"We, in the United States, are fortunate to have a school system that is a tribute to our communities and to our faith in American youth. Today we are concerned with juvenile delinquency-its causes-and its effects. We are especially concerned when this delinquency boils over into our schools. The scenes and incidents depicted here are fictional. However, we believe that public awareness is a first step toward a remedy for any problem. It is in this spirit and with this faith that Blackboard Jungle was produced."
The 1955 movie Blackboard Jungle begins with this text shown in plain black and white while the now familiar drum beat of Bill Haley & the Comets “Rock Around the Clock,” plays in the background. The drums get louder and louder, until the song bursts out in full, now with scenes of teenagers dancing to it in a schoolyard. Reportedly at screenings of the movie, teens jumped out of their seats and danced along, with the crowds and frenzy sometimes leading to vandalism and violence.
At that time, rock music became one of the bugaboos of adults, a reason for why teens misbehave and indulged in dangerous behavior. That lasted for a while. Then it was TV shows, then video games and the Internet, with any kind of music (punk, metal, hip hop) handily jumping in to fill the spaces in between. But just as Blackboard Jungle, The Wild One, and Rebel Without a Cause were bringing the terror of leather-jacketed violent teens (usually played by actors in their twenties) to giant life on the big screen, the scourge of America was not music, movies, or Communism—it was comic books.
In The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare and How It Changed America, David Hajdu tells the story of the rise of comic books through the first half of the twentieth century and how they fell (temporarily) to the forces of angry adults who didn’t understand them, or the children who read them. Using interviews with many of the artists and writers who survived the purge of the 1950s, Hajdu more than adequately covers another little slice of history that seems ludicrous now, but was of deathly importance at the time.
Comic strips had arrived in the early twentieth century, as part of color Sunday supplements that were aimed at recent immigrants who might not be able to read English well. The strips featured ethnic stereotypes who spoke in broken English, scrapping around immigrant enclaves such as the Lower East Side of New York. The heroes of these comics, such as the Yellow Kid and the Katzenjammer kids, flouted authority and mocked society with glee, which of course meant that snooty critics looked down on them and bemoaned the low culture they represented.
By the late 1920s and early 1930s, the comic strips began to draw upon the pulp and detective magazines, creating stories told in daily strips such as Dick Tracy, Tarzan, and Flash Gordon. A generation that had grown up reading the Sunday comic strips and copying the drawings flooded newspaper syndicates with new ideas for their own strips. One entrepreneur got the idea to take strips that hadn’t found a publisher and package them in a cheap magazine that kids could afford. Will Eisner, who had sold some of his own stories to the new magazines, joined forces with Jerry Iger to create a studio where writers and artists could work together to crank out the new comic books for publishers who wouldn’t want to build their own staffs could buy and sell. An industry was born.
Other studios hastily formed and began to put out new stories as quickly as possible. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s Superman became a huge hit, spawning many imitators (including the Bob Kane creation Batman). Stories of superheroes who protected the weak and defenseless had a huge appeal for Depression era audiences who felt powerless. Hajdu points out that many of the comic writers and artists were first generation Americans or recent immigrants, for whom the fighter for justice in a confusing, unfair world was a kind of wish fulfillment; and like the immigrant writers and readers, the heroes themselves were often outcasts or strangers in a strange land.
The peculiarly unhelpful Aquaman was a byproduct of Superman's success.
Throughout the 1940s, comics grew beyond men in tights with superpowers. Will Eisner, who believed that comics should be treated as an art form, created The Spirit, a mysterious crime fighter, who spent less time solving crimes than exploring a noir world where good and bad weren’t mutually exclusive. Crime comics, where the emphasis was on action and gaudy violence rather than careful justice, became big sellers (the point of the stories was made in one series, Crime Does Not Pay, in which the cover showed the word Crime in heavy block letters two and a half inches tall and the rest of the title in letters 5/16th of an inch). Romance comics, heavy on stories about good girls falling for bad boys and with just enough scenes of girls changing clothes to keep male audiences interested, also became popular for a while.
Crime may not pay, but it sells.
Romance comics were popular for a while. Uh oh, I think Jane's got trouble.
During World War II, many of the superheroes evolved into Nazi fighters and protectors of the American way of life. Yet it was in this time period that the first round was fired in the comic book war. In 1940, a Midwestern newspaper columnist, Sterling North, wrote a column decrying these “lurid publications [that] depend for their appeal upon mayhem, murder, torture and abduction—often with a child as the victim. Superman heroics, voluptuous females in scanty attire, blazing machine guns, hooded “justice” and cheap political propaganda were to be found on almost every page.” North also complained that the comics were badly drawn, badly written and badly printed; they overstimulated children and putting a strain on their eyes.
The campaign against comics continued throughout the war. Catholic Church publications began to publish anti-comic articles. In 1944, “Parents Must Control the Comics,” an article in St. Anthony Messenger complained about the “half-naked” and “tightly clad” superheroes, who not only gave kids ideas about sex, but were also fascist propaganda. The idea of a “private person” taking over fighting crime and handing out justice was seen as a parallel to Hitler’s ability to take over Germany. In “The Case Against Comics,” published by the Catechistical Guild, comics were said to represent an anarchical spirit that glorified vigilantism and Gestapo methods that were un-American.
After the war, some cities and states began to try to crack down on comic book sales, charging stores that sold “objectionable material.” A New York State law dating from 1884 was used in 1947 to charge a book seller whose store sold true crime comics for possessing, with an intent to sell obscene materials. The book seller, Murray Winters, objected on the grounds of the First Amendment. He appealed his case all the way to the Supreme Court, where the verdict against Murray was overturned, but the Court made it clear that they were overturning it mostly because of the vagueness of the 1884 law; the opinion stated that states and Congress had a duty to punish those circulating objectionable material, and do their part in “eliminating evils to which, in their judgment, such publications give rise.” The authorities just needed to be more specific.
In 1948, an article called “Horror in the Nursery,” featured a psychiatrist named Fredric Wertham, who connected comics to juvenile delinquency. While the article talked about Wertham’s research and his findings, in truth he hadn’t really conducted any solid research or conducted anything that could be called a scientific study. Wertham used mostly anecdotal evidence, and picked and chose that which would best support his conclusions. Nevertheless, Wertham’s ideas quickly caught on.
With the Supreme Court ruling in mind, cities and towns began to try to find other ways to get kids away from reading comics that wouldn’t lead to a lawsuit. Hajdu tells the story of one boy in a small West Virginia town who was persuaded by a teacher to lead a student charge against comics. The boy, who seemed more than anything flattered to be considered such an influencer, encouraged other students to collect comics and burn them at a bonfire. The incident caught national attention and other schools followed. In one upstate New York town, a student at a Catholic school, St. Patrick’s, led his fellow students in a boycott of comics, going so far as to post student guards outside a store that sold comics to make sure no one from their school entered. That boycott culminated in a bonfire as well.
Not everyone agreed with these protests; after all, in 1948, 80-100 million comics were being sold each month. One student, David Wigransky, wrote a letter in response to a Wertham “comics are evil” article that argued that adults read material that was just as vulgar and depraved, if not worse, than anything in comics, and that kids should be allowed to make their own judgments about what to read. Wigransky stated that comics helped children understand the real world and that overprotective adults who tried to hide the truth from them would leave kids unprepared to deal with adult problems and questions.
More than a few columnists or opinion page editors commented on the distasteful image of book burning, so soon after World War II. One of the students who had participated in the St. Patrick’s boycott and bonfire, became increasingly uncomfortable with the whole movement, saying that by Christmas, the sight of stockings hung in front of a fireplace made him think of the bonfire and got him angry as he thought of all the books burned. He vowed never to do it again and during the holiday break went to the store that had been boycotted by the students and bought a comic book.
In the early 1950s, Estes Kefauver, a Tennessee senator, conducted a series of hearings investigating organized crime. The success of these hearings—that is the positive response Kefauver received from the public who, riveted to their TV sets just as television was beginning to catch on, perceived him as a do-gooding crimefighter—prompted Robert Hendrickson, a senator from New Jersey, to conduct a series of hearings on juvenile delinquency. In April, 1954, the hearings focused on the comic book industry. Frederic Wertham, whose book about the perils of comic books, Seduction of the Innocent, had recently been published, was glad to testify. On the stand, he again asserted that comic books were connected to juvenile behavior, but as in his book (which a few reviewers did note), his conclusions were not based on any comprehensive studies nor any serious evidence.
William Gaines, the head of EC Comics had volunteered to testify on behalf of the comics industry. EC was best known for the line of horror comics they’d developed, including titles such as The Crypt of Terror, The Vault of Horror, and Weird Science. They also had had a lot of success with a satirical comic called Mad that they’d started in 1952.
Gaines’s testimony was a debacle. He immediately got into trouble by following up his opening statement about how his comics were just entertainment, harmless thrills and didn’t really affect anyone, with a protest against one of Wertham’s characterizations of one of his comics as racist. Gaines pointed out that the racist term that Wertham had pulled out of context was actually part of an anti-racism lesson in the story and that many of his comics taught lessons about topics such as racism, the dangers of drug addiction, and mob violence. A committee member pointed out that Gaines had just said that the comics were nothing more than entertainment—if that was true, how could they teach lessons or have any positive effect? Gaines stumbled with a shaky explanation about how information given in different types of captions meant different things to readers. It didn’t help that Gaines began to crash during his testimony as the Dexedrine he’d been taking wore off.
The part of the testimony that stuck with everyone was when Estes Kefauver presented a cover from EC’s Crime SuspenStories, and tried to get Gaines to explain it:
Senator KEFAUVER. Here is your May 22 issue. This seems to be 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 and moving the body over a little further so that the neck of the body could be seen to be bloody. Senator KEFAUVER. You have blood coming out of her mouth. Mr. GAINES. A little. Senator KEFAUVER. Here is blood on the ax. I think most adults are shocked by that.
See? It could have been worse.
In the aftermath of the testimony (the entire transcript is available here), it turns out that many adults were shocked by Gaines’ explanation. The comic book industry began to panic. They put together the Comics Magazine Association of America, whose goals included setting “standards” for comic books, with an overseer to enforce them. They offered the position to Frederic Wertham. Words such as “terror,” “horror,” and “weird” were banned from titles. Gaines promptly held a press conference to announce the end of their horror line.
The CMAA code watered down comics, but that wasn’t enough for many. Cities, towns, and PTAs took action against them. Newspapers wrote “exposes” about their dangers. More burnings took place. Artists and writers who worked in the business found that people now responded with disgust when they learned what they did for a living. The industry shrank and, according to Hajdu, more than eight hundred people who had worked in comics at the beginning of the 1950s were out of the business as a result of the crackdown.
Hajdu’s book tells this whole story in much more detail than I have. I am not a comics expert (I’m not cool enough to go into a comics store), and sometimes the number of names and titles Hajdu tosses out can be a little overwhelming if you’re not familiar with them (Wait, who was that? What title did he create? Who drew that?). It’s still readable, understandable, and enjoyable for the non-aficionado, but probably does have an extra layer of meaning for the type of person who can be found every Wednesday at their local comics store, picking up the latest releases.
I had one huge problem with this book, though—there’s only a small section of photos, and about half of those are pictures of people involved in the story, the hearings, and kids burning books. Those are great and absolutely necessary, but throughout the book, Hajdu gives descriptions of various comics’ covers or individual panels that he thinks are important. His descriptions are fine; however, not being able to actually see the art he describes in order to understand fully the point he is making really hurts the experience. I’m guessing the reason for this is that it would have been either too expensive to add so much art to the pages, even in black and white non-glossy form. Or maybe the copyrights were too difficult or cost too much. But Hajdu isn’t some unknown writer published by a small independent press—he’s written several other well-known books and he’s published by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. It’s obviously meant to be a big release, so it seems odd that it doesn’t have more artwork to support Hajdu’s writing. It’s a book about illustration without illustrations, and I think that lessens the effect.
The early 1950s sometimes seem like a time of incomprehensible fear and skittishness, where anything or anyone who stepped even slightly out of line was seen as a threat. The difference, though, as Hajdu points out, is that unlike many of the unfortunate people who were caught up in the Red Scare and lost their jobs, or even their lives due to that crackdown, the comic book makers weren’t accused of spying or committing treason or plotting against America—they were essentially accused of having bad taste, and of creating a form of entertainment that was unfamiliar to many adults.
But kids always create their own things and adults who don’t understand them or don’t know them fear what kids create. They get frustrated at not being able to enter the world the kids have made, forgetting that they once had their own things that in their time seemed like a rebellion, but now are part of the mainstream. One of the appeals for kids of extreme sports is that their parents don’t know anything about them, haven’t done them, and can’t boss the kids around or tell them how to do them. It’s the same thing with video games. Kids need their own places, ideas, games, and creations, something that is theirs and not something given to them or defined by adults. I don’t know why so many adults find this so hard to remember.