The Ten-Cent Plague

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

At the end of World War II, the enemy defeated and the peace secured, the United States was poised to enjoy a period of security and prosperity. While the country did experience a sustained economic growth into the 1960’s, growth unparalleled in modern times, a sense of security seemed to elude the postwar generation, according to The Ten-Cent Plague by David Hajdu. The American nuclear monopoly, which ended the war with the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was shattered by the Soviet Union’s development of its atomic bomb and nuclear arsenal. Internal security was challenged by Senator Joseph McCarthy’s crusade against what he claimed was widespread domestic subversion by Communists in the federal government, the entertainment industry, and the Army. Estes Kefauver, a senator from Tennessee, chaired governmental investigative committees that examined the growing concern with domestic crime and juvenile delinquency. Paranoia appeared to reign throughout the land.

On April 22, 1954, postwar paranoia coalesced in two U.S. Senate hearings. As Hajdu points out, both were decisive but in contrary ways. In Washington, Senator McCarthy’s probe into Communist infiltration of the Army marked the end of a movement in decline and destroyed the credibility and reputation of the junior senator from Wisconsin. The other Senate hearing was conducted in New York by Robert C. Hendrickson, a first-term Republican from New Jersey, into the link between juvenile delinquency and comic books that boosted a crusade on the rise that would prove devastating to the comic-book industry.

Comic books that would raise such outrage and concern in the late 1940’s and into the mid-1950’s began innocently enough as the brainchild of Joseph Pulitzer in order to increase the circulation of his New York World by creating a largely visual feature that would appeal to the paper’s non-English reading public. “The Yellow Kid” was set in the streets of Manhattan’s Lower East Side where the multiple boxes of drawings depicted the adventures of a gang of slum kids. Created by Richard Felton Outcault, the Kid became a caricature of the immigrant poor. He and his pals were vulgar stereotypes, inarticulate, violent, violators of the social order, in short, as Hajdu points out, juvenile delinquents. The popularity of the Yellow Kid, who also incidentally gave his name to “yellow” journalism, was enormous, and it gave birth to dozens of newspaper cartoons, some based on the Kid himself. In their earthiness, freedom, and challenge to authority, these early newspaper comics spoke directly to the burgeoning immigrant population swelling the major American cities, and because of their subversiveness they attracted the attention of civic groups and local do-good societies. Similar to the criticisms directed at the dime novels of the nineteenth century, comics were found infantile, brutal, unsophisticated, subliterate, all of the things that offended the cultural arbitrators of the time. The syndication of the popular strips plus the creation of new ones in local newspapers across the country spread the new visual form.

Soon tear-outs were being printed to be sold with the newspaper or as separate newspaper promotions. Comic strips were collected and printed as separate publications. As their popularity grew, so did the characters and the formats diversify. Historically, the first comic book has been identified as Funnies on Parade, from 1933, and it was not for sale but rather was a free premium for Procter & Gamble. In February of 1935, Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson published a thirty-six-page, black-and-white, tabloid-sized collection of never-before-published comic strips. He thus created the first published for-sale, stand-alone comic book that was designed for syndication and future sales. The comic book was born.

By the late 1930’s, Wheeler-Nicholson’s idea had given rise to several comic-book studios, most of them located in New York City, which allowed them to take advantage of the city’s concentration of artistic talent, much of it unemployed or underemployed because of the Depression. For a low cost, comic-book entrepreneurs could turn out dozens of comic books a month. The contents of these books varied, and as the market expanded so did the stories, eventually to include everything from romance to science fiction to adventure and crime,...

(The entire section is 1800 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

Booklist 104, no. 12 (February 15, 2008): 18.

Entertainment Weekly, March 21, 2008, p. 62.

The Humanist 68, no. 4 (July/August, 2008): 40-41.

Kirkus Reviews 75, no. 23 (December 1, 2007): 1230.

Library Journal 133, no. 9 (May 15, 2008): 86.

Mother Jones 33, no. 2 (March/April, 2008): 93.

The New Yorker 84, no. 7 (March 31, 2008): 124-128.

Publishers Weekly 254, no. 49 (December 10, 2007): 44.

The Wall Street Journal 251, no. 61 (March 14, 2008): W2.

Washington Monthly 40, no. 4 (April, 2008): 54-56.