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Drawn and quartered

The Ten-Cent Plague The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America; David Hajdu; Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 434 pp., $26

March 16, 2008|Geoff Boucher | Geoff Boucher is a Times staff writer.

BILL GAINES was supposed to be a chemistry teacher, but blood, ink and Dexedrine sweat carried him down a different path. He had a passion for science and a quirky mania for measurements; to organize his desk, he used a ruler and T square, arranging his blotter, stapler and letter opener in a precise pattern. None of that mattered, though, after his father, comics publisher M.C. Gaines, died in a boating accident on Lake Placid in August 1947. Gaines' mother implored her son, who had been finishing his studies at New York University, to take over the family business, Educational Comics, a torpid little enterprise based in a low-rent office on Lafayette Street in New York's Little Italy.

Gaines moaned that he was running the "smallest, crummiest outfit in the field," but within a few years he had made a name for himself and EC Comics, as it came to be known. This was due to a startlingly deep reserve of creative talent -- including Harvey Kurtzman, Wally Wood, Frank Frazetta, Johnny Craig and John Severin -- and a flair for gore, mayhem and gruesome twist endings. Working with Al Feldstein, one of his partners in comics crime, Gaines would stay up until dawn on diet medication, tearing through magazines and short stories looking for ideas he could pinch for EC's "Crime SuspenStories" or "Tales From the Crypt."

Somehow, the teacher-in-training had become a merchant of lurid pulp and, in the eyes of some culture crusaders, a predator. In April 1954, Gaines, like one of the Mafia dons who also operated out of his neighborhood, found himself testifying before a Senate subcommittee.

Gaines' congressional appearance is one of the climactic moments in "The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America," David Hajdu's history of the very serious attack on funny books. Here, Hajdu doggedly documents a long national saga of comic creators testing the limits of content while facing down an ever-changing bonfire brigade. That brigade was made up, at varying times, of politicians, lawmen, preachers, medical minds and academics. Sometimes, their regulatory bids recalled the Hays Code; at others, it was a bottled-up version of McCarthyism. Most of all, the hysteria over comics foreshadowed the looming rock 'n' roll era; like Elvis and his pelvis, the funny books encoded adult titillations in packages sold to a young audience.

"The Ten-Cent Plague" traces the shrill sound of alarm all the way back to 1906, when Ralph Bergengren harrumphed in the Atlantic Monthly that the comic strip "Katzenjammer Kids" and its four-color ilk were committing multiple crimes against society. "Respect for property," he wrote, "respect for parents, for law, for decency, for truth, for beauty, for kindliness, for dignity, or for honor are killed, without mercy." That was almost half a century before Gaines and his gleeful crew sharpened up their axes.

The most memorable crusades against comics, though, took place in the 1940s and 1950s as part of a response to surging "juvenile delinquency," a term Hajdu smartly deconstructs. In his view, it's an umbrella label, "a way to define a range of phenomena involving young people that, to the prevailing adult authorities, seemed to represent a falling short, a delinquency, in youthful behavior. It defined by negation: Like most criticism of the comics, the words 'juvenile delinquency' characterized their subject by its failure to meet expectations -- not by what it was, but by what a disappointment it was."

The establishment response to delinquency was perhaps most vividly expressed in the pages of this very newspaper, which in June 1943 published a breathless opinion piece by none other than FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover, who warned that the war raging overseas wasn't the only threat to America's future.

"This country is in deadly peril," the iconic G-man (or his ghostwriter) declared. "For a creeping rot of disintegration is eating into our nation. I am not easily shocked nor easily alarmed. But today, like thousands of others, I am both shocked and alarmed. The arrests of 'teen-age' boys and girls, all over the country are staggering." The piece went on to tell of boys shoplifting, stealing cars and robbing filling stations, as well as girls who drank in taverns, got "coarse and vulgar" and ended up in "houses of ill fame."

It's hard now not to chuckle at that language, at both the message and the messenger. "We are fighting a war to establish the Four Freedoms for the generation now coming to maturity," Hoover concluded. "We had better make sure that they have the self-discipline to live in a free world."

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