The Glory and Horror of EC Comics

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Mr. Beaser: Is there any limit you can think of that you would not put in a magazine because you thought a child should not see or read about it?
Mr. Gaines: My only limits are the bounds of good taste, what I consider good taste.
Sen. Kefauver [alluding to the cover illustration for Crime SuspenStories #22]: This seems to be a man with a bloody ax holding a womans head up which has been severed from her body. Do you think that is in good taste?
Mr. Gaines: Yes, sir, I do, for the cover of a horror comic....
Sen. Kefauver: This is the July one [Crime SuspenStories #23]. It seems to be a man with a woman in a boat and he is choking her to death with a crowbar. Is that in good taste?
Mr. Gaines: I think so.

Fifty years ago this month, a comic-book publisher dared to defend his business before a panel of skeptical lawmakers. The publisher, William M. Gaines of the Entertaining Comics Group (EC), had asked to testify before the Senate Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency. On the afternoon of April 21, 1954, Gaines took the stand in a Foley Square courtroom in lower Manhattan to tangle with Estes Kefauver, who had made his name (and the cover of TIME) chairing televised hearings on organized crime. In 1951 the Senator had exposed the Mafia to a nationwide audience. Now he would confront another menace: the purveyors of comic books that, one psychologist claimed, made kids go bad.

The horror books certainly were gross and grotty. In Ghastly Terror!: The Horrible Story of the Horror Comics (1999), Brit comics fan Stephen Sennitt describes the melodramatic panorama as an incredible array of primal fears; a plunge into the abyss of social and cultural insecurity, and a deep distrust of ones fellow-man — but more than this, a ghoulish fixation on vengeance, guilt and punishment. The punishment of vanity, greed, gluttony and arrogance, all in the pages of comics aimed ostensibly at children and youths! Major themes of the precode horror comics are decapitation, or dismemberment, or disfigurement of some kind, such as destruction of the face by acid, or the poking out of eyes. And this from a witness for the defense!

As an aging kid who was an EC fan 50 years ago, Id testify that most of us survived reading horror comics. So did Bill Gaines, under oath. Jimmy Walker once remarked that he never knew a girl to be ruined by a book, Gaines proclaimed, referring to the late New York City mayor, and adding, Nobody has ever been ruined by a comic.

But people have been ruined by Senate investigations. And smear campaigns in newspapers. And experts whose evidence turn out to be fraudulent. All three of these factors put an axe to the neck of the horror and crime comics of the early 50s, and abruptly aborted one of the great explosions of vox-pop literature.

For comics, the 1950-54 period is analogous to Hollywood movies in 1930-34. Both are known as the pre-Code era, although a loose, laxly administered set of standards was already in place for both media. The early 30s for films, and the early 50s for comics, were seen as times of bold, often lurid entertainment, and are viewed in retrospect as pop-cultural high points. Both formats triggered powerful opposition among the burghers of propriety: movies with the Catholic Church and its newly formed Legion of Decency, comics with members of the press, Congress and at least one respected sociologist. Finally, both were sanitized — mildly, for movies; fatally, for horror comics.

The difference was distribution. Film companies owned the companies that distributed their films and the theaters that showed them (until 1948, when the Supreme Court busted the studios vertical monopoly). What Hollywood made, the audience could see. Comic book publishers didnt control distribution. When the putative guardians of public morality put the screws to crime and horror comics, distributors refused to put them on newsstands. The number of horror and crime titles on the stands dropped in a few months from 150 to nearly none. And Gaines, whose company had flourished in the horror boom, and whose Senate testimony had made him the face of the B comic-book industry — the Mae West of pulp picto-fiction — took the heat. Refusing to join his competitors new Comics Code Authority, he shut down all but one of his magazines.

As it happened, that one was MAD.


A personal note. I came to EC through MAD, which was dreamed up in 1952 by Harvey Kurtzman and written by him as a 10-cent comic book (23 issues) and a 25-cent magazine. In 1956, five issues into the magazines life he left EC after a dispute with Gaines, taking all his artists — Bill Elder, Jack Davis and (briefly) Wally Wood — with him. I and many other Kurtzman fans followed him to Trump, the slick humor mag that Hugh Hefner funded and, after two issues, folded. From 1957 to 1966, Kurtzman edited Humbug (11 issues) and Help! (26 issues), and I was rooting him on, along with the others in his small but fervent peanut gallery.

I continued to read MAD but I found it less artful and much less funny. Im sure I was also pissed at Gaines for letting him go and at Albert Feldstein, a longtime EC writer-editor, for assuming control of MAD. And I guess I was a bit resentful that, while Kurtzman struggled to produce a popular and well-distributed humor magazine, the Feldstein MAD flourished. (When he succeeded Kurtzman, MAD was selling about 750,000 copies. By the mid-70s the circulation had risen to 2.3 million. He retired in 1984, and circulation has lapsed to about 250,000 today.)

I still trust my comedy and loyalty instincts. I still think that Kurtzman was ECs comedy genius, and that MAD suffered when he left. (More about Kurtzman in a forthcoming column.) But over the past year or so Ive accumulated a nearly complete collection of the EC horror, crime and science-fiction magazines through ebay and two exemplary classic comics websites: Bud Plant and Russ Cochrans EC Crypt. Reading the magazines that Feldstein wrote and edited in the early 50s, I have greater respect for him — an admiration for his tireless inventiveness and, as a fashioner of ghoulish tales, his gleeful mean streak. I must also confess to a grudging respect for Gaines, who did more than package the stories Feldstein wrote. He helped write them too, in daily brainstorming sessions that came to be known as the Bill & Al Show.

BEYOND THE BIBLEBill Gaines was the son of M.C. (Max) (or Charlie) (the man was so amiable he had two nicknames?) Gaines, who in 1933 had the bright idea of charging money for Famous Funnies, a 64-page collection of reprints from Sunday color comic strips — before then, the collections had been given away — and who, in 1938, found a home for Superman, the first comic-book sensation. Max Gaines is rightly credited as the Father of the Comic Book, writes Digby Diehl in Tales from the Crypt: The Official Archives. By the mid-40s Max had his own company, which he called Educational Comics; it ran a line of illustrated Bible and American history stories. In 1947 Max died in a boating accident and Bill took over the business. EC was $110,000 in debt.

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