Back in the day when people wore flared trousers un-ironically, wallpaper was beige and there were only three channels on British television, the BBC every summer used to show double bills of horror films and indeed, all three channels used to regularly show horror films late at night in all their gory glory. I especially loved the portmanteau films from Amicus (Hammer’s big competitor at the time) but I loved Tales from the Crypt and the Vault of Horror. I knew they were based on old comics but it’d be years before I actually read them and grow to love EC Comics for producing works of quality decades before I was even a twinge in my father’s testicles.
This piece isn’t about EC Comics as a whole as I’d end up using a piece of internet the size of Wales telling you how amazing their comics are, especially the work of Wally Wood and Harvey Kurtzman. No, this is about the dripping, gory joys of their horror comics which, if they did not exist, wouldn’t have influenced a generation of kids. John Carpenter wouldn’t have made films. Stephen King might not have become a writer and George Romero wouldn’t have come up with some wee zombie film..
Spawning out of EC’s crime comics, the horror genre was a relatively unexplored one for American comics prior to 1950, though one might say that the horrors coming out of Europe, Russia and the Pacific during the Second World War were horror enough for people, so the superhero was king until after the war, when the need for superheroes as a propaganda tool was gone. Post-war American comics had a variety of genres, but the crime comic sold in buckets. However, EC publisher William Gaines and his partner in crime, editor Al Feldstein, dabbled with the odd horror strip in titles like War Against Crime, which from #12 became The Vault of Horror and the history of comics in America changed forever.
Gaines and Feldstein wrote the overwhelming majority of EC’s horror output from 1950 to 1955 when they were forced to stop thanks to the worst example of censorship American comics ever saw, but I’m getting ahead of myself. The Vault of Horror was a massive success with it’s dry sense of black humour and a variety of the best artists in the medium at the time, so people like Jack Davis, Bernie Krigstein, Wally Wood, Joe Orlando and Graham Ingels, an astonishing horror artist who like many of his colleagues was hugely influential. Gaines then added Tales From the Crypt and the Haunt of Fear to his roster of titles and these too became hugely successful by following the same pattern of black humour (much of this due to the ‘hosts’ of the comics such as the Crypt Keeper or the Old Witch) and the anti-establishment tone of these comics. No subject was off limits, within the limits of what self-imposed censorship Gaines and Feldstein imposed, or that of their distributors who in many cases were themselves criminals (American comic book distribution was often in the hands of mobs UNtil well into the 1970’s/80’s) imposing a moral high ground they didn’t deserve.
EC’s horror comics were snapped up by hungry American kids eager to read tales of zombies, vampires, werewolves and less supernatural horrors which is what set EC aside from the hordes of imitators who tried, but didn’t get close to EC’s formula thinking it was just about the gore and violence. It wasn’t. Missing Gaines and Feldstein’s humour, not to mention ability to work in subversive messages in their stories which often saw authority figures, quite literally, ripped apart. Bear in mind this was at a time when America was in a post-war Golden Age, where authority figures were unquestioned, so EC’s commentary was basically like playing with fire.
One of those authority figures was Dr. Fredric Wertham, a psychiatrist who said the comic book was harming children and, in turn, causing the anti-social behaviour among young people which was causing concern. Of course the reasons for this behaviour was more complex than what Wertham was saying, but like any moral outrage a scapegoat needed to be found and William Gaines and EC Comics became a large part of the scapegoat used by the American establishment to demonise and blame for their social ills. After all, the 1950’s was supposed to be a Golden Age of prosperity and they can’t have kids causing trouble, so this all coalesced in 1954 when a set of senate hearings effectively damned the comic industry in America with the creation of the Comics Code. This outlawed terms like ‘horror’, ‘terror’, ‘weird’, ‘crime’ could be used with serious caveats, and zombies, and other otherworldly monsters were effectively banned. Furthermore, what the hearings also did was to partially clean up the distribution networks.
The Comics Code neutered American news-stand comics. Good guys always had to win. There was not even the hint of sex – nothing, not even an erect nipple which was now something which would be whitened out in these post-Code censorious times. No sex, little violence unless it was firmly directed towards baddies, and even then it was restricted, and certainly nothing which challenges authority or is remotely horrific. Definitely nothing which features a black person in a lead role or suggest black people were the equal of white people. EC Comics were effectively fucked, and an attempt to carry on publishing comics without crime, horror or violence didn’t last long, though one of their publications, Mad, was turned from a comic to a magazine to get around the Comics Code and that magazine is still with us today now published by DC Comics.
The legacy of EC though carried onto the 1960’s where paperback collections of its best stories were readily available. It was these which ended up being the spark that led to the two Amicus films in the 1970’s, which brings the story back to me. I never forgot about these films and eventually managed to obtain the Russ Cochran EC Library volumes of all EC’s horror comics and these are among some of my favourite comics sitting around in my collection. In the next part I’ll outline my favourite EC Comics horror stories and why you should read them.