Books, Comics, Music Culture wars

All in Color for a Crime

My last post was a sort of improvisation on the subject of comics and the culture wars. Since I’m on the subject, here’s a tip for some very interesting reading: a good book has hit what I like to think of as the book lover’s sweet spot- available in remainder as a HC, but newly released as a PB. The Ten-Cent Plague, by David Hajdu, outlines one of the earliest battles in the culture wars: the comic book censorship hysteria of the 50’s.

Subtitled “The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America”, The book gives a pretty good outline of what not to do when under attack by the moralizers. Like the movies, comics- thanks to turn-of-the-century artists like Herriman, McCay and others who popularized newspaper comics by showing the heights the medium was capable of, were a very robust pop culture medium in the 30’s and 40’s. Like movies, they responded to pressure to tone down their sensationalism by forming a self-censorship program. Unlike the movies, the comics, usually published by exploitive money men with little regard for the medium’s artistic potential, panicked and gave in to excessively restrictive controls on content. Thus not only killing the sales, but ripping the creative heart out of the medium and turning into the infantile hack work most of us remember from childhood. They would not fully recover their appeal to committed creators until the 80’s, as noted in my L&R post. But by then, the medium was almost totally marginalized.

The book reads like a breeze, offers colorful portraits of the characters on both sides of the battle, and carries a lot of relevance for those who’ve noticed that the pop culture media (movies, music, comics) have never matured here as they did in Europe. Hajdu has written books about NYC folk musicians, and Billy Strayhorn, and doesn’t talk down to comics, as many in the mainstream do.

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