The 13th Floor

Dr. Wertham’s Dilemma: The Rise & Fall of EC Horror Comics

Today’s gory horror films owe more than a debt to the chest-bursting, intestine-twirling Senate Subcommittee-defying horrors of EC Comics’ 1950s “funny books” — TALES FROM THE CRYPT, THE VAULT OF HORROR and THE HAUNT OF FEAR.

When comic books first hit newsstands in the 1930s — all in color for a dime — they were usually displayed next to their pulp magazine predecessors. The pulps, published on cheap newsprint, were the most fantastic lurid tales ever published – Lovecraft’s other dimensional horrors, sci-fi heroics, vile gangsters and unrepentant air aces — all with garishly painted covers depicting nearly nude maidens writhing to escape the fiendish desires of Fu Manchu or Ras Thavas, the mastermind of Mars.

Soon, the pulps began to get nudged from their rack space as comic books, which initially reprinted newspaper strips, began publishing original material. When Superman burst onto the scene in 1938, he was followed in rapid succession by a veritable legion of costumed adventurers competing for hard-earned dimes. The person responsible for getting Superman into print was a fellow by the name of M.C. Gaines who published the historic FAMOUS FUNNIES — the very first comic book consisting solely of original material created for the fledgling industry. He later headed up All-American Comics which featured the original incarnations of The Flash, Green Lantern and Hawkman.

But after World War Two, a new generation of bored kids were looking for something fresh. Costumed heroes felt dated and our boys actually won the war — not some imaginary Wonder Woman.

When Gaines’ All-American Comics merged with DC Comics, he retained the rights to one of his best-selling titles PICTURE STORIES FROM THE BIBLE which he used to jumpstart his new line named Educational Comics. But when he died in a sudden boat accident in 1947, his son William Gaines inherited the company.

As super hero titles waned during the post-war era, mystery, crimes and horror titles were the new breed best-sellers. One of the biggest sellers was publisher Charles Biros’ CRIME DOES NOT PAY, a hard boiled anthology series of lowlife crooks, gaudy patter and torpedo-bra bursting gun molls.

Between 1949 and 1950, Gaines rebranded EC as “Entertaining Comics” and launched the very first horror comics as well as suspense, crime and science fiction titles. Al Feldstein and Harvey Kurtzman joined the team as writer/editors and they enlisted some of the best artists comicdom has ever known to illustrate their debased tales of terror — often with an O. Henry twist promising some sort of “poetic justice.”

haunt-of-fear-14-graham-ingels

Soon, EC’s biggest bestsellers were the horror titles TALES FROM THE CRYPT, THE VAULT OF HORROR and The HAUNT OF FEAR. Each short story was introduced by an arcane host — The Crypt Keeper, The Vault Keeper and The Old Witch. Whether drawn by “Ghastly” Graham Ingles or Jack Davis these masters of macabre ceremonies were often more grim in appearance than the stories they actually introduced.

TalesCrypt3.-Final image follqwing copy

EC’s horror mags proved so popular that other companies quickly followed suit. Even Captain America, whose post-war career was somewhat suspect with no Nazis left to slug, became CAPTAIN AMERICA’S WEIRD TALES. Ironically, the star-spangled shield slinger didn’t even appear in the last issue of his own mag.

THE-HAUNT-OF-FEAR-17-Ghastly-Graham-Ingels-Cover

But what set EC apart from the pack — besides their pulpish origins – was their unrelenting approach to the horror genre. While horror films of the early 1950s barely showed blood, EC’s terror tales were not only wittily written but extremely pun-ny (“Horror We, How’s Bayou?”).

Horror, we_ Hows bayou_Ghastly Graham Ingles

EC did not shy away from extreme gore — be it an axe-split head, intestines and guts littering a baseball diamond or the skewering of such sacred cows as Santa Claus who was depicted as a sadistic homicidal lunatic.

THE VAULT OF HORROR

Despite the morality plays in which the wicked often met their just rewards (Bernie Krigstein’s cinematic “Master Race”), EC’s talented stable spared “no blood before its time.”

EC_ BERNIE KRIGSTEIN_Master_Race

This black humor in a spewing jugular vein actually spawned an in-house fan club, The EC Fan-Addicts, years before Stan Lee launched his Merry Marvel Marching Society. EC was the first comics company to get interactive with fans as they added letter columns for their little monsters to spout off in. Their catchphrase? “EC for me, see!”

JACK DAVIS_ EC COMICS_foulplay

Despite the seeming white picket fence compliance of a post-war affluence, fueled by the daily fear of a cataclysmic atomic war with the Russians, teens suddenly went berserk! Their “live fast, die young” rock ‘n’ roll ethos led to a rise to nationwide teen crime wave. These rebels without a cause got their kicks by not only bucking the parents but the establishment as well. This unprecedented rise in juvenile delinquency was seemingly unstoppable and comic books were to blame, so-called experts charged.

FREDERIC WRERTHAM attack_Ladies' Home Journal (Nov53) p.50

In 1954, a New York psychiatrist, Dr. Frederic Wertham’s indictment of comic books was first launched in the pages of Collier’s and Ladies Home Journal magazines. His book SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT ignited a national outrage.

Wertham’s “case histories” painted teen sociopaths as semi-literate thugs who not only read crime and horror comics but followed their instructions implicitly with no regard for human decency. Super heroes were not exempt from Wertham’s probing indictment — even suggesting that Batman and Robin were closeted homosexuals luring unwary youth down the primrose path of godless sodomy.

Number One on Wertham’s “Top Ten Hate List” was EC Comics, naturally.  No matter that EC sci-fi mags preached tolerance and diversity and their combat mags damned the folly of war, it was the Crypt Keeper’s delicious puns and graphic gore that fueled Wertham’s ire. Parental committees were quickly formed as community comic book bonfires were fueled by the German doc’s inflammatory crusade.

Called before the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency, EC publisher Gaines took an unapologetic stance before his accusers. His matter-of-fact testimony has become legend — a touchstone defense for intellectual and creative freedom without censorship.

“Our American children are for the most part normal children,” Gaines said. “They are bright children, but those who want to prohibit comic magazines seem to see dirty, sneaky, perverted monsters who use the comics as a blueprint for action. Perverted little monsters are few and far between. They don’t read comics.”

Grilled by Senator Estes Kefauver on what constitutes good taste, this brief transcript shows Gaines’ contempt for the Congressional witch-hunt.

Kefauver held up one of EC comics, CRIME SUSPENSTORIES to the committee. “This seems to be a man with a bloody axe holding a woman’s head up which has been severed from her body. Do you think that is in good taste?”

“Yes sir, I do, for the cover of a horror comic,” Gaines replied.

1954-EC_CrimeSuspensStories_EVIDENCE

“A cover in bad taste, for example, might be defined as holding the head a little higher so that the neck could be seen dripping blood from it, and moving the body over a little further so that the neck of the body could be seen to be bloody.”

As the nationwide furor mounted, Gaines urged the other comics publishers to form a self-regulatory governing body to stave off judicial interference. Despite his objections, the Comics Code Authority banned the words “horror”, “terror” and “weird” in the magazines’ titles. Numerous battles with CCA were fought and lost as Gaines and his team revamped their entire line, but to no avail. The die was cast. Horror mags were dead and Gaines’ publishing empire was defunct save for one comic.

To escape the Comics Code shackles, he changed the lone comic’s format to a magazine — MAD. That one magazine with its satirical attacks on the hypocrisy of American life — be it politics, Madison Avenue or the entertainment industry — did more to warp kids’ viewpoint of the adult world than any horror comic that Gaines ever published.

Ten years later in 1964, James Warren who had launched FAMOUS MONSTERS of FILMLAND on an unsuspecting public, resurrected the EC horror comic tradition in a B&W magazine, CREEPY. Using many of EC’s best artists including Al Williamson, Frank Frazetta, Joe Orlando, Reed Crandall, Johnny Craig and Angelo Torres, CREEPY was a breakout hit, spawning Warren’s own EERIE and other imitators.

EC _ BB_Paperbacks

Ballantine Books promptly licensed the EC classics TALES FROM THE CRYPT and THE HAUNT OF FEAR for paperback reprints. For a kid used to the silver age sheen of DC and Marvel, coming across those was unlocking a forbidden universe of sex, graphic gore and truly bad puns “Hello boils and ghouls….”   They scared the crap out of me and gave me nightmares for weeks but I read and re-read them until the spines cracked and the pages fell out.  Original ECs cost a fortune, but luckily Nostalgia Press issued a thick coffee table book of EC’s finest horror classics — this time in full color!

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In 1972 Hammer Films’ closest competitor Amicus released TALES FROM THE CRYPT as a movie anthology with Sir Ralph Richardson as the Crypt Keeper directed by genre stalwart Freddie Francis. The stories were culled from the paperback reprints. The film features two stand out episodes: “…And All Through the House” (Santa is an axe murderer looking to separate Joan Collins’ head from her body) and “Poetic Justice” with horror icon Peter Cushing returning from the dead to exact vengeance. Amicus quickly followed up the hit with THE VAULT OF HORROR a year later.

HBO Tales from the Crypt- CryptKeeper

As the cable TV industry boomed during the late 1980s, EC’s horror library was ripe for resurrection as an uncensored HBO terror-vison series. With no network restrictions regarding sex, violence and gore, the series was presided over by a skeletal Crypt Keeper. Produced by Hollywood’s A-Team of Richard Donner, Walter Hill, Joel Silver and Robert Zemeckis, the series attracted top name talent. Running from 1989 to 1996, TALES spawned various spin-offs and two feature films BORDELLO OF BLOOD and DEMON KNIGHT under the TFTC banner.

With all things horror hotter than ever, the EC horror comics franchise is now back in business with a new TALES FROM THE CRYPT series for TNT spearheaded by the king of spooky switcheroos, M. Night Shayamalan. The network confirmed that the new series will be based on the original comic books and not the HBO series.

With this latest resurrection, forget grave spinning — Frederick Wertham’s festering corpse must surely be frothing at the mouth, hell bent on a vengeance it can never have.

Now that’s “poetic justice” — EC style!

Poetic Justice_Graham Ingels

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