Wednesday, July 09, 2008

The Ten-Cent Plague

Whenever the subject of violence in games is discussed, comic books and the 1950s are always mentioned. Hysterical legislators and "pro-family groups" are compared to the same groups half a century ago. "The same thing happened to comic books," people say.

Well, it wasn't the same thing. It was much, much worse.

The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America, by David Hajdu, is a superb documentation of the rise and fall of comic books. What distinguishes this book from others of its kind is that Hajdu, in addition to documenting the social and political events of the era, interviews many artists and writers who were working in the comic book industry during its heyday. The result is a multilayered, highly detailed rendering of an era that is difficult to believe unless you lived through it. It's also a tremendous piece of writing, as well as an excellent and absorbing read.

Why do I say comic books had it worse? The judicial interpretation of freedom of speech as set out in the First Amendment was still evolving, and it was substantially more restrictive than it is today. As a result, legislation that effectively banned certain kinds of comic books was almost never struck down by the courts. That's an entirely different situation from what we have today, when similar laws have been, without exception, ruled unconstitutional. Several states have even been forced to reimburse legal fees to the ESA.

However, some things are similar. Hysteria, paranoia, misinformation-- they wore in ample supply both then and today. Crimes committed by juveniles were blamed on the influence of comic books. Most importantly, a reasoned and thorough discussion on how portrayals of violence may affect preteens was impossible to have in the midst of all the shouting.

It's a wonderful book, a wonderful slice of an era, and I recommend it highly. Here's an Amazon link: The Ten-Cent Plague.

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