A Proud History Of Corrupting Youth: The Last Word On EC

The Arts

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!

 

 

25 comments on “A Proud History Of Corrupting Youth: The Last Word On EC”

  1. Dawn Andrews says:

    Wow. You mean all those comics I avidly read, bought often on the way to visit my gran in darkest Wales, then re-read to stop my brain dying of boredom at the stultifing Sunday family gathering, lying on the rug, avoiding the razor sharp claws of her fiendish cat, were in fact corrupting me? Well, that explains a lot!

  2. snowy says:

    WE INTERRUPT YOUR SCHEDULED PROGRAMME FOR A PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT FOR THOSE IN THE LONDON AREA.

    It’s Open City Weekend starting Sat. So if you have a yen to tour a Victorian Tramp Steamer, descend the shaft at the Brunel Museum into the first tunnel under the Thames or visit Britain’s first intercontinental airport terminal in Croyden &c, &c.

    Due to you know what, less places are open in the real world than normal, they have been replaced by Self-Guided tours and Online talks, [the latter may appeal to those whose plans to visit are made more complicated by Nature having plonked an ocean in the way.]

    Search for ‘open house london 2020’

    MESSAGE ENDS

  3. admin says:

    I can never get into the Open House events I want, and have already been into the ones which are available.

  4. snowy says:

    That’s the problem when you cram 6.5m people into a city, it gets busy*.

    A quick look at @openhouselondon …

    If you don’t mind rolling up a trouser leg the Masons have got spaces. [1920s Art Deco building]

    Polish Embassy seems keen for visitors, [chance of a good sausage there].

    St Mary Magdalene’s in Paddington is still booking.

    Marylebone Village Walking Tour is on

    Walking tour exploring the evolution of housing in Lambeth, [bit niche – even for me].

    Online offerings: [via Zoom, you could build a whole day on these and never have to get out of your jim-jams]

    Hidden infrastructure – a below ground virtual tour with a London Blue Badge Tourist Guide.

    London Borough of Southwark – a virtual tour with a London Blue Badge Tourist Guide.

    [Lots of these, see website].

    Apothecaries’ Hall

    Billingsgate Roman House and Baths

    Old Operating Theatre Museum & Herb Garret [I know you’ve been there, but others might be very curious].

    On the website

    Trellick Tower, resident-led tours of the 1970s Brutalist tower block

    Specially produced films

    Picker House, a “time-capsule of the 1960s” that hosts the art and collections of artist Stanley Picker.

    Siobhan Davies Studios, a disused Victorian school that has been transformed into an innovative contemporary arts space [Yawn, innovative? contemporary? arts space? Well that’s my Bingo card filled up…. What do I win?]

    Salter’s Hall, a Brutalist building with Grade II listed interiors that houses the 600-year old Salter’s Company


    [ * Open your 2021 diary, find Aug 14 – make a note to start checking the website. All the good places have booking lists and you need to get in quick.]

  5. snowy says:

    Comics, comics, comics….

    Doc W wasn’t quite as loony as he has been painted, you know how so very, very, very keen some Americans can be about their God-given right to ‘Freedom of Speech’, [not quite as keen as the Gun-bunnies but it’s close], he’s been retrospectively tarred and feathered as an enemy.

    Embroidering his research was a bit silly, but he was quite measured in his views, [even for the 1950s], if a little paternalistic. [I’ll find a source…]

  6. Peter Dixon says:

    Wertham’s influence on comics was similar to the Hayes Code in movies and Prohibition, America seemed to worry about people being able to make up their own minds and morality. Amazingly it never seemed to apply to anything really dangerous like guns in the hands of people who shouldn’t hold anything more deadly than a can opener.

    For a great take on early US comics I’d recommend The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, a novel by Jewish American author Michael Chabon that won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2001. The novel follows the lives of two Jewish cousins, Czech artist Joe Kavalier and Brooklyn-born writer Sammy Clay, before, during, and after World War II.
    Most of the people working in comics were Jewish or Italian and were ripped off something terrible.

  7. snowy says:

    From Dr W’s testimony to the United States Senate.

    [Filleted out and summarised by me. Italics mine.]

    He was opposed to:

    Depictions of sadistic sexual violence towards women.
    Stereotypical depictions of African characters that might incite racial hatred toward Black Americans.
    The sexual exploitation of children by adults.
    The advertising of weapons: knives and guns to children.
    Imitatable guides for committing various form of theft.
    Body-shaming children as a way to sell quack remedies.
    Stories that could incite violence against Puerto Rican immigrants.

    He states his opinion that comic books are only one of many causes.

    He proposes that comics with content of a violent and or sexual nature should not be sold to children under 15.

    He states that he is not advocating for censorship of comics, but thinks that the Comics Industry needs to be examined, particularly over the practice of withholding supplies of other publications to news-sellers if they do not take these sort of comics.

    He is aware of a campaign to have him branded as an Anti-American ‘Red’, [from whom it is not clear, but if you ‘follow the money’… And this was a very dangerous time to be so accused.]


    He may have been the first to speak out, but I doubt he was the reason it went quite so bonky-bananas, that would be the Moral Right fanning the flames against the voices of Hardcore Libertarianism, [if that’s not a ‘contradiction in terms’].

  8. snowy says:

    Random ‘thought’, [don’t all mock at once’].

    Masons or rogue elements thereof might make tolerable plot fodder, [don’t think it’s been used already].

    Been around for centuries, the seam of old tales is vast from truthful accounts to completely unhinged conspiracy nonsense. Members of all social stations mixing together in unlikely combinations. Once rife in the Police , [you know who to ask for the inside gen]-

    ‘PCU get a case… but everybody they ask for help, blanks them completely, but no one will tell them why. Somebody high up is trying to stop them investigating this case for some reason. ‘

    Lots of London locations, links, historical figures etc. [Prof. Raymondo might be useful.]

    Or set it up as a blind, with a 3rd act discovery that reveals ed as a that it is being us a front.

  9. Dawn Andrews says:

    The current situation is getting horribly similar, sinister, it always shocks me how freedom of speech can be so ‘righteously’ used as a weapon. In the Contemporary art scene Snowy there are no winners. I got out when the fine art students started to look and act like accountants.

  10. admin says:

    I’m finding the Weds/Sat posts a bit restricting and will probably start posting a bit more frequently, but I won’t specify particular days. Coming up next; London and books, obvs.

  11. Wayne Mook says:

    Fredric Wertham previously known as Friedrich Ignatz Wertheimer, is a mixed bag, he did a lot to get segregation statutes overturned and treated poor black clients especially when mental health was very segregated, ie pretty much white only in the USA. When it comes to his book it was part of an on going witch hunt about teenage delinquents and the main paradigm in psychology and sociology was determinism. He did single eye injuries as well as sexual subtexts in superhero comics. In many ways has was carrying on the banner of the Behaviourists and the infamous Little Albert Experiment. Wertham was accused of exaggeration, misleading evidence and even fabrication. He book against television ‘The War on Children’, didn’t pick up a publisher.

    The Comic Code was actually voluntary as the board didn’t find in favour, but in truth the code was the death knell to adult comics in the US and here for a long time.

    By the way Dynamite put out a comic series called the Seduction of the Innocents, very lurid covers of true crime.

    Watson who was the first advocate of Behaviourism (and responsible for Little Albert), who was ostracised due to a messy divorce, also used his own children. Of the four, three attempted suicide, one of children actually succeeding. I always wonder if this inspired the film Peeping Tom. At least he didn’t take the theory as far as BF Skinner and there lies a whole other case. Determinism vs. freewill takes me back to my student days.

    Here there was the Gorbals Vampire in Glasgow that led to the ban on comics like EC Comics. I remember my dad saying at work there was a library and a union library. The police in Manchester raided the union library and took away the comics. just like the 810’s video nasty scare.

    I wonder what they blamed teenage gangs, scuttlers, in Victorian Manchester on? No doubt penny dreadfuls.

    Look forward to the posts but don’t over do it, books first.

    Wayne.

  12. Helen Martin says:

    As we’ve said, Chris, you just do what is comfortable for you. Believe me, we’re not wanting to get in the way of your writing.

    Snowy, that’s not a bad idea. The masons do keep coming up in peripheral ways with someone protecting some one other person. Making it a little wider spread would be interesting but do we want to irritate that group? It’s interesting that a number of members of the royal family have been members. It doesn’t seem to be much of a factor over here although there are lots of lodges.

  13. Brooke says:

    Masons–from this side of the pond, it’s a really, really bad, DT-like idea. Masonic conspiracy is a favorite trope of evangelical right who make much of the pyramid on USD bills. That the Masons used to build huge elaborate temples, like the Mormons, does not help. Nor does the fraternity’s history of integration, founded on the principles of liberty, equality and peace.

  14. Brooke says:

    If you want to something to think about, consider the detective’s evil twin, a sociopath, and how it influences the story line. Where would Rebus be without Big Ger? Easy without Mouse? Jack Taylor without the Devil?

  15. snowy says:

    There are way of using those with a penchant for a pinny without causing overmuch offense, use it as a double front with a last act exoneration.

    Hard to explain how to work it through a novel without laying it out… badly.

    ‘On the Square’ [A novel that will never ever see the light of day].

    Plot Synopsis

    ACT I

    A man is found hanging under Blackfriars bridge, but it wasn’t suicide.

    The Home Sec is very worried that if news gets out it could unsettle the public, [The PM is more confused than normal, the Chancellor is having kittens and HRH has been on the phone, she’s worried if her husband hears about it – it might send him over the edge – and he’ll start off-roading in Landrovers again].

    A specialised City of London Police unit is called in to investigate.

    When they get to the scene they realise why the case is potentially so explosive.

    One of the pieces of evidence is strange and they want it examined by a specialist lab, this request is denied, no budget.

    They decide to search the area around the riverbanks and request help from uniform branch. this request is denied, no ‘manpower’ rumours of a protest in the City.

    Autopsy results come in, the injuries follow a pattern that has been seen before, confirming several suspicions.

    So blocked from those other lines of enquiry, the follow up the only lead left the connection to the ‘Lodge’.

    ACT II

    They decide to attack from the front and see what they can stir up. A visit to the ‘Grand Lodge’ is arranged. During the story several characters who like to flash a knee are encountered, each an excuse for a certain Senior Detective to take the micky out of them and their rituals, mostly pointing it is all made up gibberish.

    After a rather… bad-tempered interview with the Head Apron, he concedes that it does appear to implicate of of the fraternity and he agrees reluctantly to help. He suggests they speak to the organisation’s record keeper and librarian, but warns them that he is a bit eccentric.

    The meeting with the Librarian, begins as badly as one would expect, gets rapidly worse and looks like it will degenerate into the sort of all-in geriatric punch up not seen since Mick McManus hung up his trunks.

    Until the Librarian laughs… he knows it’s all a lot of theatrical nonsense. But it pays the bills and is quite happy to help them, provided they keep his contribution to themselves.

    With the Librarians help they pin-point the ritual and that reveals a significant clue.

    He suggests they speak to the person that held his job before he did, left under something of a cloud… works at the British Library now.

    Returning to the office, they ask if the files from the old cases have come in? They are told all the records are listed as lost, deleted or destroyed.

    They decide to split up and follow parallel lines of investigation.

    ACT II and rhree quarters

    ‘J’ drops ‘A’ of at the BL and heads off to talk to an old friend from Records, she might know something…

    ‘A’ speaks to ‘R’ … lots of exposition… …info drop… “They stopped using that ritual years ago” …more exposition…,

    “But ‘J’ could have told you all that, he used to be a member in the 1970s, it was the done thing for ambitious officers”. “I’m sure you remember?” “He used to mix with the top brass at the lodge, did he never mention it?…………”


    [Never to be continued… but there is another incident, there is a gear shift and it all kicks off… Before it turns out that…


    Well that would give it away, wouldn’t it?]


    [Brooke I hadn’t considered the US perspective, due to my total and complete ignorance.]

  16. Dawn Andrews says:

    I’ve always thought of the Masons as another blokey way out of spending time with the wife and kids, ‘I’m off down the lodge’ having more ethical weight than ‘I’m off down the pub’. The dressing up, mystical hocum just an added bonus! For Mozart it was a way of borrowing large sums of cash and composing an opera, while also avoiding the wife. Genius.

  17. Peter T says:

    Snowy, You haven’t even touched on the connections with the Vatican, notably the Chicago Cardinal, and a whole line up of corrupt politicos. Also, wouldn’t P2 men have enough girls around not to need to flash their own legs?

    Is it a case where reality becomes too, erhm, Dan Brown?

  18. Peter Dixon says:

    Dawn – try reading Kingsley Amis’ ‘The Egyptologists’ which is a splendid piss-take on male – only clubs. It all goes wrong when an American woman tries to join the club. Hilarious, but very 1950’s

  19. Dawn Andrews says:

    Thanks Peter, I’ very much like the sound of that!

  20. Brooke says:

    Re: Snowy’s unpublished work. What Peter said…way too DBrown cutting and pasting.

    The Freemasons have a very interesting history in both England and US; and the history of black men as Brothers is fascinating. Free men of color were accepted through the Irish Freemasons, having been rejected by the Boston Lodge, and from there grew the Prince Hall lodge system, named for free man of color and abolistionist leader Prince Hall. My dad was a Prince Hall Mason.

    Conspiracy theories swirl around Freemasonary; see blog from Pennsylvania’s Grand Lodge . I really like this temple, a few block from my house. https://pamasonictemple.org

  21. Dawn Andrews says:

    A good book about the origins of the freemasons and other hermetic offshoots is The Rosicrucian Enlightenment by the brilliant Frances Yates. Just found out that the Grand Lodge of Ireland is one of the oldest and most powerful. Yikes.

  22. Helen Martin says:

    That is a most remarkable building, Brooke, and right in the centre of everything so it is obvious the place the organization has there. Conspiracy theories abound around any organization that keeps its procedures private.

  23. Wayne Mook says:

    I did some CAB training in the East Lancashire Temple (they have lodges and guild halls [there is a masons guild hall in Stockport]). they put on a lovely spread for lunch, the tea cups were that delicate white china that you cam almost see through with the masons crest in blue and the name of the temple.

    Wayne.

  24. Dawn Andrews says:

    That’s fascinating Brooke. Your comment only just came up, my signal is awful out here in the boglands. An amazing building. Just reading up on the history of the Irish order. All that and great lunches, can’t be bad.

  25. Ian Luck says:

    Micha Chabon’s ‘The Adventures Of Kavalier And Klay’ is loosely based on the lives and careers of Siegel and Shuster, the creators of Superman. Although I doubt that they ever encountered a Golem. It could happen…

Comments are closed.