Note: This is Book #25 of my 52 Books in 52 Weeks challenge for 2008.
In The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America, author David Hajdu attempts to examine the birth of the comic book in America and trace its childhood and adolecense up to the point where people generally freaked out about how this wicked, perverted, and macabre art form was mauling the morals of this great country and how it had to be stopped. Or at least injured a bit.
We get incredibly detailed discussions of how these funny books started out as Sunday newspaper supplements, then pulpy entertainment for teens, then darker and more meaty fare that included side servings of sex, horror, mystery, intrigue, and weird bondage fantasies (I’m looking at you, Wonder Woman). Hajdu sets a huge cast of characters on parade through the pages, including artists, businessmen, writers, politicians, and crusaders for the moral majority.
The bredth and depth of original research Hajdu dug through is quite impressive. He cites from original interviews, letters, and other sundry documents, and gives us personal and detailed accounts of each player’s story, eccentricities, and contributions. Unfortunately the author seems to be a better researcher than he is entertainer, and the book gets mired down in WAY too many details about WAY too many people. After a while I couldn’t keep them all straight, and what’s worse I really didn’t care to.
To use an apt analogy, the book was like a comic full of dynamic, detailed, and flashy images, full of splash pages and crazy action without much focus. It’s impressive from a technical standpoint, but it wouldn’t compare too favorably to a better crafted book with neat and more easily comprehensible art guided by orderly and appropriate transitions and word baloons that don’t crowd out the subject.
Going along with this idea, the other thing that I found lacking about The 10 Cent Plague was that for a book about comics, it didn’t have nearly enough pictures. Hajdu periodically does an admirable job using words to thoroughly describe the contents of the comics in question, but it seems like it would have been a lot more effective and efficient to simply include a picture of it there on the page. There is a section of photographs and some sample art, but it’s not nearly enough given the subject matter.
All in all, I can’t really recommend this book unless you’re particularly bent on learning about the early history of comic books. Hajdu presents some neat trivia and the occasional vignette or story that stands out from the rest of the noise, but in general it’s way too detailed, too cluttered, and lacking in focus just for the sake of cramming in as much information as possible.
Others doing the 52-in-52 thing this week: