The Cold War-Era Assault on Comic Book Culture, Revisited

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As gamers eagerly await the release of Grand Theft Auto IV — with the inevitable gale of moralistic bloviation in its wake — they could do much worse than to browse a stack of pre-1955 comic books. For intense gore, inventive mayhem, and sociopathic behavior, GTA has nothing on EC Comics' Crime SuspenStories or Charles Biro's lurid Crime Does Not Pay, which first hit stands way back in 1942. Trashy comics were the NC-17 videogames of their day, and their suppression remains a sad chapter in US cultural history. Let's just hope Hillary Clinton's plan to rein in videogames doesn't follow the same path.

David Hajdu retells the tale in his new book, The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America. By the late '40s, kids were buying 100 million comic books every month with titles like Pay-Off: True Crime Cases, It Rhymes With Lust, and The Crypt of Terror. "For the first time, a whole generation felt like, Here's something created by other young people for me,'" Hajdu says. But McCarthyite politicians in search of new enemies, foreign and domestic, zeroed in on the corrupting influence of this cheap, unregulated entertainment.

First, there were the book burnings. In Cape Girardeau, Missouri, for example, Girl Scouts went house to house rounding up comics for the bonfire. Hajdu visited the tiny town and uncovered a cabal of former schoolboys who had secretly rescued a box of Jungle Comics — "all seven deadly sins," he laughs, "swinging toward you on a vine in a leopard-skin bikini" — and hid them under a stairway. Vive la résistance!

And then there were the hearings. At one televised grilling, Bill Gaines of EC Comics, hopped up on Dexedrine, made a disastrous attempt to defend the tastefulness of a comic book cover depicting a woman's severed head. The results were predictable: In 1955, after a halfhearted bid to adhere to the newly imposed Comics Code, Gaines shuttered all but one of his titles, effectively ending an era....

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