For those interested in detailed examinations of history, censorship, the comic book industry, or all three, David Hajdu’s The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare and How It Changed America is both a frightening and fascinating read. It’s also particularly timely, given that we’re in a new era of culture wars opening various industries up to potential censorship.

What probably intrigued me the most is how much the language of the old laws passed specifically intended to outlaw comics, in their various, earliest forms, weighed in so heavily on authorial intent. (And here, kudos to the Hajdu are definitely due for citing verbatim the original laws themselves. The man is nothing less than thorough; the index of his citations is 17 pages in length.) Words such as “offend,” “indecency,” “immorality” and “misconduct” are thrown about, as are loaded phrases such as “calculated to corrupt”, and so on. Criminal law, by its nature, often has to toe that line of defining the intent of the criminal (e.g. the difference, both in definition and sentencing, between “murder” and “manslaughter”), but once you cross that line into censorship, how much weight does intent hold? Being against censorship of any kind, I consider it (from my own standpoint) a rather moot question, but it’s clearly not to those who would censor.

And then, of course, one is left to wonder: who’s to decide that I, as the hypothetical artist, intend to inspire wrongdoing or criminal activity simply with what I write and draw? Can art, from the perspective of the viewer rather than the creator, properly showcase or propose such clear intent simply by the acts, characters or scenes it depicts? It’s a slippery slope, but discussion of this instance of it (fortunately mostly after the fact) is rather intriguing to me. Hajdu paints a thorough and far-reaching picture of what this particular time in America’s history of censorship was really like. What exactly politics, war, class and racial hierarchy, economic climate, and religious extremism all had to do with something as seemingly unrelated as comic books, and how the struggles the first graphic novelists endured have paved the way for the artistic world today. Highly recommended.

— Eleanore