OCTOBER 31, 2011
Illustration: Courtesy of Fatbottom Books
IT’S CLEAR IN RETROSPECT that the comic book store I frequented at the age of 12 was a piece of shit. The year was 1994, a time of exciting developments in alternative and self-published comics — eventual lodestones such as Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth and Jeff Smith’s Bone were available in rapidly escalating serialized form, for instance — but this place carried almost nothing but the most gimmick-laden and hyped-up superhero releases. It didn’t matter to me at the time; I was perfectly happy with die-cut, foil-embossed foldout covers beckoning me into the mighty arms of Shadowhawk, whose challenge to crime by way of breaking the backs of individual criminals was just then transitioning to his global search for an HIV/AIDS cure. My younger brother, meanwhile, was only interested in 20-year-old back issues of Ghost Rider, and you can only find so many of those in such a small shop.
Still, even there, a few alternatives existed. As with seemingly every funnybook outlet larger than a mall kiosk at that time, there were cheap facsimile reprints available of the vintage crime, sci-fi and especially horror works put out by Entertaining Comics (EC) in the 1950s. Even as children, we recognized that these reprints were history, too; we knew the sad story of the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency’s comic book hearings, in which EC publisher William M. Gaines famously maintained that a cover image showing a man holding a bloody axe in one hand and a woman’s severed head in another — with the bloodied stump cut off by the cover’s bottom — was, to his mind, in good taste for a horror comic. A “bad taste” cover, he said, might position the head a little higher, so as to actively illustrate the point of severance and any related oozing. The result was the formation of the Comics Code Authority, a regulatory body tasked by comic book publishers with assuring clean content in their works, thereby driving EC out of business and turning back the lashing, teenage-like development of U.S. comic book storytelling and forcing it into a docile extended childhood.
I might not have said it like that at 12, but it was all part of the received historical narrative. Many of the recognized “eras” of comic books had already been demarcated by back-issue collectors — the Golden Age, the Silver Age — with each age transitioning under the constant shadow of superhero domination. The only exception was EC’s time, the “pre-Code” era, so lawless and raw it was apparently Ageless.
My brother, being 8, couldn’t care less; he just wanted something to read, and horror comics worked for him. Once my parents got him an especially funny-looking one, its cover depicting a man buried up to his neck in dirt while red ants crawled over his face. It was designed to look a little bit like the EC reprints, though it was actually published by New England Comics Press. Its formal title was Terrology, yet it also retained a former title, the much better Tales Too Terrible to Tell. It was in black and white and mostly contained good-to-fuzzy-looking reprints of very unfamiliar horror comics.
One of them I’ve never forgotten: Experiment in Terror, from the scarily utilitarian-sounding publisher Ajax. It had no credited writer or artist; the best Terrology could do was point to the existence of something called the Iger Shop, which sounded menacing and inhuman. The story was a sadistic chronicle of tiny, hunchbacked scientist Chadwick’s quest to prove the superiority of the human will to live over the delusion of love. He lures a cash-strapped betrothed couple to live in a cage for 30 days with the promise of a fat reward should they endure decreasing rations without admitting that hunger is stronger than love. Soon they’re emaciated and clawing at each other over a loaf of bread. When a sympathetic colleague of Chadwick’s attempts to free them, a third mouth is locked in to fight for the same meals. Finally, flush with victory, the hunchback plans to drop a raw steak into the cage to provoke the trio to kill each other in starved desire, but alas, his legs slip between the top bars, and the final panel depicts only his screaming face as the reader is invited to imagine his now-loveless creations tearing the flesh from his bones.
This was clearly not anything close to an EC comic; it trafficked in irony, yes, but it was mean and dirty, often outright nihilistic. Another story had a game show host lifting a severed head from a box, rich gobs of viscera plip-plopping halfway down the panel. I would eventually learnTerrology was meant as part an alternative history being compiled by writer George Suarez; it was an attempt at an issue-by-issue, title-by-title, publisher-by-publisher survey of all of the pre-Code horror houses that weren’t EC. His ambition was not realized; the issue my brother got was the last.
“There was once a time when the birth of horror comics in the fifties seemed an easy tale to tell,” muses editorial consultant John Benson in one of several text supplements to Four Color Fear, a new collection of 38 pre-Code horror comic book stories. Tales are more tangled these days. Vintage reprints have leapt into bookshelf-ready collected format in greater numbers than ever before, each providing a different historical “story” through its supplemental materials and its curatorial choices. EC is often at the center of the story and has been given a very appropriate completist narrative, with comprehensive deluxe collections of seemingly every last damned thing floating around, at $50 a crack, for the delectation of fan-addicts.
Four Color Fear strives to provide an accessible sampler of everything else. Editor Greg Sadowski is adept at such missions. His prior effort of the type was the superb Supermen!: The First Wave of Comic Book Heroes 1936-1941 (2009), an electric whirl of stories from the pre-WWII body of capes and tights, representing the birth of the Golden Age as a flurry of violent, eccentric, half-together ambles and vignettes: a popular genre too young for socialization. Rather than a comprehensive survey of the scene, Sadowski’s choices were personal, arranged to suggest what he saw as similarities between unrelated stories. As in Four Color Fear, Sadowski keeps endnotes, often heavy with hard publication facts and extensive quotes from artists and observers, in the back of the book in order to structurally foreground the sensual, aesthetic experience of reading old comics. Only when the comics are finished does the book pull back slowly from the experience of reading and dole out story-by-story details, facts and quotes, information about publishers, issue numbers and artists, and capsule blurbs about every cover image, ending finally with straight index: all 1,371 comics described in numbered and dryly factual plain text on white paper with no illustrations.
It’s an intuitive structure, and fitting for a package that aims “to provide maximum variety and change of pace when the book is read straight through,” as Benson relates up front. It can seem fiendishly critical, suggesting that the more comprehensive, collection-minded and fanatical you get, the more isolated you become from comics as living, vivid works.
But Sadowski also encourages comparison between the stories he’s presented and various other works via the sample images and explication provided in the endnotes. For example, one section begins with a fascinating Harry Lazarus experiment in monochrome, seemingly machine-processed art with realistically-drawn characters jutting out of uniform, rounded-panel grids; it is followed by a manic, hand-drawn display by Jack Katz, positioning “full” colored characters against monochrome backdrops with every inch of space filled by streaking ghostly images or accusing human faces; and then ends with a Howard Nostrand exercise using individual tiers of uniform panel grids to create “animated” effects that move vivid cartooned characters around a fixed POV. Hence, the arrangement of the three stories emphasizes their visual diversity, escorting the reader from an odd, almost clip-art stylization (Lazarus) to jarring, brutal doodles (Katz) to a formalist experiment in creating motion (Nostrand). What binds the works together is the content of the stories, all of which swirl around notions of guilt. Sturdy Lazarus satirizes a horror comics writer’s quest for gruesome inspiration, eventually resulting in a diabolical end for his editor. Katz’s screaming, growling faces hammer home the moral lapse of a man using a woman as a human shield during a robbery. Nostrand’s “animation” features a dead man gradually escorted to his rightful grave by a tenacious risen corpse.
The endnotes then identify each story’s historical context, offering a series of cool comparisons. Lazarus was witness to the 3-D craze in comics, and his machine-like “Truevision” approach was an attempt to create a three-dimensional effect without the need for glasses. Katz, influenced by “underground” comics, had plunged into the small-press scene to develop his oddball approach in the massive longform serial The First Kingdom. And Nostrand was paying homage to EC editor/artist Harvey Kurtzman. A sample image is included for easy reference.
Otherwise, there is scant EC influence to be found. George Evans was a contributor to EC’s horror comics, but not one of the most acclaimed; one of his Crime SuspenStories covers was waved around in front of William Gaines at the Senate hearings, but it wasn’t the one with the axe, y’know? Here Evans has a pair of vivid, near-hysterical stories created for publisher Fawcett that pour on a visual aplomb impossible under the restrictions of his later EC works. The best of them is “The Slithering Horror of Skontong Swamp!”, whose very first page defies the rigid visual requirements of EC stories, which typically began with a large summary image occupying two-thirds of a page and then a row of smaller panels below starting up the story proper. Skontong, in contrast, begins with a full-page “splash” image of a weeping man being dragged into a shadowed swamp. With its hazy borders uncontained by a panel, the image presents as less a story than a nightmare.
The next page is just as vivid, depicting a death-row convict’s escape from a prison at the edge of Skontong Swamp, though it might as well be the maw of hell. Nearly every panel in a comparable EC story would be weighed down with text narration hanging above the images; at Fawcett, Evans is afforded a moody panel of his antihero marching down the cell block as inmates chant “SKONTONG SWAMP” and other taunts, which appear as huge, free-floating words without balloons to hold them. Evans skillfully manipulates panel sizes, often relegating narrative captions to the sides of panels and allowing his images to breath across his antihero’s confrontation with a swamp ghoul, whose bite infects him with visions of monsters and the lingering scent of burning flesh. One particularly fine bit sees the escapee pressing his hand against a huge, black window with leering eyes barely perceptible behind it, the narration trailing down its rightward curtain to allow the visual maximum impact. The next page brings a bravura layout depicting the man tumbling down stairs and into a diagonal, spiraling image that leads the reader’s eye down a twisting alley to its dead end where the man confronts vision-creatures. He cannot escape, says the art, and indeed the creatures are premonitions of his own smoking doom in the electric chair, after which he literally becomes one of them and soaks his undead body in Skontong Swamp to await the next guilty human.
Sadowski is aware that this kind of bravura display would not have happened at EC, which would have insisted on clean, uniform grids of square panels and windy, nonstop textual narration rather than the woozy, visionary menace of the Fawcett sort. Elsewhere Sadowski facetiously declares a goofy Fred Kida sequence of a woman being hit by a train — perspectives shifting violently panel-to-panel both for maximum suspense and coverage of every centimeter of the lady’s stockings — superior to a revered sequence from the EC story Master Race; as a biographer of artist Bernard Krigstein, Sadowski knows that the fragmented power of Krigstein’s scene came from struggles against the handsome conservatism of the EC visual approach, while Kida could do as he pleased at a “lesser” publisher more interested in sensation. Sadowski puts these forgotten artists and publishers at the center of his story. As a result, it’s easier than ever to see how small EC’s output really was; by Benson’s count, the entire pre-Code era consisted of approximately 1,371 individual comic book issues, of which EC released precisely 91.
The Horror! The Horror!: Comic Books the Government Didn’t Want You to Read! is another pre-Code sampler, a smorgasbord intermingling elements in a manner anathematic to Sadowski and company’s modular simultaneity. Editor Jim Trombetta has provided a suite of 22 mini-essays, which serve as small planetoids orbited by a mass of covers, pages, and details from the 16 complete stories discussed. The general tone of the book is set by following an epigraph from James Joyce with an introduction by Goosebumps progenitor and occasional comics writer R.L. Stine: The Horror! The Horror! seeks a general audience, downplaying the experience of reading these comics in favor of their place in cultural history and position as historical icons.
In this way, Trombetta’s book is less a collection of comics than a scattered critical essay, as if collated from blog posts, illustrated with a myriad of story images. Trombetta initially ponders the fifties horror comic as mirror of religio-nuclear anxiety:
There was a face in every mushroom cloud: the scarlet woman and the two prophets, the vindictive lamb, the immense beast climbing out of the sea. Of course, these selfsame characters and settings and threats were also plastered, barely disguised, across hundreds — even thousands — of comic books.
Northrop Frye is later evoked in relation to a gruesomely whimsical Jack Davis-drawn EC story concerning a baseball team dismembering and playing a game with a murderous player’s body parts; it is “about one beat away,” Trombetta says, “from a type of human or divine sacrifice, imagined by human cultures to renew the fertility of nature and to rejuvenate time itself (baseball does start in the spring).”
The critical narrative then offers an account of horror comics’ development from the older crime genre, its subsequent rise to governmental attention and the formation of the Comics Code Authority, pausing for tangential ruminations on a particularly odd Hy Fleishman cover — a depiction of a living severed foot advancing on an understandably panicked prison yard audience — and a 1954 Robert Warshow essay on his son’s taste for comic books. At times the structure seems to run away from its editor; in lieu of forward momentum, a long run of chapters toward the book’s center settle into isolated examinations of “The Werewolf” or “The Gorgon” or “Skeletons,” with Trombetta hastening to describe and interpret images actually shown considerably later in the book, often in seemingly random order, as if a public speaker and his PowerPoint presentation have fallen out of time. A story cited on page 171 doesn’t appear until page 193, after an entirely unrelated mini-essay/chapter has passed. A brief tribute to artist L.B. Cole and an accompanying image gallery appear, inexplicably, as the book’s penultimate chapter. A Bob Powell story about the crew of a spaceship rapidly evolving past corporeality shows up two chapters after it is discussed. You can make the connections yourself, yes, but it feels less like an empowered realization than something achieved in spite of the book.
Two stories are presented in both The Horror! The Horror! and Four Color Fear: an excellent, well-known Basil Wolverton piece about a chemist imbibing a secret formula and tripping his balls off before turning into a monster — the appeal, I think, is self-evident — and a fascinating thing titled “Corpses… Coast to Coast!”, which relates an average man’s dream of a totalitarian regime springing up through world zombie revolution facilitated by a gravediggers strike. Trombetta sees the latter as part of an examination of the “zombie” motif informed by the festering wounds of World War II and fresh atrocities of the Korean war; the No Gun Ri massacre, he claims, is “another secret hidden in horror comics.” The artist is unknown, and there is no need, perhaps, for specific identification when the hands drawing a comic are ultimately those of history, and this is what makes comics valuable for Trombetta: they remain distant, studied, brought to life for a tableau vivant.
Four Color Fear provides a somewhat more grounded interpretation of “Corpses… Coast to Coast!” as a classic fifties warning against leftist subversion slipping through under the guise of unionization and leaving us all “zombies” as a means of collectivization (a second story featuring a deadly gravediggers strike immediately follows). Devilishly, the narrator confides at the end that he’s a zombie (sympathizer!) already. Sadowski, meanwhile, delightfully credits the work collectively to the Iger studio, aka “the Iger Shop,” the mystery society from Terrology that produced the Experiment in Terror that distressed me so many years ago.
Like so many stories from this period, who scripted it is difficult to ascertain. The Iger studio was a comic book packager with roots stretching back to the medium’s beginnings in the 1930s, the sort of place that prepared comics stories to supply to various publishers. The art of Corpses, Benson suggests, was “largely” the work of studio hands Robert Webb and David Heames, and the text was by Ruth Roche, a scriptwriter, editor, eventual partner in the Iger studio, and one of the very few prominent female talents in the horror comics genre. Benson identifies the subject of Roche’s writing as “the unbridled evil and chaos that was always lurking just beneath the surface, waiting to escape into the world.” There are six Iger studio stories in the book, and all have an especial nihilism; most also involve female characters that are driven to despair or death by the machinations of male figures, or, in the case of the awesome “Green Horror,” a massively phallic cactus that becomes jealous of its owner’s male lovers and takes to killing them by axe or strangulation before knocking on the poor lady’s door and embracing her with a spiny passion that kills them both. It is an absurd, surprising, entertaining, living comic that nonetheless says something so much more immediate about an American fifties as experienced, drawn in an older, ratty style that suggests a society and an art form going spectacularly to seed.