The Glory and Horror of EC Comics

  • Share
  • Read Later

(2 of 4)

He was a long shot to make a profit or a passion. A “nerd” (Feldstein’s word for Gaines when he recalled their first meeting) who looked like a Jewish Drew Carey and lived with his mom throughout EC’s prime years, Gaines had scant interest in his dad’s business. “Comics? I hated ’em,” he wrote in a 1954 piece (reprinted in the excellent anthology “Tales of Terror!: The EC Companion”). “Never touched the stuff. I wanted to be a chemistry teacher.” Now he was stuck with a line of pious comics, and a pre-pre-Code code of comic-book conduct, drawn up by Max’s editor Sheldon Mayer: “Never show anybody stabbed or shot. Show no torture scenes. Never show a hypodermic needle. Don’t chop the limbs off anybody. Never show a coffin, especially with anybody in it.” That’d change.

At first Gaines showed up only to issue pay checks. Then he got to work. He secularized his merchandise, gradually retiring the Bible stories in favor of genres that were selling to young postwar consumers. And in 1948 he hired Feldstein, then just 22. What a smart pickup! Feldstein was every boss’ favorite employee: a hard-working idea man with inexhaustible energy and a nose for the market. For a few years he was editing and writing seven complete magazines every two months, often illustrating stories and drawing the covers. (Kurtzman, before MAD, was painstakingly producing only two magazines — the war comics Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat — on the bimonthly schedule.) Feldstein could turn on a dime. In the June-July 1954 issue of Panic, he wrote a derisive parody of Major Donald E. Keyhoe’s best-selling book “Flying Saucers from Outer Space.” A few months later, he wrote a special issue of Incredible Science-Fiction dedicated to the proposition that UFOs were real. His highly-touted source: Major Donald E. Keyhoe,

For a year or so, Gaines and Feldstein tried magazines devoted to romance, space adventures, detective stories and the Old West. None scintillated. Then, perhaps noticing the advent of a few horror titles (Eerie was the first, in 1947), they introduced a few horror elements into their Crime Patrol and War on Crime titles. The last issue of Crime Patrol (March-April 1950) had a full larder of spooky-titled tales: “The Corpse in the Crematorium,” “Trapped in the Tomb,” “The Graveyard Feet “ and a Crypt-Keeper tale, “The Spectre in the Castle!”



GAINES GOES GORY

In early 1950, Gaines cleaned house. Indeed, he practically blew it up. He junked all the old titles and replaced them with a bolder line he called “New Trend” comics. War Against Crime became The Vault of Horror; Crime Patrol was made over into The Crypt of Terror (its title changed to Tales of the Crypt after a few issues); Gunfighter morphed into The Haunt of Fear; Saddle Romances gave way to Weird Science, and A Moon, a Girl, a Romance to Weird Fantasy. All the new magazines were introduced within a few months in early 1950. Crime SuspenStories premiered six months later, Shock SuspenStories in early 1952. Presumably, the subscribers to the old magazines found the new ones in their mail boxes. What must those Zane Grey fans and sweet schoolgirls have thought?

It didn’t matter, for the horror line attracted hundreds of thousands of new readers. “By mid-1953 business at EC was astonishing,” writes Maria Reidelbach in “Completely MAD: A History of the Comic Book and Magazine.” “The Haunt of Fear, The Vault of Horror and the renamed Tales from the Crypt had a circulation of 400,000 copies each;... Weird Science, Weird Fantasy, Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat lagged behind, at about 225,000 copies each.” Decades later, Feldstein recalled that Haunt of Fear sold fewer copies than the other two horror titles, and for a good reason: “What the hell is a Haunt anyway?”

With EC’s success, the horror freshet became a flood of 150 or more imitators and competitors. But Gaines was doing fine. He had a small staff: Feldstein, Kurtzman, writer-artist Johnny Craig, a secretary, a few others. Most of the illustrators were free-lancers who at first were paid $18 per page for pencil work, $13 for inking; the fee later rose to about $50 a page. And the income was, for Gaines, incomparable. According to his Senate testimony, EC’s annual gross revenue by this time was about $1 million, the net $50,000. Not bad for merchandise that went for 10 cents a pop. That meant they were selling 10 million comics a year. The company’s motto might have been: EC Does It.

The horror comics offered grown-up, or at least adolescent fare — which is why it was popular with kids; they wanted a passkey to the forbidden, the extreme, and in these campfire tales they could feel scaredy-brave both by subjecting themselves to horror tales and by daring to read something that might be condemned by their parents. Which suggests a financial oddity: EC’s main audience was teen and young adult males — the target demographic for today’s advertisers. Yet the average New Trend magazine contained no more than three pages of outside advertising. The revenue came almost entirely from readers.



EC-CENTRICITY

And EC gave them their dimes’ worth. Bill and Al’s flourishing line of bimonthly comics brought the dead-of-night short story to lurid, four-color life. As longtime MAD writer Frank Jacobs noted in his 1982 book “The MAD World of William M. Gaines,” each magazine “seethed with wild, twisting tales brought to life by spectacular art that is today regarded by aficionados as the dawning of a new age in comic-book illustration.”

Horror comics were the first successful instances of comic books without a regular hero or heroine — a Superman or Little Lulu. But the EC horror mags did have “hosts”: the wise-cracking Crypt Keeper, Vault Keeper and Old Witch (whose function Feldstein adapted from the framing device for Arch Oboler’s radio suspense show “Lights Out”). These post-mortals set up each story and signed off at the end, leaving the audience laughing, or screaming. And the story itself? It was a thing of familiar elements. To wit:

A story set in the midnight of a demented soul. A tale of several deadly sins — every one, really, but lust, which was replaced by bloodlust. Moral tales, in a retributive, Old Testament fashion: an eye for an eye, and I’ll raise you four limbs and your intestines, payable on the last page of the story. Villains who sneer, victimized wives who go “sob... sob” and outsiders who show up at the end to count the corpses. Vivid descriptions of terror, to prepare the reader for the enormity of what he was about to encounter, the crucial dialogue rendered in boldface. Typical dialogue, from “The Grave Wager” (Vault of Horror #16): “He’s sitting in the corner whimpering like a scared puppy! And his hair has turned snow white!” Or this, from “Horror House” (Vault of Horror #15): “Great scott! She’s aged twenty years! She must have seen something horrible beyond words to make her the babbling lunatic we see!” And a surprise ending — the O. Henry-style twist that made the malefactor pay in the most gruesome way possible.

Revenge was a dish best served on the last page of an EC comic, at an extreme temperature. Sometimes the vengeance came at Fate’s hands, as in “Hot-Rod” (Weird Fantasy #19). First the grisly murder: “Amos brought the monkey wrench down on Cynthia’s skull again and again until the pillow and her head melted into a fused mass of red pulp.” Then the fitting comeuppance: With a car that speeds through time and space, Amos plans the perfect alibi. After killing Cynthia, he drive to a faraway town and establish his presence at the exact time of the murder. But he revs the motor too much and at the end realizes, “Good Lord! I’m on Mars! And... and... and I’m out of gas!”

“Bedtime Gory” (Haunt of Fear #18) is about Milton, the sadistic chauffeur who killed the boss, married his daughter and took over the company. Finally his abused wife takes her revenge. “Milton lay spread-eagled across the four-poster, his wrists and ankles each securely bound to a post. Lorna began to turn a crank, Somewhere inside the bed, a ratchet clicked. ‘You’re going to be a big man, Milton!’ Milton felt his arms pulled... his legs drawn... And then, Milton felt the tendons tearing, the muscles snapping, the veins and arteries bursting and hemorrhaging. He screamed. He knew. The ratchet clicked as Lorna turned the crank...” The Vault Keeper then lightens the mood with a punning peroration: “Milty yelled ‘Uncle’ that night, but Lorna kept ‘Doone’ it... turning the crank, that is! Milty sure was a big man when they found him in the morning.... Some wise guy had a tape measure with him and took a reading. Anybody want to buy a twelve-foot long majority stockholder?”

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3
  4. 4