Inspiring countless films, homages, essays, and one Pulitzer-winning novel, the comic book has become such a hip intellectual cause célèbre over the last decades that it's easy to forget it was once the most reviled medium in America. Now comes David Hajdu's smart, sobering history, The Ten-Cent Plague, a staggeringly well-reported account of the men and women who created the comic book, and the backlash of the 1950s that nearly destroyed it.
Newspaper cartoons had been around for decades when, in 1933, Funnies on Parade, regarded as the first comic book, was published as a Procter & Gamble giveaway. Credit for inventing the form often goes to printing salesman M.C. Gaines, described by Hajdu as ''a pillowy man who resembled a mole.'' (One Gaines employee used a saltier phrase: ''the nastiest son of a bitch on the face of the earth.'') By the mid-'40s, comics had become an industry, selling between 80 and 100 million pulpy copies a week, mostly to children. To re-create the hurly-burly of the early years, Hajdu quotes dozens of sources, more than most readers will want to follow. But his clear-eyed analysis of the actual comics is marvelous, as he moves from Will Eisner's innovative Spirit series to the gritty realism of Charles Biro's crime titles to the emergence of the gruesome horror books of the early '50s, with their ''coded challenges to the prevailing standards of normalcy.''
From the beginning, there were rumbles from the gatekeepers of public decency; most were easy to dismiss. But in 1954, a grandstanding psychiatrist, Fredric Wertham, published a scantily researched but strident critique, linking comics to that '50s bugaboo juvenile delinquency. Wertham's jeremiad inspired widespread burning of comics and some well-publicized U.S. Senate hearings later that year. Hajdu's story reaches its sorry climax when Bill Gaines son of the late M.C. Gaines and successor to his dad as head of EC Comics took the stand. Looking like a zombie after a Dexedrine bender, Gaines tried to defend the good taste of a patently tasteless drawing of a woman's severed head.
As depicted by Hajdu, a former EW editor, this is a scene as torturous, strange, and darkly funny as any Tale From the Crypt. Within a year, EC was out of the comics biz and the industry voluntarily agreed to censorship rules (''romance stories shall emphasize the value of the home and the sanctity of marriage'') that effectively drained the spirit from a vital, vernacular American art form. Hajdu's important book dramatizes an early, long-forgotten skirmish in the culture wars that, half a century later, continue to roil. A-