Mar 28, 2012

Reclaiming History: EC Comics and the New Trend


Welcome to a new installment of Reclaiming History, an ongoing series where the Comics Cube! tries to balance out what the history books say and what actually happened! Click here for the archive!

This installment may be unusual in the sense that I'm not actually "reclaiming" history. I found this paper I wrote in university about EC Comics, and I wanted to share it with you. It's slightly revised, because, well, I write better now. But the content is pretty much the same. So without further ado...

If there was no point to being offensive (as with a high number of comedians who frequent the average working men's club), then the perpetrator will either be squeezed out of business or be relegated to working in bottom-of-the-heap sleaze pits where nothing more than vulgarity is demanded. Alternately, if there was some integrity behind all the outrage, the perpetrators become persecuted legends with a fanatical cult following and generally exercise tremendous influence upon the artists that come after them. In comedy, Lenny Bruce is an example. In music, perhaps the Sex Pistols. In comic books, EC would fit the bill.

-Alan Moore, WRITING FOR COMICS

The year 1946 saw the founding of Educational Comics, a small company publishing exactly what they claimed to be, giving life to Bible stories and patriotic American history in the medium of comics.



When William Gaines inherited the company from his prematurely deceased father, Max, he realized that these were not the type of material that flew off the stands and therefore did more work to emphasize their crime, western, and science fiction comics. With freelance artist Al Feldstein, he restructured EC Comics, renamed it Entertaining Comics, and used the medium to express their mutual love for the radio thrillers of the time. This would inspire what became known as the "New Trend" in comics, as pioneered by EC. Gone were the educational books. The science fiction books were made to be darker, with titles such as WEIRD FANTASY and WEIRD SCIENCE. The pre–New Trend crime books were disposed of to make room for darker, grittier interpretations of the genre. And, most importantly of all, horror, which was the backbone of EC, became legendary, and is even known in the comics industry as a martyr of the public crusade against the penny dreadful in 1954–55.



However, EC was hardly the only publisher of these genres, nor were they even the first. Horror, crime, and suspense stories were spanning the whole industry. Even Timely Comics, which would later become the juggernaut that is Marvel Comics, was guilty. Why was EC Comics the lynchpin of the Senate's argument that comics were bad for children? Why do the more experienced comics readers, and, more importantly, the writers and artists working in the industry look upon EC with fondness? How is this imprint still so influential, so widely imitated by the creators after all these years? How did EC Comics, with such a small line of titles, a limited number of stock characters, artists who produced such a miniscule amount of work, and a run that only lasted half a decade, make such a big impact which influences and inspires many artists working in the field today?



Perhaps they were influential because they pushed the boundaries of the medium. Perhaps they made an impact because their storytelling style was unorthodox. Perhaps artists and writers remember the imprint fondly due to the quality of their talent. And, while they may not have been the only company producing stories in the same genre, perhaps they were singled out simply because they were the best at what they did, because they explored the capabilities of the medium and the genre, at the same time commenting on the world around them.

Like most companies, probably the first thing that comes to mind when EC is mentioned is the triumvirate of characters that carried the company. Ask a young child in the 1950s what he thought of when the words "DC Comics" are mentioned, and he would probably say "Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman," the only three surviving successful superheroes of the time, but still the iconic flagships of the company. Ask a young child in the 1950s what he associated with Timely or Atlas Comics, and it is likely that he will say "Captain America, the Sub-Mariner, and the Human Torch," whose popularity had taken serious blows by the end of the 1940s, but were being subjected to a series of revamps by the company because they were the flagships of Timely. The same young child would also say, "Captain Marvel, Mary Marvel, and Captain Marvel, Jr.," to the words "Fawcett Comics." In response to the same question, with EC Comics as the subject, the answer would also be a triumvirate of icons, albeit of very different natures: The Crypt-Keeper, The Old Witch, and The Vault-Keeper.

Top to bottom:
The Crypt-Keeper, The Old Witch,
and The Vault-Keeper.


Inspired by the Gaines and Feldstein's favorite horror serials on the radio of the time, they were collectively known as the GhouLunatics, and they served as framing devices and/or narrators for most of EC's bestselling titles. From the names of the characters alone, it is obvious that EC stood out. While other companies were associated with more or less inoffensive characters palatable to children, as they were meant to be role models for children, such as the aforementioned examples, or harmless and whimsical fun, such as Dell/Gold Key, which published comics based on licensed Disney projects, EC's flagship characters were gruesome. The three of them did not wear costumes or the traditional campy attire associated with most comics but robes that called into mind monks and wizards of the old ages. The Old Witch and the Vault-Keeper wore hoods and carried walking sticks, which, in their own fashion, were reminiscent of the traditional renditions of the embodiment of Death, with a black robe, a hood, and a scythe. Feldstein and Gaines probably realized that familiarity bred contempt, especially in the horror community, and, thus, instead of being depicted as sentient skeletons, the GhouLunatics wore long, white hair, signifying inhuman age. Each of them had slender hands with matching fingernails, making their appendages resemble claws, or even the hand of the skeleton whose image they so closely reflected. Their faces were also narrow and slender, with defined cheekbones that made their smiles look sincerely sinister. The Crypt-Keeper looked at the reader with huge, bulging eyes, accentuated with thick eyebrows, as if they had not been closed for years. The Vault-Keeper's eyes, on the other hand, had a narrower face and smaller eyes, which made him look all the more evil. However, it is the Old Witch that was the most dreadful, as she had the most slender of their faces, with the most menacing of smiles, more angular than the others', and whose eyes were mismatched; one was huge and seemed to be popping out of its socket, while the other one seemed to be perpetually closed with only a hint of the white. Having stock characters function as narrators help give the readers emotional, or at least, sentimental investments in the stories, just as with Superman and Captain America. However, their function as marginal players prevented them from getting the baggage of continuity that the other companies carried around with them. Certainly, EC Comics were bought for their quality, but it was the GhouLunatics who functioned as the hook.

Despite the gruesome nature of the GhouLunatics, they actually served as the voice of the reader. As the narrators of the stories they told, they actually had to be likable to the readers in order to be able to carry the company. For example, in the middle of narrating a story where a character named Henry Burgundy murders an innocent man, Abner, the Old Witch says, "Don't worry! I'm as mad as you are! We won't let (Burgundy) get away with it..."

This scan (and others) comes from
an old edition of Alan McKenzie's
HOW TO DRAW AND SELL COMIC STRIPS
FOR NEWSPAPERS AND COMIC BOOKS
.
It's a good book. Check it out.

In this way, the GhouLunatics were relatable enough to be likable. Their sense of morals (and, in effect, EC's sense of morals) did not differ much from the readers', but they had no knowledge of the real world, which gave them a sense of dark humor. When Henry Burgundy finds his son's heart in a neatly-tied package, the Old Witch says happily, "Don't look so shocked! That's what you send on St. Valentine's Day, isn't it? Hearts? Wha...? Not real ones?"



Such dark humor was another of EC's specialties. Puns were favored tools of Feldstein, who wrote all the GhouLunatics' dialogue, most notably to end their stories. For example, as John Michlig points out, "after a story which culminates in a comeuppance-by-deep-frying, The Old Witch remarks, 'Heh, heh! And now my tale is done, kiddies! Well done! I hope it's left you with a ravishing appetite!'" Clearly, subtlety was not one of Feldstein's tools, and when it came to depicting violence, subtlety was, at best, such as when Harvey Kurtzman was at the helm, hidden to the point that the core audience of EC would not even comprehend it, and, at worst, nonexistent.

Calling EC Comics "graphic" was an understatement. In the confines of their pages, everything was fair game. Zombies, werewolves, and other familiar creatures of horror were drawn with realistic detail by such great talent as the great Wallace Wood and the late Johnny Craig. Renditions of human hearts tied up in packages and lynchings were not sugarcoated; they were shown from the angles necessary. Kurtzman's war comics did not depict Asians as buck-toothed, fanged yellow demons, but showed them as real people, who looked, for lack of a better description, Asian.  Covers, which typically show only a taste of what lay inside the magazine, would show a piece of whittled wood about to be hammered into a man's heart as he lays in a coffin, indicating vampirism (TALES FROM THE CRYPT 42), and then two months later show the blatant beheading of a man at the hands of an iron maiden (TALES FROM THE CRYPT 44).



Stories can involve plot devices as clichéd as zombies and werewolves, or come up with something slightly more disturbing, as focusing on a man who collects dead bodies, paying as much as the condition of the body is good.



In comparison to other companies, EC was highly irreverent. They were bound only by the wishes and visions of their creators and publisher, which may, or may not, have been in good taste. However, no one could deny that EC's books were well drawn, and, in comparison to practically everything else being published at the time, no one could deny that EC's books were the best written. (Certainly, the sales figures reflected that as well, as the aforementioned Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman were the only titles staying afloat for any extended period of time.)

EC's line-up had three horror titles: TALES FROM THE CRYPT, TALES FROM THE CRYPT, and THE HAUNT OF FEAR. They applied the same techniques to other genres, in books such as WEIRD SCIENCE, WEIRD FANTASY, SHOCK SUSPENSTORIES, and CRIME SUSPENSTORIES. The latter two were genres that EC had published before, but this time, they were more graphic, better written, and more relevant. The talent they had on the books was highly skilled. Each artist drew in their own idioms, and few similarities can be found among them. One such similarity is that each of them had a meticulous eye for detail. The most evident of this is not a horror or suspense title at all, but Harvey Kurtzman's TALES CALCULATED TO DRIVE YOU MAD, a title which specialized in satire and parody for the sake of humor, but was in no way less horrific or cruel than any of EC's other titles. Kurtzman specialized in putting sight gags into every panel, even starting a joke that he was running on a hundred gags per panel. While none of the other writers and artists proved to be as creative as Kurtzman (one of comics' most prestigious awards, the Harvey, is named after him, and I named him the most influential comics writer of all time. I'd go so far as to call him the most influential comics personality ever.), they were almost as skilled as he was in terms of technical execution. Wallace Wood, Johnny Craig, Graham Ingels, and the others were very skilled at drawing realistically enough to place the reader in the middle of the story, while applying only a small measure of cartooning, in order to keep the flow from panel to panel smooth and steady. Another similarity these artists had was a complete control of mood. Each and every one of the artists involve could convey mood based on layout, shadow, and attention to detail. With few exceptions, such as the legendary Will Eisner and the late Carl Barks, comics penciling was rarely seen as an art so much as a business endeavor, and thus, all that mattered to most comics artists was telling the story as quickly and efficiently as possible, with the standards not being very high. While such greats as Eisner and Barks showed that comics art could be products of quality, EC Comics made "quality" the closest thing they had to a house style when there was none. As The Quarter Bin put it:

Beyond a tendency towards a heavy and melodramatic use of blacks in their panels, one does not make large connections between...Elder and Wood. But EC seemed to cultivate certain traits... one can examine the work of Elder and Wood and see a fascination with embedded detail. One can see certain cinematic techniques, similarly, in their styles... panels that utilize the dual-lighting approach to shading from each artist, though typically we associate this with Wally Wood because he did it so well and so often. Perhaps we should see as the one common angle in artists presenting pages in EC books a lack of complacency; no one seemed to dare to coast in this shop, and the pages resonate with the effort that went into them.

Indeed, EC's artists settled for nothing but the best of all possible final products. Johnny Craig, for example, was a slow artist, as he had never had any formal training, and refused to submit anything to Gaines that he deemed was not of the highest quality. While the taste of these artists may be in question, no one can say that their work was substandard. Through the body language and expressions in the faces of their characters, through the clear storytelling and the attention to detail and the heavy blacks and shadows used by these artists, through the realism of the figures, and through the sheer talent that these artists possessed, the EC Comics stole the spotlight from anything else on the newsstands.

Quality was the house style, and no one from the industry, creator or fan, was arguing. DC Comics chose to ride off of the success of EC and began to publish horror titles, such as HOUSE OF MYSTERY and THE PHANTOM STRANGER. However, since it was DC's policy not to offend any readers, these titles were tame horror titles and did not live up to any sort of standard. To Timely Comics' credit, they did not try to jump on the EC bandwagon, and, instead, chose to explore genres other than the superhero. However, this may have been because they had already jumped on the horror bandwagon before the New Trend hit its stride, going so far as to convert their beloved CAPTAIN AMERICA COMICS into CAPTAIN AMERICA'S WEIRD TALES, which failed so miserably that Captain America was not even in the final issue. Even if it had succeeded in the short run, it was not doubtful that EC's horror titles would wipe it out of business eventually anyway, as EC simply took more risks.

This was not limited to horror comics. Crime and suspense comics, the trend of which was started by Lev Gleason's CRIME DOES NOT PAY, was also widely spreading throughout the industry. However, again, it was CRIME SUSPENSTORIES and SHOCK SUSPENSTORIES that gained the most attention. In fact, it was CRIME SUSPENSTORIES that specifically got targeted by the US Senate in the 1954 hearings, when the cover to the 22nd issue, drawn by Johnny Craig, was called to the Senate's interest. Comics, in general, and EC, in particular, gained notoriety for this famous exchange:


Senator Kefauver: Here is your May 22 issue. This seems to be a man with a bloody ax holding a woman's head up which has been severed from her body. Do you think that's in good taste?

Mr. Gaines: Yes, sir. I do… for the cover of a horror comic. A cover in bad taste, for example, might be defined as holding the head a little higher so that the neck could be seen dripping blood from it and moving the body over a little further so that the neck of the body could be seen to be bloody.

Senator Kefauver: You have blood coming out of her mouth.

Mr. Gaines: A little.

That this particular cover was the one used to topple EC Comics is telling, as a quick perusal through EC's covers shows that CRIME SUSPENSTORIES #22 was nowhere near being either the most offensive or graphic of all the covers. In itself, that is a testament to just how far Gaines and company had effectively pushed the envelope. Another testament to their fearlessness caught the attention of Stephen King: in the time that they were being almost the most graphic entertainment company imaginable, society was just getting off the coattails of World War II, and the most gruesome act of violence imaginable: The Holocaust. The irreverence of the company is shown by the fact that they had the gall to print such violent fiction and pass it off as entertainment after such nightmares.

EC also published TWO-FISTED TALES and FRONTLINE COMBAT, which are the only two war comics of the time that are remembered with great fondness today. They also tried their hand at a periodical called PIRACY, which, as the title suggests, was about pirates. Although the title did not flourish as it was started at the tail end of the New Trend, it showcased EC's willingness to play with different genres. Perhaps, if EC had survived, the comics industry would not be monopolized by the superhero genre. While no sleight against the superhero genre is made, EC proved that a company can thrive without them.

Aside from the incredible artwork and the variety of genres, EC had many aspects that distinguished them from the competition. One of the most distinctive techniques they used, ironically enough, was to the most overlooked art in comics: lettering. EC's lettering was typeset as opposed to handwritten. Furthermore, the lettering would come before the art, making sure that the art would not compromise the prose that was scripted originally for the comic. Where lesser artists would have just drawn floating heads next to the bubbles or static figures under the narrative captions, EC's artistic stable turned what would normally be a hindrance into a tool, and still packed each panel with as much detail as possible. EC stories were much wordier than other pulps of the time, and, in cases where the prose took up a substantial amount of panel space, it provided, either intentionally or unintentionally, a well-received claustrophobic feel that only the combination of EC's artists and letterers could give.

The unorthodox approach to lettering implied an emphasis on story over art, which was not unfounded. It was important to Gaines and Feldstein that they had good stories for their artists to draw. Although the stories were formulaic, EC popularized the twist endings that became the trend for crime and horror. With seven main books (excluding MAD, which was almost exclusively in the hands of Harvey Kurtzman), Feldstein and Gaines needed to come up with an average of a story per day. At times, they would draw inspiration from books they had read and radio shows they had tuned into. At times, they would come close to plagiarizing. Gaines admitted, "We swiped a few (Ray) Bradbury stories, and he caught us, but he was a real gentleman and wrote us a very nice letter suggesting that we had forgotten to pay him his royalty." Before long, stories based on Bradbury's would explicitly credit him on the cover.

Because the only solid link between all the stories EC had told were the GhouLunatics, who only functioned as narrators, it was important that each EC story was capable of standing on its own two feet, based on their own merits, and not based on any of the stories told in the same title previously or any that would be told afterwards. Again, from The Quarter Bin: "As with the art, so with the writing; though often working from a kind of storytelling formula, each separate tale had to work on its own merits... one does not see slacking or coasting in works with the EC label."

In my personal opinion, ideas do not matter as much as execution, and, despite EC's lack of originality at times, the craftsmanship with which they worked their stories were not anything less than stellar. The combination of the artwork with the professional lettering certainly looked better in comparison to other comics of the time. To create a greater feeling of dread in their stories, periods were used scarcely, as exclamation points were favored. (It's also possible that this has something to do with the production qualities of the time. Other companies favored exclamation points because periods would sometimes not show up in postproduction.) The readers were not passive, and were brought into the story by the narration, which, more often than not, was in first-person singular:



This made the mood more ominous, which corresponded well with the moody artwork. The GhouLunatics would also speak directly to the readers, and the most inspired of these interactions would come when the stories were deemed to be getting too intense, and The Old Witch, for example, would tell the readers not to flip to the end, reassuring them that everything would work out in the end.



The assurance that the story would serve poetic justice in the end was part of the EC formula. Though often seen as a criticism, being formulaic did not have to be one, and "while EC stories could still be as formulaic as other books, they rarely seemed tossed off or condescending." The writers wrote to their own level, thereby creating a product palatable enough for teenagers and adults like themselves. The graphic nature of their stories, coupled with a desire to stick to a moral code, made it so that the end of each story had to hand the villain of the piece his or her comeuppance. Michlig says, "The basic EC story formula relied on elemental moral tenants of good and evil. Although virtue didn't always come out on top, the truly bad characters in any given story got what was coming to them in one perverse way or another."


A general EC story would have the protagonist wronged, often by one close to him, only to come back and exact vengeance. Irony was a trademark, and the villains of the stories would fall in the very end to their own devices. If one were an arsonist, he would die in a fire. A gluttonous king who starved his people got grounded up into sausage links at the end of his story. A cold-hearted businessman loses his life when an ice pick stabs his heart. Definitely, what Feldstein and friends lacked in subtlety and subtext, they made up for in other literary and artistic techniques; as demonstrated, for example, irony would always play a part in EC stories.

Unlike other writers and artists at the time, the EC stable clearly saw their work as more than a way to make fast cash, and Gaines knew it, and credited each writer and artist, breaking common practice of the time. Almost every reader knew the names of those who drew and wrote their favorite strips, and almost every member of the stable of creators they had, from Jack Davis to Will Elder, would, eventually, be the names of legend in the creative community.

EC's horror titles would outsell other companies' books, from any genre ranging from romance to the funny animals, including the superhero. Young boys flocked to it like wildfire, and would gladly trade three Supermans for anything with a corpse on the cover. Fan reaction was so huge that, by 1953, the EC Fan-Addict Club had such a large roster and its own newsletter. Because of Gaines and Feldstein's desire to interact with their fans, as shown by the GhouLunatics' tendency to speak directly to the readers, EC Comics started the first letter columns, wherein fans could write in and express their opinions. These, of course, were also hosted by the GhouLunatics.

The letter column of SHOCK SUSPENSTORIES, in particular, was the setting of much controversy. When Gaines published a story entitled "In Gratitude" within the 11th issue, it delineated the hypocrisy of a nation that claimed to champion freedom and equality but discriminates amongst its own people on the basis of color. The protagonist of the story wished to have the G.I. who saved his life be buried in his family plot, but his parents would not allow it, on the grounds that the man was black, and has him buried in a segregated cemetery instead. The protagonist reminded all that the grenade that killed his savior discriminated not on the basis of color and proceeded to tell the town that he was ashamed of them, and, furthermore, ashamed for them.



According to Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America, written by Bradford W. Wright, the story caused so much controversy that the letter column of the next issue published a letter from a member of the Armed Forces, who said, "I'd like the person who wrote (the story) to sleep, eat, and live with blacks or niggers… I would not care to have a nigger eat at the same table with me, or anybody else with self-respect…"  This, in turn, provoked another letter from another sergeant (who claimed to be) at the same base, insisting that the first letter was misinformed and there was no racial segregation at the base. Another sergeant wrote that some of the best men in his platoon were "Negroes." For a short while, the letter columns of SHOCK SUSPENSTORIES was the only forum for debate about the issue, not just in comics, but also in all of popular entertainment.

This is the largest piece in the EC puzzle. Not only did these magazines showcase great artwork, professional lettering, adult prose, sinister stories with a moral code to keep them in check, and a triumvirate of characters to keep coming back for, but these stories also had, ingrained within them, the need for social and political commentary, which they took full advantage of. The worlds that the EC stories took place in may have had the walking dead, wolf men, vampires, and aliens, but they proved to be more realistic than any of the other comics out there. EC acknowledged that there were certain issues that did not have a clear-cut solution, such as problems with drugs, and they also acknowledged that, yes, bad things do happen to good people, and, a lot of the time, they pay as a result. EC acknowledged that, no, the world is not perfect, and yes, sometimes, things go bad. The ends of EC stories seem to be payoffs more for cathartic benefit than for any other reason, while the preceding acts of these stories depict the world that the writers see around them.

As opposed to traditional horror, EC instead offered, as John Springhall put it, "a domesticated version of horror, centred on the modern American family, invariably featuring mutual antipathy, hidden secrets, divorce, adultery, and violent impulses."  In this respect, as with many others, EC was challenging the status quo. For example, in a time when the "normal" American woman would be depicted in other media as an obedient and diligent housewife, tending to her husband's every need, EC would only show a woman tending to her husband's every need as a prelude to a murder. In their domesticated tales, EC was trying to locate horror in the American nuclear family, which was a cry for a more unified and sincere familial system.

Political commentary was tackled as well, and a favorite issue was race, as shown in "In Gratitude..." Even the science fiction stories in WEIRD FANTASY tackled the issue, such as in "Judgment Day", wherein an astronaut from the distant future visits a planet of robots to see if they could be admitted into the community of planets. When he sees the segregation between the high-class orange robots and the working-class blue robots, he realizes they are not advanced enough to be assimilated into the community. The story ends with the astronaut removing his helmet, revealing him to be a black man, with poetic first-person narration. He does not, however, leave the planet of robots without giving one of them a lecture about race: "Of course there's hope for you, my friend. For a while, on Earth, it looked like there was no hope! But when mankind on earth learned to live together, real progress first began. The universe was suddenly ours."



For his war comics, Harvey Kurtzman took a stand on the Cold War and possible courses of action. In the story "Kill," Kurtzman casually invites the readers to come and "watch the show." The story focuses on an American who pays much attention to his knife, in hopes that he may one day kill a Communist, and on a Communist who pays equal attention to his rifle, in hopes that he may one day slay an American. After much time spent on each character, they end up getting their wishes and killing each other, after which Kurtzman casually asks, "How do you like death, humanity?"

Corruption was another issue tackled by the EC stable, and EC was questioning the status quo before questioning the status quo was the trend. In "Confession", a police lieutenant's wife is murdered and found by an innocent motorist. The police arrest him, and subject him to a brutal interrogation, which forces the man to confess to the murder simply in order to save his own life. The end of the story shows the lieutenant cleaning his dead wife's blood off his car. Similarly, in "A Kind of Justice", a man is lynched for raping a teenage girl. However, in typical EC fashion, there is a twist ending: the rapist is actually the sheriff, who goes unpunished and commands the girl to be ready for him in the future.

While, by today's standards, some of these stories may seem preachy or even evangelistic, it is important to note that, in the 1950s, this was unprecedented: a public entertainment company was making a political stand, and they just happened to be a comics company. EC's edifying messages were more socially relevant than anything being put out by their competitors, most of whom had policies to, more or less, stay wholesome. Never was this more evident than years later, when acclaimed writer Alan Moore took over the writing chores of SUPREME. Supreme, in the hands of Moore and artist Rick Veitch, conceived as a cheap Superman knock-off, was quickly reinvented to be a metaphysical saga, wherein each character represented an already-established character, while each chapter represented a different period in comics history. In other words, it was a comic about comics, and in its fourth chapter, EC Comics is addressed. In the story, three beings known as the "Mayhe-Maniacs", composed of the Morgue Minder, the Old Hag, and the Tomb Tender, interact with superheroes of the 1940s on New Year's Eve of 1950, and take them to different realms.



The first realm drops the wholesome heroes into a nightmarish future America, wherein they fight aliens in the style of WEIRD FANTASY, only to find out eventually that these "aliens" were malformed humans changed by the effects of the atomic bomb. The Morgue Minder, who clearly stood in for the copyrighted Vaultkeeper, assured them that it was not America in the 1950s, but it is what America will be afraid of in the 1950s. Dejected, the heroes go home.



The second scenario takes the wholesome ones into an American suburb in the 1950s, where a story is told in the style of SHOCK SUSPENSTORIES and Rick Veitch does a good job of aping Johnny Craig. In it, the heroes discover a woman who plots to kill her husband, and run off to tell the authorities, only to find out that the police chief is the woman's lover. Thus, they go to find the woman's son, only to find him buying drugs and passing out on the street.



They go to find the woman's husband, only to find him as a member of the Ku Klux Klan, about to lynch an innocent man. While they stop the lynching, they realize that they were not cut out to fight social nightmares. The resulting dissonance between the two genres exposes the limits of the superhero genre and the strengths of EC Comics back then.

EC was not afraid to tackle a single issue. In the vein of their own black humor, even the most perverse of commentary was not off-limits. A nuclear holocaust leaves one sole male survivor, who scours the earth when he hears that there is also one female survivor, and he is eager to fulfill his duty as a modern-day Adam. However, when he finds the woman, he discovers that she is his sister, and the story ends there, leaving the end to the minds of the readers.

While the ethics of making such material available to children at such a low price on the newsstands are highly questionable, which is mostly the reason why EC Comics had to shut down a mere five years into their run, they were creatively skillful and a new generation of writers and artists, who wished to make comics more than just a children's medium, were highly influenced by EC Comics.

In the 1970s, when the Comics Code Authority was losing its teeth, DC Comics' HOUSE OF MYSTERY took a cue from EC Comics' old titles and made them darker in tone. Joe Orlando, who had worked for Gaines, would introduce the flair of EC Comics to the old guard. HOUSE OF MYSTERY and its sister title HOUSE OF SECRETSeventually acquired narrators, Cain and Abel, in an attempt to emulate the storytelling formula perfected two decades prior by Feldstein and company. For the short while that Cain was out of commission, he was replaced by a female narrator named Elvira, who also functioned as a narrator in her own horror show on television, and, based on their similar pale skin, black gown, and primary function, was clearly based on Drusilla, a female companion to the Vault-Keeper that Johnny Craig had created decades before.

One of EC Comics' most fervent followers, Berni Wrightson, became one of the most prominent horror artists of the 1970s to today, producing a massive amount of work for the genre, with such landmark achievements as being the artistic creator of Swamp Thing, and having the most offbeat run on The Punisher, which involved the normally street-level hero with demons and the hordes of hell. Wrightson's career can be seen almost purely as a love letter to the New Trend of EC Comics.

The influence of EC is not limited to the genres of horror and crime, but also in the techniques they used. When EC folded, the photo-realism seen in their work was not seen again until Neal Adams arrived on the scene in the late 1960s, and made waves big enough to inspire a whole generation all on his own. Later on in his career, he cited EC's artists as a definite influence.

Comics written by Garth Ennis almost read like a modern-day EC Comic. His acclaimed series PREACHER is chock-full of very graphic violence, which acts as the hook for the reader, but is also full of very real characters, social issues, and a religious debate at the core of it all. Like a modern day Kurtzman, Ennis released a series of serial publications called WAR STORIES, which were also very graphic, but, from all reviews, very realistic, not unlike FRONTLINE COMBAT and TWO-FISTED TALES.

Integrating social issues within the trappings of a horror story was EC's technique back in the 1950s, and when Alan Moore began the British invasion of comics in the 1980s, he applied this technique to Swamp Thing, a horror title he had been assigned by none other than Wrightson's co-creator, Len Wein. Moore took issues such as female oppression, segregation, and infidelity and applied them to the basic formulae of horror, hoping to find some traction for the old devices, and finding a way to keep them fresh. Moore, of course, later in his career, admitted to having been a fan of EC Comics when he was younger. Moore's masterpiece, WATCHMEN, was inspired directly by EC Comics, and used their technique to spot horrors and idiosyncrasies in society and applied it to both society and the superhero genre. Foremost among his influences was MAD MAGAZINE and Wally Wood and Harvey Kurtzman's attention to detail, which they would use in WATCHMEN, creating sight dramatics as opposed to sight gags.

It is highly ironic that for a company that was targeted by concerned parents, a worried doctor, and the US Senate, that the sole title that survived was TALES CALCULATED TO DRIVE YOU MAD, which was, in its own way, no less horrific than any of the other New Trend stomach-churners. In fact, it can be said that Mad was much worse than any of the horror or crime titles, because nothing in Mad ensured that things would work out in the end, unlike the other titles. For example, one Mad strip involved a man about to fry in the electric chair. At the last second, the warden enters the room, getting the prisoner's hopes high up, and asking him if there has been any word from the Governor. The warden hands him two electrical cables and tells him to hold them and leaves everyone confused. Once outside, it is revealed that the cables are attached to the Governor's car battery, and the warden screams to the guards to "Let 'er rip!"



Such satires as "Superduperman", which spoofed the lawsuit that was then taking place with Superman and Captain Marvel, showed happy endings for no one, and even included a scene where Captain Marvel's duplicate punches his own head, caving it in.



Perhaps most notable of all of Mad's satires was "Starchie," which spoofed "America's Most Typical Teenager," Archie Andrews, of Archie Comics fame, by showing the readers exactly what "America's Most Typical Teenager" would actually be like, running rackets and getting into fights with his parents.



The success of TALES CALCULATED TO DRIVE YOU MAD, and, later, Mad Magazine, is a testament to the marketability of cruelty and violence in media. Perhaps no genre is more violent than satire, and yet, it is the one genre from EC's New Trend that survived the witch hunt.

This does not mean that the rest of EC Comics just died on the spot. On the contrary, the horror stories have made several forays into other media. Tales from the Crypt had been adapted into several television shows, some of which were based on the actual comics stories, even being adapted into a series on HBO in 1989. The phrase "tales from the crypt" has become a household term, and the narrative technique has been used in several other television shows and comics.

Thus far, no one has prominently tried to emulate EC's style of typing the script onto the page prior to the artwork, but many have tried to emulate the artwork. Most horror stories involve the element of surprise that EC perfected, and EC is often cited by comics historians as the one company that could have saved the industry from the monopolization of the superhero genre, as well as the one company that, throughout its whole run, maintained a high standard of quality, even though it may have been marketed to the wrong audience.

As they integrated social and political issues into their formulaic stories, EC took a stand on certain topics, something that few other entrepreneurs of popular entertainment never would have done. With their creative stable of amazing talent and their professional approach to lettering, they crafted a product that, just at first glance, looked more amazing than anything else on the stands. After almost exactly fifty years since the New Trend of EC Comics — its own personal Golden Age — folded, EC Comics is fondly remembered as a martyr of the comic book wars, and its survival remains one of the comics community's biggest what-ifs. Such fond memories and speculation only befits the one company with which quality was the house style.

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4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Great article, something I've always wondered about though is whether the focus on EC in the hearings was more to do with their commentary than the actual graphicness of their work - as you've noted, they published a lot of fairly anti-police and government stories. Could highlighting corruption and undermining respect for institutions have been more of a factor in the senate's attacks than violence?

Duy Tano said...

That's an interesting angle on the whole thing and I can't comment conclusively about it, but I do find it difficult to reconcile that theory with the fact that comics actually won those senate hearings (and then regulated themselves afterwards).

Anonymous said...

Fair point, but the regulations were mainly laid out by Dell and the funny book publishers, who they didn't affect, and the Code tended to be fairly anti-progressive itself - the famous Judgement Day reprint where they objected to the protagonist being black for example.

Unknown said...

Great article! I've been arguing this for years. As for the Senate hearings, I actually think EC would probably not have been as much of a target as they were had it not been for William Gaines going to testify in the first place. See in the first place, the outrage was over all the various crime and horror comics in general, with no singling out of EC. Primarily it was their competitors who upped the ante on violence and gore to compete with EC. Gaines, out of concern for what government censorship would mean for the company, decided to testify before the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency. It was his taking a stand and the questions about that particular issue of Crime SuspenStories that really put the spotlight on EC and focused all the outrage about comics on him as opposed to the other companies. This dealt EC a fatal blow. If Gaines hadn't gone before the subcommittee, idk what would have happened. Maybe EC could have withstood the hearings with less of a spotlight. Maybe it would have caught up to EC. Its hard to say. But certainly people wouldn't be pointing to Gaines and that infamous query about the cover, which did a lot to form impressions of EC as careless purveyors of immoral gore among conservative-minded people. I can definitely say this though. I think EC would have diversified the field of mainstream comics had they survived past the mid 50's. Comic fanboys wouldn't be fixated just on superheroes. Maybe we could have avoided the Silver Age. The possibilities are endless.

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