In the fall of 1948, in the remote coal mining town of Spencer, West Virginia, an eighth grader named David Mace led a book burning behind his school. “We are met here today to take a step which we believe will benefit ourselves, our community, and our country,” Mace explained to a crowd of more than six hundred students and adults, in a speech that his teacher had helped him write. He drew a matchbook from the pocket of his best pants and set the pile ablaze. Flames leapt twenty-five feet in the crisp autumn air. The crowd watched the immolation for more than an hour; some of the children began to cry. Subscribe Online & Save 33%

The books Mace was burning weren’t communist tracts or evolution textbooks. They were comic books. Urged on by a teacher, Mace had spent almost a month leading students in a door-to-door campaign, collecting more than two thousand comics, which they then piled six feet high and reduced to smoldering ash. Though this wasn’t the first time there had been a comic-book burning in the United States, it was the first to gain national attention. Soon, comic-book burnings had become commonplace, mostly in small towns like Spencer. As David Hajdu puts it in The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America, the “panic over comic books fell somewhere between the Red Scare and the frenzy over UFOs in the pathologies of postwar America.”

What caused this strange obsession? Hajdu’s informative book is an attempt to answer that question. As the first full-blown cultural hysteria of the mass-media age, the comic-book scare paved the way for others that would quickly follow, like the banning and burning of Beatles records during the 1960s. And the comic-book scare also provided an enduring blueprint for a favored tactic of politicians and self-appointed moral watchdogs: whipping up public panic over the dangerous predilections of America’s youth. This book is the history of both a creative art form and a political one.

The best part of The Ten-Cent Plague is Hajdu’s history of the medium, which is impressively researched and very engaging. The modern comic was born at around the turn of the century, when the publisher Joseph Pulitzer added a color supplement to the New York World. These first comics proved a subversive form of entertainment for New York City’s burgeoning community of immigrants, many of whom couldn’t read English. Before long, comics made the leap to mainstream America, and kids couldn’t get enough of them.

With a wonderful eye for detail, Hajdu takes us inside the vibrant, bizarre subculture of writers and illustrators that sprang up in New York to meet this demand. It was a strikingly democratic community that included “immigrants and children of immigrants, women, Jews, Italians, negroes, Latinos, Asians, and myriad social outcasts.” Many of them gravitated toward comics after being excluded from more legitimate creative pursuits. Hajdu introduces us to some gloriously eccentric characters, from Charles Biro, an egomaniac of negligible artistry who liked to draw with his pet monkey perched on his shoulder, to the creator of Wonder Woman, for whom the superhero “served as the outlet for [his] obsession with the themes of sexual dominance and submission.” He interviews Jack Kamen, an artist for Entertaining Comics, one of the biggest comics publishers, who produced peculiar stories that plumbed unspoken societal anxieties. “I would dress the women well in elegant clothes, and the men would have beautifully tailored suits, and they would be living in a nice house somewhere, and they would go out for a nice walk, and she would push him in front of a truck,” Kamen says. Hajdu deftly captures the appeal of these tales:

To young people of the post-war years, when the mainstream culture glorified suburban domesticity as the modern American ideal … nothing else in the panels of EC comics, not the giant alien cockroach that ate earthlings, not the baseball game played with human body parts, was so subversive as the idea that the exits of the Long Island Expressway emptied onto levels of hell.

Even in their earliest, tamest incarnations, comics provoked starchy rebukes from the guardians of culture. In the August 1906 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, Ralph Bergengren castigated comics in newspaper supplements for being “a thing of national shame and degradation.” A 1909 Ladies’ Home Journal article on comics was headlined “A Crime Against American Children.”

But the arbiters of taste had no idea what was about to hit them. As the youthful fans of newspaper comics entered adolescence, artists became increasingly influenced by the pulp magazines of the time and produced strips like Dick Tracy and Tarzan, which both appeared in 1929. These titles were mild stuff, though, compared to the violent fare pioneered by Biro in his Crime Does Not Pay series, which chronicled the grisly exploits of psychopaths and sadists. As gratuitous as his work could be, Biro felt that he was introducing children to the nature of evil. “It isn’t often that parents are to blame,” he once wrote on the letters page of Crime Does Not Pay. “It is up to the child. It is his will-power and moral stuff that is challenged. If he is good and clean inside, so he will be outside.”

The notion that the dividing line between good and evil was individual choice, not family values or the prevailing morality, was, of course, partly Biro’s rationalization for the gore he splattered across his pages. But it also proved hugely threatening in the conformist, uneasy America of the 1940s and ’50s. As Hajdu writes, for many Americans comic books represented “a peril from within.” In 1940, with comics selling like crazy (they would gross between $8 million and $12 million the next year, the equivalent of more than $140 million today), the critic Sterling North wrote that comic-book publishers were “guilty of cultural slaughter of the innocents.”

There was a whiff of opportunism to these critiques. The critics made no attempt to understand comics, but simply used them as a blank page on which to project the cultural fear du jour. The Catholic Church was one of the first institutions to fully realize comics’ potential for scapegoating. In 1912, John Francis Noll, bishop of Fort Wayne, Indiana, had claimed that comics were “part of a Communist plan to destroy the morals of youth.” In 1943, the Reverend Thomas F. Doyle explained that Superman personified “the primitive religion expounded by Nietzsche’s Zarathustra … very much in the style of a Nazi pamphleteer.”

And so just as comics had spawned a community of eccentric artists, they also inspired numerous high-profile career crusaders against the medium. The king of them all was Fredric Wertham, an “exquisitely credentialed” psychiatrist and early civil rights activist who would become the industry’s nemesis. He wrote a widely circulated 1948 piece in Collier’s magazine (titled “Horror in the Nursery”) which used faulty methodology to condemn comic-book reading as “a distinct influencing factor in the case of every single delinquent or disturbed child we studied.” Wertham legitimized two fallacies: that there was a startling increase in juvenile delinquency (there wasn’t), and that comics incited children to violent acts (there was little evidence to support this either). But Wertham, as Hajdu puts it, “leapt tall obstructions to his thesis in a single bound,” becoming famous for the expert opinion he regularly shared with reporters and Congress, and a blockbuster book, Seduction of the Innocent.

The beginning of the end of the golden age of comics came in 1954, when Senator Robert Hendrickson, chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Investigating Juvenile Delinquency, scheduled two days of hearings on horror and crime comics. (Hendrickson was responding to national agitation over juvenile crime rates.) The hearings were televised nationwide and often were as entertaining as their subject matter. At one point, Senator Estes Kefauver, who had a reputation as an anticrime crusader, interrogated Bill Gaines, publisher of the wildly successful EC Comics. “This seems to be a man with a bloody ax holding a woman’s head up, which has been severed from her body,” Kefauver intoned, brandishing a copy of EC’s Crime SuspenStories. “Do you think that is in good taste?” Gaines:

But Frederic Wertham was the real star of the show. He took the stand in his white coat, although his evidence wasn’t as scientific as his attire. He bashed one comic for containing an ethnic slur against Mexicans, when the comic was a morality tale against bigotry, and the slur was uttered by a bad guy. He pronounced Hitler “a beginner compared to the comic-book industry … They teach them race hatred at the age of four, before they can read.” Speaking directly and dramatically to the cameras, he told the committee what it wanted to hear: “It is my opinion, without any reasonable doubt, and without any reservation, that comic books are an important contributing factor in many cases of juvenile delinquency.”

In a desperate bid for self-preservation, the industry formed the Comics Magazine Association of America and drafted a Comics Code containing forty-one requirements for member publications, ranging from the prudish”Females shall be drawn realistically without exaggeration of any physical qualities”to the lame: “Respect for parents, the moral code, and for honorable behavior shall be fostered.” Most newsstands would refuse to carry titles that lacked the association’s seal of approval. Predictably, most of the material that had made the medium popular in the first place didn’t make the cut. The Code almost killed the industry entirely. Hundreds of artists and writers would never work again; Hajdu lists their names in a poignant appendix.

The Ten-Cent Plague vividly captures the devastating impact of the comic-book scare on the industry itself. But perhaps the major flaw of this book is that Hajdu never fully answers the question posed by the title: How did the comic-book scare change America? The book would have benefited greatly had Hajdu discarded some of his meticulously reported anecdotes, as absorbing as they are, to sketch a richer picture of postwar and early cold war America. Without such a portrait, the reader is left in something of a vacuum, where comic books are the only means of explaining American culture and American culture reacts to nothing but comic books.

In the end, the book may be most valuable as a primer on a particular style of American panic. As Hajdu perceptively observes, although the comic-book scare seemed, on the surface, to be concerned with protecting kids from unsavory reading material, its subterranean message was really the need to protect society from the threatening habits of its young people. Today, video games, violent movies, and rap music have replaced comic books as the insidious influencers of America’s youthmany of whom, if cable television is to be believed, seem to be either delinquents or serial killers. In 1999, critics went after the video game Doom for inspiring the 1999 Columbine massacre and “rising rates of juvenile delinquency.” At the time, juvenile crime was in the middle of a years-long decline.

That year, the MIT professor Henry Jenkins wrote an endearing account, published in Harper’s, of his nervous appearance before a Senate hearing on “selling violence to our children.” It read like a replay of the comics hearings of 1954. Of the fourteen experts, Jenkins was the only one to offer an alternative to the view that the root of teen violence could be found in mass culture. Led by Bill Bennett and Sam Brownback, senators played movie clips out of context and decorated the hearing room with self-parodying posters for films and video games that they read solemnly. Some of the senators covered their faces with horror. Jenkins warned his listeners that demonizing youth culture prevents adults from understanding the behavior of their children, and urged the senators to address the deeper social causes of teen violence. None of the swarm of reporters attending the hearing asked him for an interview afterward.

Of course, some video games, rap songs, and comic books do contain disturbing content that’s not suitable for children or teenagers. But sensationalistic condemnations of entire cultural genres only feed a climate of fear that warps our ability to help troubled teens or create sound public policy. Unfortunately, as The Ten-Cent Plague makes clear, these periodic panics probably aren’t going away. As a surefire source of cheap political points, cable ratings, and instant celebrity, they’re as indestructible as the best of superheroes.

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Jesse Singal is a former opinion writer for The Boston Globe and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. He is currently a master's student at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Policy. Follow him on Twitter at @jessesingal.