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Saturday, March 15, 2008

Department of Book Reports 59: They're just comic-books...

The Ten-¢ent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America, by David Hajdu (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26.00)

David Hadju traces the artists lives in the late forties and early fifties and shows how real lives were destroyed by the shut down of the industry, after a few years of religious outrage and Senate hearings conducted in 1953-54. April, 1954 saw the beginning of these trials, and Joseph McCarthy began his investigation into alleged Communist infiltration into the Army. Modeled after the Estes Kefauver's organized crime prosecution, Robert C. Hendrickson's committee on juvenile delinquency used the same scare tactics to fan flames of parental panic and promote local "comic-book burnings". People who remember taking their comic-books into town, only to find they were to be burned, recall being told this was a patriotic act, but were left with the deep sense that this was very wrong.

In telling the story of comics rise to popularity, Hadju brings in huge swathes of New York Publishing history. Old school names abound here, Ziff-Davis, Timely-Atlas-Marvel, National-DC, Fawcett, Dell, Toby Press, Ace. Interwoven throughout is the history of Mad Magazine initially published in comic book format; after the hearings William Gaines (also at EC, he was the publisher of Tales from the Crypt) changed to a magazine format, side-stepping the new rules governing comic-books. From this position, Gaines was able to send "a big fuck you at the powers that almost did him in" -Lyle Stuart.

Ten-¢ent Plague starts out with a profile of Janice Valleau Winkelman, now retired. In her youth she was a highly respected illustrator at Quality Comics. She never let her children know this aspect of her life. Shamed by the public's perception of her job, she didn't paint for years. Later in the book we learn that after her children were grown, she took a local community college art class. At the first session she drew a female figure and the teacher brought it up to the front of the room. To show the class what not to do. It was terrible, he declared, looked like a comic book.

14 pages of names of artists are in the back, double columns. These are the people who never worked in the art industry again.

SeattleDan very much enjoyed Hadju's previous book, Positively 4th Street which was about the Greenwich Village scene in the early '60's, focusing on Dylan, Baez, Mimi Baez-Farina and Richard Farina. He's also the author of a biography of Billy Strahorn and Duke Ellington, Lush Life.

Understanding Comics (HarperCollins, $22.95) is Scott McCloud's second volume and I highly recommend this book (and the other two!) for anyone interested in visual arts, not just comic books. It's a delightful read and McCloud's illustrations are addictive.

democommie™™™™™©®ç å was too busy picking out his new diacritics to be able to participate in the preparation of this book report.

These books are available at Jackson Street Books and fine Independent Bookstores everywhere!

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We'll try dumping haloscan and see how it works.