Tuesday, November 2, 2010

For the Children

You've probably heard that phrase before. We have to do this, “for the children.” We must ban that, “for the children.” Those who would censor, restrict, or regulate always say it is “for the children.” When my state attorney general, Martha Coakley, helped draft a law to regulate naughtiness on the internet, it was “for the children.” Never mind that it was an unconstitutional infringement of the
First Amendment (a federal judge recently said so when she struck it down). When Tipper Gore got warning labels on CDs, it was “for the children.” When Joe Leiberman tried to regulate computer games, it was “for the children.” Smashing rock 'n roll records, banning pinball, burning Harry Potter books, it's all “for the children.” As Robert Heinlein wrote in “The Man Who Sold the Moon,” “The whole principle is wrong. It's like demanding that grown men live on skim milk because the baby can't have steak.”

One of the earliest moral panic episodes of the past century was the “great comic-book scare.” In his excellent book on the subject, The Ten-Cent Plague, David Hajdu gives us a history of comics in the 1950s, the men and women who made them, and the panicked, duped, self-serving, or just downright venal people who destroyed the industry.

Mr. Hajdu writes a good history of comics, delving into the lives and personalities of their creators as well as their social milieu. At first I thought this might be off of the main point of the book, the censorship of comics. Often in pop-culture histories the writer will take extended sidetracks into parts of the story that are fun to read and write about. While I enjoyed these section of the book I had, in my mind, judged them to be a minor flaw in the narrative structure. But I was wrong. By laying down a solid (and very interesting, especially for a comic book fan like me) foundation describing the writers, artists, publishers, and their work, it put many of the arguments of the anti-comics forces into a context that demonstrated the wrongness of their position.

Some may be surprised to read about what a big issue this was at the time. Public comic book burnings were held all over the country. Local censorship boards sprung up across the map. Congressional hearings on the subject were broadcast on live television. Major newspapers like the Hartford Courant wrote editorials calling for an end to the comics menace. Fredric Wertham's infamous comic-bashing book The Seduction of the Innocent was a bestseller. Publishers and newsstand owners were threatened with prosecution, years before the CBLDF was even imagined. It is a remarkable story.

I'd call this a must-read for any real comics fan and a good read for anyone interested in American history, pop-culture, art, or witch trials.

1 comment:

Pat Tillett said...

People seem to do the most harm, when trying to do what they percieve to be good!

Leave it to Heinlein to sum up the crux of the issue in just a few words...

As the alien said in "Plan Nine from Outer Space," "earthlings are stuipid!" (or something like that)