Comic books grew in the 1930s out of comic strips, which had grown out of the turn-of-the-century color Sunday supplements (the "Yellow Kid" and the like), which were themselves condemned by those in cultural and legal authority. They in turn had been successors of dime novels -- likewise condemned in their time.
In the mid-1940s, between 80 million and 100 million copies were being issued each week. They spoke especially to young people who felt, as young people always have, like outsiders in a world run by and for adults -- even more so in that era before a youth culture as we know it today.
Consumed primarily by kids, comics were therefore looked down upon -- or, rather, overlooked altogether. As a business comics were not big, but they were extensive. By 1952, more than 20 publishers issued nearly 650 titles per month.
Based largely in New York, the business attracted workers who felt the more established forms of publishing and art closed to them. They were, in a word, outcasts: immigrants, women, Jews, Italians, blacks, Latinos, Asians -- outcasts creating a product for outsiders.
Hajdu's account of the creations and their creators -- notably such great cartoonists as Will Elder, Will Eisner, Jack Davis and Harvey Kurtzman -- is particularly engrossing. Equally so is his discussion of the successive waves of themes in comics: first crime and violence, then sex and romance, then horror and the macabre (at which Bill Gaines' EC Comics excelled).
An early and influential blast against comics came in 1940 from Sterling North, later a well-known children's author ("Rascal"), but then a book critic for the Chicago Daily News. In a review of children's books, North included a vilification of comic books, decrying their "poisonous mushroom growth." North's critique received national attention, and its disdain was echoed in criticisms throughout the decade.
The "scare" began around 1948. Accusations began to pile up, particularly that reading comics led to juvenile delinquency. There were church and community campaigns against comics, replete with book burnings, and more than 100 acts of legislation by state and municipal governments.
The self-appointed leader of this moralistic crusade was psychiatrist Dr. Fredric Wertham, whom Hajdu effectively discredits. He shows that as a work of scholarly research, Wertham's anti-comics tome, "Seduction of the Innocent," is a total zero. Yet many reviewers, including North, hailed the book.
Unfortunately, "comics were getting worse at the worst possible time," what with McCarthyism and congressional inquiries into juvenile delinquency and organized crime. But the author has discerned a crucial difference: While McCarthyism was a kind of anti-elitism (against the Northeast intelligentsia and the New Deal), the comics crusade was an anti-anti-elitism, a drive by defenders of conventional ideals of literacy and sophistication against "a wild, homegrown form of vernacular American expression."
It was always about something other than cartoons, or, indeed, crime and immorality. It was about class, money and taste; about traditions, religion and biases. It was one of the first battles between young people and parents.
And it was pretty much over by 1956; the comics industry had all but collapsed under various pressures and hundreds of creative people had lost their jobs. Funny thing is, the campaign left no discernible improvement in delinquency rates or public taste. Hajdu's subtitle ("The Great Comic-Book Scare and How it Changed America") may overstate the case, but if the comic-book scare did in fact change America, it was a case of fixing something that wasn't broken.
Roger K. Miller is the author of the novel "Invisible Hero" and blogs at graustark.blogspot.com. He lives in Menomonee Falls, Wis.