Law and Conversation

September 29, 2011

The fascinating history of comic books

The other day I posted about Banned Books Week here in the US. In the mid-20th century there was a powerful movement against comic books in this country, complete with public burnings. I’ve noticed, though, that comic books don’t usually rate mentions during Banned Books Week. Indeed, though I’ve always loved comics, until just a few years ago, when I happened to be listening to podcasts reviewing David Hajdu’s “The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America,” I had no idea about that interesting and appalling part of US history.

Jeet Heer’s article in Slate, “The Caped Crusader: Frederic Wertham and the campaign against comic books,” reminds me that I’ve been meaning to read Hajdu’s book for some time and ought to move it up on my list. Now that I know that Wertham and his partisans succeeded in whipping even Congress up into a frenzy over comic books, I understand why, when I was a child a couple of decades later, my parents didn’t want me to tell anyone I had my own subscription to MAD magazine. But Heer’s nuanced treatment of Wertham, which I haven’t seen elsewhere, also reminds us that many comics of that period contained story lines and imagery that even those of us who oppose banning books would find shocking and repugnant today.

I mentioned Michael Chabon’s “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay,” a novelization of the mid-20th century’s comic book age, in my last post. The fictional storyline of Chabon’s novel reminded me strongly of longtime MAD magazine artist Al Jaffee’s real life story, which Mary Lou Weisman tells in collaboration with her subject in “Al Jaffee’s Mad Life.” (What, you don’t remember which cartoons Jaffee drew? He invented the brilliant Fold-Ins back in 1964; NOW do you remember?) You can read more about Jaffee and Weisman’s book, including the entire prologue, complete with some of Jaffee’s wonderful illustrations, on HEEB’s website.

To summarize, here are three reading recommendations for books about the fascinating history of comic books:

1) The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America, by David Hajdu

2) The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon

3) Al Jaffee’s Mad Life, by Mary Lou Weisman

As always, I’d love to hear other recommendations for further reading in the comments.

UPDATED: Neatorama has a great post on the history of comic books. Hat tip: Judex Jones.

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September 26, 2011

Read this: a Banned Book

DailyLit, among many others, reminds me that it’s Banned Books Week here in the US.

Isn’t it paradoxical that the books someone’s periodically kicking up a fuss over and trying to ban, or succeeding in banning, from schools and libraries are frequently classics? Those that aren’t, it seems to me, end up as merely forgettable and forgotten, not influential. In either case, the fussing seems silly to me, as in last year’s case of the brouhaha over Laurie Halse Anderson’s YA novel, “Speak.”

DailyLit invites readers to post their personal favorite banned book; so far responses include Huckleberry Finn, To Kill A Mockingbird, Catcher In The Rye, and The Bible. The American Library Association has lists by year here.

Some banned books that have a special place in my own heart, though I don’t see them on the ALA’s or DailyLit’s lists, are comic books, which Frederic Wertham, a German-born psychiatrist who emigrated to the US in the 1920s, campaigned against in the mid-20th century. A recent novelization of that period is Michael Chabon’s “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay,” which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2001. More on Dr. Wertham, including a cartoon of him from an issue of MAD magazine, is here.

I’ll have more on comic books and books about them in my next post. (Redhead, are you still there? Thanks to you, I *finally* read Chabon’s book!) In the meantime, I hope readers will join me in commemorating Banned Books Week by reading a book from the ALA’s lists. DailyLit has “The Scarlet Letter” available for free!

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