Jerry Garcia said the trouble started with comics. Author David Hajdu, who visited KPL on June 4, quoted the late Grateful Dead guitarist who claimed rock and roll culture — a romanticizing and escalation of violence, a cynicism toward authority and formal institutions, governments, schools — shouldn’t be blamed on Elvis. No, it went back further, to the 1940s, in the pages of comic books.
Not just any comic books, but a pulpy breed with a mean streak that turned the notion of comic book hero inside out. Not only were these books filled with violence, but the protagonist often was a perpetrator of it. Readers had voracious appetites for these stories, which crossed boundaries of gender and class. In those days, some 60 to 100 million comic books were sold each week. Reading comic books and trading them with friends was the most popular form of entertainment.
As this new breed of comics came to the forefront, kids seemed to change and parents took notice, Hajdu said. Then came “the clash” and the comics controversy was caught up in the larger Post-War “red scare.” The details of these times are captured in Hajdu’s book The Ten Cent Plague: The Great Comics Scare and How it Changed America.
Listed on many of 2008’s “best books” lists, The Ten Cent Plague is the third book for David Hajdu, music critic for The New Republic and a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Hajdu says he is drawn to untold stories.
The untold story in Hajdu’s first book Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn, was about the composer and arranger of jazz who worked with Duke Ellington for some 30 years. You may think “Ellington” when you hear “Take the ‘A’ Train,” but you should also think “Billy Strayhorn.” Strayhorn was pure genius, but the glory went to Ellington.
After compiling this history of jazz musicians in Harlem and Paris, Hajdu went on to explore another facet of American music: the folk scene of early 1960s Greenwich Village. Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Fariña and Richard Fariña dishes on these musicians and their contributions and examines how Dylan became Dylan.
Check out Hajdu’s books, all of which are in KPL’s collections, and read his music columns in The New Republic.
The Ten Cent Plague: The Great Comics Scare and How it Changed America