Posts Tagged ‘David Hajdu’

Hajdu’s Ten-Cent Plague Revisited


Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Read Comments (4)

Hajdu's Ten-Cent Plague

Below is my review of Hajdu’s The Ten-Cent Plague, which originally ran in the Globe and Mail on March 22, 2008. After the review there is a brief post-script.


The Great Comic-Book Scare and How it Changed America

By David Hajdu

Books, if Ray Bradbury is to be trusted, burn at a temperature of Fahrenheit 451; old comic books, printed as they were on cheap newsprint, are easier to kindle. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, thousands of American kids discovered just how flammable comic books could be. Egged on by parents, teachers and such guardians of piety and patriotism as the Catholic Church and the American Legion, countless children (sometimes willingly, but often reluctantly) participated in schoolyard re-enactments of the Bonfire of the Vanities, setting aflame horror and crime comic books that allegedly had the power to corrupt their young innocence and transform them into juvenile delinquents. (It is highly probable that among the comics burned were copies of the EC Comics series Weird Science-Fantasy, which, appropriately enough, published adaptations of Ray Bradbury stories.)





Saturday, October 24, 2009

Read Comments (23)

I’ve futzed around with this piece after initially publishing it, retaining the ideas but rearranging and clarifying a bit, I hope. Anyhow, I normally try (though not that hard) to avoid writing about press, but I must note a few things about David Hajdu’s review of Crumb’s Genesis in the NY Times Book Review. Look, I’m not cynical enough to dismiss the Times, as many do, as stodgy or useless, etc. Instead, I’m somehow naive enough to still believe in it as an institution that has tremendous resources and can produce great work. Nevertheless, I also realize that (and sort of understand, from a logistical point of view) irresponsible or ill-informed writers like Hajdu slip by when writing about a somewhat specialized topic. After all, this stuff matters most to those of us who take it as a primary subject. But in the spirit of trying to improve the discourse around comics, Hajdu should be addressed. Especially because again and again Hajdu pops up with some ill-formed opinion or straight up error (and we at Comics Comics, like groundhogs, pop up and object like the big fucking nerds we are). So, onto the review. In a somewhat positive, though oddly condescending piece, Hajdu commits a number of blunders. We’ll start with this doozy:

“The first book of the Bible graphically depicted! Nothing left out!” brags a banner on the cover. This is scarcely the first time the Bible has been adapted to comics pages, of course. In the first decade of the comic-book business, the man who claimed to have invented the medium, M. C. Gaines, founded a whole company on a line of ‘Picture Stories From the Bible.’ (When he died suddenly, his young son, William M. Gaines, inherited the company, and in a 20th-century case study in the enduring vagaries of primogeniture, the son discontinued the Bible strips and started publishing lurid, spicy crime and horror comics.)

Given that Hajdu wrote a book (The Ten Cent Plague) involving those exact “lurid” comics, he should also know that Crumb’s “brag” on the cover is a knowing nod to his medium. As with the works inside, Crumb’s cover text and design is a consciously mid-century comics stance. That is, like Crumb’s childhood comics, the cover is garish and loud, and interior pages rely on established cultural/visual types and straightforward storytelling in the Stanley/Barks vein. It’s a brilliant, thoroughly subversive choice that works both on a literal and meta level, commenting on the history and form of comics-the-medium. And further, as Hajdu well knows, Bill Gaines sought to produce, yes, sensationalist comics, but he also instituted the most rigorous set of standards yet (and in the case of crime and horror comics, maybe ever) imposed on comic books. He aimed for literary quality as he understood it. Hardly just the “lurid, spicy” comics of Hajdu’s description, though he was obviously trying to make a cocktail party smarty pants comment about fathers and sons, blah blah). And yes, the Bible has been in truncated comics form many many times. But as Hajdu also knows, that is hardly Crumb’s point. His task was a word-for-word adaptation.

And then there is this classic:

At points, Crumb withholds exactly the kind of graphic details he built a career on revealing: In an image of circumcision, he shows us two splatters of blood, rather than the actual penis being cut. Onan practices coitus interruptus turned away from us. This book, I believe, is the first thing by Crumb ever published without a single image of flying sperm or a sharp blade approaching male genitalia.

Besides the sheer idiocy of saying Crumb “built a career” (whatever that means in an underground context) on anything besides drawing exactly what he needed to draw, the facts are simply wrong. Crumb has been making “clean” comics right alongside his “dirty” stuff for over 30 years now: American Splendor; the blues biographies; the P.K. Dick biography; the Kafka book; right up to his recent masterful memoir of his brother Charles. This kinda knowledge is not the area of specialists — it’s the stuff of and Wikipedia. Crumb doesn’t need me to defend him (oy vey) but his efforts deserve better than this utterly wrong characterization. It is all the stranger since Hajdu has, in fact, interviewed Crumb himself and would have to be willfully and then persistently ignorant not to know better.

But wait, there’s more:

For all its narrative potency and raw beauty, Crumb’s “Book of Genesis” is missing something that just does not interest its illustrator: a sense of the sacred. What Genesis demonstrates in dramatic terms are beliefs in an orderly universe and the godlike nature of man. Crumb, a fearless anarchist and proud cynic, clearly believes in other things, and to hold those beliefs — they are kinds of beliefs, too — is his prerogative.

This seems an especially disingenuous statement. First, Hajdu’s interpretation of Genesis is strictly that of a believer — I can’t see how, as an irreligious reader, you come away with that interpretation. I mean, there are two conflicting accounts of creation. Not exactly orderly. Also, Crumb is not, as far as I know, an anarchist, but he is, by his own account, spiritual. Which is to say, Crumb seems to be exploring the sacred. Maybe not Hajdu’s sacred, but sacred nonetheless. A quick scan of Crumb’s statements (From Vanity Fair, just one Google search away: “I would call myself a Gnostic. Which means, I’m interested in pursuing and understanding the spiritual nature of things. A Gnostic is somebody seeking knowledge of that aspect of reality”) on the matter will give you that much.

Anyhow, one wonders why an author would persist in writing about a subject he clearly disdains and isn’t interested in actually learning about, but I guess that’s between Hajdu and his own idea of the sacred. Next post I’ll be happy, I promise.

[UPDATE: I realize it seems odd/rash to pick on this one piece of writing out of the avalanche of material devoted to Crumb’s Genesis, but it strikes me so wrong headed that it just needed to be addressed. If nothing else, given the talk of mature comics criticism, etc., it seems important to me to address writing that, whatever else I might say about it, aims for seriousness, and is generated by someone who claims a certain authority in the field.]

Labels: , , , ,

A Journal of the Plague Year


Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Read Comments (35)

As a lot of you probably already know, great writer-about-comics Jeet Heer recently got into a small disagreement with another great writer-about-comics, Michael Chabon, in response to a piece Heer wrote about David Hajdu‘s new cultural history of the crusade against violent comics, The Ten-Cent Plague. I don’t have too much to say about it, other than that in his Slate article, and in several other recent pieces, Heer has been making a worthy attempt to depict the complexity of the 1950s comic-book scare. (That second link, a discussion between Heer and Fredric Wertham biographer Bart Beaty, is particularly interesting.)

I wish the same could be said of the ongoing debate about the book between Hajdu and Douglas Wolk at The New Republic (to which both are frequent contributors). Wolk’s a smart guy, and as evidenced by the Jeet Heer links above, there’s a lot of potentially meaty topics to discuss in Hajdu’s book, so why waste this opportunity with a lot of talk about how comic books are too taken seriously!? Hajdu’s answers aren’t particularly enlightening, but I can’t really blame him after Wolk starts with that bizarre hobbyhorse tangent inspired by a stray Newsarama (!) interview question that has little or nothing to do with the subject of Hajdu’s book. Can we ever lay off this tired “are comics sufficiently recognized?” stuff? Anyway, the exchange isn’t over yet, so there’s time for things to get more cogent. It would be great if Wolk followed up on some of the questions obviously posed by Heer and Beaty’s writings.

UPDATE: The second round of questions is up, and it’s really not much better. I’m curious to see if Hajdu can make more sense out of them than I can. (And Bernie Krigstein‘s artistic accomplishments should be judged only by how many of his stories are famous? Really?) Oh well.

UPDATE II: Since Tom Spurgeon linked to this post this morning calling these comments “unkind”, I wanted to point out that I have found Wolk to be a very likeable person in all of my encounters with him — he very generously gave me advice before a panel I moderated at SPX (something I’d never done before), for example. This is simply meant to be friendly argument. That may not need saying, but I’m weak and can’t help myself. (I like Tom, too. I like everybody!) All the same, I really think that Wolk could (and should) have done a better job with this.

UPDATE III: In the final round, Hajdu gives it the old college try, and quite rightly defends Krigstein, but understandably gives up on answering Wolk’s weirdest question: “If there hadn’t been a conflict over morality in entertainment going on, how do you think the comic books of the ’50s might have been received at the time?” That one stumps me, too. Actually, upon further reflection, it doesn’t: I’d say about the same, but with fewer bonfires.

Labels: , , , ,

I Spoke Too Soon


Monday, December 4, 2006

Read Comments (9)

I was wrong, and in a good way. Ivan Brunetti‘s Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons, & True Stories, is starting to get some well-deserved hype, this time a longish, overwhelmingly positive review in the New York Times Sunday Book Review. This is an unalloyed good thing, both for Brunetti and for the field as a whole. But…

Well, maybe it is just a little alloyed, but only because the reviewer was one lazy and condescending (at least in this instance) critic named David Hajdu, who is probably best known for his book about the ’60s folk scene in Greenwich Village, Positively 4th Street. I say lazy and condescending because it is quite clear from reading his review that he didn’t bother to do the relevant research, but still felt qualified to act as a generous mandarin, bestowing status on a “disreputable” art form that has finally earned his good graces.

Take for starters his description of the book’s editor:

Brunetti, a comics artist and writer himself, is best known for his comic-book series “Schizo,” a hodge-podge of spare, poetic vignettes heavily influenced by Charles Schulz’s “Peanuts.”

It seems likely to me from this that Hajdu only read the two pages of Brunetti comics included in the book under review, but let’s be generous and assume he skimmed Schizo‘s unusually gentle fourth issue. Hajdu clearly didn’t bother checking into the earlier issues, which might well be the most scarifying comics ever drawn. “Spare”, “poetic”, and “Peanuts” are not the words (well, “poetic” maybe, but not the way Hajdu means it).

Here’s a less important one:

[Brunetti] likes the funnies to be funny; we get few adventure stories — not even, among the historical selections, a panel of “Little Lulu” or Carl Barks’s “Donald Duck,” both of which were more dramatic than literally comic.

Hmm. Little Lulu always seemed pretty funny to me.

More from the maestro:

[Brunetti] is indifferent, even silently hostile, to superheroes, none of whom appear anywhere in the book … There is no question that the vast bulk of superhero comics are factory-made product, rather than works of individual expression; still, at least a few mainstream comics published in recent years — including a series of Batman stories drawn by David Mazzucchelli, who has other work in the anthology — are as artful and subtle as some stories in this book.

Mazzuchelli‘s work on Batman is greatly accomplished, but so many of his other, non-superhero comics are superior that it would be very strange to include it while skipping the rest.

More than that, considering the nature of this anthology, Hajdu’s argument is just silly. Only when discussing comics do people feel the constant need to glorify or excuse work on licensed properties in this way. You’d never find a critic reviewing an anthology of contemporary literature and bemoaning the lack of excerpts from Star Wars novels. (Who knows, maybe there’s a book about Yoda that’s just as good as the story about a novelist suffering writer’s block at Yaddo—it would still feel out-of-place in a book meant to showcase stories that are personal and intimate.) If Hajdu really feels like comics are now finally “suitable for adults”, maybe he could treat them with the respect (and expectations) accorded to other adult media.

Hajdu continues by calling for the deletion of Aline Kominsky-Crumb‘s “clumsy noodling” and praising Kim Deitch “for her [sic] cynical romance with the past and sheer kookiness of spirit.” I love Kominsky-Crumb’s work, but I guess I should give Hajdu a pass here, seeing as everyone’s entitled to their own taste. But would it be too much to ask that, if he’s going to say an artist may be “the literary voice of our time”, and do it in the New York Times, that he actually bother to conduct enough research to get the Possible Voice of Our Time’s gender right? [UPDATE: The Kim Deitch gender mix-up was apparently an editing error, in which case the writer should of course be excused.]

Here’s his final paragraph, a wonderful mixture of clichés, misconceptions, and patronization:

Now going under the name graphic fiction, no doubt temporarily, the comics are all grown up, and this anthology represents the most cogent proof since Will Eisner pioneered the graphic novel and Art Spiegelman brought long-form comics to early perfection. What other kinds of art or entertainment invented for young people ever transcended their provenance as kid stuff? Not coloring books, nor paper dolls, nor board games. There are no Etch a Sketch drawings in the Museum of Modern Art and no View-Master slides in the International Center for Photography. While it took more than a century for the medium to be accepted as suitable for adults, the fact that the comics made it here at all testifies to their resilience and adaptability.

Ugh. Well, I guess it’s good that comics are more of a legitimate art form than the old View-Master, but this seems like faint praise to me.

(By the way, this isn’t the first time Hajdu has written about “grown-up” comics for a prominent cultural publication, or the first time he’s proven himself not quite up to the job.)

I should stop whining. What does it matter really? It’s nice overall that the big cultural arbiters are recognizing comics, and these mistakes aren’t really that important. But it would be even nicer if the people deciding what art is serious and legitimate would take their own jobs just as seriously.

And what is Hajdu up to next? He’s working on a new book, a history of the comics. As he graciously acknowledged in a 2003 interview, it’s something he “knew virtually nothing about before”, but he’s found that doing the research “is the fun part”. I hope that the new year finds Hajdu having lots of fun.


Oh, and one more thing, related only in general theme: When you’re putting together a large-scale, scholarly exhibit of the Masters of the American Comics, ostensibly in order to demonstrate the artistic significance of the form and its practitioners, and you display one of the most famous and iconic comic book covers of all time, go ahead and make the effort to find out who drew it. Don’t just credit Harvey Kurtzman on a guess. Especially when Basil Wolverton‘s signature is clearly legible, right at the bottom of the page.

Labels: , , , , , , , , ,