As a boy many years ago, I horrified my Mother one Sunday after church by revealing my collection of comic books to some very conservative house guests. I had no idea that only a decade earlier, conservative families just like our guests on that pleasant afternoon had staged comic-book burnings coast to coast.
The photo (at left) is from a 1949 comic burning at St. Patrick’s Academy in Binghamton, NY, and is contained in a gripping new book, “The Ten-Cent Plague,” by David Hajdu, that just recently hit bookstores—and certainly explained a whole lot of shocking things to me that I never knew as a kid in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Now, after reading Hajdu’s new history, I finally understand why my Mom was so disturbed that day. While my Dad and she were sipping coffee in the living room and chatting with this visiting husband and wife, I invited their two children upstairs into my bedroom, where I happily shared with them my extensive collection of comic books.
The kids were thrilled! From my perspective, it was a terrific afternoon. They didn’t seem to be familiar with any of the really cool comic book heroes—and, man oh man, did they enjoy the treasure trove in my bedroom! For a couple of hours, we rocketed through the adventures of Superman, Batman, Captain America, the Submariner—and this exciting new group of heroes called the Fantastic Four, who had just debuted in 1961.
When their family finally packed up and left, my Mom lowered the boom in my direction. “You showed them your comic books?” she cried out, horrified.
“David, don’t you understand? As they drive home, they’ll tell their Mom what you showed them, and she’s going to be horrified! She’s going to think that we’re terrible parents! Their family thinks that comic books are the work of the Devil!” Mom scolded me.
At the time, this made no sense at all to me! My Dad was a Methodist pastor. I never missed Sunday School or worship services. When I read these exciting comic stories as a child, what moved me were the vivid, mythic tales of great, good-hearted heroes battling evil. In my mind’s eye, these were like the heroes of Bible stories springing to life to defend the poor, the downtrodden, the abused.
Well, if you read Hajdu’s truly “Weird,” “Scary” and “Amazing” new nonfiction account of the post-World War II comic book hysteria, you’ll understand that millions of mainstream Americans thought exactly the opposite from the late 1940s through the 1950s. The majority of Americans sided with these conservative visitors to our home!
To be fair in telling my own part of this story, one important distinction I should make is that I had missed out completely on the truly grissly crime comics of the 1940s and 1950s. I grew up as fan of DC and Marvel Comics after nearly all of the more horrific comics of the early post-World War II years already had been stamped out by censors, laws had been passed limiting comics, police action had been taken against retailers and comic publishers, the federal investigation of the industry was over—and the purge of comic writers and artists had already taken place. No one was burning comics anymore—although my Mom knew that this visiting family was part of a church that continued to preach that all comics were Satanic and should be banned.
Above is a cover of “Crime Does Not Pay” from the late 1940s, which Hajdu’s history says was one of the most infamous of the crime comics, in its heyday. Hajdu is a journalism professor at Columbia University and his new history is one of those very rare comic-related books that has managed to create a big buzz nationwide in the last couple of weeks. Recently, copies of his book have been stacked up near the front doors of Borders stores—and, everywhere you turn it seems, from National Public Radio to the New York Times, Hajdu and his book are popping up in public discourse.
It’s a sign of comics’ rebirth as a serious part of American culture. Less than two years ago, Houghton Mifflin published the first annual, hardback edition of “Best American Comics (of the Year).” That, too, was a major literary milestone for a controversial and often struggling genre like comic books and graphic novels. Now, we’ve got this extensively researched history by Hajdu of the genre’s stormy rise and fall — and possible resurrection.
As a journalist myself for more than 30 years, and a close observer of the ebb and flow of American comics and graphic novels, I can tell you this: Hajdu’s book is so fresh and so solid that, henceforth, anyone interested in understanding the strange twists and turns of our post-World War II culture will have to include his history of comic hysteria on any “must-read” list.
If you’re unfamiliar with what actually happened, then this story is “Truly Shocking!” as early comic books would have put it. But, Hajdu vividly documents the hysteria that swept the nation. Starting in the late 1940s, only three years after the defeat of the Nazis in Europe, Americans in towns across our nation felt it was their sacred duty to build comic book-burning bonfires, encouraging and sometimes compelling students to stand up for virtue at these conflagrations. If you’ll notice in the first photo today, it’s students themselves who were encouraged to spill boxes of comics into the flames.
Hajdu points out that this showed a terrifying blindness to world history—eerily reminiscent of the zealous book burnings in Germany in the 1930s, which also were designed to showcase the zeal of student groups.
A few wise American observers in that era recognized this historical irony—but, as stunning as this sounds, Hajdu documents that the mainstream of American media amounted to a frenzied mob in some Grade-B horror film. Almost no one was willing to defend comic books. Once again, as strange as this may seem, such current pillars of free speech as The New York Times, the New Yorker and the Hartford Courant actually poured fuel on the comic book pyres. If you doubt this, check out Hajdu’s detailed research in the book. He cites enough examples to make all of us in American media hang our heads these days to think of how wrong our venerable institutions could be.
This was, indeed, a very strange outbreak of paranoia and bigotry, which Hajdu carefully deconstructs for us. It was partly a flowering of anxiety about emerging youth culture that began as far back as the war years. It was partly an ugly fear of the “sort of people” involved in producing comic books, who were considered socially unsavory—a tragic bias vaguely aimed at “lower-class” and immigrant Americans.
Along the way, a great deal of damage was done. New laws were passed to stamp out comics. Police action was taken against comic books and comic writers, artists, editors and publishers. Congressional hearings were held. Things got so ugly that Hajdu devotes 14 pages in his appendix to listing the names of hundreds of men and women in comic book publishing houses “who never again worked in comics after the purge of the 1950s.”
This is a cautionary tale against censorship, which cost the religious community far more than it gained by righteously crusading against pulp. During World War II, for example, Hajdu documents that Catholic leaders had discovered that comics were valuable as educational media for millions of young Catholics, especially those challenged by the English language. Thousands of parishes across the U.S. began using Bible-story comics for evangelism. Unfortunately, within a few years, a handful of overly zealous Catholic leaders jumped into the vanguard of a take-no-prisoners campaign to destroy comic producers.
It’s only now—half a century after the purge—that comics are rebounding in a big way and, finally, there’s growing interest in spiritual circles in drawing young readers into timeless truths with the powerful words and images of comic artistry.
The illustration (at left above) shows one of the heroic characters in a brand-new evangelical comic book coming out this summer by Head Press Publishing, designed by Robert Luedke, one of the leading lights in evangelical comic circles.
Even before that long-anticipated new title from Luedke, Steve Sheinkin is back with his delightfully creative Rabbi Harvey in the Wild West. That’s yet another sign that there is, indeed, a future for spiritual comic books in this new century. When Sheinkin debuted Rabbi Harvey’s first volume in 2006, his savvy hero was a big hit and sparked a good deal of media buzz. We’re hoping Sheinkin does well this summer, too, with “Rabbi Harvey Rides Again.”
What’s most remarkable about Rabbi Harvey, in particular, is that Sheinkin finally has figured out a way to move comic heroes in a non-violent direction. In the often-deadly Old West, Harvey’s skills always turn on his years of Jewish learning and his quick-on-his-toes wits.
Now, as you read this story, you may be saying to yourself: That’s all interesting to consider, but these little comic books can’t possibly have any serious impact in our overall global culture, can they? Comics aren’t nearly the gigantic social force they once were—so what’s the point in lauding these relatively “little” books?
Glad you asked that question! Rabbi Harvey himself, in the new volume of his adventures, has a typically clever response. It comes in the middle of the new book, when a deeply discouraged young man approaches the rabbi in a bleak little town in the West. The young man moans to the rabbi: “The world is so big and complicated, Rabbi. What can one person possibly do that could make a difference?”
The rabbi says: “I wonder the same thing sometimes. But I’ll tell you a trick I like to use.”
“What is it?” the young man eagerly inquires.
And the rabbi says: “I think of the world as exactly half good and half evil. That way, anything I do will tip the balance one way or the other.”
So may it be for all of us today—and in the days to come, hmmm? Just think about Rabbi Harvey’s vision of the world! The next thing you choose to do in your life, after reading this story, will tip the global balance one way or the other. Now, that’s what’s so great about comic books—no matter what my Mom and her friend feared so many years ago.
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