Cent Plague is that subtitle -- this is not at all the story of how "the great comic-book scare" "changed America." It is the story of that scare, but Hajdu ends his book before examining just as America might have been changed by it. This is a book about the comics industry up to the 1954 hearings, and seems to be solid on the players to that point and the facts of the creation of the Comics Code Authority. But it's not strongly focused; at times it seems to want to trace the careers of several creators in the field -- most notably Will Eisner -- and at times it seems to want to cover the entire field at the time.

And it does have a buried message, which it never fully explicates or makes the case for explicitly: that comics were unjustly accused, by Fredric Wertham and others, and that the Code destroyed a commercially and artistically vibrant art form. But Hajdu's own reporting makes it clear that the field was either declining or in turmoil in the early '50s, and though he doesn't directly say that the Code was responsible for the vast decline in comics published that he describes, he certainly implies it -- without giving equal time or credit to other factors. Hajdu also doesn't make the case that most of the crime and horror comics were any good at all -- probably because no one could make that case with a straight face. (Even their zenith, the EC stories, look pretty ham-fisted and obvious these days.)

So The Ten-Cent Plague relies on the reader's knee-jerk antipathy to censorship of any kind, and on comics fans' long history of exalting EC and demonizing Wertham to make its points for it. It's really only about half of the book it wants to be -- it lays out the players and the situation, and explains what happened, but doesn't examine the consequences, either intellectually or in the comics market of the later '50s. The reportage is excellent and very well endnoted, but the analysis is skimpy and second-hand.

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