A comic-book burning in Binghamton, NY, 1948.
My review of David Hajdu’s new book The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How it Changed America appears in today’s Globe and Mail and can be found here. I’ll have more to say about this book on this blog later this week but in the meantime, here are some excerpts of my Globe review:
Books, if Ray Bradbury is to be trusted, burn at a temperature of Fahrenheit 451; old comic books, printed as they were on cheap newsprint, are easier to kindle. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, thousands of American kids discovered just how flammable comic books could be. Egged on by parents, teachers and such guardians of piety and patriotism as the Catholic Church and the American Legion, countless children (sometimes willingly, but often reluctantly) participated in schoolyard re-enactments of the Bonfire of the Vanities, setting aflame horror and crime comic books that allegedly had the power to corrupt their young innocence and transform them into juvenile delinquents. (It is highly probable that among the comics burned were copies of the EC Comics series Weird Science-Fantasy, which, appropriately enough, published adaptations of Ray Bradbury stories.)
The postwar anti-comics movement, an astonishing outburst of media-induced hysteria, originated in the United States but had repercussions in many lands, including England, Mexico, Taiwan, the Philippines and Canada. In 1949, E. Davie Fulton, an up-and-coming Tory MP from British Columbia, got Parliament to pass a private member’s bill banning crime comics from our pristine dominion. Fulton’s efforts were loudly praised by a 10-year-old Baie Comeau boy named Brian Mulroney, who delivered an award-winning speech denouncing crime comics.
Mulroney’s fledgling, prepubescent foray into Conservative politics was a transparent and treasonous attempt to win brownie points from authority figures by condemning reading material that many of his age-mates loved. (Intriguingly, Fulton would later serve as a mentor to Mulroney.)
In 2008, it’s hard to believe that comic books could be the centre of heated political disputes, but in early days of the Cold War, comics were as controversial as communism. In his splendid new cultural history The Ten-Cent Plague, respected U.S. cultural critic David Hajdu vividly brings this half-remembered debate to life, showing that the fierce struggle over comics was an important battle in a cultural war over youth and freedom that continues to rage to this day.
The intellectual leader of the anti-comics crowd was the German-born psychiatrist Fredric Wertham. Like many of the early cartoonists, Wertham was an immigrant, but he didn’t come out of the ghettos of Eastern Europe or the tenements of New York. He was an avatar of European high culture, fearful that the barbarism of fascism could be reborn in the United States. Superman reminded Wertham of the Übermensch exalted by Nietzsche and appropriated by Hitler.
Based on clinical work he did in a charitable hospital in Harlem, Wertham argued that almost all comic books stultified the imagination of normal kids and inspired the more vulnerable to become criminals. In denigrating comic books, Wertham used language as bold and unrestrained as anything found in a Batman story. “I think Hitler was a beginner compared to the comic-book industry,” he once said.
Was Wertham right? He still has his defenders, notably Bart Beaty, a professor of communications at the University of Calgary, who champions Wertham as a progressive scholar who cared about the “the most defenseless portion of postwar American society, children.” Hajdu’s new book, brilliantly written and based on hundreds of interviews with cartoonists and comics readers, as well as book burners, serves as a powerful brief against Wertham and his allies. As Hajdu notices, the voices of children and cartoonists got lost into the cacophony of the anti-comics backlash.
Children loved most the very comics that Wertham and his ilk thought were especially harmful, in part because these comics possessed the true unruly spirit of youth. The childish imagination is nurtured not just by wholesome and didactic stories, but also by tales of bloodshed and vengeance, which bring good and evil vividly to life. Children need monsters and ghouls just as surely as they require parents and teachers.
Wertham titled his 1954 bestselling polemic Seduction of the Innocent. But the fact is that no child, no human, is fully innocent. The book burnings conducted by virtuous nuns and war vets were as traumatic as anything to be found in the worst comics.