Friday, April 11, 2008

Sixteen things I learned from The Ten-Cent Plague

In addition to being an engaging cultural history of a mostly forgotten period, David Hajdu's The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How it Changed America offers quite a bit of food for thought for comic book commentigensia, as the one billion reviews, news stories and blog posts that have begun appearing since publisher's Farrar, Straus and Giroux started sending out their review copies attest. I linked to my review of the book in LVW yesterday (and hey, I just did it again!), but I ended up taking a lot of notes while reading, thinking, "Hmm, if I can't get all this into a three-to-five-hundred-word review, it will probably make for good blog fodder."

Man, I'm always thinking of you guys.

Now please enjoy this blog fodder....

1.) In the mid-1940s, comics publishers sold between 80 million and 100 million copies every week, and the average issue was passed on from the person who purchased it to six to ten readers. It was the “most popular form of entertainment in America.” Nowadays the leading publishers issue press releases to boast of running out of their print-to-meet-demand runs of comics. Anything that sells in the neighborhood of 100K is seen as a blockbuster. So, you know, just a little perspective for you.

2.) Will Eisner was frightening prescient about comics. For example, in a 1941 Philadelphia Reader article, he’s quoted as saying that the comic strip is “no longer a comic strip, but, in reality, an illustrated novel…eventually and inevitably it will be a legitimate medium for the best writers and artists…it is already the embryo…of a new art form.”

My God. In 1941!

I like the word “illustrated novel” a lot more than “graphic novel.” I think the terminology conversation is kind of moot, since “graphic novel” is what common usage has decided upon for everyone, but it’s a term that is somewhat loaded, particularly for older generations. It also means something other than a bound comic book. But then, so does “illustrated novel.”

I’m really glad that Eisner survived as long as he did, and was able to see the illustrated novel he was talking about in 1941 become the legitimate medium for the best writers and artists it ultimately has.

3.) “Picture novel” is how Arnold Drake and Leslie Waller thought of It Rhymes With Lust, which was probably the first graphic novel.

4.) According to Hajdu,“Unlike many critics of crime, horror and romance comics in the newspaper columns and state assemblies, Wertham considered superhero comics as dangerous as any others. In fact, he reserved a specially toxic venom for National/DC’s popular trio of heroes, Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, whom Wertham saw, respectively, as exemplars of fascism, homoeroticism and sadomasochism.”

I find it particularly interesting that Wertham was one of the few to see harm in the DC heroes; those three are among the only ones to survive the period. Most of those that are still kinda sorta being published—the original versions of Flash and Green Lantern, Plastic Man, Captain Marvel—went away for long periods, and are now more likely to appear as part of ensembles instead of carrying their own books.

The Marvels, excepting only Namor and Captain America, and the newer conceptions of Green Lantern and Flash were all created after the dark days of Wertham.

5.) “It was only in the case of Wonder Woman that Wertham came close to the intentions of the character’s creator (Wertham’s rival in pop head-shrinking, the sexual provocateur).”

Honestly, if it’s there, I don’t see it, and I realize I’m in the minority here. I’ve spent a lot of time recently reading through all of the Archives of the original Wonder Woman comics I could find at the library, and while the panels always look insane and full of bondage and sadomasochism taken out of context, I’ve never seen anything terribly sinister or sexual in the stories themselves, beyond a very simplistic love is good, war is bad, women are love, men are war kind of fairy tale politics.

I always assumed that a lot of typing up was simply an alternative to savage violence, of the sort you might expect more of in comics for boys, and the simple fact that tying people up is fun and easy to do. That is, it’s a lot easier to play Wonder Woman around the house than Superman or Batman, as her adventures tended to involve a whole lot of capturing escaping.

I could very well be wrong about that, of course. But I really don’t see anything more perverse or over-sexualized or fetishistic in Wonder Woman comics that I can’t see in other comics of the age, beyond the gender stuff.

6.) The gayness of Batman isn’t simply something peculiar to Wertham’s reading of the Dark Knight’s adventures, although he sure seems to have taken it a lot farther than a lot of other folks (looking for phallic shaped shadows in the background, for example).

Jeet Heer had a pretty funny quote about Batman and Robin’s perceived gayness in his essay for that I recently linked to.

Here’s what Hajdu finds from one of Batman’s creators, regarding Batman’s sexual preferences: “[O]ne of the uncredited contributors to Batman, Jerry Robinson, said decades after the fact that there was a ‘tinge’ of the homoerotic in the comics’ portrayal of Batman and his boy sidekick, Robin. ‘What they did between the panels was their own bsiness,’ Robinson joked.”

7.) Wertham sounds almost identical to Lex Luthor in some of his complaints about Superman and superheroes in general. Hadju quotes Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent: “How can they respect the hard-working mother, father or teacher who is so pedestrian, trying to teach common rules of conduct, wanting you to keep your feet on the ground and unable even figuratively speaking to fly through the air? Psychologically Superman undermines the authority and the dignity of the ordinary man and woman in the minds of children.”

How often have comic readers heard Luthor raise these exact same complaints about Superman and the Justice League and the way they bring all of humanity down?

8.) Wertham also saw “Superman as a symbol of Hitler’s despotic fantasies of master-race supremacy. Wertham cracked, ‘With the big S on his uniform—we should, I suppose, be thankful that it is not an S.S.’”

This was, of course, long before 1998 miniseries Superman: The Dark Side, in which it was an S.S.

9.) I did mention this in my review, but I found it particularly striking that comics welcomed creators who “felt more established avenues were closed to them.” That is, women, Italians, Jews, Polish folks, black folks and extremeley young creators could get work in comics, but would have a hard time getting illustration gigs, or working for an advertising firm or selling a comic strip.

10.) Some of the fathers of the comic book industry weren’t terribly attractive men. For example, Harry “A” Chesler, Jr., a packager of comics to sell to publishers, was “stubby and gray-skinned.” M.C. Gaines, who claimed to be the inventor of the comic book for helping put out Famous Funnies, was “a pillowy man who resembled a mole.” And Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, the “professional eccentric and small-time entrepreneur” who published New Fun and worked with Jerry Siegel, is described thusly: “His face was round and pale, his nose broad and red, and his teeth green.”

11.) Wertham said, “I think Hitler was a beginner compared to the comic book industry.” Apparently, the high school debate rule of “if you have to compare your enemy to Hitler, you’ve lost, because it’s so silly” didn’t exist back then. Kind of ironic, considering comic book foes’ book burnings of the offending materials.

12.) Wertham has widely and historically been regarded as the arch-villain single-handedly responsible for the fate of comics in the ‘50s, but he was but one of the villains.

13.) This book coming out at the same time as Comic Book Comics #1 was pretty exciting, given the overlap in the subject matter. The early chapters of Hajdu’s book deals with the same things Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey cover in the first issue of their new book (although they also cover animation).

14.) It can’t possibly sound right to the people who lived through it, but it seems that the Nietzschean concept that what does not destroy one making one stronger comes into play in a major way with the comics industry.

When umbrage was taken at the amount of sexually suggestive imagery and violence in crime comics, the industry moved to romance, a new genre that helped comics grow up quite a bit, with realistic imagery, more emotion, more real world concerns and settings and costume, for example.

When romance got too steamy and threatened the establishment’s understanding of what was morally appropriate for children’s entertainment, the industry shifted to horror, and Mad-style humor.

And when the opponents of the industry and the self-regulating movement finally destroyed crime, horror and counter-cultural humor, the industry “retrenched” with their Golden Age success with superheroes. Jack Kirby, Stan Lee and many of their peers were forced from genre to genre for a years, and when they reinvented superheroes in the Silver Age, they brought with them everything that had learned from working in all those other genres.

And the more attention cultural critics and moralists paid to comics, the more creative they forced their creators to be. Just as the Hayes Code helped Hollywood get a bit more sophisticated in talking about taboo subjects, so did the policing of the comics.

And when the Comics Code Authority scrubbed the entire industry squeaky clean, reducing the genres down to just a few, dominated in the decades to come by superheroes, it forced many of the next generation into underground comics. They themselves, and the creators they inspired in the following generation, would give rise to the art and literary comics we are currently experiencing something of a boom of.

Of course, adversity didn’t always make comics stronger.

One of the more intriguing bits of Hajdu’s tale of the rise and fall of EC was that while their horror and humor lines were being dismantled, the publisher was poised to go into the type of drama that now seems more appropriate for television, and which its hard to even imagine comics devoting themselves to today (Comics that aren’t manga, anyway). These included "MD, about medicine; Extra!, about the newspaper business; and Psychoanalysis."

Along with three more standard action titles and a watered down version of their O. Henry-styled horror stories—basically, EC horror stories with all the EC horror stripped out—these comprised the company's short-lived new direction. Obviously it ultimately didn't work—perhaps because no one wanted to read them, or perhaps because no one wanted to buy EC comics of any kind ever again—but I think the idea of pop comics about doctors, reporters and psychoanalysts is a pretty fascinating one.

15.) Given the respectability that the medium and the creators working within it now enjoy, it may be somewhat surprising to learn that The Ten-Cent Plague doesn’t really have a happy ending (I don’t count the tacked-on coda in which Hadju visits R. Crumb).

As Hajdu puts it, the comics survived in part by “retrenching, shifting back to the heroic doings of superheroes, who have dominated mainstream comics ever since. Once television became the dominant media, comics became “specialty items for adolescent boys and collectors.”

Has that changed much since the ‘60s? I think so. I would say it’s changed quite a bit in the last five years. But it’s the way that it’s changed that I think is important.

The ascendancy of the graphic novel in today’s publishing industry and pop consciousness is nowhere near the same thing as comic book’s regaining their hold or influence in American society that they had in the 1940s; comics aren’t back as much as they’re in a different place, more like prose fiction books that a real mass media like television.

The price of comics coming to be regarded as an art form seems to be the sacrifice of their having been a mass media form of popular entertainment. That’s an awful high price for a medium to pay, isn’t it?

16.) Hajdu ends his book with an appendix that’s a full 15 pages devoted to simply listing the names of creators who never worked in comics again after the close of the witch-hunt era. It serves a bit like a monument to the fallen of the half-forgotten culture war, a paper Vietnam Memorial to careers ruined by the anti-comics hysteria.

And man, there is a lot more of interest in there, including lots of anecdotes about your favorite creators and some jaw-dropping instances of their villification. You really oughta read this book; I'm sure your local library will have a copy.


SallyP said...

Nice essay, this sounds like a very interesting book. I have to agree about the preferance for "illustrated" novel over "graphic" novel. Once when I was looking for old Lt. Blueberry's I asked a woman if her store carried graphic novels, and she got mad, thinking that I was looking for porn.


Wertham on the other hand apparently WAS looking for porn, and finding it wherever he happened to rest his eyes.

Jeet Heer said...

Very good essay but I disagree with point #3. The fact is that there were many earlier "graphic novels" long before It Rhymes With Lust. I'm thinking here of Topffer's books of the early 19th century (available in a new omnibus edition from University Press of Mississippi) and the woodcut novels of the 1920s and 1930s. Take a look especially at Milt Gross's great He Done Her Wrong -- very much a proto-graphic novel.