"I knew I was smart to get out when I did, because the walls were starting to fall down," legendary comics creator Will Eisner says, explaining his decision to leave comics in 1954. Eisner would eventually return to the industry—but not until after it had very nearly been destroyed.
David Hajdu's exhaustively researched The Ten-Cent Plague documents a little-known but important period in America's history: the time when comic books defined a generation and introduced the idea of a counterculture. In the 1940s, "Comics were selling between 80 million and 100 million copies every week... reaching more people than movies, television, radio, or magazines for adults," Hajdu observes. Just a few short years later, religious leaders, lawmakers, and psychologists would condemn the entire medium. Whether it was lurid crime epics in Crime Does Not Pay or the dubious relationship between Batman and Robin, comics were decried as a scourge of America's youth—and by the late 1950s, congressional hearings, book burnings, and a restrictive censorship board would scratch a permanent stigma onto vast swaths of American culture.
It's strange, then, that Hajdu's book often feels so dry and procedural. Considering the garishness of the comics in question (particularly crime and horror comics like Shock SuspenStories and Tales from the Crypt), one expects The Ten-Cent Plague to deal with the books' contents. But Hajdu is more interested in the legal and social events around the books—a fascinating subject, sure, but one that could have benefited from more context.
But that's a quibble considering how razor-sharp Hajdu's dissection of the comic book scare of the '40s and '50s is. Utilizing interviews from roughly a billion notable people—from Eisner to Bill Gaines to Stan Lee to Al Jaffee to Robert Crumb—Hajdu's history is detailed and insightful. The Ten-Cent Plague might lack a broader cultural and artistic context, but it's impossible not to be engrossed in this chunk of forgotten American history—one that echoes with not only the deeds of the likes of Joseph McCarthy, but also those of Alfred E. Neuman.