Growing up in Phillipsburg, N.J., David Hajdu (pronounced HAY-doo) drew a comic strip for his high school newspaper and soon began contributing illustrations to the newspaper in nearby Easton, Pa. His interest in cartooning continued in college during the 70s, and he entered New York University's film school with an eye toward animation. So how did he wind up as a writer? “Literal rendering as an artist came very easily to me,” he says, “and from my working-class Catholic upbringing, I grew up believing that worthwhile work couldn't be easy. It had to be painful and hard.”

After graduating from college, Hajdu, 52, began placing freelance articles about music in the Village Voice and Rolling Stone. Concerns about paying the rent led to day jobs editing for magazines like Video Review and Entertainment Weekly, but he continued to work on his dream project, a biography of Billy Strayhorn, the jazz composer and arranger. It took 13 years, but he eventually completed enough of Lush Life to attract the attention of Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

In 1993, Paul Elie became Hajdu's editor, and Lush Life was published by FSG three years later. “David was a bit taken aback at first that his editor was 10 years younger than he,” Elie recalls, “but we had a lot of points of connection.” Their mutual enthusiasm carried over in Hajdu's next book, Positively 4th Street (FSG, 2001), a group portrait of Bob Dylan, Joan and Mimi Baez, and Richard Farina at the onset of the '60s folk revival. By then, Hajdu says, “I found myself in the position of being able to leave the day job for a life that's more focused on writing and thinking.” Freelancing as a music critic for the New Republic and contributing essays to magazines he'd always dreamed of writing for, like the Atlantic and the New Yorker, Hajdu could now set goals to redefine himself with each book project. “I'm uncomfortable in my comfort zone,” he says. “By setting new challenges and stimulating myself, I hope I'm stimulating readers as well.”

For his latest project, The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America (FSG), he felt “ready to do a book that was more critical and analytical, that I had the tools to do that now. So there's a lot more of me in this book.” Although he was able to complete this book in just six years—almost half the time he spent on Lush Life—he estimates that he's probably spent more man-hours on this book than either of his previous ones, conducting interviews with 150 former comic book writers and artists from the 1940s and 1950s, many of whom had never been interviewed about their work before. As Hajdu began to realize the tremendous influence that comic books had over pop culture in the years immediately following the Second World War, he saw the censorship battle waged over the content of crime and horror stories as a key factor in the “paranoid temper” of the '50s. The resulting cultural purge forced hundreds of writers and artists out of the comics industry. To imagine the scale of this transformation, picture a world where Hollywood's blacklisted screenwriters never worked in movies again, not even under pseudonyms, or where the early furor over rock and roll had been able to nip the musical revolution in the bud.

That isn't to say that Hajdu is uncritically enthusiastic about the gore and violence that filled comic books during the period, or their influence on other creative artists over the decades. The debate over comics sounds a lot like the contemporary arguments about video game violence. “When I see Grand Theft Auto or horror movies like Hostel 2,” Hajdu admits, “I think the youth culture today is not entirely a good one.... I am concerned at how slow this country was to respond to the horrors of Iraq, like Abu Ghraib. We cannot become inured to the effects of violence.”

For his next book, Hajdu is ready to return to music. He's contemplating an essay collection, but his heart is most set on “another musician named Billy from Pittsburgh,” as he jokingly refers to Billy Eckstine—the challenge this time to do a much shorter book than he's ever written before, “an exercise in distillation.” He's looking forward to it not being easy. “If you look at my calendar,” he confesses, “the first day of any new writing project always says 'Stare at the screen and cry.' So then, at the end of the day, when that's what I've done, I can call it a success.”

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Ron Hogan is the creator of the literary Web site