In an age of video-game violence and the nearly-anything-goes Internet, it’s instructive to read that once upon a time, not that long ago, Congress was concerned about what was widely viewed as a serious menace to American youth: comic books. David Hajdu’s The Ten-Cent Plague is both cultural history and cautionary tale about censorship. It’s a well-written, detailed look at how comic books became a phenomenon in the early 1950s and how authorities cracked down on the most popular form of entertainment in America. At the time, comics were selling more than 80 million copies a week. But unlike movies and the new TV industry, they were unregulated — at least for a while. Their content was shifting from the noble exploits of superheroes to edgier and darker material: stories of crime, vice, lust and horror.
Congress held televised hearings on what was described as the link between comics and juvenile delinquency. Bill Gaines, publisher of EC Comics, was high on amphetamines as he haplessly tried to explain how an illustration of a man holding a severed head could be in “good taste.” States and cities passed laws to ban or limit sales. Schools urged students to bring their comics to school to be burned in celebratory bonfires. In 1954, comic-book publishers adopted a code that banned the words “terror” and “horror” and declared that “policemen, judges, government officials and respected institutions shall never be presented in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority.”
The author, a critic for The New Republic, is sympathetic to the artists and writers caught up in “the hysteria over comic books.” His research is impressive. His appendix lists 15 pages of names of those “who never again worked in comics after the purge of the 1950s.” Gaines, who had such a disastrous time at the congressional hearings, had the last laugh. To avoid censorship of the code, he converted one of his comics into a magazine format. Mad became the most popular and satirical youth magazine of the ’60s and ’70s. (c) USA TODAY, 2008
Source: USA Today, MAR 20, 2008
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