by David Hajdu
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $26)
A single drawing of a woman’s severed head all but destroyed the comic-book industry half a century ago. The ghastly image appeared on the cover of a 1954 crime comic, and when a U.S. senator held the offending periodical aloft during televised hearings that year, its publisher argued weakly that the artwork exhibited tasteful restraint. Sure, the ax used by the killer was blackened by gore. But a truly irresponsible outfit, he said, would have shown the open neck wound instead of hiding it from the viewer’s gaze. The nation was unimpressed. Comic books were burned across the land and more than 100 state and local restrictions on their distribution became law. By 1956, more than half the industry’s business had disappeared.
The “parent-baiting” comics targeted by the crackdown prefigured what would become the “defiant youth-oriented culture” of the next decade and beyond, said Janet Maslin in The New York Times. David Hajdu’s “incisive and entertaining” account of their rise and fall doesn’t defend the excesses of the crime and horror genres. He “positions the drive to clean up comics as a response to larger fears” about the future of a planet that soon enough would be handing its nuclear weapons over to a generation of juvenile delinquents. Hajdu has included more insider history “than most readers will want to follow,” said Jennifer Reese in Entertainment Weekly. But his “smart, sobering” look at one “long-forgotten skirmish” highlights the black comedy of the culture wars we’re still fighting today.
The Ten-Cent Plague delivers less than it promises, though, said Craig Seligman in Bloomberg.com. Despite its subtitle, “there’s very little” analysis inside about how the war on comics “changed America.” By all appearances, the America that imagined a link between comics and juvenile delinquency “was pretty much the same dumb, scared America before the bonfires and after.” Hajdu also ducks the most “ticklish” questions raised by the story he tells, said Daniel Akst in The Boston Globe. “What, for example, is the proper response of society to junk culture aimed at kids?” Censorship is a dirty word, but there has to be some middle ground established between cultural witch hunts and “the screening of snuff films in nursery schools.”
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