Book Review: The Ten-Cent Plague

Back before Spider-Man and the X-Men, comic books were the villains.

Let our journalists help you make sense of the noise: Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter and get a recap of news that matters.


In this earnestly diligent cultural history, David Hajdu chronicles the hysteria that once surrounded the lowly comic book. In the early 1950s, superheroes shared the magazine racks with underdog horror, crime, and romance comics. Titles like It Rhymes With Lust and Crime Does Not Pay depicted a sleazy, yet moralistic, universe where teens mashed at sex parties, the girl next door murdered her abusive father, and many a glowering mug or moll thrust a red-hot poker into the eyeballs of many a deserving snitch. Ultraviolent and anti-social, they were the video games of the McCarthy era. The nation’s bluenoses rushed to protect wayward youths by burning their comic books—sometimes literally.

Hajdu ably details the pyrotechnics of this culture clash, interviewing dozens of the cartoonists and writers who found themselves accused of what psychoanalyst Fredric Wertham had called “the seduction of the innocent.” The climax came with televised Senate hearings in 1954, where Bill Gaines, the publisher of—ahem—Educational Comics (and Mad magazine), was confronted with the cover of EC’s Crime SuspenStories featuring a man standing above a supine woman, gripping a blood-splattered ax and her severed head. “Do you think that is in good taste?” demanded Democratic presidential hopeful Estes Kefauver. Gaines, strung out from an all-night amphetamine binge, stammered, “Yes, sir, I do.”

After that, a draconian Comics Code essentially banned everything but bunny wabbits and Goody Two-shoes in tights. More than 800 comic-book creators were put out of work. For Hajdu, these urban, ethnic, working-class “cultural insurgents” were the great comic-book witch hunt’s forgotten victims. Then, of course, there were the kids, who had to wait a decade for the underground comics that recaptured the anarchism of their ’50s forebears.

THE TRUTH IS...

what drives Mother Jones' team of 50-plus journalists. The truth is powerful, as evidenced by how hard those with something to hide, or profit to gain, seek to discredit it. The truth, stated boldly and reported meticulously, is what draws so many readers to Mother Jones.

And the truth is, going into the final 4 days of the year we still needed to raise $TK to hit our $350,000 goal and start 2021 on track. It's nerve-wracking, wondering if the big spike we normally see at the end of December is going to be another thing that doesn't go as planned in 2020, or worse, if, now that Donald Trump is set to leave the White House (for longer than a taxpayer-funded golf trip to a property he owns), folks might be pulling back from fighting for the truth and a democracy and think the hard work is done.

It's not, and if you can right now, please consider a year-end donation to support our team's fearless nonprofit journalism so we can close that big fundraising gap and finish the year strong, ready for all that's ahead in 2021. Whether you can give $5 or $500, it all matters in keeping us charging hard, and we'd be grateful.

payment methods

THE TRUTH IS...

what drives Mother Jones' team of 50-plus journalists. The truth is powerful, as evidenced by how hard those with something to hide, or profit to gain, seek to discredit it. The truth, stated boldly and reported meticulously, is what draws so many readers to Mother Jones.

And the truth is, going into the final 4 days of the year we still needed to raise $TK to hit our $350,000 goal and start 2021 on track. It's nerve-wracking, wondering if the big spike we normally see at the end of December is going to be another thing that doesn't go as planned in 2020, or worse, if, now that Donald Trump is set to leave the White House (for longer than a taxpayer-funded golf trip to a property he owns), folks might be pulling back from fighting for the truth and a democracy and think the hard work is done.

It's not, and if you can right now, please consider a year-end donation to support our team's fearless nonprofit journalism so we can close that big fundraising gap and finish the year strong, ready for all that's ahead in 2021. Whether you can give $5 or $500, it all matters in keeping us charging hard, and we'd be grateful.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate