Author David Hajdu’s Columbia University office is a museum of his subjects’ histories. Photos of jazz greats featured in his first book, Lush Life, adorn the west walls, replete with autographs; images of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez and the Greenwich Village streets of old glower from above; and, hanging inches from Hajdu’s desk, are signed graphics from American comic book icons like Will Eisner.
A Columbia Journalism School professor and author of Lush Life, Positively 4th Street, and now Ten Cent Plague, a record of America’s pre-code comic book auteurs, Hajdu has distinguished himself as a historian and raconteur of America’s outsider artists. He spoke to the Rail at Columbia just prior to the campus arrival of presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain. Neither one could shake his intensity.
Roland Kelts (Rail): In terms of your career so far as an author, with books about jazz and Bob Dylan’s contemporaries, how do you see Ten Cent Plague connecting to your obsessions?
David Hajdu: I try to avoid my obsessions as a writer. I try to write about things I don’t know enough about. I’m drawn, as a writer, to the big, gaping holes in my knowledge, and there are many. I’d written very little about jazz, and I didn’t know that much about jazz. I’m not African-American, I’m not gay, and in many ways the worlds of Lush Life were new to me. That’s a big reason why I was drawn to that subject.
I felt that in Billy Strayhorn’s case, because I didn’t know about him, once I realized that he had done so much great work, I felt a sense of duty to tell the story of this person who did this great work. So there’s a relationship between my absence of knowledge and my passion for the subject.
Similarly, I didn’t want to write another Dylan book.
Rail: Were you a fan?
Hajdu: Definitely. When I was in college, I made a short film about Dylan called Electric. I still have the script for it, but the larger issues of how relationships play out in creative lives and the effect of competition and of eros on the creative life, and the art that grows out of a creative life—these were things I didn’t really have much of a grasp of, and that’s really what I wanted to write about. I also wanted to write about the nature of success. I don’t just mean fame and glory; I mean success in the simple terms of accomplishment, doing what you set out to do.
Positively 4th Street is kind of like a 19th century novel, like a Jane Austen. My influences were Austen and Henry James. Novels about competitive sisters and their relationships and the sort of situations in which they worked and what happened when men came into their lives. It is Jane Austen, formally, but in thematic terms, I was trying to come to terms with the nature of success.
Why did Joan succeed and Mimi didn’t, creatively and professionally? Why did Dylan succeed and not Richard Farina? not just Is it just the issue of will, or a capacity for reinvention, or a capacity for self-promotion? If so, then Richard Farina should have been the one they wrote books about. Or maybe it’s just talent.
What I’m getting at is that a book about Bob Dylan is not about someone in particular. It’s also about Bohemia and this conception we have of the Bohemian artist as a radical that goes back to the mid-19th century; it’s another Paris, it’s a whole other thing, and yet it endures and we cling to it, and that’s kind of linked to the Ten Cent Plague: this notion of artists, outcasts and provocateurs who are challenging the status quo.
Rail: I can see that. It seems a potent position of irreverence, with the artists having a grand old time.
Hajdu: You have to take that a bit at face value. I don’t subscribe to the intentionalist theory of art, where it’s all about honest intentions. I think many artists are completely ignorant of the value of their work, or even the nature of their work. They don’t know what they are doing.
I found this over and over with jazz musicians. I spent over eleven years on Lush Life, nine on research. Sometimes I found musicians who adamantly refused, who would not or could not talk about their work as art. I think they had a kind of working class pride in the work ethic, and they saw what they were doing as work, not as art. They were kind of reverse elitists, distrustful of things that they saw as arty and fussy, and proud of what they saw as service to the audience. You know, making people happy and letting people dance. It was like: here’s a service, here’s a utilitarian service.
And I’ve found a lot of the same thing with comic book artists. A lot of comic book artists think: I’m giving kids entertainment, keeping them off the street, giving them something to laugh at.
Rail: But it’s not all that light and easy. One of the climaxes in Ten Cent Plague is when you record the clamp–down of the censorship code, and the number of published comics declines precipitously. You have a heartbreaking quote from artist Stan Lee saying, “Well, when we resurfaced with Marvel in the ’60s, we just wanted to entertain the kids.” Prior to that, the same artists were trying to do something more.
Hajdu: They were. But you know many of them were of diverse backgrounds and coming out of a working class context. They thought it was a matter of pride to deny the aesthetic value of their work. That’s not to undermine or diminish their work. It was the opposite. It was their way of saying what we are doing doesn’t subscribe to a hierarchy, this higher hierarchy of art. This is a function, and they’re tying a value to the function like a function for use. It has this Communist appeal. They didn’t think of it as art. But it is also reductive to think that their refusal to think of their work as art is diminishing.
Rail: In the last ten years we’ve seen a resurgence of the graphic novel, and an embrace of graphic storytelling, particularly by young readers, which is closer to the underground comics that you describe.
Hajdu: Yeah, I think it’s fascinating to think what would have happened if the censorship clamp hadn’t happened here in the United States, and I think that some of the answers follow in the Japanese model where there was no clamp–down and comics grew up a lot sooner. They acquired this sophistication and complexity that was appropriate for adults a lot sooner in Japan.
I think the development of American comics was arrested by the censorship clamp–down. It was a slowdown on one hand, and on the other hand, there was a kind of glamorization of the pre-code comics that took place because they became contraband. They had this patina of forbidden fruit.
I can’t think of a better phrase than the cliché of forbidden fruit, but then they kind of elevated the imagination and the status of their fans, and they kind of enhanced their reputations. A generation of artists grew up in the early ’60s and came to their maturity in the early ’70s who had carried with them this romantic conception of what pre-code comics were. I’m talking about R. Crumb and all the other underground comics that did fulfill the promise of the pre-code comics. There’s no question that what they were doing had direct links to the sensibility of the pre-code artists.
Rail: There’s another moment in the book where you say that while these pre-code comics were shut down, they nevertheless created the foundation for what we would pretty soon come to universally call popular culture.
Hajdu: I tried in my descriptions of the work to show this kind of cynicism toward authority, a kind of reveling in the prurient, absorption of violence, violence as play, and a kind of glamorization of unruly, bad, downright nasty behavior of all kinds, and the glamorization of the doers, and the kind of people who do that stuff as heroic outcasts. That is what we now find in the multiplexes, video games and TV shows today. I don’t think anything explains the hostile movies or the Saw movies or the video gore, Grand Theft Auto, and the various versions of GTA better than these comics. It’s the DNA of all that stuff, good or bad, whatever you think of it. I think these comics are the DNA of popular culture today.
Rail: The reader never feels like the author is stepping in to condemn this kind of work.
Hajdu: My sympathies are always with the artist. I feel that there are more than two sides to this story. I kept thinking of it as a war story. It’s a war between generations. It’s a war between two modes of thinking. I think that the people who are fighting any battle are people who think that there is something worth fighting for. At one time this struck me and I tried to do justice to both sides of the debate over comics.
You know, I’m a parent myself. We live in a culture that has ignored the effects of violence, that has this downright obsession with violence. That is, in a way, troubling, and it has played out in some ways that are really destructive. And that’s a reality. Is it possible that the way we portray violence in our art, in our popular art, contributes to an anesthetizing effect?
Well, if you believe that comics are art, and are a legitimate means of expression, they have the kind of power to affect feelings of one kind or another. That means that that effect can be one of elevation, one of illumination, or destruction. You can’t have it all ways. You can’t say comic books are an art, they have the power to move you, without acknowledging how they will move you and where you will be moved and what they will do to you once you’re moved is unpredictable.
That doesn’t mean they should be controlled. I’m not an advocate of censorship, but you know, I mean some of the covers of some of those graphic novels are horrific and I think that the argument that they have a desensitizing effect should not be thrown out without scrutiny. It’s too easy to say that that’s just bullshit. It’s just too easy.
Rail: It seems to me arguable from another perspective that the irreverence of comics might be part of a venerable tradition in American literature, which can be traced back to Twain and Vonnegut: a high level of irreverence and wryness.
Hajdu: Right. But comics were meant for junior high and high school students. So there was practically nothing that was geared specifically for them that was so cynical and subversive.
Rail: What do you think about that kind of cynicism compared to a brutal image of sawing off a woman’s head? It seems to me the difference between cynicism and irreverence versus dropping all the way into nihilism and saying screw it all.
Hajdu: Would you put that into my words? Put that into my mouth. It’s a nice way to end.