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Welcome to another edition of “Back Issues”, the weekly column where I examine a character, concept or theme making waves in comics today through issues from the past. This week, I’m going to look at the amazing legacy of EC Comics….wait, someone’s coming in the room……oh, good lord, it’s horrible! Put down the axe!…gurgle, choke, bleghhh……
Good evening, my dearest fiends! I’m Capeless Crusader’s resident “Dead”-itor in Chief, the Grave Digger!! Jeremy’s taking a little “break” from the typewriter this week, but in honor of Halloween I’m stepping in to take you by the hand and lead you through some of the greatest tales of fright and terror to ever appear in comics. In the 1950s, EC Comics was the home of blood-red rags of fright, packed to overflowing with bloodcurdling tales designed to nauseate the stomach, tingle the spine and baffle the mind. So, my fellow scare-lovers, make sure you’re sitting comfortably, ignore whatever’s in the shadows, and keep repeating to yourself, “it’s only a comic, it’s only a comic” as we traipse through terror with a few of the best of EC Comics.
And don’t worry about dear old Jeremy, he’ll be back….as soon as they find all the pieces! Heh, heh, heh!
Rising From the Dead
In the early 1950s, following the death of owner and founder Max Gaines, son Bill Gaines took over the running of EC Comics. Bill had a hankering for horror and suspense, and wanted to push his funny books into more dangerous territory. Alongside his editors Al Feldstein and Harvey Kurtzman, they developed a house style that would be drawn heavily from the creepy radio programs and horror and science fiction pulps they grew up reading, combined with ironic O Henry twist endings and some social commentary. And Gaines and Co wanted their horror, crime and science fiction tales to be decidedly adult and graphic.
As one of the few publishers that took the improvement of the comics medium seriously at the time, EC soon attracted maybe the best stable of artists of the era. Johnny Craig, Wally Wood, Jack Davis, Reed Crandall and George Evans were just some of the names that made EC’s output among the most visually exciting and innovative of the post-war years. The scripts were all initially provided by a mixture of Gaines, Kurtzman and Feldstein, and they often nakedly showed their influences. They liberally “borrowed” from notable writers such as Robert Bloch and most notably Ray Bradbury, who started off irritated at his work being ripped off but found a way to arrive at a friendly solution with EC that allowed them officially adapt his work. Soon, the writing was also augmented by contributions from Johnny Craig, as well as other professionals such as Otto Binder and Jack Oleck.
Each of EC’s horror titles would be hosted by a ghoulish and wise-cracking character that would introduce each tale with an assortment of puns and word-play. Though the Vault-Keeper (from “The Vault of Horror”), the Crypt-Keeper (from “Tales from the Crypt”) and the Old Witch (from “The Haunt of Fear”) are basically interchangeable, EC fans got a kick out of their morbid jokes and the publisher often had then appear in each other’s titles to play up their rivalry.
But things didn’t end so well for EC’s horror line, as the mid-50s crackdown on comic books focused much of its vitriol and ire on EC, which it saw as the worst offender in the comic book industry’s assault on public decency and the youth of America. Forced to clean up its act, EC’s de-fanged horror line didn’t really survive. Instead, it put its energies into its humor line, the star title being some little book called “Mad Magazine.” Wonder if anything happened with that book?
“Daddy Lost His Head” (Vault of Horror #19)
Based on Robert Bloch’s “Sweets to the Sweet”, “Daddy Lost His Head” tells the tale of an abused little girl named Kathy who is plagued by a brutal and uncaring step-father who viciously mistreats her. After showing us how despicable this guy is, Kathy’s mom soon passes away, leaving her at the mercy of the cad. But Kathy has an ally in the next door neighbour, an enigmatic old lady named Mrs. Thaumaturge. The woman gives Kathy a gift in the form of a candy doll in the shape of a man which she claims to have made herself. Initially, Kathy swears never to eat the present, but after being starved by her step-father, she bites the arm off while he is working in his shed. Her step-dad, of course, has cut off his own arm.
The dad has now grown suspicious, not just of Kathy but the neighbour as well, and he confronts Kathy in a rage. He tells her the doll is evil, and to prove it’s harmless and just candy, Kathy bites the doll’s head off.
Written most likely by Al Feldstein, with great art by Jack Kamen, this issue showcases EC’s willingness to get grimy and utilize extremely dark subject matter in an unflinching way to serve as the backdrop for a supernatural tale. The step-father in the tale is a nasty piece of work, and there’s really little in the way of suggestion about how bad his abusive behaviour is. The positioning of a supernatural or horrific reckoning is a hallmark of the publisher, a method of creating characters who earn their grisly fates. It’s kind of a combination of the fatalism of film noir with the grisliness of horror.
“Bedtime Gory” & “Black Ferris” (The Haunt of Fear #18)
This issue features two great examples of the EC style. First, with “Bedtime Gory” you get a variation on the EC classic of the unspeakable cad/criminal who earns a fate worse than death. The callous Milton marries an heiress to gain access to her fortune, and then proceeds to become more vile at every opportunity as he murders his father-in-law and subsequently blackmails or ruins other shareholders in the man’s corporation so that Milton can obtain a controlling share in the company. After revealing to his long-suffering wife that he never loved her and only married her to further his ambition, he goes to bed in the brand new four poster bed she just bought for him.
But Milton awakens to a shock as it turns out his wife has chained his hands and legs to the four posts, and that the bed is in fact a rack. As his wife enacts her revenge, the caption reads: “And then, Milton felt the tendons tearing, the muscles snapping, the veins and arteries bursting and hemorrhaging.” So, lots of good long words for the kids to look up.
“Bedtime Story” also illustrates a problem EC had in its depiction of women. They were often either hapless victims or vengeful castrating shrews. Somehow, this story manages to feature both options in the same character of Lorna. It doesn’t bother me as much here, however, since Milton is such an unconscionable prick that Lorna is clearly the hero of the story. As with most EC stories, the scripter’s identity is up for debate, but the art by George Evans is again top notch, exemplifying the rich detail and impeccable atmosphere that made EC such an incredible artistic force in the early 1950s.
“The Black Ferris” meanwhile deserves special consideration as one of the stories adapted from and credited to, Ray Bradbury. As befitting a story adapted from one of the great writers of the mid-century, the story is remarkably dense and complex for an EC tale. It tells the story of two boys who discover a strange Ferris Wheel while at a creepy traveling carnival. The wheel takes riders either forward or backwards in time. When they witness a man try to take criminal advantage of this phenomenon they try to stop him or alert others, though of course no one believes them. The story’s climax finds the boys succeeding in stranding the man on the Wheel as it spins forward. Once it stops, everyone is shocked to discover, sitting in the seat, a desiccated skeleton, still clutching the man’s ill-gotten gains. “The Black Ferris” still has the hallmarks of an EC tale, including the twist ending, but it also features much of Bradbury’s fascinations as well, notably better explored in “Something Wicked This Way Comes.” The art chores on this tale were handled ably by the great Jack Davis, though the sheer bulk of text included does kind of overwhelm his work.
“Foul Play” (The Haunt of Fear #19)
This story from the subsequent issue would turn out to be a much better showcase for Jack Davis, demonstrating his fine detail work, as well as his skill at merging the macabre with the blackly comic. This particular story is widely regarded as one of EC’s best, a short and efficient masterpiece that combines all of the qualities that made their horror comics so memorable. And as it was used against the company during the government hearings into the industry, it is perhaps EC’s most infamous single story.
Written by Al Feldstein, “Foul Play” feels the tale of a strange midnight baseball game in Central City. Flashing back, we’re told of a tense bush-league pennant race between two teams. When Bayville’s star pitcher Herbie Satten is up to bat, and he gets on base by leaning into a pitch to deliberately take the hit. Satten then recklessly tires to steal second, spiking Central City’s star second baseman Phil Brady. Though called out, Satten’s dirty slide cuts into Brady’s leg, and midway through the game, Brady drops dead.
Central’s team Doctor uncovers that Satten had coated his spikes in poison, intending to murder Phil Brady. The team vows to exact revenge, and one night they call Satten out from Bayville to the Central city ballpark for that midnight game from the opening scene. I could describe it to you, but instead let’s let Feldstein and Davis work their magic:
What makes “Foul Play” such a classic isn’t just its admittedly grotesque and disturbing imagery (though Davis somehow manages to make the images both disgusting and beautiful and classy), it’s also the sense of humor to the piece. It’s gruesome, but it’s warm and fun. And there’s a wit present that mitigates the gross aspects. It skates right up to, and possibly over, the line of good taste, but there’s definitely an artistry there. I can see why it horrified legislators of the Eisenhower era, and it no doubt played its part in creating the Comics Code Authority. But “Foul Play” is also an amazing piece of storytelling.
“The Handler” (Tales from the Crypt #36)
Another Ray Bradbury adaptation, this is a story that has grown possibly more interesting as time has gone on. “The Handler” is about a small-town mortician who appears to his fellow citizens to be a quiet man, a trifle cold, certainly unflappable. He takes the jibes and jests of everyone in town, mostly about his profession and clientele.
But when he sets to work in his mortuary, Mr. Benedict becomes something much more. Using his position, he sets about addressing the slights and faults of his clients, and proceeds to violate their bodies. He injects a notorious racist with black ink, he replaces the contents of a glutton’s skull with finely decorated cake, he buries a collection of gossips in a single coffin, and refuses to bury a lawyer at all, choosing instead to cremate him and replace his body with the corpse of a pole-cat. But when he discovers his next client is still alive, Benedict decides to take the next step and murder the old man, but not before the man is able to cast a curse asking all the corpses to rise and take the revenge upon the man who had desecrated their bodies. The next day, the townspeople discover the mortuary to be empty, save for a tremendous amount of blood spattered everywhere. The graveyard however, told a more complete story. A variety of tombstones all bore the name of Mr. Benedict, almost as if he’d been torn asunder and buried in countless plots…
Once again, Bradbury provides a more interesting complex story for EC. There is perhaps, more sympathy for Mr. Benedict’s desire to expose the hypocrisy of his fellow citizens now than the time the story was created. Certainly it doesn’t excuse the desecration that follows, but who hasn’t wanted to expose hypocrisy and mendacity, and in that way, we share a little bit of Benedict’s contempt and perhaps uncomfortably smile wily at the somewhat clever redresses he devises.
The art by Graham Ingels is, like the work of his fellows at EC, just superb, wth lots of fine details and a real heightened tone rich in expression. Look at the work of any EC Comic of the period and compare it to even work being done at top publishers like DC Comics, and there’s just no comparison. EC constantly pushed the boundaries.
“The October Game” (Shock SuspenStories #9)
Unlike the other anthology series published by EC, the titles bearing the “SuspenStories” banner weren’t out and out horror titles. These stories focused on dark and noir tales of Crime or Suspense, without a corny wise-cracking horror host. Each issue featured stories that purported to spring from a different genre, such as horror, crime, noir, science-fiction, etc. But mostly, these were horror tales, and “The October Game” is no exception. And it’s timely, given our current time of year.
Once again, EC turns to the author they most often ripped off and later gratefully adapted, Ray Bradbury. The tale is among the darkest of all of EC’s horror tales, in that its revolves around that classic Halloween game in which kids in a dark room put their hands in bowls of various foods and other innocuous materials and are told they are the body parts of a witch. Peeled grapes for the witch’s eyes, for example. But Bradbury and EC tell a truly monstrous tale of a madman who, in an act of hatred against his wife, murders and dismembers his own young daughter to use in the game. It’s an example of how EC crossed the line into the genuinely horrific during a time when comics were seen, by and large, as something that was almost exclusively the domain of children. In the modern day, comics have often depicted things just as horrific and more so, but in 1953, a story like “The October Game” was genuinely subversive. And when under investigation it’s hard to see how Bill Gaines could really justify a story in which a man murders and dismember this daughter for the enjoyment of party-goers. Not in an era when comics were seen as kid’s stuff. This is a story that would be dark and unsettling today, and as such, t’s kind of shocking both that they somehow got away with it and that hey do it as tastefully and effectively as they do. That has to be down to the art by Jack Kamen, which is a wonderful exercise in atmospheric restraint and faith in the reader’s imagination.
There are countless other EC Comics stories that deserve some attention, these are just a few of my favourites. There’s a tendency to regard them as quaint examples of horror from a simpler time, and in some cases that’s very accurate. But EC Comics pushed the boundaries in art and in content in such bold and innovative ways that any comic book fan would be missing out if they didn’t at least dip their toe into the waters. There are many ways to get a hold of reprints and collected editions of the classic EC Comics, and I heartily recommend looking into them. On a sadder front, EC represents one of the most egregious and disappointing examples of American censorship in the 20th Century. In the 1950s, perhaps no other American publisher was doing more to advance the comic book medium than EC. Their work genuinely seemed to see overt pushing of the boundaries as a goal, and after the company stopped doing its horror work, American comics lost a great deal. It may not have been pretty, but it was among the most innovative and socially conscious work in American comics, and practiced by artists whose like we never saw again.
And with that, another yelp-yarn reaches its end! As Capeless’s Grave-Digger, I’ll offer this warning to any who are still brave enough to be with us; keep the blood boiling in the cauldron, the lamp well lit, and if you hear a knock at your door late this Halloween night, keep the latch bolted tight. We’ll see you soon in our next Vault of Terror! It’s in the back, right past the quarter bins!