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This costs £20, probably a little cheaper if purchased online.
The American horror comics of the 1950s are legendary. The most famous company producing them was EC, but an awful lot of other publishers got in on the act. These comics contained usually quite simplistic short horror stories, often featuring twist endings (although the opening half-page panel would usually act as a kind of executive summary, clueing readers in to what they were about to read). The stories were lurid, brutal, and unbelievably gruesome. Naturally, kids loved them. Equally naturally, parents hated them (why is it that parents always forget what it was like to be a child?).
In 1954 Dr Fredric Wertham published a book called ‘Seduction of the Innocents’ in which he posited – using distorted and partial data – that comics in general, and especially horror comics, were responsible for most of society’s ills. When he saw malnourished, barely literate children from deprived families reading horror comics, he naturally assumed that the comics were responsible for all the kids’ problems, rather than any social or economic factors. This has been the usual tactic of the censorious: find a convenient media scapegoat for serious failings in government policy and persecute that scapegoat for a bit of easy credit with the right-wing press.
A US Senate committee investigated horror comics that same year, and the end result was the Comics Code, a ludicrously stringent series of rules that all American comics had to follow to the letter (and none of the major publishers dared break away from it until Alan Moore’s run on Swamp Thing in the 1980s). It is generally regarded that the Code took a vibrant, increasingly confident new artform and killed it stone dead. This is an exaggeration – the rise of TV played a big part in falling comic book sales – but certainly comics didn’t really pick up again artistically until Jack Kirby and Stan Lee got going at Marvel ten years later.
Anyway, just as the 1980s video nasties are almost all available now, allowing us to stick two fingers up retrospectively at the censors, so the horror comics are coming back into print. The EC material – Tales From The Crypt being the most famous title – has been readily available for years. This book reprints plenty of covers and stories from some of the smaller publishers who don’t have the same profile, with text by Jim Trombetta, who also selected what to reprint.
His essays are good, showing an extensive knowledge of the subject. He gives the history of the censorship before moving on to examine specific themes and types of monster commonly found in horror comics. He also traces how the horror iconography found its way into war, crime and sci-fi comics. (In those days American comics didn’t just mean superheroes.) He writes in a likable fashion, although occasionally veers towards slight pretentiousness.
But the appeal of this isn’t really the text. It’s the comics. Anyone who knows anything about comics of the era will have an idea of what to expect. The artwork is cruder than later ‘silver age’ superhero stuff (and a far cry from the glossy hyper-steroidal artwork we get nowadays). There’s a rough and ready feel to a lot of the art, and anatomy and perspective are sometimes plain wrong – whether for artistic effect or just because they were produced in a hurry is unclear.
Likewise the writing is fairly infantile, with no adult language, characters who talk like kids, and only a few hints of sexual activity. But for all that, these are startlingly gory. The violence is rarely realistic, but it is horrible. Faces melt to the bone, heads and limbs are lopped off, eyes are gouged out, all presented in unflinching detail.
The stories are often basic morality tales. Skeletons and zombies return from the dead for grim, ironic revenge. A man who kills his partner in crime is tormented by hallucinations of the guy’s dead body being eaten by rats. In other stories, scientific hubris brings people to ruin, as Lovecraftian dream experiments or research missions to space go horribly wrong. And on other occasions decent people just happen to move into the wrong house, or take the wrong train, or go after the wrong vampire. The stories are remorseless, and cruelly inevitable.
They aren’t particularly horrifying. Gruesome, sure – you can imagine kids (boys) showing each other the gory moments just like me and my friends used to love horror top trump cards and video art. But they’re perfectly judged, kid-friendly horrors. A lot of the stories have a semi-comic narrator, which further distances us from any real involvement with the story, although occasionally these narrators turn out to be monsters themselves. So while there’s a tonne of gore and decomposition and cannibalism, there’s nothing really scary or likely to haunt anyone’s dreams. I guess the hygienic 1950s had no place for such things, though, so they banned them anyway.
The reprinted comic strips are great – I love this kind of stuff. But the best are the reprinted covers, which make promises that surely can’t have been fulfilled. The cover of Dark Mysteries no.13 has three prisoners and a guard reacting in horror to the presence of a severed calf and foot that has appeared in front of them. ‘It’s Tom’s Leg… but he was executed last night!’ shouts the horrified guard – the leg, with a stump of bone protruding from the top, still has a manacle shackled around the ankle. Meanwhile, a skeleton grins through the bars of a nearby cell, and a caption promises ‘The Terror of the Hungry Cats’. Who could possibly not buy that?
There are loads of similar covers reprinted here: severed heads used as bell clappers, women being dragged to their doom by leering skeletons, frozen corpses in fridges. The quality of the reprints is good throughout, with the colours looking particularly authentic.
Although there’s very little from EC and nothing from DC, there are a few well known artists represented here, including future Spidey artist Steve Ditko. I’d been unaware of LB Cole, whose amazing psychedelic covers ought to be blown up to poster size. This is nothing more than a sampler of the material produced, and the nature of the comic book industry of the time means we’ll never see any definitive collections of the smaller publishers’ work (Fantagraphics have put out an excellent collection called Four Color Fear, but it seems to be out of print at the moment – get it if you can). This is certainly a worthy purchase for any comic fan, and for those not interested in actually ploughing through multiple volumes of EC reprints, it offers a decent taste of what all the fuss was about back then.
The book comes with a bonus DVD which contains an episode of a 1950s US current affairs show called Confidential File. It’s about comic books, and hosted by someone called Paul Coates. He wheels out all the usual arguments, and even interviews Senator Estes Kefauver, who was instrumental in the Senate hearings the year before. We see contrived scenes of kids reading horror comics and then torturing someone (because that’s inevitably what happens when children read comics); and obviously scripted kids recounting the plots of comics they’ve read and then describing the psychological problems they claim to have developed as a result. There’s a funny bit where a kid starts stabbing a tree with his pen knife, apparently having slipped into a horror-induced trance.
It’s kind of an interesting glimpse into mid-50s TV, but Coates comes across as an opportunist jumping on last year’s bandwagon (comics had already been ruined by the time this show was made). His interviews with young boys just come across as creepy, and the bit where he urges communities to track down these evil comic books and destroy them reminds me of those jarheads burning their Beatles albums a decade later. Why are censorship crusades always aimed at the lowest common denominator? Well, that probably answers itself…
The horror comics seem to have influenced everyone from Stephen King to George Romero as kids. It’s a genuine surprise when you read them for the first time to realise just how violent they are. This book does a great job of giving us the chance to read several stories for ourselves, and of putting them in historical context. Recommended.