A Proud History Of Corrupting Youth: The Last Word On EC
I’ve looked at strange old comics a few times over the years (follow the hotlinks below), but thought I’d have one last look, precipitated by a new publication.
Comic books, that is the bound free-standing comic periodicals, were born in 1933 when Bill Gaines’s father looked at comic strips in newspapers and wondered if they’d sell separately. He worked for a printing company, so his idea was easy to try out. It’s pretty much a straight line from there to the production of the first Superman and Wonder Woman comics, minting cash all the way.
By the time Bill was involved in his dad’s business, traditional ten cent hero comics were plateauing, and Bill sought something fresh. EC Comics were Educational, like ‘Picture Stories from the Bible!’ (usually featuring sword and sandal violence) and Entertaining, like ‘Picture Stories from Science!’ (usually featuring test tube explosions). If it all felt like a sham, that piety was to fall away pretty sharpish when his SF and horror lines arrived.
There were plenty of other ‘four-color funnies‘ out there, but EC Comics employed a stable of extraordinary artists, and even one or two good writers. Their story is told in Taschen’s physically vast new book ‘The History of EC Comics’, the absolute last word on the subject, an unpickupable volume of unputdownable comics that caused a social panic, courtesy of frozen-faced Dr Fredric Wertham.
The American psychiatrist’s book ‘Seduction of the Innocent’ charged the creators of horror comics with causing juvenile delinquency. The more complex if unpalatable truth about delinquency being caused by new socio-economic factors bypassed the good doctor, who blamed tales of vampires and witches for small town biker rampages.
‘Gasp! Choke!’ The exclamation usually appeared in the last panel of an EC Comic. Wertham missed the fact that these were, by and large, morality tales in the good old Judeo-Christian tradition. The quality of EC encouraged better writers – some of Ray Bradbury’s best short stories were adapted for inclusion.
But covers and visual content soon ran into censorship problems with the news vendors, who were frightened of scaring off their customers. And some of the covers, particularly one featuring an axe through the skull and another with a bullet to the brain, caused great upset, if only after they had been pointed out to parents ready for something to be outraged about. The illustrations were intense rather than explicit, a tribute to the artist’s work.
Many of the stories relied on a tried and tested formula in which a henpecked or duplicitous character is hoist by their own petard, so if a meek housewife is endlessly criticised for not being tidy enough, you know she’ll go mad and tidy away her hubby into different labelled jars.
‘Tales from the Crypt’, ‘The Vault of Horror’ and ‘The Haunt of Fear’ were supplemented by romances. After the publicity-crazed Wertham initiated a nationwide social panic, a raft of tamer titles spelled the end of EC, including the deeply peculiar ‘Psychoanalysis‘.
The covers are curiously specific. Reading the one above I wonder, did Dave succumb to witchy Carmen or decide to settle for sweet Sally and her helicopter? Given the clear likelihood of the outcome, it’s a wonder the comic wasn’t called ‘Airborne Travel Romances’.
The horror tales by Jack Davis and ‘Ghastly’ Graham Engels were wonderfully predictable, the former specialising in shock reveals, the latter illustrating delirious gothic tales of villainous undertakers, looming castles and unsuspecting victims. Quite how cobwebbed panels of opened coffins could influence bikers is anyone’s guess. The comics were death-obsessed; one tale featured a young man whose only desire is to be entombed beside his dead parents. But the tales’ excess morbidity is always tempered by the camply baroque illustrations, which seem more like intertitles from Hammer horror films.
Why should we care? Why are reprint volumes still being produced? Because collectively the EC Comics represent a body of work that transcends the mundane. Their relentless emphasis on deceit and the romance of dying reminds one of Á Rebours, Poe or Guy de Maupassant. There’s a cloying, perfumed gothic excess that swamps the senses.
EC and Hammer shared much in common, unspooling more like cautionary fairy tales from the Brothers Grimm than anything genuinely horrific, but some of the best stories came from their crime range, ‘Crime Suspense Stories’ and ‘Shock Suspense Stories’. Here were tales of social injustice, racial inequality and nuclear disarmament with a surprising left wing bias, from the pernicious influence of the far right to, in one case, a startling story of rape shame that became a centrepiece in EC’s trial.
A classic sign of a social panic is when the accuser entirely misunderstands the art under accusation, and so it proved. The stories blamed for corrupting young minds were born from outrage at injustice. Writer Al Fieldstein and artist Joe Orlando created one story, ‘Judgement Day’, in which an astronaut investigating a planet divided into superior and inferior races is revealed at the end to be black. The panel had to go, said the offices of the newly formed Comics Code Authority.You can’t have a black hero unsettled by white prejudice. The story ran uncensored but the writing was on the wall, so to speak. The mid-1950s was no time to plead for tolerance in America.
Rarely have comics reflected their times as much as those from EC, produced not by a vast corporation but by two mavericks and a staff of idiosyncratic classically trained artists. What began as a pop cultural oddity went on to influence generations of creative people, including, I suppose, me. For them ‘The History of EC Comics’ is an essential purchase, although it will break your postal worker’s back!