Audiobook Review: The Ten-Cent Plague By David Hajdu, Read By Stefan Rudnicki

This is another one of those posts that have been kicking around in my head for a while. I actually finished the 10-disc audiobook version of David Hajdu’s The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare And How It Changed America a few weeks back, but haven’t gotten around to talking about it until now. My inlaws actually brought me this set the day our daughter was born, I’m sure I thanked them and set it aside next to my bed for weeks without really realizing what it was. A month or two back I finally dug it out, noted the awesome Charles Burns cover, and decided to start listening to it while driving around in my car. My dad does this instead of listening to the radio and it seemed like a good idea, plus I knew that my wife wouldn’t have much interest in listening to the book while on our trips to either Ohio or New Hampshire, though I do think it would have been highly informative for her.

This is not my first foray into the history of comics. That honor goes to a tape about collecting comic books I bought as a kid hosted by Frank Gorshin that briefly went through the history of the medium, even talking to EC’s William Gaines in his cluttered office, an image forever burned in my brain. I haven’t read too many books on the subject, but have absorbed quite a bit over the years. Even so, I’ve never experienced anything as in depth and complete as Hajdu’s account. He starts off where most other accounts of comics does with the Yellow Kid and ends with the failure of EC after a series of government inquiries into the effects of comics on children.

What sets The Ten-Cent Plague apart from the other sources I’ve seen or read is the fact that he seemingly interviewed every living person possible. And I’m not just talking about the EC folks who do wind up taking center stage for the last third or quarter of the book (as they should considering what was going on), but also people who just worked in the biz. It gives the sense of a complete account or as complete as can be, though obviously no such thing could actually exist, especially so far away from the events themselves. I do think that, had I been reading this book instead of listening to it, I might have quit because it could be dry, but Rudnicki’s deep, commanding and lyrical voice kept me interested the whole time.

There were three things that really caught my attention while reading the book. First off, I didn’t realize how bad the comic book backlash was, especially in small towns. Places all over the country were rounding up comic books and just burning them. Book burning! In America! The small mindedness really got on my nerves. Second, how crazy is it that 60 years ago comics were such a big deal that the government was looking into them and the millions of copies they were selling while today it takes a complete overhaul of a major company to sell a tenth of that. Can you imagine that much attention being paid to comics today?

Finally, I tried to really think about where I would fall on the issues of the day back then. I’ve read some of the horror and sci-fi comics that EC was putting out as well as some Creepy and Eerie issues and a few other things. They were pretty gruesome, especially in a more sheltered time. Were I a kid back then and a fan of these comics, I would have been incensed that adults were starting to get in my business and take away my secret window into a more adult world. At the same time, if I were a parent at the time, I would probably do my best to keep them out of my younger child’s hands. Note, I’m not making a suggestion for governmental censorship, but censoring kids is kind of a parent’s whole job after keeping them alive is taken care of. Hopefully parents are in tune with their kids and understand what they can handle, but that’s up to them. It’s also up to the merchants to decide what they want to sell, but not the government’s to tell us what we can and can not create when it comes to art and entertainment, assuming no one is getting hurt in the creative process. I have lived my entire life in a world filled with ratings and warnings of content, though. Movies and comics had ratings and stamps of approval, records eventually got notices of questionable content and video games their own system of ratings. I’m used to these things and trust them to an extent. Ratings systems can be great if they are well maintained and keep to a set of public rules that everyone can read and understand. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case back in the 50s and it lead to the end of a lot of great comics. Had things kept going the way companies like EC were going, we’d probably have a much different comic market now.

If you have any interest in comic book history, do yourself a favor and check Hajdu’s book out. I’d recommend hitting up the audiobook, but it’s worth consuming however you prefer.

Ad It Up: Morning Funnies Cereal

My favorite comic ads are the ones that bring back a flood of memories. My second favorite ones seem incredibly inappropriate given the subject matter of the comic they are found in. This one counts for both. Not only do I remember eating Morning Funnies Cereal a few times (the box actually folded open and had comic strips you could read!), but I got a kick out of flipping through an old Punisher issue (#20 from 1989) and coming across the full color visages of Hagar the Horrible, Dennis the Menace, Luann, Beetle Bailey and the rest. Does anyone remember what the actual cereal looked like? The art makes them look like tortured souls screaming out of the comic strip graveyard. Or goofy faces. Whichever you like

Strip Search: Hank Ketcham’s Complete Dennis The Menace Vol. 2 1953-1954

Welcome to a brand new feature here on UnitedMonkee: Strip Search. My first foray as a kid into sequential art was not the comic book, but the daily comics in the newspaper which we called “funnies” in my house. Perhaps it was that nickname that kept me firmly focused on only the comedy strips of the time and away from the more dramatic ones like Prince Valiant, Mary Worth and their ilk. My dad and I would trade the funnies back and forth in the mornings depending on who got to the breakfast table first. Our local paper, The Toledo Blade, had a special entertainment section called and colored Peach which we read every day for quite a while. The only problem was that The Blade didn’t really get too wild when it came to the strips they syndicated. You had your basics like Hagar The Horrible, Blondie, Garfield, Marmaduke, Dennis The Menace and Dilbert. It seemed like once Calvin And Hobbes went away, the paper stopped paying attention to new strips. Actually, I take that back, they added Zits which became a fast favorite, but after that? Well, honestly, I don’t even remember because my dad eventually started getting The Detroit Free Press, a paper with much better, more interesting strips like The Boondocks, Liberty Meadows and Get Fuzzy. Sure there was some redundancies, but we enjoyed reading both sets.

For the most part, I stopped reading the funnies when I went to college because the newspaper was no longer a part of my life and hasn’t really been since, aside from some trips home or visits from the in-laws who always buy a paper when they visit, they haven’t been a part of my life since. It wasn’t until the last year or so that I started getting interested in comic strips again, though not the ones being currently produced. With the huge increase of reprints from the long history of the medium and creators bestowing the virtues of those older creations it got me excited about exploring some of those strips. I’ll be honest, Dennis The Menace was not on that list. Sure, I liked the one-panel daily strip as a kid and even watched reruns of the 50s TV series on Nickelodeon as a kid as well as the mid-80s cartoon, but I kind of wrote the strip off as goofy kids stuff. What made me rethink that stance? A sale at a Borders in Jersey I happened to find myself in last weekend where I found Hank Ketcham’s Complete Dennis The Menace Volume 2: 1953-54 and Volume 4 from Fantagraphics for about $4 a piece! I’m a sucker for a good deal, especially when the books normally run $24.95, so I bit.

I was very pleasantly surprised with how entertained I was by the strips as I burned through this 653 page collection of every non-Sunday strip from Dennis’ third and fourth years in existence. If you’re not familiar, Dennis Mitchell is a five year old boy with a mother and father. He’s classically known for being precocious, overly honest as only children can be and what some people today would call spirited. Going in, I of course knew that his neighbor, the short-fused Mr. Wilson tended to be on the receiving end of Dennis menacement, but interestingly enough, he’s hardly in this collection. Neither are his friend Joey or his female nemesis Margaret who were prominent in the cartoon. Most of the strips revolve around Dennis’ boyishness getting on the nerves of his parents Henry and Alice with his ever-present canine companion Ruff along for the ride usually. Most of the gags revolve around Dennis’ ignorance of the adult world. He’s often misinterpreting sayings and metaphors his parents use to describe their neighbors and friends usually within earshot of those same people. He also worries his mother in the way that a boy of the time would: by getting into all kinds of trouble, occasionally coming home naked or bloody (not both mind you). I’d like to think that creator Hank Ketcham was attempting to poke fun at the seriousness of adult life and possibly the guards and niceties we hide behind which often sacrifice honesty and truth. I also found it interesting that I could relate my childhood more to a five decade old comic strip than kids today. Not to sound too much like an old man, I spent huge amounts of time running around the nearby park with neighborhood kids and being kids. I was never as mischievous as Dennis, but I’m sure most kids today are either kept inside for fear of abduction or would rather sit around and play video games. I hope I’m way off on that, but we’ll see.

I also want to talk about Ketcham’s art for a moment. The intro to this collection by comic strip historian R.C. Harvey goes on and on about Ketcham’s style, but the most important thing I read in there was that Ketcham liked to play with perspective and silhouettes to keep himself interested, but he also didn’t want the cartoon to draw too much attention away from the overall joke. As it is, these early strips have a looseness to them that does draw attention away from some of the details. You might think that with only so much space, an artist would take the easy way out and skimp on the backgrounds, but nearly every strip has a plenty of things to look at in the panel aside from the main action/figures. I found myself staring at his line work and seeing how deceptively complex they actually are. He also does great work when it comes to expressions. There’s not an abundance of line work done on his faces, but what he can do with a few dots and lines to show disapproval, embarrassment or a barely stifled laugh is pretty hysterical and impressive.

As much as I enjoyed the collection, I can’t say it was a 100% win for me. I like the majority of the strips, but as you might expect, some of them just fall flat. It’s impossible for your average younger person today to grasp every joke made in a 50 year old comic strip, but the great thing about reading a collection of single strip comics (each getting its own page) is that you can easily move right on to the next installment if the previous doesn’t do it for you. And overall, that’s the beauty of this book: while it feels, looks and is robust, the collection is very easy to read through. I read the whole thing in an evening and probably could have moved on to the other one I have waiting for me, but wanted to space them out so I didn’t get them confused when writing about them. One of the problems I’m having with some of the other comics I’m trying to read is that, with such high page counts and in-depth strips, it’s exhausting to get through. This hardcover measures 5 3/4×6 1/2×2 1/4 inches which really is the perfect size. They probably could have doubled the page length and covered twice as many years, but that would presumably also drive the cost of production up. I think this is the perfect presentation and like many of these fancy hardcover comics strip reprint projects, the series of these would look amazing up on a shelf. I have visions of shelves filled with various strip collections I like that make me want to move into a larger space. The price point for these books might be a little hefty without a sale, but I’m definitely going to keep my eyes peeled for more of these volumes in the future.

If you’re curious or want to read along with me. I’ve also got the very first Gasoline Alley Walt & Skeezix book from Drawn & Quarterly which I’m loving as well as the first two Dick Tracy collections from IDW and Peanuts Vol. 14 also from Fanta which has been shockingly fun and entertaining so far. If anyone has any suggestions for other old strips to check out, let me know. I’m also keeping my eyes peeled for a sale on that Complete Calvin And Hobbes collection because I’m a huge fan of that series and want to read the whole thing in a nice format.