My Unhealthy Obsession With American Horror Comics
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.
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.
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.