The Ten-Cent Plague

The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America BY David Hajdu. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Hardcover, 448 pages. $26.

The cover of The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America

IN THE LATE ’40S AND EARLY ’50S, there was no more vibrant part of the publishing industry than the lowly dime-store comic, churned out by an army of boilerplate writers, illustrators, and editors in New York for a rapturously devoted young audience. That is, until a cadre of youth groups and civic authorities targeted these publications as gateway reading to moral depravity. After Mad-magazine founder Bill Gaines foundered in a sweaty, Dexedrine-fueled haze in front of televised congressional hearings on the link between juvenile delinquency and horror and crime magazines, virtually the entirety of comic-book publishing disappeared overnight. In The Ten-Cent Plague, David Hajdu looks back on the passions inflamed by the comics scare. —THE EDITORS

Of the two printing salesmen for Eastern Color who had both laid claim to inventing the comic book, only Harry Wildenberg survived to watch what marched forth on the looping trail of Famous Funnies, and he did so at some distance, with remorse. Semiretired at age sixty-two, Wildenberg was selling cigars in Key West when a journalist for The Commonweal, the Catholic weekly, located him early in 1949 for an article, “How the Comic Book Started—and How the Originator Looks on It Now.” He wished he had never gotten the notion to fold those sheets of Sunday newspaper strips in four, and he would prefer to see the whole comic-book medium abolished, he said. He was “highly pleased” to hear about the Los Angeles County ordinance outlawing the sale of controversial comic books, and he was “happiest” when he read about schoolchildren burning comics, according to the article. “I don’t feel proud that I started the comic books. If I had an inkling of the harm they would do, I would never have gone through with the idea,” Wildenberg said. “I’m glad parents and educators are waking up to the menace of the comic books.”

A professor in the School of Education at New York University, Francis J. Kafka, responded with a letter to the editor defending the higher potential of the comic-book medium. “The comics can be inspired and informative, imaginative, interesting and funny, all at once,” Kafka argued. Wildenberg’s reply was a cynical acknowledgment of young readers’ fascination with blood and guts. “The primary appeal of comics to the juvenile mind lies in their goriness and violence,” Wildenberg wrote. “The more violent the greater their fascination for the young. Publishers of comic books are aware of this fact and vie with each other in making their pages drip with blood and murder plots. Tame the comics, harness them to good works and children will have nothing to do with them.” His old rival’s son, Bill Gaines, could not have gotten better marketing advice.

The progressing crusade against comics on multiple levels provided Harry Wildenberg the opportunity to light many a cigar in satisfaction by 1949. In the final weeks of the preceding year, the National Parent-Teachers Association had issued a directive for a “national housecleaning” of comic books and had distributed a tutorial to help its local chapters spur municipal and state legislation to regulate the sale of comics, and thousands of PTAs around the country began following the plan. Around the same time, the National Institute of Municipal Law Officers distributed a set of guidelines for enacting comic-book controls. “The criminal and sexual theme of these tales have [sic] been the direct contributing cause of many incidents of juvenile delinquency and to the imbedding of immoral and unhealthy ideas in the minds of our youngsters,” wrote the general counsel for the institute. “It is inconceivable that a workable plan cannot be evolved. The police power can and must be exercised so as to eliminate the vice of objectionable comic books.” Shortly thereafter, the United States Conference of Mayors published a ten-page handbook, Municipal Control of Objectionable Comic Books, and the municipal-government trade journal, American City, reported, “Comic Book Control Can Be a Success.”

Cover of EC’s Crime SuspenStories no. 22, 1954.
Cover of EC’s Crime SuspenStories no. 22, 1954.

Some actions came only after considerable study and debate. In New Orleans, for instance, the mayor and the city council commissioned a report on the comics controversy, which, within its forty-nine pages, noted that comics “rank with jazz music as being one of the few truly American art forms.” In its conclusion, the report argued, “The wholesale condemnation of all comics magazines is one of the worst mistakes of some of the critics. The fact is both sides are right. The books are not all bad, as the more extreme critics say; nor all good, as some of their publishers and defenders contend. Like all other creative products, they must be judged individually. And that is what most critics, parents, and public officials have failed to do.” Still, the city council found a third of published comics to be “offensive, objectionable, and undesirable,” and, on February 2, 1949, it appointed a board to monitor newsdealers’ compliance with a blacklist of titles.

In Cleveland, early in May, two council members objected to a prospective ordinance to ban crime comics, one of them arguing that it would “throw Sherlock Holmes and Shakespeare out of the window.” A week later, the council voted unanimously to outlaw the sale of comics depicting the “commission or attempted commission of the crimes of arson, assault, burglary, kidnapping, mayhem, larceny, manslaughter, murder, rape, prostitution, sodomy or extortion.” Conviction would result in a fine of fifty to five hundred dollars and/or up to six months’ incarceration in the city workhouse. To enforce the law, the police department established a permanent detail of two officers dedicated to the comic-book beat. Cleveland’s model was Los Angeles County, where, on April 23, William D. Dickey, the proprietor of a drugstore on Florence Avenue in Walnut Park, was arraigned for his arrest on charges of selling a copy of Crime Does Not Pay to a teenager. Around the same time, actions to ban controversial comics were introduced in cities including Baltimore, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Sacramento, and Saint Louis, as well as in numerous smaller towns such as Falls Church, Virginia; Nashua, New Hampshire; and Coral Gables, Florida. (As the Sacramento Union reported in its lead page 1 story, “Crime Comic Book Ban Voted by City Council—$500 Fines, Term in Jail for Violators.”)

A comics burning in Binghamton, NY, 1948.
A comics burning in Binghamton, NY, 1948.

Groups of students continued to burn comic books in school yards around the country, some under the sway of their parents and teachers, some in concord with them, some unsure of their own points of view and doubtful of the propriety of disagreeing with their elders, some emboldened to defiance through the burnings themselves. In one case—a grand public protest organized in Rumson, New Jersey, an affluent town near the seashore—the young people involved were exceptionally young, Cub Scouts, and they were only part of an elaborate plan arranged by a Cubmaster, Louis Cooke, a scout committeeman, Ralph Walter, and the mayor, Edward Wilson. As it was announced on January 6 at a “fathers’ night” meeting of the Rumson High School PTA, the event was to involve a two-day drive to collect comic books “portraying murderers and criminals,” a journalist at the meeting reported. A group of forty Cubs would tour the borough in a fire truck, “with siren screaming, and collect objectionable books at homes along the way.” Then the mayor would lead the boys in a procession from Borough Hall to Rumson’s Victory Park, where Wilson would present awards to the scouts and lead them in burning the comic books. The Cub who had gathered the most comics would have the honor of applying the torch to the books. When the national office of the Cub Scouts of America declined to support the bonfire, and news­papers as far-flung as Michigan’s Ironwood Daily Globe questioned it, the Rumson event was revised to conclude with the scouts donating the comics to the Salvation Army for scrap.

A few weeks later, a Girl Scout leader in the farm-country town of Cape Girardeau, Missouri, Mrs. Thomas Mullen, guided her troop and local students in a comic-book burning, unencumbered. (The event had not been widely publicized in advance.) The scouts, fourteen- to eighteen-year-old members of Senior Troop 29, began gathering crime comics, as well as western and romance titles (because of their shootings and sexual innuendo, respectively), then turned the burning over to students at St. Mary’s, a Catholic high school of about 275 housed in an austere redbrick building, a refurbished old hospital. Following a script by the parish pastor, Rev. Theon Schoen, the students conducted a mock trial of four comic-book characters, portrayed by upperclassmen who pleaded guilty to “leading young people astray and building up false conceptions in the minds of youth.” The trial, held on the school grounds after classes, concluded with a “great big bonfire,” as one of the students, Bonnie Wulfers, would remember it. As the books burned, Schoen led the assembled group of more than four hundred students from St. Mary’s elementary and high schools in a version of the now-standard pledge to “neither read nor purchase objectionable publications and to stay away from retail establishments where such are sold.”

• • • • •

Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein started what they called “A New Trend in Comic Books” just as the early movement to legislate comics began to fade. In 1950, they introduced two titles, the products of their decision the previous year to stake a claim to originality in the pathologically imitative comic-book business by emulating Lights Out and other scary radio programs of the 1940s. Both of their new comics, The Crypt of Terror and The Vault of Horror, made slow, taunting entrances through the creaky comic-book-marketing means of the day. First, EC’s Crime Patrol signaled an imminent shift in tone with the title of the first story in its October/November issue, “Three Clues to terror,” although the tale itself was a fairly conventional police procedural. The cover of the next issue of Crime Patrol announced, “Complete in this issue! An illustrated terror-tale from the crypt of terror!,” referring to the last story in that magazine, a suspense yarn about a murderous businessman, titled “Return from the Grave,” written and drawn by Feldstein. By the next issue, all four stories in Crime Patrol were centered on horror: “The Corpse in the Crematorium,” “Trapped in the Tomb,” “The Graveyard Feet,” and “The Spectre in the Castle.” Several steps ahead of the postal inspectors this time, Gaines and Feldstein changed the contents of the magazine before switching the title to The Crypt of Terror with the April/May issue. (They duplicated this process with their other crime title, War Against Crime, morphing it into The Vault of Horror during the same period.) “We were test-marketing, to see how the crime magazines did with the introduction of horror, and we heard from the spot-checkers we hired to report on newsstand sales that they sold better than usual, so we knew we were on to something,” said Feldstein. “We were experimenting, because nobody had ever tried to do horror in the comic-book format, that Bill and I knew of.”

Their knowledge was limited. Recalling the venture several years later, Gaines said, flatly, “I was the first publisher in the United States to publish horror comics. I am responsible. I started them.” The fact remains that others had published comics with horror stories of various sorts as early as 1940, when Bill Gaines was an eighteen-year-old science buff who never read comic books, and Prize Comics was running a regular feature about Frankenstein’s monster. (During the war, the monster turned on Mary Shelley and became a Nazi-fighting hero.) Citizens of a derivative society, comic-book creators took ideas from all the popular arts, as well as each other’s work, and horror had been a staple of the pulps and Hollywood films since the 1930s, although the genre tended to drift in and out of vogue. The first comic book devoted entirely to fright, Spook Comics, was published in 1946 (with a cover portrait of Lucifer himself leering through a monocle at a young brunette clutching a long drapery to her torso), and a similar book, Eerie Comics, appeared the following year. By fall 1949, when EC started to try out horror within the pages of its crime comics, Timely/Atlas/Marvel was well into the process of replacing superhero titles such as Sub-Mariner Comics with horror-oriented books such as Amazing Mysteries; by the end of that year, Timely virtually abandoned costumed heroes for ghouls and vampires, the one constant being the preponderance of capes. In 1950, EC was not the first to publish horror comics, just the most adventurous and serious-minded of several publishers to have turned to the macabre.

Their timing was apt. On September 3, 1949, US-government intelligence discovered that the Soviet Union had tested an atomic bomb. Suddenly, for most Americans, young people among them, the cold war was no longer a political abstraction, a jumble of foreign maps with dotted borders or debates over economic theory, but a palpable threat of vast and gruesome devastation. The zombies with hollow eye sockets and skin peeling off their bones who haunted the boneyards in the panels of The Crypt of Terror could not have been far removed from the readers’ mental pictures of their own fate in the wake of the nuclear holocaust now possible at any moment.

Reading Marvel’s Menace no. 11, 1954.
Reading Marvel’s Menace no. 11, 1954.

Traditional campfire fright was just one element in EC’s horror comics, and horror was but one of several genres the “New Trend” comprised as it took form in 1950. A month after Gaines and Feldstein published the first issues of The Crypt of Terror and The Vault of Horror, they introduced two unusual science-oriented titles: Weird Science (formerly titled Saddle Romances), which had offbeat, sometimes frightful science-fiction stories, and Weird Fantasy (formerly A Moon . . . A Girl . . . A Romance), which mingled science and the supernatural. That fall, they returned to crime, but with a focus on crime passionnel rather than gangsterism, in Crime SuspenStories (and its 1952 follow-up, Shock SuspenStories). The interchangeable magazine names and slogans at EC were always confusing and essentially irrelevant; in the absence of recurring characters (apart from the cameo narrators of the horror comics, the Crypt-Keeper, the Vault-Keeper, and the Old Witch, who were virtually indistinguishable), the anthology comics of the “New Trend” developed a group identity rooted in their creators’ cynicism, readiness to defy convention, and willingness to shock. Six months after its first issue, The Crypt of Terror was renamed Tales from the Crypt; and a third EC horror title, The Haunt of Fear (formerly Gunfighter) was replaced with a war comic, Two-Fisted Tales, by the end of 1950. Discriminating comics readers learned to look for the EC logo, an effective twist on the ACMP’s inconsequential seal of approval.

EC made a specialty of intimate, domestic terror from the first story in the debut issue of The Haunt of Fear, a slow-moving narrative of marital disintegration and guilt called “The Wall” and subtitled “A Psychological Study.” Written and drawn by Johnny Craig, it combined two Poe tales, “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Cask of Amontillado,” to tell of a milquetoast husband maddened by his shrewish wife’s devotion to her cat, Snooky. When the fellow accidentally kills the woman with a blow meant for the pet, he hides her body behind a wall in the basement, only to be so racked by his conscience that he imagines the cat tearing him apart in vengeance. The monster in the piece was the wife, the brick wall a neat metaphor for the predicating conception of marriage as deadly entrapment. The pages of nearly all the EC comics (including the science-fiction titles, excluding only the war books) swelled with similar portrayals of marriage and family life as sources of unbearable torment. Married people, especially wives, were invariably duplicitous, conniving, abusive, and often murderous. “We got a lot of mileage out of scheming wives and vengeful husbands,” Gaines said. In EC’s horror paradigm, the true graveyard was the living room of the American home.

“I don’t know if Al and Bill had trouble with the ladies, but the guys and gals in the stories were always trying to bump each other off,” said Jack Kamen, an EC artist who had worked with Al Feldstein in the Iger studio. Raised in Brooklyn, Kamen had some home art lessons and critical early encouragement from his father, a Russian-born clothier with a knack for sketching. When his father died, Kamen quit high school to help support the family of five by drawing comics. At sixteen, he was bringing home ninety dollars per week from the Chesler shop and studying painting at night at the Art Students League on a work scholarship. Kamen harbored ambitions in fine art but never seemed to have the time to pursue them. A roundish, ebullient man with wild eyes and a manner of speech that sounded like giggling with words, Kamen had a crisp, tightly controlled drawing style well suited to EC’s contemporary domestic stories. He had a special facility for drawing steely glamour girls, nearly all of whom resembled his wife, Evelyn. Gaines and Feldstein called the scripts they wrote for Kamen “Buster stories,” because the women either called the men “Buster” or looked ready to do so.

“I would dress the women well in elegant clothes, and the men would have beautifully tailored suits, and they would be living in a nice house somewhere, and they would go out for a nice walk, and she would push him in front of a truck,” said Kamen. “There were no happy couples, except for the girl and the truck driver in the end, and something terrible would happen to them, probably. There was no such thing as a happy household in EC.” To young people of the postwar years, when the mainstream culture glorified suburban domesticity as the modern American ideal—the life that made the cold war worth fighting—nothing else in the panels of EC comics, not the giant alien cockroach that ate earthlings, not the baseball game played with human body parts, was so subversive as the idea that the exits of the Long Island Expressway emptied onto levels of hell.

• • • • •

The debate over comics smoldered. Several towns and cities as well as one key state continued to poke at the comics issue, drawing upon information predating or contradicting the findings of the Kefauver Crime Committee, which had largely exonerated crime comics from the charge of inciting juvenile delinquency. On February 14, 1952, Walden, New York, a small river town in the Hudson Valley, commemorated national Crime Prevention Week by announcing a voluntary ban on a dozen crime comics, and before the end of that week, the New York State Legislature returned to the subject of comics. Assemblyman Joseph F. Carlino, the chairman of a joint legislative subcommittee chartered to study comics, introduced a package of six new acts to regulate the books. A second-term Republican from Nassau County, Carlino took action after his committee came to several damning conclusions about comics and their publishers. Among them:

The entire industry is remiss in its failure to institute effective measures to police and restrain the undesirable minority.

The reading of crime “comics” stimulate [sic] sadistic and masochistic attitudes and interfere [sic] with the normal development of sexual habits in children and produce [sic] abnormal sexual tendencies in adolescence.

Instead of reforming their bad practices, the publishers of bad crime “comics” have banded together, employed resourceful legal and public relations counsel, so-called “educators,” and experts in a deliberate effort to continue such harmful practices and to fight any and every effort to arrest or control such practices.

As with the legislation vetoed by Governor Dewey three years earlier, one of Carlino’s measures would establish a state-run body to regulate the content of comic books produced in New York—that is, virtually all comic books—prior to publication, through the Department of Education. Several of the remaining acts were designed to modify the state penal code and to grant the state courts jurisdiction over violations of the proposed regulations. On March 12, the assembly passed one of the bills, which would make it a misdemeanor “to publish or sell comic books dealing with fictional crime, bloodshed or lust that might incite minors to violence or immorality.” It went through on a vote of 141 to 4 but was vetoed a month later by Governor Dewey, again on the grounds of vagueness. By then, however, the legislature had already sanctioned a new committee, to be led by Carlino, for further study of “the effect on minors” of not only comic books but also television, radio, “picture magazines,” and “so-called ‘pocket books.’”

In Maryland, meanwhile, a jurist and an attorney for the state tried striking against crime comics through an existing statute prohibiting the sale to minors of publications featuring portrayals of criminal acts—a Comstock-era law of questionable legality after the Supreme Court decision of 1948. Assistant State’s Attorney Woodrow A. Shriver, acting on a complaint by juvenile-court judge Theodore L. Miazga that children brought before him had been inspired by crime comics, made a personal survey of ten newsstands in Prince George’s County and purchased a dozen comics that he considered illegal. Shriver and Miazga both asked the county police to begin enforcing the standing law, and on July 7, 1952, three newsdealers were arrested for selling crime comics. They faced a penalty of a two-hundred-dollar fine and up to a year in jail. One of the dealers, Warren Tremaine, manager of Albrecht’s Pharmacy in the College Park area, was stunned by what he considered a gross injustice. “They didn’t like one of the books I was selling,” Tremaine recalled, “but there were worse ones.” What came to mind, in particular, were the “monster things.”

• • • • •

Emboldened by delusions of immunity, comic-book makers allowed the horror and suspense comics of the early 1950s to grow ever more gruesome and lurid, and the blood overflowing the pages drew the decency hounds back to their trail. As the publisher Stanley P. Morse described the escalation of graphic violence in comics such as his Weird Chills, “Nobody complained, so we gave the people what they wanted until they started complaining about it.” Morse’s fiercest critic, Fredric Wertham, saw the darkening of comics much the same way. “When the decision of Governor Dewey and the lack of decision of Senator Kefauver had given the green light to the comic-book industry, they went ahead full steam,” Wertham charged, writing about a 1952 issue of Harvey’s Black Cat Mystery. “Now no holds are barred,” Wertham continued. “Horror, crime, sadism, monsters, ghouls, corpses dead and alive—in short, real freedom of expression. All this in comic books addressed to and sold to children.”

Fredric Wertham testifying before the Senate-subcommittee hearing on juvenile delinquency and comic books, New York, 1954.
Fredric Wertham testifying before the Senate-subcommittee hearing on juvenile delinquency and comic books, New York, 1954.

The debate over comics rekindled, with the horror and romance genres providing the books’ critics with rich new sources of fuel for complaint. On December 1, 1952, a special committee of the House of Representatives led by E. C. Gathings, a Democrat from Arkansas then in his seventh term, initiated hearings on the subject of “immoral, obscene and otherwise offensive” publications, including comic books that could be considered sexually provocative or “too gory.” Gathings argued persuasively against the public display of lewdness by performing a hootchy-kootchy dance on the House floor. His Select Committee on Current Pornographic Materials focused primarily on pulp novels, with their leering cover art, and nudie magazines such as Stag. (Hugh Hefner was still working on the prototype for Playboy, which would be published the following year.) Since every state except New Mexico had long-standing laws covering obscenity, and since federal regulations already prohibited transportation of indecent materials by common carrier (railroads, trucks, and airlines), Gathings initiated the hearings with little hint of his committee’s legislative objectives beyond the possibility of extending the ban on interstate carriage of obscene goods to apply to personal vehicles and pedestrians.

Meanwhile, the issue of delinquency was coming alive again, with reports of crimes by young people mounting once more. In 1952, the United States Children’s Bureau announced an increase of 10 percent in juvenile delinquency nationally and 20 percent in New York City during the previous year, compared with 1950. The New York State Youth Commission, much the same, reported a 17.8 percent rise in arrests of persons under sixteen during 1951; the number of such arrests in 1950, by contrast, had been the lowest in fourteen years. Most analysts blamed the Korean War, applying the long-held theory that disruption of family life, combined with wartime factors such as the atmosphere of violence and anxiety in the news, led to delinquency, although the issues were open to debate, as always. Indeed, a major study of delinquency conducted by the New York Times in 1952 concluded that uncertainty about the causes of juvenile delinquency was itself a cause of juvenile delinquency. In a front-page story, “Youth Delinquency Growing Rapidly over the Country,” the Times reported, “The public gets alarmed in sporadic cycles, perhaps first about sex offenders, then about narcotic addicts, but lacks convictions about the causes of delinquency. This makes it difficult to set up treatment facilities to help seriously troubled children or to prevent delinquency.”

After a week of hearings, the Gathings committee came to no conclusions and recommended no legislation but made news with an updated version of the charge that comic books inspired juvenile crime. The final person to provide testimony was the mother of a minor accused of murder, who said comics and “girlie” magazines had poisoned her son. Robert Hearn, then sixteen, was one of four underage young men from the Detroit area accused of stabbing a gas-station attendant to death during a robbery attempt in Pontiac, Michigan. “We definitely feel that these books were a contributing factor—if not more than that,” Mrs. Dwight Hearn told Gathings’s committee as she wept. “He was always a good boy. He never got into trouble. But a few months before this he started reading these things. He would just lie on the bed and read his comic books. . . . He started talking like the hoodlums in the stories. He said his father was silly for going to work.” Next thing, young Hearn quit Sunday school and his barbering class, broke up with his girlfriend, and started smoking marijuana and drinking. Papers across the country picked up the story without reference to the Kefauver-crime-committee report, which had cast doubts on the claims of a causal link between comics and delinquency. At 225 Lafayette Street, artist Al Williamson recalled, Bill Gaines read about the recent hearings and briefly considered suing E. C. Gathings for infringing upon the company trademark.

Much as the movies shaped the public perception of juvenile delinquency in the early 1950s, television molded the political response. The Senate hearings on delinquency, led by Robert C. Hendrickson of New Jersey with help from the cosponsor of his committee, Tennessee senator Estes Kefauver, followed the model of Kefauver’s previous hearings on organized crime, which had had a sensational impact when they had been televised a few years earlier. The crime hearings Kefauver conducted in 1950 and early 1951 had, through the phenomenon of their broadcasts, left such an impression on the American consciousness that they haunted the delinquency hearings of 1953 and 1954, the way the TV picture tubes of the day left the ghost impression of one scene superimposed on the scene to follow.

In January 1951, two months after Kefauver’s committee on organized crime announced the results of its own sessions on comics and delinquency exonerating the former of responsibility for the latter), Kefauver took his traveling crime committee to New Orleans, where a local television station decided to broadcast the hearings on crime. As legislative inquiries, rather than judicial proceedings, the hearings were exempt from the rules prohibiting broadcasts from courtrooms on the grounds that they would unfairly subject defendants and witnesses to public display. Viewers in New Orleans had never seen the likes of the crime hearings—real-life drama starring the underworld kingpins of the region and their cohorts in local politics. Talk of the hearings dominated the city’s papers and quickly spread across the country through the wire services and the newsmagazines. The broadcasting station in New Orleans received thirteen hundred letters about the hearings within three days. When Kefauver and his committee moved on to Detroit, Saint Louis, and cities on the West Coast, TV cameras followed. By the time he arrived in New York, the national headquarters of organized crime, Estes Kefauver was on the cover of Time.

The broadcasts of the Kefauver-committee hearings on organized crime were so popular that the New York City electric company, Con Edison, had to add an additional generator to handle the power demand during the broadcasts. Some 70 percent of New Yorkers with TV sets tuned in for the hearings—seventeen times the number of people who usually watched daytime television. Those without sets filled bars and restaurants in the morning or watched through appliance-store windows. Two theaters in Manhattan, finding their seats vacant during the “Kefauver hours,” set up systems to project the broadcasts on their screens and welcomed the public for free. (Popcorn and drinks were available at the usual prices.)

On January 23, 1952, four months after the crime committee submitted its final report, Kefauver announced that he was running for president. Life noted, in a profile of the candidate published that March, “Senator Estes Kefauver is the nation’s first serious dabbler in a new brand of political magic—the awesome power of TV. When he announced his candidacy . . . his one asset, thanks to his Senate Crime Inquiry, was a name as well advertised as the most popular soap chips—and with an aroma equally antiseptic.”

What a pair of disembodied hands were to the organized-crime hearings, a severed head was to the delinquency sessions. Among the many who watched the hearings of April 21, 1954, on television, the memory of record was that of Estes Kefauver holding up the cover of Crime SuspenStories, only to be told by a wan, bespectacled comic-book publisher that the drawing of an ax murder was in good taste by his standards. On April 22, the second day of the hearings, the New York Times ran a page 1 story centered on Bill Gaines: “No Harm in Horror, Comics Issuer Says.” (Of the piece’s twenty-one paragraphs, thirteen dealt with Gaines and his testimony, and one concerned Wertham.) In the New York Post, columnist Max Lerner wrote:

The high point of the day was William M. Gaines. . . . When Gaines defended as “good taste” a particularly gory comic book cover, showing the severed head of a woman held aloft by a man with an ax, he was saying that every publisher of comic books is a moral as well as an aesthetic law unto himself. This means that society is a jungle—a proposition we cannot accept.

Newspapers in places as far from Foley Square as Lima, Ohio, published editorials decrying Gaines’s testimony, and Time and Newsweek both recounted the “good taste” incident in detail.

Bill Gaines, in a few brief sentences about a horror-comic cover, had crystallized the whole controversy over comic books. Nothing in more than a decade and a half of debate over comics had the impact of Gaines’s statement that a certain amount of blood, shown a particular way, was in good taste for a horror comic. The issue at stake, Gaines and his inquisitors made clear, was not really juvenile crime or mental health or literacy or the effect of comic-book printing on the eyes, but the idea of taste—the proposition that aesthetic values are relative. The threat implicit in Gaines’s terse, cryptic comments about taste lay not in whether any amount of blood was good or bad, but in the fact that he claimed the prerogative to decide the matter on his own terms. What was right for one book or one reader might be wrong for another of a different orientation or of a different age, Gaines suggested. In fact, he made the point explicit in the “Are You a Red Dupe?” ad that had incited Hendrickson to rage on the Senate floor. “It isn’t that they don’t like comics for them!” Gaines wrote. “They don’t like them for you!” To the parents of comic-book readers during the postwar years, crime and horror comics seemed vivid evidence of a generation going wild through its tastes not only in reading material but also in dress, language, and music. Indeed, within a year of the Hendrickson-committee hearings, a new, musical threat to the cultural status quo, rock ’n’ roll, would emerge, and it would come to replace comics as a target of public enmity.

The hearings on comic books and juvenile delinquency, like the earlier sessions on organized crime, came across as judicial proceedings rather than legislative inquiries. (At the 1951 crime sessions, one senator, Herbert R. O’Conor of Maryland, had accidentally referred to one witness as “the defendant.”) Not just Bill Gaines but the whole of comic books appeared to be on trial, and the phantoms of the crime hearings seemed to incriminate them by association. Foley Square, Estes Kefauver, cameras and lights, talk of murder and bloodshed and vice. Gaines soon realized what had happened. “It was a difficult experience, because all of a sudden you find that everyone you know kind of regards you as a criminal,” he recalled. “There had been the famous Kefauver hearings before this, with criminals and the Mafia, and they were very big. So all of a sudden we comic publishers, and me in particular, find ourselves classed in with Frank Costello and all the other crooks dragged up before Kefauver. Kefauver technically was not the head of the comics committee, but Kefauver was pretty rough on me.”

Gaines, bedridden with stomach pains for days after the hearings, did not return to work until Monday, April 26. Having lost a good ten pounds during the previous week, he invited Feldstein to lunch and found an unexpected benefit of his Foley Square ordeal. The waiters at Patrissy’s seemed especially attentive, and they brought a full plate of biscotti for dessert, on the house. Feldstein supposed that word of the hearings had spread around Little Italy, and Gaines was now presumed to be in with the Mob.

Excerpted from The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America by David Hajdu, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2008 by David Hajdu. All rights reserved.

David Hajdu is the author of Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Fariña, and Richard Fariña (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2001).