Saturday, May 17, 2008

Sort-Of Related: Iron Man (2008)/The Ten-Cent Plague, by David Hajdu (2008)

Finally caught up with Iron Man, and it’s as entertaining as advertised. Plus Seattle’s in the midst of a bout of unseasonably warm weather, which worked out perfectly. When I see a summer movie, I want it to feel like summer, dammit.

It was odd watching Tony Stark take it to the bad guys after reading David Hajdu’s The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare and How It Changed America. The book is a canny social history of the censorship frenzy surrounding comics in the 1950s. At the time superheroes weren’t the dominant genre that they are now; in fact, Hajdu argues, that transition came about as a result of the controversy chronicled here. But the costumed heroes who were around faced their share of scorn. Critics claimed these “false cartoon gods” promoted paganism and fascism.

Fifty years later, I lined up to see the ultimate Nietzschean power fantasy and before it started sat through trailers for The Dark Knight, The Incredible Hulk and Hancock. Suck it, moralists: the pagan fascists always win!

Hajdu’s book focuses mainly on EC Comics publisher William Gaines, whose gruesome horror books were at the center of the storm. Gaines’s critics condemned the story “Foul Play,” illustrated by ‘Jolly’ Jack Davis. It made enough of an impression on a young Stephen King that he recounted it in detail in his book Danse Macabre, and his description made an impression on a young me. A venal minor league baseball pitcher (King calls him “the apotheosis of the EC villain ... a totally black character, with absolutely no redeeming qualities”) kills an opposing player on the diamond and gets away with it. The dead man’s teammates ultimately play a game of their own with the pitcher – using his heart for home plate, his intestines as basepaths, and his severed head for the ball.

I’ve never seen a panel of that story ... but brother, can I picture it. (Actually, the closing art is here.)

Gaines was eventually driven from the comics business, but he’d have the literal last laugh. He started MAD magazine, which would lampoon the very people who hounded him. A key figure in MAD’s history and Hajdu’s book is artist Will Elder, who passed away earlier this week. Mark Evanier remembers him.