Michael Barson caused a fuss at a dinner party recently. He was describing his new book, ”Better Dead Than Red!,” a satirical look at all the kitschy anticommunist junk produced during the Cold War years in America, and one of the guests was not amused: ”That was a horrible period. There really was danger and Communists. It’s no laughing matter,” she scolded.
It’s not that Barson doesn’t remember how scary it was to crawl under the desk at his Haverhill, Mass., grade school during an A-bomb drill. But, in retrospect, he thinks it’s a little scarier (as well as funny) to remember how far Americans went in fighting communism at home — arming themselves with everything from Sen. Joe McCarthy to bubble-gum cards bearing dire warnings about the Red menace.
Barson, 40, has a Ph.D. in American culture from Bowling Green State University in Ohio and a collection of magazines, posters, records, and other pop detritus that fills the third floor of the suburban New Jersey home he shares with his wife and two preschool sons. From that collection he has culled the makings of a line of cult-favorite postcard books, including Lost, Lonely & Vicious, from B-movie posters, and Boy Loves Girl, Girl Loves Boy, from romance comic books.
And now, with the publication of ”Better Dead Than Red!,” he’s tackling history. ”In histories in general, everything suffers from elitism,” he says. ”I’m not willing to concede that just because it’s junk it had less impact on the people living through those times, less impact than something like The New York Times or TIME magazine.” Just imagine, he says, the effect on a child in 1947 who came home from church clutching a giveaway copy of an apocalyptic comic book called Is This Tomorrow.
Undeterred by scolds and highbrows, Barson continues to pick through garage sales, attics, and warehouses, looking for stuff that is rarely acquired by libraries and yet shouldn’t be lost. ”Anything people in the United States spend time with, consume, use for entertainment, absorb is worthwhile,” he says. ”It’s the democracy of mass media.”