The Glory and Horror of EC Comics

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It could be argued that the gore in the story simply parodies, perhaps even criticizes, the gore in Spillane’s work, which in the mid-50s count for six of the ten best-selling paperbacks to that time. On the last page of “I, the Jury,” Hammer learns that the killer he’s been searching for is a beautiful shrink he almost fell in love with. So he shoots her dead. “‘How c-could you?’ she gasped. I only had a moment before talking to a corpse, but I got it in. ‘It was easy,’ I said.”

But to see “My Gun Is the Jury” as a critique of Spillane would be to ignore Feldstein’s horror work. This Panic story has the writer’s favorite ingredients of murder, hatred and extravagant revenge — plus a patented Feldstein double-twist, which tops the O. Henry ending of “I, the Jury.” Stella, the gorgeous doll whose advances Mike keeps strangely resisting, turns out to be the killer. “I let her have it, right in the gut, a little below the belly-button...” Then Stella’s blouse falls away to reveal that — she’s a guy! “And when I saw Stella’s manly physique, I started to cry, ‘Stella! Don’t die! Don’t die!’ But Stella died, never realizing that I, Mike Hammershlammer, was a woman.”



DISGUSTING, PAGAN AND UNFUNNY

To say that Feldstein’s Panic was the comics equivalent of an R rating to Kurtzman’s PG is not to say Panic wasn’t funny. It’s certainly not to suggest it was illegal. But some important people did. Panic got EC in trouble with the state of Massachusetts, the New York City Police Department and Sen. Kefauver. New York’s Finest were not at all amused by “My Gun Is the Jury.” As Jacobs writes: “The police descended on the EC office an bought a copy of the magazine. [EC business manager Lyle] Stuart told Gaines to stay out of sight. The police arrested Stuart and book him on the charge of selling ‘disgusting’ literature. If convicted, he faced a possible year in prison. ... [EC lawyer Martin Schlieman] argued the case in the lower court so effectively that the judge, in Gaines’ words, ‘threw it out as the most stupid Goddamn thing he’d ever heard of.’”

The final story in Panic #1 was Bill Elder’s illustrated version of “The Night Before Christmas.” It’s bursting with wonderful sight gags: a slaughterhouse with body parts (boxes of Lady Fingers, a jar of Housemaids Knees), a carton of feline bits (“Our stuffing is the cats!!”), a large rodent (“portermouse steak”) and a “stewed lamb” (crouching over an empty bottle of rotgut). But what offended some delicate sensibilities was the portrayal of Santa Claus: cursing as he drives a sleigh with a “Just Divorced!” bumper sticker and morphing into a blackface crooner when he emerges “all tarnished with ashes and soot.” Massachusetts Attorney General George Fingold, aghast at this “pagan” desecration of Saint Nicholas, called for Panic’s suppression. “Not only was it banned in Boston,” Jacobs writes, “it was banned in the entire state of Massachusetts.”

One more Panic outrage. During the Subcommittee’s quizzing of Gaines, Kefauver took exception to a Maidenform bra parody ad: “I Dreamed I Went to a Fraternity Smoker in My Panic Magazine!” Really, Mr. Gaines, is that supposed to be funny? There must have been a sigh in the publisher’s voice when he explained: “This is a lampoon magazine. We make fun of things.”

Feldstein kept making fun of dicey things and influential people. He tweaked the blue-noses in a Li’l Abner lampoon called “Li’l Melvin” — seven pages of standard japery and an eighth purporting to be a report of “the Committee on Protecting the Soft Minds of Our Little Monsters.” For example, the Committee detects a picture of a cow in a pasture. “This is obviously Lil’ Melvin’s mother’s cow. Mammy’s cow... Ma’s cow... Moscow is the capitol of Russia. This... is Communist propaganda!”



HORRIBLE SURPRISE ENDING

In an earlier column on Kurtzman and MAD, I wrote about Dr. Fredric Wertham and his campaign to save the minds of American kids by keeping “crime comics” away from them. But he deserves a bit more here. Wertham, a clinical psychologist specializing in disorders of the young, trembled when he read comic books. Any comic books: Superman (fascist!), Batman and Robin (perverts!), wonder Woman (lesbian!). Apparently after an encounter with a Looney Tunes comic, he reported, aghast, that “Ducks...threaten to kill rabbits.” He blithely stated that, since most juvenile delinquents he had examined were readers of horror comics, horror comics must be a factor in their misbehavior. (This is the post-hoc-ergo-propter-hoc fallacy of logic. No Senator dared ask if all the delinquents hadn’t also listened to “The Lone Ranger” and eaten mashed potatoes.)

Wertham was a star witness, and a friendly one, of Kefauver’s subcommittee. The good doctor told Kefauver that “Hitler was a beginner compared to the comic book industry.” (Right: “Mein Kampf” couldn’t corrupt young people. No pictures.) When Gaines followed him that afternoon, he did not ingratiate himself with the solons when he said, “It would be just as difficult to explain the harmless thrill of a horror comics to Dr. Wertham as it would be to explain the sublimity of love to a frigid old maid.”

Gaines, who was dosed with dexedrine for his diet, began his testimony with the bold statement, “I was the first publisher in the United States to publish horror comics. I am responsible. I started them.” (Actually, he didn’t.) He escalated into rhetorical questions: “Are we afraid of our own children? Do we forget that they are citizens too and entitled to select what to read and do?” (Actually, they’re not.) The rest of his testimony made for high drama, but it didn’t win Gaines any points with his questioners.

They wanted to know about a house ad Gaines had run in all his magazines: “Are You a Red Dupe?” It noted that among the detractors of comic books was the Communist newspaper The Daily Worker and perorated, “So the next time some joker gets up at a PTA meeting, or starts jabbering about ‘the naughty comic books’ at your local candy store, give him the once-over. We are not saying he is a Communist. He may be a dupe. He may not even read the Daily Worker. It is just that he's swallowed the Red bait — hook, line and sinker.”

In 1954, with Commiephobia at its apex (the Army-McCarthy hearings began the day after Gaines’ appearance), irony or sarcasm would be lost on crusading Senators. In its interim report, the subcommittee condemned “those materials offered for children's reading that fall below the American standard of decency by glorifying crime, horror, and sadism.” It then took a swipe at Gaines: “The tempter of children cannot excuse his attempts to gain personal wealth through disregard of cultural values by crying that the parents should have been more vigilant. [This vigilance] would not have been necessary if the persons responsible for producing and distributing comic books had exercised that measure of self-restraint and common decency which the American people have a right to expect from an industry aiming its product so largely at the young and impressionable minds of our children.”



“HEE, HEE... THAT’S IT!”

Gaines had volunteered to testify at the Kefauver clambake as a way of putting his case to the people. Didn’t help. Even without a hundred talk shows to stir the ferment — and even though no legislation resulted from the hearings — horror comics got buried in harsh publicity. This goaded the community of comics publishers to create a self-censoring Code for their magazines. Gaines knew this would kill off his books — they were the “Alien,” the “Kill Bill,” the “Evil Dead” of their day — and refused to join.

As quickly as they had risen, the EC horror comics fell. After the Haunt of Fear witch hunt, Gaines closed down all his New Trend titles( except for MAD), whether or not they had attracted official opprobrium. (He had already discontinued Frontline Combat in late 1953, when Kurtzman was devoting all his attention to making MAD a monthly, and combined Weird Science and Weird Fantasy into one quarterly, Weird Science-Fantasy, whose title was changed seven issues later to Incredible Science Fiction. Two-Fisted Tales struggled along until the Feb.-March 1955 issue.)

Gaines then shoveled EC’s profits down two holes. One was a line of 10-cent New Direction comics with mid-cult aspirations. I remember buying an issue of, no kidding, Psychoanalysis comic book; it was the only EC publication my father ever told me to throw out — but, as I recall, it wasn’t nearly that provocative. The other was a 1956 quartet of Picto-Fiction magazines, priced at 25 cents to emulate MAD’s success. These contained full short stories with a drawing on each page. Called Crime Illustrated, Terror Illustrated, Shock Illustrated and Romance Illustrated (the word had become marketable the year before, with Time Inc.’s introduction of Sports Illustrated) lasted only two issues. By 1956, when his national distributor went bankrupt, Gaines was $110,000 in the hole — exactly his financial position when he took over EC nine years before.

Then Kurtzman left MAD and took his three top artists with him.

It happens that Gaines’ story is not a horror comic but a romance comic. He found true compatibility with his old-new editor, Feldstein, and made a bundle. He became the fat, funny face of MAD (aside from Alfred E. Neuman). But his great work, I’d say, was behind him: the creation and nurturing of those wonderful, awful comics.

During his Senate appearance, he was shown a copy of the Shock SuspenStories then on the newsstand. In that issue was a fable called “The Orphan,” in which the girl’s torturers end up in the electric chair. Gaines was asked sarcastically if he thought the story had any therapeutic value for children. Instead of twisting some moral rationalization out of his scare tale, Gaines sensibly replied, “I don’t think it does them a bit of good, but I don’t think it does them a bit of harm, either.”

I was a kid then. I read some of the EC horror titles, and I don’t think they did me a bit of harm, either. Bill Gaines, Al Feldstein and I could spot quality entertainment when we saw it.



NEXT TIME: THE REVENGE OF HARVEY KURTZMAN

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