In my infinite wisdom, I decided to go all out and do a two-part “Palmer’s Picks.” And what was my great idea for a profile that was so awesome that it couldn’t be contained in one column? A history lesson.
It was a history lesson on EC Comics, to be exact. Now, there’s nothing wrong with the EC line from the 1940s and ’50s. In fact, there are a lot of great comic books there…but devoting two months of my column in Wizard to it seemed like a big miscalculation. This was another example of my attempt to counterprogram the rest of the magazine. I would flip through the pages of Wizard and notice it lacked any sense of what had come before all of the shiny, new artists of the day. Todd McFarlane and Rob Liefeld would be nowhere without the artistic genius and groundbreaking comics of Harvey Kurtzman or Wally Wood! But what I failed to realize was that the typical Wizard reader probably didn’t want to get a history lesson, much less from someone in their own age-group. Next thing you know, I was going to tell those dang kids stop listening to that rock ‘n’ roll music and get off my lawn!
While my heart might have been in the right place, my writing here took a step back. I was still trying to find my voice, and putting this two-parter together was a bit of a struggle. The whole affair just reads like a term paper. I was finishing up my senior year of high school when I wrote this, so maybe that’s why. And like a true high school student, there are parts of these two columns that seem like I was trying to pad things out to hit a word count. In retrospect, I should have just crammed all of this into one installment.
One side note: there was only one other time I split “Palmer’s Picks” into two parts: the examination of the mini-comics scene in issues 26 and 27. I think that one turned out a little bit better than this, but we’ll give it a closer look when the time comes.
To keep things nice and tidy, I’ve decided to lump both of the original installments of this EC Comics profile from Wizard #11 and Wizard #12 into this one blog post. I actually had another piece of writing published in issue 12 in addition to “Palmer’s Picks,” but that will get its own post following this one.
Tom Palmer, Jr brings us a look at the hysteria of the EC horror and crime comics of the 1950s.
This month (and next month) I’m going to take a break from the usual recommendation of a specific comic or type of comic and focus on something different: history. Now before you close this magazine to avoid being bored to tears, you should realize a couple of things. Many of today’s trends and styles in comics are a faint echo of the events that took place in the early to mid 1950s. The premiere comic book company at the time (in artistic terms, if not sales) was the Entertaining Comics, or EC line. Their trend-setting comics were highly literate, yet were misunderstood by the general public. The misinterpretation led to a Senate sub-committee hearing on juvenile delinquency and the founding of the Comics Code Authority. I plan to describe the background of the ECs this month, and next month I will show the impact the EC line had on the comic industry.
Back in 1933, Max C. Gaines and Harry I. Wildenberg were the first to make what is today considered a comic book. Their magazine was called Funnies on Parade and consisted of reprints of Sunday comics. Hundreds of thousands of copies of Funnies on Parade were used as give-aways for companies like Canada Dry and Milk-0-Malt. Surprisingly, the comic was a success, and Gaines decided to publish comics to be sold on newsstands. Eastern Color Printing, with Max’s help, published the first issue of Famous Funnies in May 1934 with a cover price of 10 cents.
Over time, the comic industry grew, with more and more companies and titles appearing. By 1943, Gaines was publishing comics under the name Educational Comics, with such wholesome titles as Picture Stories from the Bible, Tiny Tot Comics, and Animal Fables. These comics appealed to parents, but were not popular with kids. Max Gaines soon died in a tragic boating accident, and his son, Bill Gaines, took over the business with the company over $100,000 in debt.
Comic books at the time, like today, were run by trends. When one company was successful with a certain type of comic, such as crime comics or superheroes, the others followed. Bill Gaines, and his associate Al Feldstein, developed the western and romance comics of the time to add to the EC line of crime comics, with such titles as Modern Love and A Moon, A Girl…Romance. Eventually, these comics ran their course, and Gaines and Feldstein changed their remaining crime comics into horror comics: The Crypt of Terror and The Vault of Horror. With the premiere of these books, Gaines renamed the company Entertaining Comics and started a new line of comics called the “New Trend” comics. These books included a third horror title, The Haunt of Fear, two science-fiction comics, Weird Science and Weird Fantasy, and two crime comics Shock SuspenStories and Crime SuspenStories.
The New Trend comics contained four or five different stories, each drawn by a different artist. The quality of writing was above-average, with Gaines and Feldstein dealing with such topics as prejudice and twisted crimes of passion. EC became famous for utilizing the “O. Henry” ending, where each story would end with a twist to surprise the reader. As time went by, these twists became more ghoulish and gruesome, especially in the crime and horror comics. EC was also known for the high quality of art in its comics. Each artist was given enough time to put a little extra into the rendering of each page while also being encouraged to develop his own style. This led to the recognition of such artists as Wally Wood, Bernie Krigstein, Frank Frazetta, Graham Ingels, Jack Davis, John Severin, and Al Williamson.
Gaines used the successful crime and horror comics to keep the lower-selling science-fiction and newly added war comics to the New Trend line alive. The EC line continued to grow, eventually adding Mad and Panic, two humor titles, to its line. But, by 1954, the public began to take notice of the content of the comics. The success of the New Trend comics, like other success stories of the time, spawned many imitators. These comics contained all of the gore of the EC line, but did not match their sophisticated level of writing. The amount of violence and gore in the comics led psychologist Dr. Frederic Wertham to write Seduction of the Innocent. This book linked comic-book violence to juvenile delinquency through a series of disputed cases. Adding to the furor was the publication of the first issue of Panic by EC. This comic contained a parody of “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” that angered many parents and politicians. The situation grew worse, with just about every popular magazine attacking comic books and many people holding comic book burnings.
On April 21, 1954, a congressional investigation was launched, with Gaines and Wertham as the star witness. Nevertheless, the hearings did not bring about any legislation, nor did they settle the clamor over the level of violence in comics. Gaines decided to act before any actual laws were passed and gathered his fellow publishers. The publishers decided to ban horror and crime comics and form the Comics Magazine Association of America. Gaines walked out of the meeting, stating that it was not what he had in mind. The group went on to write the Comics Code as a form of compromise with the distributors. Only comics with the code seal would be allowed to be sold on the newsstands. Gaines sought to circumvent the code by discontinuing the New Trend comics and starting the New Direction line. These comics would deal with such tame topics as journalism in Extra!, adventure in Aces High, Impact, Piracy and Valor, and medicine in M.D., and Psychoanalysis. These comics did not carry the code approval and were faced with disappointingly bad sales. But Gaines did not give up, as he dropped all of the New Direction titles and changed Mad into a full-sized black-and-white humor magazine. By getting rid of the comic-book format, Gaines was able to finally get around the Comic Code Authority. Mad was an instant success, and is still being published today.
With the publication of the first full-sized Mad in the summer of 1955, the EC line came to an end. Through the efforts of politicians and horrified parents, an important trend in comics was halted through the implementation of the Comics Code. Although somewhat downplayed, the code is still in effect today, as a reminder of the hysteria of the ’50s.
If any of the events or people mentioned intrigue you, the following books go into much more detail:
From Aarghl to Zap! – Harvey Kurtzman’s Visual History of the Comics—An 11″x15″ book that serves as an overview of just about every aspect of comics. This should be in the art section of your local bookstore.
Completely Mad—written by Maria Reidelbach. A complete history of Mad from comic book to magazine, which should also be available in bookstores.
The Mad World of William M. Gaines—A biography of William Gaines by Frank Jacobs which should be in your local library or a second-hand bookstore.
My Life as a Cartoonist— Harvey Kurtzman’s autobiography should be in larger bookstores or smaller second-hand bookstores.
The Complete History of Marvel Comics: Five Fabulous Decades of the World’s Greatest Comics—A complete and thorough history of Marvel by Les Daniels containing rare photos and illustrations. Should be available in any bookstore.
Seduction of the Innocent—The original edition of this book is extremely rare and is very difficult to locate. Kitchen Sink Press plans to publish a new version with an introduction and annotations by Wertham’s biographer, James Jeibman, sometime soon.
Next Month: I’ll take a closer look at the actual artists involved in the creation of some of the EC comics and explore how they have influenced the artists of today.
Tom Palmer, Jr examines how EC comic’s artists influenced the artists of today.
As I discussed last month, the EC comics of the 1950s had an immense impact on the comics industry. With the editorial vision of Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein, the EC line became a success, most notably with the horror and suspense comics. A high artistic standard was maintained both in writing and artwork. Both the ideas behind the comics and the artists behind them spawned many imitators, which I will discuss this month.
At the time, the EC comics had many imitators who copied the covers of the EC’s with such titles as Tomb of Terror instead of Crypt of Terror, Weird Tales of the Future in place of Weird Science and Weird Fantasy, and Unsane instead of Mad. These comics also ripped-off the EC cover format by placing their title in a box that covered the top third of the cover and by running a vertical bar with a slogan down the left side of the comic. The interiors also duplicated the EC format with scenes of violence and horror. What these imitations lacked, however, was the talent to produce stories and artwork that could match the EC comics.
After the clamor of the downfall of the EC line and the installation of the Comics Code, another notable EC flavored comic line came along. In 1964, James Warren started Creepy, a black-and-white comic magazine that, like Mad, was not under the control of the Comics Code. Creepy was later followed by Eerie and Vampirella, two other black-and-white magazines. Not only did these titles emulate the EC stories, they also used the talents of some of the EC artists, such as Al Williamson, Frank Frazetta, Reed Crandall, Joe Orlando, and Wally Wood. The Warren magazines also showcased the work of new talents like Bernie Wrightson, Richard Corben and Gray Morrow. These comics ran through the 70s and eventually faded away. Recently, Creepy, Eerie and Vampirella have enjoyed a revival of sorts with reprints and new stories from Harris Publications and Dark Horse.
The work of the artists at EC, most notably Wally Wood, Frank Frazetta, Graham Ingels, and Harvey Kurtzman, had an obvious effect on the artists that are working in comics today. Wally Wood’s science-fiction work for Weird Science and Weird Fantasy, with its abundance of spacecraft and high-tech control panels, is probably his most popular and well-known work. His clean brushwork and expertise in doodling machinery can be seen in just about any current comic that takes place in outer space.
Frank Frazetta’s work for the EC comics and, more importantly, his paperback book covers and fantasy poster paintings have directly influenced a number of artists. Arthur Suydam, Sam Kieth, and Mike Mignola have all picked up pieces of Frazetta’s style either in their linework or their paintings.
Bernie Wrightson was also influenced by Frazetta, but he mostly drew inspiration from the horror work of Graham Ingels. His fine-line style can be seen in Wrightson’s early illustrations and work on the original Swamp Thing comics. Wrightson’s blending of a wide range of styles, from Ingels to traditional pen-and-ink masters Joseph Clement Coll and Franklin Booth, was so effective and eye-catching that it even influenced the work of other artists, like Suydam and Kieth.
Harvey Kurtzman has spread his influence over a variety of artists. Most of his ideas and humor can be seen in the underground cartoonists like Robert Crumb and Art Spiegelman. Most of the independent cartoonists today like Peter Bagge and Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez also cite Kurtzman as a spiritual and direct influence on their work.
Aside from influencing the comic field today, the EC artists are still directly working in the business. Al Williamson is known today for his inking of Daredevil, the Star Wars newspaper strip, and various other projects. Frank Frazetta’s fantasy posters and prints are still popular, even though he is no longer producing artwork regularly. Jack Davis is recognized today for his caricatures and advertising work, while John Severin is seen occasionally illustrating a war comic or a special project for various publishers.
The original EC comics are collector’s items today and will set you back about a hundred dollars for an average issue. Fortunately, they have been reprinted in a variety of formats:
The EC Library—These high-quality, hardcover books reprint the entire New Direction and New Thnd lines in 13 sets—Weird Science, Weird Fantasy, Weird Science Fantasy, Crime SuspenStories, Shock SuspenStories , Two-Fisted Tales, Frontline Combat, Tales From The Crypt, The Haunt of Fear, The Vault of Horror, the New Direction titles, Panic, and Mad. Each set contains a number of hardcover books in a slipcase.
Gladstone/Russ Cochran Reprints—These comic-book sized color reprints are more affordable than the EC Library. They have run in a variety of numberings under several publishers for the past two years.
The work of some of the artists mentioned can be found in these books:
Bernie Wrightson: A Look Back—This humongous 360-page book highlights some of the best pieces of Wrightson artwork in black-and-white and color.
Small Wonders—This projected two-volume set collects the funny-animal work of Frank Frazetta. The first volume has been published by Kitchen Sink Press. Also, five volumes were published by Bantam Books collecting Frazetta’s artwork starting in 1975.
The Art of Al Williamson— Published by Blue Dolphin Enterprises in 1983, this book is probably a little difficult to find.
Star Wars—This three-volume hardcover set was published by Russ Cochran collecting the entire run of the Star Wars newspaper strip by Archie Goodwin and Al Williamson.