The Rise of Fan Fiction and Comic Book Culture

Michael Saler reviews David Hajdu’s The Ten-Cent Plague and Michael Chabon’s Maps and Legends in the TLS:

Hajdu’s The Ten-Cent Plague is a thoroughly researched, engagingly written account of a modern witch-hunt: the public hysteria over horror and crime comics in the United States during the early 1950s. Many of these were excessive in their gratuitous depictions of violence, as Hajdu admits, but the reaction to them was even more extreme. Schools and churches organized public burnings of comics, when Nazi book-burnings were still a recent memory; laws were passed to prohibit sales; publishers were forced out of business and artists lost their livelihood. The industry responded to the outcry by creating a self-censoring body whose code was so restrictive that comics lost their vitality and much of their audience.

At first glance, this sad episode of censorship and paranoia seems to coincide with the chilling climate fostered by McCarthyism. There were clear overlaps: the panic was promoted by Dr Fredric Wertham who, like Joseph McCarthy, found a cause that would bring him the national attention he craved. Wertham’s scientific credentials in psychiatry seemed to legitimate his specious claim that comic books caused juvenile delinquency, and made oracular his pronouncement that “Hitler was a beginner compared to the comic book industry”. His Seduction of the Innocent (1954) led parents to believe that Superman promoted Fascism, Batman and Robin homosexuality, and Wonder Woman sadomasochism. (Wertham wasn’t entirely wrong about the last: Wonder Woman enjoyed using her “golden lasso” and “bracelets of submission” on villains; her creator, William Moulton Marston, claimed she “satisfies the subconscious, elaborately disguised desire of males to be mastered by a woman who loves them”.) Politicians, such as Senator Estes Kefauver, joined Wertham in order to advance their careers.

Hajdu notes these similarities, but argues that while McCarthyism represented anti-elitism, the crusade against comics was “anti-anti-elitism, a campaign by protectors of rarefied ideals of literacy, sophistication, and virtue to rein in the practitioners of a wild, homegrown form of vernacular American expression”.