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Horror Comic Books: When Bad Things Happen to Good (and Bad) People

by Ken Hatfield (10/22/12).

Crime SuspenStories No. 22 (April-May 1954), whose Johnny Craig-penciled cover shows a man holding a bloody ax and a woman’s severed head and was used prominently in the Congressional hearings that led to EC’s demise.

Horror comic books, like horror movies, aren’t for everyone. I think you have to be a little bit twisted to enjoy reading about bad things happening to good—and bad—people. And believe me, I speak from experience.

As a kid growing up in Wichita, Kansas, in the early 1960s, I had plenty of opportunities to indulge my interest in pictorial horror. My earliest memories are of reading the Warren magazine, “Famous Monsters of Filmland,” which was published from 1958 to 1983. One of my early purchases from that period was issue Number 37 (1965), which featured artist Gray Morrow’s cover painting of Ray Harryhausen’s Ymir from “20 Million Miles to Earth.” I still have the issue, although dog-eared and coverless, which included articles and photos on Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff and movies like “Return of the Blood Beast” and “King Kong.”

But the magazines I really liked were Creepy and Eerie, which also were published by Warren. They had real stories that were illustrated by arguably the best artists working in the field, including Frank Frazetta, Reed Crandall, Gray Morrow, Al Williamson and Angelo Torres.

What I didn’t know then was that some of those same artists had worked for a comic book company called EC back in the ’50s. EC, short for Entertaining Comics, was started by comic book pioneer Max Gaines in the 1940s, whose main comic book was “Picture Stories From the Bible,” which was sold primarily to churches and schools. When Max Gaines died in a boating accident in 1947, his son, Bill, took over the reins of the company and took it in a decidedly different direction.

He hired writer/artists Al Feldstein and Harvey Kurtzman to edit and help write and draw his new line of horror, suspense, science fiction and war comics, including his new horror line: Tales From the Crypt, the Vault of Horror and the Haunt of Fear. He also paid top-dollar to attract many of the best freelance artists, including Johnny Craig, Wally Wood, Jack Davis, Graham Ingals, Williamson, Crandall and Frazetta.

Most of the stories in EC’s horror comics were co-plotted and written by Gaines and Feldstein and usually featured some sort of surprise ending, which became EC’s trademark. They also were among the most beautifully illustrated comics of the era—and sometimes the most disturbing.

Little was off limits to EC. Within those garishly colored covers, people were regularly hacked to death, strangled, eaten alive, buried alive, dismembered, electrocuted, poisoned and hanged. You name it, it probably happened in an EC comic. But at the same time, they were morality tales. More often than not, the guilty got their just desserts. Then again, the comics were targeted primarily for pre-teenagers, so it’s no wonder that some “grown-ups” eventually took notice and decided to do something about it.

Beginning as early as the late 1940s, comic books came under increasing criticism for their potentially harmful effects on children. In 1954, psychiatrist Fredric Wertham published “Seduction of the Innocent,” in which he cited violence, drug use and sex in comic books as being the leading cause of juvenile delinquency in America. EC wasn’t his only target. Among his conclusions: Barman and Robin were gay; Wonder Woman was into bondage; and Superman was a fascist.

That led to highly publicized congressional hearings on juvenile delinquency, which cast comic companies like EC in an extremely negative light and eventually forced comic publishers to form the self-censoring Comics Magazine Association of America, with its infamous Comics Code Authority. The new CCA code required all comics to be submitted for code approval prior to their publication. Among the code’s new rules were that no comic could use the words, “horror,” “terror” or “weird” on its cover. Comics also could no longer show overt violence or horror in almost any form.

Tales From the Crypt began as Crime Patrol, changing to The Crypt of Terror with issue number 17 (April-May 1950) and settling on Tales From the Crypt with issue No. 20 (Oct-Nov 1950).

Little was off limits to EC. Within those garishly colored covers, people were regularly hacked to death, strangled, eaten alive, buried alive, dismembered, electrocuted, poisoned and hanged. You name it, it probably happened in an EC comic.

Gaines at first refused to submit his books for CCA approval, but when distributors refused to ship his non-CCA approved comics, he reluctantly gave in. He discontinued his horror line and began publishing his “New Direction” line, which feathered more realistic titles like “Psychoanalysis,” “Aces High,” “Piracy” and “Valor.” Those comics proved to be commercial failures and by 1955, he suspended publication of all but one title. That was “Mad,” started by Harvey Kurtzman as a comic book in 1952 and eventually morphed into a magazine, which removed it from CCA censorship to become the most famous humor magazine in the world.

Nine years later, reacting to rekindled interest in horror and suspense by TV series like Rod Serling’s “Twilight Zone” and “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” Ballantine Books began issuing paperback-sized reprints from old EC comics. Paperback books also were not subject to CCA censorship. It was to be the first of several attempts to resurrect EC comics for a new generation too young to remember the initial run. I was a member of that new generation.

In 1964, I was 9 years old and still living in Wichita. My grandparents lived in Oklahoma City, as did other family members, so we made regular trips there. While in Oklahoma City one weekend, I spent the night at my uncle’s house and happened to find a copy of Ballentine’s “Tales From the Crypt,” which I read from cover to cover. Two of the stories in that book are seared into my memory.

The first, “Let the Punishment Fit the Crime”, was originally published in “The Vault of Horror” No. 33 (Oct-Nov 1953). Written collaboratively by Gaines and Feldstein and illustrated by Jack Davis, it was a happy little tale about a group of neighborhood children holding a funeral. The townspeople think it’s adorable until they figure out the funeral is real—for a child the children have executed by electrocution for “kidnapping” a playmate’s doll.

The other story was “Reflection of Death,” originally published in Tales From the Crypt No. 23 (April-May 1951). Written by Gaines and Feldstein and illustrated by Feldstein, it tells the story of a man named Al who is a passenger in a car, driven by his friend Carl, which is involved in car crash. Told and illustrated from Al’s perspective, he wakes up alone and everybody he meets runs away from him screaming in terror. Eventually he makes his way home, but finds it boarded up and vacant. When he gets to Carl’s house, Carl tells him they were involved in an accident—two months earlier. Carl was permanently blinded and Al was horribly mangled and died. Al looks in a mirror and sees his mangled, skull-like face.

The next moment Carl is shaking him. They’re back in the car, driving. It was only a dream. Headlights appear. There’s a crash. He wakes up alone. A car pulls up. The driver looks at him and screams. This time he knows. He knows he’s dead and it isn’t a dream . . .

Sadly, the full-color EC Archives published by Russ Cochran’s Gemstone Publishing was discontinued in 2008 before all of EC’s catalog was reprinted, which means the value of those books will be going up.

Printed on heavy stock paper, the black and white reprints allowed the artists’ line work to be fully appreciated, unlike the original comics, which often suffered from cheap printing and paper quality.

Sound pretty hokey? Well, it wasn’t to this 9-year-old. I still remember my reaction to seeing that terrible skull face reflected in the mirror. I’m sure it gave me nightmares.

For me, the Ballentine paperback was a brief brush with EC that would not be repeated until almost two decades later, when I would become acquainted with the EC hardcover reprints. Published by Russ Cochran as oversized hardbacks, complete with handsome slipcases, the books featured black-and-white artwork except for the glossy reprinted covers, which were in full color. Printed on heavy stock paper, they allowed the artists’ line work to be fully appreciated, unlike the original comics, which often suffered from cheap printing and paper quality.

In 1989, HBO resurrected Tales From the Crypt as an anthology TV series that ran for seven seasons and brought EC-style horror to mainstream audiences. That has led to a plethora of collectibles—everything from porcelain cast figures and jewelry to Halloween masks, action figures and video games.

But the big money collectibles remain the old comic books and original artwork. As always, condition is paramount when it comes to comic books, with first issues, annuals and special editions bringing crazy money, especially if they are CGC graded and encapsulated.

EC’s horror comics all began as other genres, so none them have literal first issues. Tales From the Crypt began as Crime Patrol, changing to The Crypt of Terror with issue No. 17 (April-May 1950) and settling on Tales From the Crypt with issue No. 20 (Oct-Nov 1950). Likewise, War Against Crime changed to the Vault of Horror with issue No. 12 (April-May 1950) and Gunfighter became The Haunt of Fear with issue 15 (May-June 1950). Pristine copies of any of those “first” issues, which originally sold for 10¢, are extremely rare and valuable and can fetch prices in the thousands of dollars.

Published by Russ Cochran as oversized hardbacks, complete with handsome slipcases, the books featured black and white artwork except for the glossy reprinted covers, which were in full color.

Other issues are more collectible due to the controversy associated with them. Such is the case with Crime SuspenStories No. 22  (April-May 1954), whose Johnny Craig-penciled cover shows a man holding a bloody ax and a woman’s severed head and was used prominently in the Congressional hearings that led to EC’s demise.

With Halloween around the corner, it wouldn’t be right not to mention one of the greatest—and horrifying—EC stories of all. “The October Game,” adapted from a story by Ray Bradbury and illustrated by Jack Kamen, first appeared in Shock SuspenStories No. 9 (June-July 1953). It’s a story about a father, teetering on the brink of madness, who uses his young daughter and a Halloween party in a darkened basement to teach his wife a lesson. It’s one of those perfect horror stories, lyrically written with no graphic violence or gore. The most terrible things happen, but we don’t see them, except in our imagination. I think if I had read this story as a child, it would have affected me profoundly. But reading it as an adult—with a father’s perspective—in a way was even more disturbing.

For anyone interested in discovering or revisiting horror in the EC tradition, there are lots of reprints on the collector market, including the recent full-color EC Archives published by Russ Cochran’s Gemstone Publishing. Sadly, the series was discontinued in 2008 before all of EC’s catalog was reprinted, which means the value of those books will be going up.

But interest in EC seems to go in cycles and I’m confident someone will take up the gauntlet to get EC back out to the public. The material is just too good to remain unavailable for long.

And as for the horror genre itself, well, you either get it or you don’t. You either completely ignore it or, like me, you find yourself sitting in a darkened room some evening in late October watching “Halloween” for the twenty-third time . . . and enjoying every deliciously twisted moment.

Ken Hatfield, a former newspaper journalist for more than 20 years with a lifelong interest in comic books and military history. He is the author of “Heartland Heroes: Remembering WWII,”published by the University of Missouri Press in 2003. He has worked for Manion’s International Auction House for nine years, specializing in American Militaria.

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2 Responses to “Horror Comic Books: When Bad Things Happen to Good (and Bad) People”

  1. Chet Purviance says:

    Keep up the good work i will return often.

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