Comic books and freedom of the press: Hajdu

The Ten Cent Plague
David Hajdu
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008
New York, N.Y.

David Spencer

In some circles, a connection between issues involving comic books and journalism would be considered far fetched.  However, the relationship is stronger than one might think.  David Hajdu’s The Ten Cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare and How It Changed America, a study of the influence of comic books, and reaction to that influence following the Second World War goes well beyond the world of comics and into the regime of suppression which characterized much of American politics from 1948 onward.  In many respects contemporary events parallel those which preceded them, an era in which the guarantees of freedom of expression and freedom of the press were cast aside in a crusade resembled that of the morality of the Comstock era some century or so ago.

Hajdu’s thesis is quite simple. There were circles within American political life that became alarmed about the influence that comic books were having on America’s young.  In a time before television, this form of illustrated communication was the dominating form of entertainment for those under the age of 21.  And even though Hajdu points to the fact that not all comic books were the same—yes, there were comics illustrating the books of the Bible and those devoted to illustrating the classics—they became collectively a tyranny which some felt must be stamped out.The Ten Cent Plague

As with all social movements—both good and bad—the idea of cleaning up the content of the comic book world began slowly, almost below the radar.  What we would describe today as a community activist often took on the individual role of arbiter of taste.  But then, slowly but surely, this solitary crusader attracted the attention of others and the winds of protest became stronger and stronger.  As the momentum of panic grew, comic books became the victim.  Pressure was exerted on stores that carried the books.  Even hiding them out of sight, much like today’s cigarette displays, was not a solution to the problem.  For the activist set, total elimination was the objective.

In keeping with many social movements that have sprung up in the west in recent decades, the campaign to reduce or eliminate comic books in American went to extremes.  What began as a society that tolerated the banning of books ended with a society that worshipped book burning ceremonies in which comics were the main attraction.

 It was not surprising that this moral crusade escaped the attention of most of the journalistic world.  In fact, the journalists who followed the campaigns and book burnings were more often than not, such as the case of the Hartford Courant, supportive, without realizing that they too could fall victim.

Hajdu’s study is primarily chronological, which assists readers in following the story with ease.  The book focuses on the issues that created the storm of protest, namely that many of the publishers continued to push the borders of decency—at least decency as seen by the critics.  What is most interesting about the text is the fact that Hajdu does not take sides.  Of course, as a writer, he concerns himself with freedom of expression, but on the other hand, he is quick to point out that the industry itself created the conditions for a backlash. This is not unlike today’s concerns over lyrics and messages in popular music and music videos.  He treads a very difficult and fine line, which in the overall context of the work, lends to its credibility.

It does not matter whether one sees the link between freedom of expression, journalism and comic books.  Hajdu hints that we are in the process of creating just such a climate of fear again, as violence becomes a sales tool for the music industry, Hollywood films and television shows.  Yes, one should learn from history.  Perhaps entertainment executives should get a copy of this book, read it and pay attention to the message of responsibility that Hajdu discusses.  It would be worth their time and effort.

And journalists, as well, should look beyond just selling newspapers and magazines and realize the kind of collective activity that can threaten the profession itself.

David Spencer is a professor in the Faculty of Information and Media Studies at the University of Western Ontario and the J-Source Book Reviews editor.