The Ten-Cent Plague

David Hajdu, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 448 pp., $26

A half-century ago, comic books were the subject of a fierce battle in the war on the First Amendment—a story that, in The Ten-Cent Plague, David Hajdu expertly brings back to light. Author of Positively 4th Street, a portrait of 1960s folk bohemia centered on Bob Dylan, and Lush Life, a biography of jazz great Billy Strayhorn, Hajdu here lacks a strong central character to focus his narrative, yet the comic-book industry’s rise, fall and redemption still fascinates. By the late 1940s, a lot of artists and writers had remade comics into a significant cultural force. But during the McCarthyite 1950s, the comics’ violence and horror were seen as undermining young people’s morality. Editorial writers and academics assailed them; Congress investigated. Even heroic crime stoppers like Superman were tarred by critics’ brushes. But William Gaines, who inherited his father’s business and supercharged it via titles like Tales From the Crypt, managed to re-tool E.C. Comics and build Mad— and in the process, bring some artists and writers into the new era. But not all: Hajdu lists hundreds who never again worked in comics after the blacklist.


Originally published in the October 2008 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.