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David Hajdu on the Great Comics Scare

Photo: Michelle Heimerman

The latest nonfiction study from author and Columbia prof David Hajdu (Lush Life, Positively 4th Street) chronicles the widespread hysteria over comic books in postwar America. His fascinating book, The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America, tells the story of the collapse of the massively successful comics industry after it imploded under the pressure of hysterical critics convinced it was leading our nation’s children into lives of sadism, immorality, and other equally unlikely breeds of debasement. (In many ways the cultural response served as a precursor to the rock mania of the sixties, metal-bashing in the eighties, and probably many such overblown reactions still to come.) Hajdu (pronounced “HAY-du”) talked to Vulture about his passion for comics, the triumph of hot comic babes over puritanical book burners, and how he envisions the (to our minds) inevitable film adaptation of the book.

What inspired this book? Are you a secret comic-book obsessive?
[Laughs.] Comics are not among my obsessions. I’m not telling you what the real ones are. I’ve always been interested in this stuff, but it wasn’t until I got deep into the work on my second book that I started to realize the deep significance of early comics and the drama of what happened in the forties and fifties. This was largely a fight not over the content of comics, but over the very idea that kids are entitled to have their own taste and their own opinions and points of view. It was a fear on the part of the prevailing Establishment and the parents who embodied that Establishment. I think there’s still a very deep-rooted fear that our kids are going to turn against us like Dobermans.

There was a great scene you wrote about in which a group of boys participate in a comic-book burning but hide a bunch of particularly juicy ones from the flames…
The Jungle Girl comics! The Jungle Girl comics were historically about shapely white blonde women in leopard-skin bikinis who protected the African population from pirates. So this guy and his friends set aside their Jungle Girl comics and snuck them home instead of submitting them to the fires. And he was going to hide them, but when he lifted up the couch cushions in the living room, he found his father’s cache of detective comics there. Back then, everyone was reading comics.

The book-burning scenes were really alarming.
I interviewed quite a few of the kids who were involved in those ritual burnings. It’s really unnerving to think of these events taking place just a few years after the book burnings in Nazi Germany. The kids were building bonfires of comic books and marching around them and reciting incantations. One of the pictures in the book came from a high-school yearbook — the school was so proud of having done this that they devoted a full page to it and they ran this lovely atmospheric description of the event. Meanwhile in the picture you can see the fear in the eyes of some of these kids.

Speaking of pictures, our only beef with the book is that there are only four pages of them! Why so few?
That was my decision. My editor wanted more. To me, I didn’t want people to pick up the book and mistake it for a coffee-table-ish thing about fun comics of the fifties. I wanted the seriousness of the issues involved to come across. I wanted the book to look kind of text-y and grayish; for a long time I also wanted a somber black-and-white photograph on the cover. That one I lost! And I’m really glad I lost it because the Charles Burns cover is great.

It seems like it would make for a great movie. Have you been approached?
I think it would make a great movie — as long as I don’t have to be involved. Hollywood scares me more than book burnings.

[Anti-comics crusader] Fredric Wertham was particularly memorable. Who would play him?
It would have to be someone who could convey multiple dimensions. An earnest and well-meaning person who was working on fallacious assumptions and ended up doing terrible harm. Someone imperious and chilly. Sting!
—Sara Cardace

David Hajdu on the Great Comics Scare