Funnybook Babylon

April 29, 2008

FBB Ten Cent Plague Convo Part 2: I like watching Rome burn, does that make me a bad person?

Filed under: Articles — Pedro Tejeda @ 12:20 pm

The end is nearTen Cent Plague didn’t feel like an origin story to me. It felt like one of Marvel’s “The End” stories, “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow”, or the flashbacks in Bendis’s “Golden Age” story arc in Daredevil. Hell, I can imagine Stan Lee as a young Wilson Fisk deciding to take over the action on the West Side after the old guard fell (even if he was writing watered down horror stuff long after EC’s downfall).

You are right Jamaal, Hadju does a great job of giving you an origin of comic books as an art form. It’s not one of those traditional 8 page Marvel origins, he goes all Geoff Johns on you and reveals the secret history of past events, so that when the industry begins to fall apart, you really care for what is lost. All my previous knowledge of the early days of comics was limited to the world of superheroes, so I really enjoyed each new bit of information about the other more successful genres and the creators behind them.

However, I found myself less interested in the rise of crime, horror, and romance comics than in their fall from grace (I’ve been reading a lot of Daredevil lately). We’ve all seen the anecdotes of how comics used to sell in the millions to a diverse audience pool. Everyone’s heard of Wertham, the mean big old baddie who outed Batman and called Superman a Nazi. But how could one man destroy an entire industry?

Reading the book, you get a more complex picture than that. Wertham comes across as overzealous social crusader for children whose positions about the effect of comics would not have met modern scrutiny. But he’s just the public face of the larger anti-comics movement that was less about comics and more about controlling content that might be subversive to social norms. The lengths people went to for the “sake of the children” are scarier than anything I’ve read in an EC comic. I know Jamaal in particular was creeped out by the book burnings led by children, and I was too. Wertham wasn’t the bad guy I had been led to believe, especially compared to the others.

The whole thing was so ugly that the movement was lucky to not only have Wertham on their side but to have Gaines as the representation of the filth they were trying to get rid of. Contrary to what others claim, Hadju doesn’t portray Gaines as a hero. He just gives Gaines the rope and the platform to express himself. Gaines comes across as a very messed up guy, which considering how he was thrust into the comics business is quite understandable, a would-be school teacher with father issues in the middle of all these great and artistic creators. You feel that EC succeeds in spite of Gaines instead of because of him. When he self appoints himself as a crusader, the single shining light who can stand up against the “evil” destroying comics, you just wish anyone else would have taken the job instead.

Hadju makes a point of how good Wertham‘s marketing was. He doesn’t present his theories for peer review in a traditional journal but instead prints excerpts in Good Housekeeping. The man gets Gordon Parks to do his book pictures. He avoids traditional sociology language and writes in much florid language. He does a great deal to make him message easier for the masses to consume. Did Gaines even have a chance with his shoddy attempts? A few press conferences and sarcastic cartoons in books already bought by the converted seem pathetic in comparison. He really comes across as a little boy lost in something just much bigger than him.

This War on Comics ends up being the first of many culture wars fought, but in most of the other cases, America grudgingly came to accept rap music, video games and Elvis. Comics got a second chance of sorts with superheroes and hardly could have gotten a better spokesperson than Stan Lee. I don’t think Lee single-handedly made superhero comics more acceptable, and a Lee-like persona in the 1950s could not have saved the day for horror comics. They just had too many things going against them, but someone like Lee (as opposed to Gaines) might have made people look more closely at Wertham’s claims.

I’ve gone into way more detail than I would have liked about these two guys because they’re a smaller part of the book than I am making it seem. The thing that got me the most in the book was how the anti-comics movement really affected children. It seemed like every child that had grown up during that era developed a mistrust of authority based on their experience with the book burnings. I don’t want to get into a bigger fight about censorship on a governmental or community level because it distracts from what the book is about, but it did raise questions about how effective such attempts were.

What did you think about the book burnings?

No Comments »

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Powered by WordPress