The Anti-Comic Book Panic 

David Hajdu unmasks the era when comic books were considered sinister.

From all over town, they bring them to the open space behind the school by the armload, milkcrateload, and little red wagonload. Phalanxes of kids haul phalanxes of comic books — collected from their own homes and, door-to-door, from their neighbors and friends. They pile their gleanings higher and higher until they've made a colorful mountain six feet tall. "We are met here today to take a step which we believe will benefit ourselves, our community, and our country," announces a child dressed in his Sunday best. Then the pile is set alight. A copy of Superman is the first to ignite. It sounds like a scene from some Twilight Zone episode about a fascistic small town, or about helpless children under the enchantment of a fun-hating pied piper. But it actually happened — in Spencer, West Virginia, in October 1948. And it was far from atypical, according to Columbia University journalism professor David Hajdu in The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America.

A jarring look at a part of postwar peace and prosperity now mostly forgotten — except by the thousands of writers, artists, and publishers who lost their jobs in the panic and were never able to work in the industry again — this book conjures the paranoia whipped up by politicians, clergy, and other moral guardians who dashed this populist form of art and entertainment as a sure road to delinquency. It's a class and power issue, insists Hajdu, who will discuss the book on Friday, March 21 next door to the future downtown Berkeley Cody's store (at 2201 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley): "The first mission of the funny pages was to convoke the lower classes," he avows. Because comics were cheap and comprised mostly pictures, they appeal to kids, to the poor and the illiterate, semiliterate, or foreign: that is, outsiders. That's not surprising, as most of the creators — Hajdu details Will Eisner, Harvey Kurtzman, and dozens more — were outsiders themselves. This unsettled the elite, especially when, "fed by the same streams as pulp fiction and film noir, many of the titles most prominent in the late forties and early fifties told lurid stories of crime, vice, lust, and horror, rather than noble tales." Panic notwithstanding, comics survived and evolved. You can't keep a good Aquaman down. 7 p.m.

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