My Unhealthy Obsession With American Horror Comics

Reading & Writing

Black Cat

Some while back, under the title ‘Pernicious Muck For Kids’, I wrote here about the Black Cat Mysteries. Now that the book for which I wrote the foreword is out I can publish the whole piece, ideal for those who’d like to read about the corruption of young minds. This is a more detailed version of something I touched upon in ‘Paperboy’, the desire to own weird magazines, and live by their rules. Probably.

English Idiot Child Falls For Sinister US Comic Book Scam!

Give me a break, I was nine year’s old for frig’s sake. I had fawn-coloured National Health specs held together with Elastoplast and a haircut that came courtesy of a Tupperware bowl. Kids’ Gap was not around to produce miniature outfits that would make me look like my Dad, and anyway my Dad wore his grey suit and tie on the beach, so I wouldn’t have wanted to look like him.

I just wanted the stuff I saw in the backs of American comics. I wanted 100 magnets and civil war figures, I wanted to sell ‘Grit’ and send away for the Charles Atlas Body-Building Course. And I had very specific needs about the comics themselves. I wanted to see Batman fight the Joker on top of a giant hat. I wanted another issue featuring Superman Red and Superman Blue. I wanted The Atom to tackle other carnivorous plants apart from a Venus Flytrap. I collected Jack Kirby’s bubblegum cards and every Marvel comic and Mad magazine, and even Cracked and Sick. I could tell Harvey Kurtzman from John Severin. I was more American than a kid from Kansas.

Which made it all the more embarrassing that I was a skinny English Londoner. What we didn’t get in Greenwich was much in the way of horror. I needed the EC horror comics, but they were nowhere to be found. Instead we had strange black and white reprints of stories assembled randomly into cheap volumes. They looked like supermarket own brand products. To assuage my horror habit I had to rely on Famous Monsters Of Filmland, which was a bit lame and full of bad puns, except for the ads. I wanted the hand in a box that snatched your money, and rubber horror masks that made your face sweat, I wanted 10 foot inflatable pythons, giant weather balloons, and ‘sea monkeys’  that were actually dried brine shrimps, despite the fact that the artwork showed them sitting in armchairs reading newspapers and smoking pipes.

I tried to work out how I could send away for 8mm reels of ‘The Giant Claw’, in which fighter jets fought a giant prehistoric bird. There were ads for ‘The Deadly Mantis’ and other lousy monster movies, Aurora horror model kits for which you could even get accessories to pimp your models of the Wolfman and the Phantom Of The Opera, like spare bats and cobwebs, the baby chick incubator, the Mad Doctor Hypodermic Needle  (‘Everyone Will Faint When You Plunge This Needle Into Your Victim’s Arms!’), spooky sound effects LPs and live monkeys, none of which my mother allowed me to order.

Brian's first picture 522

I managed to get a money order issued for the film of ‘The Giant Claw’. (Do you have any idea how difficult it was to buy stuff before the internet, you annoyingly young person?) I had an 8mm projector and gave horror film shows even though the bloody thing kept giving me electric shocks because it was improperly earthed. Eventually the film came back, and it was a fifteen minute cut-down of the feature, AND it was black and white, AND it was god-awful because it featured cheap model jets firing sparklers at a goggle-eyed puppet with highly visible strings that belonged on a cancelled kiddie show.

Destroyed, I turned to the actual content of comics instead of just the ads and found Harvey Comics featuring Baby Huey, a stupid giant yellow duck in a nappy. When this character proved unsatisfying I switched to Hot Stuff The Little Devil, Little Dot, Casper and Wendy, Sad Sack, and Richie Rich, the adventures of a grotesquely wealthy blond boy who was forever carting around wheelbarrows full of giant diamonds. Even at an early age, I knew this comic was wrong.

But Harvey had a dirty little secret. They published horror comics that somehow had snuck themselves onto the wire rack at my local tobacconists. And although the art wasn’t perhaps quite as singular as the EC comics, they had madder stories about killer scorpions and attacking jelly-people and talking shrunken heads. And somewhere in each story was a screaming blonde in a wired brassiere and some kind of complicated corsetry that looked like it could only be removed with a chainsaw. And there was a weird use of slang that was dated long before it appeared in the comics. When the hero of ‘Walking Dead’ had an eye operation, his barman said ‘I’m glad the sawbones fixed you up with new peepers.’

Sod ‘The Swiss Family Robinson’, I wanted to read ‘Grave On The Green’, in which a man had a golf ball smash a huge hole in his skull. It was the memory of a murderer with green gloves crying ‘Let the green gloves fill your powerless brain with madness and hatred!’ that made me first want to call the short story collection ‘Red Gloves’.

Of course Harvey was jumping aboard a horror bandwagon begun by EC Comics, who were attacked for damaging the development of children’s minds by Dr. Fredric Wertham, in one of America’s periodic piques about the moral disintegration of the nation’s youth. Wertham described comic books as ‘cheap, shoddy, anonymous. Children spend their good money for bad paper, bad English and…bad drawing’, but then he also thought that Wonder Woman’s independent streak made her a lesbian. Just as parents were having fits about their cute kids reading such pernicious muck, Harvey actually went a step lower with its range of horror and fantasy comics. Where EC was sometimes thoughtful and artistic, Harvey was crass, lurid and hysterical. Hardly a page went by without someone being attacked or going mad. And by some weird accident, they sometimes caught the sense of graveyard-reeking insanity that the great Gothic Victorian writers sought.

ec_comics

Not often, though. Harvey tended to be more interested in killer moths and skeleton cowboys. Nobody in their stories had any redeeming qualities at all. Men were chasing after their own weight in gold or hotter women than their nagging wives. Women were there to be tied up, drowned, fed to beasts, sold to the Devil or slowly stripped by mad doctors and killer apes.

Even the ads were weirder in Harvey’s world: 20 perfume vials for $2.00! A horrible description of the spread of Athlete’s Foot! And in issue 33 of Black Cat Mystery there’s an ad for switchblades and roses. I mean, WTF?

Sometimes you just don’t want to be preached to, know what I mean? You want honest-to-goodness wrong-end-of-town low-rent what-have-I-got-myself-into smut and cruelty. You want old hags chucking screaming accountants into open graves, and voodoo rituals and half-naked girls screaming ‘Aieeeee!’ as sinister priests bear down on them with big wiggly knives, and that’s what Harvey gave you. Just pop your peepers on that artwork – it looks like it’s going to leave filthy marks on your hands.

We didn’t want the odd little print stories they always included, either – nobody ever read those. They were for pointing out to your Mum, so you could say ‘Look, I’m doing proper reading, honest!’

So do some proper reading now. Peruse the pulps and see if something with NO REDEEMING SOCIAL VALUE WHATSOEVER will turn you into a deranged maniac, as Dr Wertham thought. Or see if it just makes you feel that the world was once a more fun place for a kid to be.

14 comments on “My Unhealthy Obsession With American Horror Comics”

  1. Jo W says:

    Thanks, Admin. That article has brought back some memories,especially of those adverts in the comics. What weird things were offered for sale then. Oh! By the way, somewhere in this house I have a coffin money box. The hand that snatches your money is luminous green and it still works!

  2. Andrea yang says:

    Grit was overrated. It was the only reading material at my Grandparent’s house. I had to read the horror comics off the rack at my Uncle’s liqour store they were too controversial for the Newsstand

  3. Ken Murray says:

    I too used to be mesmerized by those comic ads, and never did get my x-ray specs or 100 plastic soldiers in a footlocker?

    Strangely though, my daughter got given a little plastic aquarium and a packet of ‘sea monkeys’ as a present at a kids party recently. Needless to say, it was regarded with much suspicion, and has since made it’s way to the ‘great children’s treasure trove in the sky’ (top of the wardrobe), unopened.

    P.s. I have just read an article on the ‘correct’ rules for the use of commas. Obviously I am more confused than ever!

  4. Reuben says:

    I do like that Black Cat White Heat cover. If it wasn’t for the hefty price tag for those reprint collections I’d be tempted to buy them I think.

  5. snowy says:

    Doc Wernham, Hmmm. Methinks “the doctor doth protest too much”.

    A lot of his ‘research’ has been re-appraised and it looks fishy. Very small group, preselected by the researcher and having existing disfunctional conditions. Study results inflated by including patients he had never seen, cribbed from other colleagues.

    But the lure of fame/money makes people do funny things, and if you can hit a trend on the rise you can make a lot of cash. British readers might recall a certain person, who styled themselves as a ‘Doctor’, who was able to reveal things by looking at poo.

    Such moral panics were not new, even in Dr W’s time, a quote from the Times.

    “CHEAP LITERATURE AND JUVENILE CRIME
    17 August 1895

    Mr HOGAN (Tipperary, Mid.) asked the Secretary for the Home Department whether his attention had been directed to recent revelations as to the pernicious consequences of the unrestricted circulation of cheap literature of a grossly demoralising and corrupting character amongst the young; whether he was aware that coroners’ juries had appended to their verdicts on recent tragedies riders affirming the urgent necessity of legislative or administrative action, with a view to the correction or the checking of the evil; and whether any official machinery existed by which effect might be given to this recommendation, and, if not, whether he would arm some responsible authority with supervising powers in this connexion similar to those that had been exercised for many years to prevent the dissemination of unwhole-some and objectionable literature from the stage.”

    If he had seen some of the stuff published when photography was a new toy for the cheap popular papers, his head would have gone pop.

    Better stop before this turns into an essay. 😉

  6. J. Folgard says:

    These books have been gouging my wallet for roughly a year now, but they’re brilliant! Even the more formulaic stories have at least a whiff of dementia. PS is doing a great job with them -the forewords and accompanying artwork are a joy to see, and they spotlight oft-forgotten artists in every tome.
    For those interested, the books are being reissued as “softies”, basically trade paperback editions of the hardcovers without the extra material but still handsome and much, much more affordable!

  7. Janet Wilson says:

    Trouble with teaching people to read, now or in 19thc.- you just can’t control what the buggers DO read. Think The Illustrated Police News was an early source of moral panic? I had an older brother, so was reading Pan paperbacks at 10, but the more lurid stuff didn’t reach our small town in Devon. Amazing what you cld borrow from library once you were over 12 tho- think I had about 5 Dennis Wheatleys plus G.M. Fraser Flashman novels on the go at once. If I had an uncle who owned a liquor store, he’d’ve been 1 of my dad’s N. London family, beyond my ken… Which reminds me- have just missed, due to being in bed with cold, Tarantino theme night at local pub.

  8. Bangbang!! says:

    Oh I used to love those ads! The full page spread of the Union versus Confederate armies was the single greatest advert of my childhood. Young people now are subjected to so much more graphic sex and violence than we ever were and it’s quite admirable that most of them grow up so well adjusted.

    At the same time there isn’t the same freedom for a lot of kids that I had. I would disappear for the day and my mum wouldn’t bat an eyelid. If my 11 year old godson runs a hundred yards ahead of us my wife has a slight panic attack. I, on the other hand, give him his leash when I can. When he tries to be a smart arse and disappears into the trees I just cheerfully cry, ‘Ok see you later, watch out for the Dark Man of the Woods’. Never fails!! Mind you, last time we went out I told him some horse shoe prints in the mud were made by the Devil. I then hid in a field of barley and watched as he pretended he wasn’t scared. Ha ha. I am a bad man.

  9. Steve says:

    I loved all those comics as a kid. I still remember Baby Huey saying “That sounds logical!” a lot. Over here there were Baby Huey cartoons as well as the comics.
    I also loved all the horrid movies….”Them”, “The Crawling Eye”, “Invasion of the Saucer Men” and others too numerous to mention.
    There was one, the title of which I can’t recall, involving creatures that looked like giant leeches….oh, hell, that WAS the title…”Attack of the Giant Leeches”. The wardrobe department was woefully underfunded…..some of the Giant Leeches wore black body stockings and only the heads of the creatures. But…..I loved it. Thing is of course, I’m an American so it wasn’t quite so weird as Admin’s….dare I say it? Obsession.

  10. rick says:

    Loved this stuff and the Warren Publications formed the basis for much of my ‘taste’ as a writer and reader. Loved CREEPY and EERIE (themselves something of a ripoff of the classic EC comics.) And Famous Monsters! I even went to visit The Ackermonster himself – Forry (Forest J) Ackerman at his ‘Ackermantion’ in LA when I was still in highschool back in the ’70s. He was so generous that he published his address and home number in his magazine! Much of his remarkable collection is now part of the Science Fiction Museum in Seattle, though they don’t display as much as they used to. Thanks for the memory buzz, Chris!

  11. keith page says:

    I’ve still got some copies of the rare [in the UK at least] FJA magazine ‘Spacemen’

  12. Dan Terrell says:

    I have previously posted and moaned about my Mother’s act of destruction, so I won’t go far into it again. (Must be under your referenced post)
    In bief, I had nearly 200 mint EC comics and the original color MAD mags – 1 to 20ish, but they were all went OUT as taking up too much space after I left home for overseas work. All the resale value in that pile at ComCons lost, trashed!)
    Let me underline that Dr. Wernham was a fraud from the get-go and many people suspected it, but he caught a Congressional wave and rode it all the way in. We kids knew he was a fake and many of our parents, including mine, were dubious. (Many things in the Fifties caused rot and criminal behavior, but something had to replace WWII.)
    I for one steeped, bathed, soaked and basted myself in EC comics and did until I realized nearly every single story had the same formula and that reading the last page was a complete O’Henry downer. Always the moral! to justify the gross evilness that went before, pretty much the same problem with short stories in the Alfred Hitchcock magazine, too. The boring snap-back ending.
    (But, oh my, the Whitman’s Sampler tale! The bride in the grave. And that one about the forcefully blinded landlord, who is tricked and locked in his own basement, by the justifiably crazed and blind renter who make’s his landlord flee through a jerry made, zigzag, wooden maze of embedded razorblades and knives to get away from a maddened, starving dog. But here’s a warning don’t read the last two or three panels. (Dr. Wernham must never have read the last pages of the stories or he’d have thought differently!)
    Note: I had the comic book you picture and in perfect condition guys. A few years back it was worth several hundred dollars! Grown. Mother, Mother…

  13. Helen Martin says:

    The Attack of the Killer Tomatoes and one that had stewardesses in the title and probably was dreamed up after Barbarella. None of these movies came to the little beachfront theatre in Sechelt so there was never a decision as to whether or not to go.
    (Dan, it’s ‘groan’. I know, I know.)

  14. Dan Terrell says:

    Well, I’ve grown, too, but today has been fatigue city.
    The wife and I got home rather late after last night after driving to Baltimore with a good friend who’s a fast friend of Willie Nelson and his family. She had comp. tickets and we saw a really great show! (the man’s 80! and an inspiration, Admin), but even though it was in a pavilion the air where we sat got a bit strange – hint, hint.
    I wore my J. S. Bach jeans jacket and jeans, so I fit right in with the country rockers.
    Before you all say: what’s the big deal ancient one, let me add Friday night was a German beerfest. Editing is somewhat challenging today, Helen.

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