Tuesday, July 26, 2016

That's Entertaining! With a Twist (or Maybe an Ax).

I was too young to experience the gory glory of pre-Comics Code comics when I was a kid. The code was instituted in 1954 after a great "comics cause juvenile delinquency" scare that mirrored the concurrent Red scare of the time.

I probably started reading comics around 1955, so all the titles I read were sanitized for my protection with this seal of approval.

My mom was of the common belief that comics were trash, and I was forbidden to buy them. So, of course, I fell deeply in love with them.

Thanks to remarkably tolerant newsstand owners, my friends and I would spend hours perusing the latest issues of Action Comics (Superman), Detective Comics (Batman), and even, when we were really desperate, Classics Illustrated, until we were finally urged to move on.

In the summer, we would scour the beach for empty pop bottles to return for deposit. We usually found enough to pay for some Pixy Stix or a Sugar Daddy plus a comic or two. I would sneak mine home (kids were pretty much free range in those days, so this was easy) and hide them in a box in the garage. I would be rich if I still had the collection I eventually amassed.

I first heard of the controversial history of Entertaining Comics when I came across a copy of Dr. Frederic Wertham's notorious Seduction of the Innocent in the library. Wertham was the most famous anti-comics crusader of the early 1950s, and his book includes a compendium of the most lurid images from the comics of the time: scantily clad, big-breasted women in bondage, rotting corpses, and various other depictions of violence and dismemberment.

My love for EC Comics began in that moment. Over the years, and especially since the 1980s, when comics finally began to acquire a patina of cultural couth, I've been able to track down many reprints of pre-code comics, including box sets of most of the EC oeuvre.

So when I heard that a traveling exhibition of original art from EC Comics was making a stop in Eugene, Oregon, I planned a road trip around it.

They weren't kidding. So be forewarned, so does this blog post.

The exhibition was housed the art museum at the beautiful Unversity of Oregon campus. I was stunned by the sheer number of pages on display.

Of course, they had this famous cover by Johnny Craig. Interestingly, the image is more horrific in black and white than in color.

Marie Severin, who was the colorist for most EC Comics made some color choices that slightly softened the impact of the original image: the blood on the ax is black rather than red, and saliva rather than blood is leaking from the mouth. Severin is credited with using color to tone down several of EC's most notorious cover images, delaying, for a while, the hysteria that eventually drove EC out of the comics business.

Here's another example: the cover of Vault of Horror No. 30 as originally colored by Severin.

And as modified by whoever did the poster for the exhibit. Marie's version is, well, I wouldn't say subtler, but a bit more discreet.

EC wanted to take advantage of a unique market: men coming back from the war. Comics were popular among the troops, and many continued reading comics in civilian life. Having been exposed to the brutalities of mechanized warfare, however, they were open to more violent and adult fare.

EC tried to meet that demand with several lines of magazines. There were the crime and adventure-oriented comics, Crime SuspenStories and Shock SuspenStories, the horror lines, The Crypt of Terror (retitled Tales From the Crypt after three issues), The Vault of Horror, and The Haunt of Fear, men's war/adventure stories, Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat, and the famous science-fiction lines, Weird Science and Weird Fantasy, eventually combined as Weird Science-Fantasy. Other, less successful titles, included Piracy.

Most of the stories featured some sort of moral point and ended with an ironic twist, a format later adopted by Rod Serling for The Twilight Zone.

Though EC aspired to connect to an older audience, there was no mechanism in place to keep children from buying their titles or from being exposed to the scary cover images. This led to trouble. Parents groups were formed, Congressional hearings were called. Dr. Wertham's testimony at these hearings did much to dignify and magnify the charges against comics. As restrictive legislation loomed, comics publishers chose pre-emptive self-regulation, establishing a comics code that dumbed down comics until at least the late 1960s.

EC fought the comics code for as long as they could. Eventually, their distribution dried up and they got out of the comic book business.

But they left behind an immense contribution to American culture. EC's publisher, William Gaines, and his editor, Al Feldman, had excellent taste in illustrators and writers. Weird Science and Weird Fantasy often featured stories written by Ray Bradbury and the like. The horror and science fiction lines have inspired several generations of writers and directors, from Stephen King to John Carpenter and Guillermo del Toro. And the EC stable of illustrators included artists who have since become world-famous in mainstream publications and ads: Jack Davis, Bernie Krigstein, Frank Frazetta, and many others.

One of EC's discoveries, Graham Ingels, aptly nicknamed Ghastly, contributed some of the most horrifying images ever done for the medium.

Two pages from one of Ingel's stories.Note the trademark bad puns in the title. Each of the horror comics had its own mascot who tied the stories together with jokey narration: the Crypt Keeper in Tales From the Crypt, the Vault Keeper in The Vault of Horror, and the Old Witch in The Haunt of Fear.

The science-fiction line also featured many fine artists.

Check out the amazing detail in this page by Al Williamson.

And of course, there was Wally Wood, whose covers and stories always featured horrifying aliens menacing big-breasted women in skin-tight space suits. Though he worked in other genres as well, Wood absolutely defined 1950s sci-fi illustration.

But it wasn't all babes and bug-eyed monsters.

Wood also illustrated one of EC's most controversial stories, Judgement Day. The story depicts a human astronaut who must judge whether or not a planet of robots is ready to join the Galactic Republic. The robots are divided into orange and blue races, one of which has fewer rights and privileges than the other. The astronaut decides that this bigotry disqualifies the planet from joining the Republic.

In the last panel, the astronaut, who has remained fully-suited throughout the story, removes his helmet to reveal that he is black.

The Comics Code Authority was willing to approve the story but were adamant that the astronaut could not be black. Here's how comics historian Digby Diehl described what happened next:
This really made ’em go bananas in the Code czar’s office. ‘Judge Murphy was off his nut. He was really out to get us’, recalls [EC editor] Feldstein. ‘I went in there with this story and Murphy says, “It can’t be a Black man”. But … but that’s the whole point of the story!’ Feldstein sputtered. When Murphy continued to insist that the Black man had to go, Feldstein put it on the line. ‘Listen’, he told Murphy, ‘you’ve been riding us and making it impossible to put out anything at all because you guys just want us out of business’. [Feldstein] reported the results of his audience with the czar to Gaines, who was furious [and] immediately picked up the phone and called Murphy. ‘This is ridiculous!’ he bellowed. ‘I’m going to call a press conference on this. You have no grounds, no basis, to do this. I’ll sue you’. Murphy made what he surely thought was a gracious concession. ‘All right. Just take off the beads of sweat’. At that, Gaines and Feldstein both went ballistic. ‘Fuck you!’ they shouted into the telephone in unison. Murphy hung up on them, but the story ran in its original form.
Check out the whole story here: https://cacb.wordpress.com/2008/11/24/ec-comics-judgement-day/

EC's war/adventure comics were specifically aimed at men who had been or still were in the armed forces. They were the brainchild of one of EC's greatest and most influential writer/artists, Harvey Kurtzman.

Kurtzman's art is very distinctive, an expressionistic style using heavy blacks and incredibly kinetic compositions. His stories, many of which take place during the Korean War, were meticulously researched and all conveyed starkly realistic anti-war messages.

Quite a contrast from the stories being flogged by the many other men's magazines on the market.

Two pages from one of Kurtzman's most powerful stories, Corpse on the Imjin. Kurtzman's innovative composition included not only each individual panel but entire pages.

Read the entire story here: http://www.beaucoupkevin.com/imjin/index.html

In 1952, Kurtzman created a comic for EC that eventually became one of the America's most popular humor magazines, MAD. It was successful from the start and continued long after EC Comics went defunct. In 1955, it converted to magazine format, partly to get out from under the oppressive rule of the Comics Code Authority. 

Kurtzman brought in many of EC's best artists to illustrate the magazine's scathing satires of American culture.

A page by Bill Elder from a parody of the Howdy Doody Show.

Wally Wood illustrated this remarkable example of breaking the fourth wall, as well as many parodies of various superhero comics.

Then in 1954, Kurtzmann appropriated a face that had appeared in various turn-of-the-century American postcards and ads. The face, with modifications, was used several times in the magazine before Al Feldstein decided that it should be MAD's official mascot.

And in December 1956, one of America's most enduring icons made his first appearance on the cover of Mad.


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