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'10-Cent Plague' by David Hajdu

The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America

Harry "A" Chesler, Jr., the comic-book packager, applied the "Jr." to his name or dispensed with it as he saw fit, and put quotation marks around the initial because he thought they were stylistically correct, and he was right about that. When he was asked what the "A" stood for, he said, "Anything;" indiscrimination was his middle name. Stubby and gray-skinned, he dressed in striped shirts and a suit vest that often but not always matched the pants; he kept a derby laid flat atop his head, all day, indoors; and he was usually smoking a cigar, proportionately stubby and also gray, with the label intact -- a fancy label that could impress anyone who did not know much about cigars. Chesler, a stickler for efficiency, minimized the creative effort required of his artists to render him in caricature. He set up his studio in a long, open workspace, last used by a wholesaler of buttons and zippers for the garmet trade, on the fourth floor of 276 Fifth Avenue, a ten-story, half-block-long building north of Twenty-ninth Street. Chesler filled the room with rows of used desks, which were cheaper than drawing tables, and he lorded over the shop as if it were a gangland fiefdom: Anyone arriving at work five minutes late would be docked an hour's wages; and on payday, he would sit behind the desk in his office, summon the artists, one by one, and ask each of them, "How much do you need this week to get by?"

Late in 1939, Irwin Hasen joined Chesler's staff. Hasen was just beginning to work professionally in art and, at twenty-one, was still living with his parents, who had had a furniture business go bankrupt and were rock-skipping from apartment to apartment in Manhattan to avoid going under. Hasen was an all-around artsy fellow who could have passed for Mickey Rooney's more effervescent, smaller brother. He had taken some drawing classes at the National Academy of Design and the Art Students League, but abandoned his first aspiration, fine art, as impractical. He had a good compositional sense and applied himself to his assignments for Chesler, among the first of which was a detective story about a counterfeiting ring, published by Timely. Not long after Hasen stacked the pages and submitted them to his boss, Chesler walked over to his drawing talbe and told him, "Good work, kid! That's a hell of a job you did! I'm going to play that up big!" At the end of the day, as Hasen cleared up his materials, he realized that he had inadvertently given Chesler only the top page of the story he had done. All the sheets of drawing paper underneath it were blank.