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Ten Cent Plague book coverThe Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America (Paperback)
~ David Hajdu

 Review by Suzanne

Comic books came along about the same time as movies, but these three forms of literature - TV, movies, and comic books - have always had some connection. Yes, I said literature. Whether you're talking about plays, movies, TV, comic books, videos, or plain old books, they are all literature. They just vary in terms of their format and their quality.

I just finished this book "The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America" by David Hajdu. It's basically the history of comic books, with lots of information about how parents, the media, and government treated comic books from the time they first arrived to the 50's, and beyond. It's fascinating for anyone who loves comics. It seemed a bit dry at first, like I was reading a college textbook, but it quickly got better. I heartily recommend it because it's not only very informative, but entertaining.

It seems that at some point, everyone starts pointing fingers at one of these mediums to blame society's problems on them, especially having to do with "juvenile delinquency". Comic books were the first, I guess, then later they blamed TV, movies, music, and video games (and the internet!). It's just as ridiculous now as it was then, and yet grown people still take these accusations seriously.

Although we mostly think of comics as being about superheroes, they were not the most popular comics at first. They did have Superman and other comics early on, but the popular ones at first were crime stories. These were like pulp fiction novels with pictures. They were lurid, featuring large-breasted women and blood and guts. I can see why some people might object to them, especially parents, but I never understood why anyone would want to censor these things. If you don't want your kid reading it (or watching it, or playing it), then don't let them. Otherwise shut up and let the rest of us enjoy the stuff! That goes for porn, too!  I'm not saying you can completely control your kid, and they will sneak things like porn anyway, but if you make it forbidden, then they will only want to read it more. It just doesn't help. Even when they tried to get rid of them or censor them, they just made underground comics. These were more like porn than the ones they tried to censor!

Anyway, going back to comic books, they were later sanitized, like TV and movies. When I was growing up, most of the comics did not have anything very sexual or violent. They had the "comics code authority", established in the 1950's. I don't think it was the most terrible thing, as a kid who read them. Kids were more innocent back then. Comics were still aimed at kids. Perhaps if they hadn't had it, they would have had separate ratings the way the movies do. They got rid of it in the 1980's, and now comic books have more sex and violence. This allows them to also have better, more realistic stories. Just like TV and movies have more sex and violence, which allows them to be more realistic.

I grew up reading comics in the 60's and 70's. I have three older brothers, all comic books fans still. I read Archie and Gold Key comics (Casper the Ghost, Richie Rich, etc.), but I also read their superhero comics and loved them. (Later, I also read some of their underground comics, and their porn, not that they ever knew it! It did not corrupt any of us.)

In my teens, I only collected the superhero comics and left behind the Archies and Caspers. Eventually, though, I just had to make a choice because comics were too expensive and I had other things I wanted to spend my money on (I was poor, and comic books were going up from a quarter to thirty cents!). Any time you collect something, it's going to take a lot of money.  I got more into reading books and buying music, both of which were not cheap.

Recently, I started reading comics again. You can buy them now in graphic novel form from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, etc. One of my brothers sends me comics sometimes, too, and I have a new friend that collects them, so I borrow his.

On TV, there weren't many comic book shows at first. We mostly had reruns of The Adventures of Superman. It was hoke, and in black and white, but I still loved it. I have always loved Superman. Then there was Batman and the Green Hornet, which were great when I was a kid, even though they were campy. Later, we had Superfriends cartoons, and shows like Spider-man, The Incredible Hulk, and Wonder Woman. Most of these shows were not nearly as good as the comics, but it was better than watching non-superhero shows, for the most part. It wasn't like today, where superhero movies are not only big blockbuster hits but get good critical reviews as well. Just like science fiction on TV, superheroes were considered subjects only for children, not adults, even though many adults read comics and scifi, and watched them on TV. There was a sort of stigma attached to being a fan of these things back then. Nowadays they may call you a geek or a nerd, but it's not considered as big of a deal any more. Geeks and nerds make money, make big blockbuster movies, and fix your computers.

Although I loved the 70's and regret that the world has gone downhill in many ways since then, I am very glad that they got rid of the comics code so that comic books could become more realistic. I don't think we would have had comics as great as Watchmen or Witchblade otherwise. I am very glad that TV and movies seem a lot less censored now (although personally, I could do without the commercials for Flomax, Viagra, KY Jelly, etc.), and that you can get adult content on the internet. Even though "comic books" started out as being for kids, they haven't been just for kids for a long time, and that's the way we like it.

The funny thing is, the animated superhero shows on TV today are much like the comic books I grew up with. The cartoons I grew up with were terrible, but today's have great art and stories, and they are sanitized much like the comics back in the 70's, since they are on TV. I guess TV lags behind comic books in quality by a few decades.

Not only have TV and movies taken from comics, but the reverse is also true. They now have many comics based on TV shows. The most notable are the Buffy the Vampire Slayer comics. When Buffy was canceled after its 7th seventh season, creator Joss Whedon started the 8th season in comic book form (where it still continues today).  He had already started a comic book, "Fray", that took place in the far future of the Buffy universe.  He also has comics that continue his shows "Angel" and "Firefly". I don't know why more TV shows don't do this, particularly when their shows were canceled too soon.

The book ends with the comics being censored and many of the comic book companies going out of business. Many artists, writers, and more lost their jobs. It is a very sad ending. I would have liked to have read more about what came after that and how the censorship got reversed in the 1980's.

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Updated 3/1/10 


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