This is a tale of terror --- the kind of full-color, sold-for-a-dime terror that was taken straight from the drugstore and into the neighborhood woods. A story full of monstrosities invited under the covers at night with a flashlight by red-blooded boys all over America, only to be confiscated when discovered by horrified parents and government officials.
THIS IS THE SAGA OF EC COMICS!
William Gaines never gave any indication in his early life that he would someday become a successful publisher and the father of comic book horror.
True, his pedigree was impressive --- his father Max practically invented the comic book by folding Sunday funnies over into a booklet form, and had a hand in the first appearance of Superman --- but the younger Gaines had no interest in carrying on the family business. In fact, the Gaines father-son relationship was strained at best, as aptly illustrated in Frank Jacobs' book The Mad World of William M. Gaines (Lyle Stuart, Inc., publisher). Jacobs paints a picture of a bumbling adolescent who seemed destined to perpetually run afoul of Max's wishes and expectations, provoking the regular issuance of what became a household catchphrase; "You'll never amount to anything."
In 1947, Max Gaines suddenly lost his life in a freak boating accident, and 25 year-old Bill found himself a reluctant heir to his fathers company, Educational Comics.
Recently split with his wife and struggling to finish his last year in college, Gaines entered the enterprise with low expectations. Educational Comics mainly published patriotic American history and Bible stories --- not quite the kind of material that flew off the newsstand. Young Bill found himself urged by his mother into the family business, no doubt reminded incessantly that his alternatives were far from appealing. Things went along grudgingly until Max's ne'er do well son hired a not-much-younger freelance artist named Al Feldstein.
Originally brought aboard to draw a juvenile Archie-type that never panned out, Gaines sensed a kindred spirit in Feldstein. He began to spend more and more time around the office and in the company of his new friend, sharing the writing and editing chores on the EC stable of western, romance and crime comics. One fortuitous day, Gaines and Feldstein succumbed to their shared love of old thriller radio programs and collaborated on two stories; "Vault of Horror" and "Crypt of Terror." Thus was born what Gaines himself called the "New Trend" in comics.
"I remember back when I was young, listening to 'The Witches Tale' on the radio," Feldstein told an EC convention crowd in 1972. "Bill and I talked about about it when I first became associated with him, and we decided we were going to put something like that into comics." Like their radio inspirations, both of the first EC horror tales (and every one that followed) were introduced by ghastly hosts who soon became known as the GhouLunatics in their own respective titles; the Crypt-Keeper for The Crypt of Terror (later renamed Tales From the Crypt), the Vault Keeper for The Vault of Horror, and The Old Witch in The Haunt of Fear. GhouLunatics welcomed the reader to each new tale, and lobbed hideous puns in the last panel (after a story which culminates in a comeuppance-by-deep-frying, The Old Witch remarks, "Heh, heh! And now my tale is done, kiddies! Well done! I hope it's left you with a ravishing appetite!..."). No matter what writer was responsible for the actual story, Feldstein wrote the GhouLunatics dialogue.
Bill Gaines relaxes with Al Feldstein at an EC office gathering.
Photo from TALES FROM THE CRYPT by Digby Diehl (St. Martin's Press)
Another outstanding talent, artist/writer Johnny Craig, was drawn to EC during this early period. Sensing the beginnings of a great team, Gaines systematically dispensed with EC's mild crime, Bible and educational line to make room for a new line of horror titles. He also changed the name of the company to Entertaining Comics, making a bold prediction in his new motto -- "A New Trend in Comic Books."
The Crypt of Terror and The Vault of Horror, full-fledged comics that shared the name of EC's first two horror stories, made their debut in early 1950. Gaines and Feldstein added Weird Science and Weird Fantasy to the line as an outlet for their shared enthusiasm for science fiction, and later minted Shock SuspenStories, Crime SuspenStories, and The Haunt of Fear. As each horror and suspense title was created, it displaced and discontinued another pre-New Trend Educational Comic.
Filling seven titles with stories meant coming up with one story every day, an obviously daunting challenge to the Feldstein/Gaines team in the early days when they alone produced each tale. Luckily, Gaines was an insomniac who would read science fiction and horror books far into the night, jotting down ideas that would be used as "springboards" for his daily morning meeting with Feldstein. "It was my job to sell him a 'springboard.' As it got to eleven or twelve o'clock, I'd be getting desperate 'cause I knew he had to finish a story," Gaines recalled. Assembling so many tales inevitably led to some near-plagiarism. "We swiped a few (Ray) Bradbury stories, and he caught us," Gaines once recalled with a laugh. "But he was a real gentleman and wrote us a very nice letter suggesting that we had forgotten to pay him his royalty."
Before long, EC attracted a stable of freelance artists and writers who have since become legends in the field; names like Jack Davis, Harvey Kurtzman, Graham Engels (who signed his work "Ghastly"), George Evans, Will Elder, Gardner Fox and Jack Kamen. By 1953, the circulation of EC's horror and suspense comics were in the very healthy 300,000-450,000 range. Gaines used the success of these cash cows to fund the lesser-selling science fiction and war titles, and found himself able to produce the kinds of tales that he himself would want to read, horror and otherwise. It was also during this period that he and Harvey Kurtzman launched the legendary comic incarnation of Mad.
EC comics were well-written and much wordier than other pulps of the time. The narrative worked well with the pictures to create an overwhelming feeling of dread that wound itself up tight until the inevitable horrific release that occurred on the last panel. Periods were scarce punctuation in EC prose; exclamation points appeared at the end of nearly every sentence. EC writers liked to work with the first person singular, bringing the reader into the page. "Suddenly you hear it! The steady dripping! You start to rise! You cannot move! You're tied to the chair! And beneath your slashed wrist is a pan...half filled with blood..." ("A Tasty Morsel" The Haunt of Fear #5).
Just how important the prose aspect of each EC tale was to the final product is evidenced in the fact that artists worked on panels that had already been lettered. Feldstein wrote his stories directly on the bristol board sheets that the artists eventually drew on. Between Feldstein and the artists in this production system was Jim Wroten and his LeRoy stylus, which he used to render the distinct, precise, all-caps narration boxes and word balloons. The artists' challenge then was to deftly design their layouts around the pre-existing verbage. Feldstein continued this method well into the modern era of Mad magazine,and it was to his continued amusement that many imitators chose this aspect of his layout style to copy while ignoring the careful placement and well thought-out line breaks that made even the wordiest of EC panels non-intrusive to the art as a whole.
The basic EC story formula relied on elemental moral tenants of good and evil. Although virtue didn't always come out on top, the truly bad characters in any given story got what was coming to them in one perverse way or another. Given the unspoken premise that any portrayed evil was being set up for a fall, part of the fun of an EC horror comic was the big payoff at the very end --- the grotesque but ironic physical retribution that was a trademark of a "EC-style" story. In a yarn called "The Light of His Life," a snow-bound trapper exacts revenge on his fat, candle eating wife and preserves his light source by boiling her down to lamp oil; in "Take Your Pick," a cold-hearted husband ends up on the business end of an ice pick; a "Grim Fairy Tale" relates the story of a gluttonous king who starves his entire kingdom, only to be turned into...heh, heh...sausage links at story's end.
No demise was too grisly, and no character was too dead to get up and stalk a panel or two after his or her termination. "When EC started to produce supernatural tales, they did it after the worst holocaust that people had ever known -- World War II and the deaths of six million Jews and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki," noted Stephen King in an interview with Heavy Metal magazine. Indeed, a populace confronted with tales of Nazi atrocities was far less likely to respond to subtle gothic horror. The new sensibility demanded renditions of the walking dead in all their rotting glory. "I don't know if anything has struck me as being scary besides the old EC stuff, which was definitely scary," commented artist and Continuity Comics publisher Neal Adams.
Comic readers, mainly young school-age males, ate it up like ice cream. A typical horror comic sold three times as many copies as its romantic or superheroic counterparts. The EC letters pages overflowed with coherent reader correspondence responded to by the GhouLunatics (one of their few administrative duties, no doubt). Part of what made EC attractive to readers was this fan-creator interplay; whereas most other publishers didn't allow artists and writers to sign their work, EC was a proponent of giving credit where credit was due. EC readers knew the names, and in some cases, faces of nearly everyone responsible for the comics they loved. By 1953, The EC Fan-Addict Club boasted large membership and its own newsletter.
William Gaines had turned his father's rickety little publishing house into a success, and found himself a purpose in life at the same time. Imitators continued to spring up everywhere; some good, others just plain bad. The "Golden Age" of hero comics was over, and even Marvel Comics lurched from the hero format, converting its venerable Captain America into Captain America's Weird Tales and then simply Weird Tales. One could hardly fault the industry for reacting so whole-heartedly --- even without a fan press to document the phenomena, it was common knowledge that any kid worth his Chuck Taylors was willing to trade 3 Batman's or 5 True Romance's for anything with a corpse on the cover.
Most competitors leapt aboard the horror wagon with more enthusiasm than ability. While EC comics had their occasional moments of unmitigated tastelessness, Gaines and company at least maintained a sense of humor that disarmed even the most disgusting tale (see the bi-monthly Terrology magazine, formally known as Tales Too Terrible To Tell and published by New England Comics Press, for a wonderful comparative look at EC's sometimes-worthy-but-often-horrendous 1950's pre-code competition with commentary and reprints of titles like Terror Tales and Worlds of Fear).
Despite the dubious quality of EC's peers, the late 1940s and early 1950s were the heyday of horror, and nothing could stop the party. Or so it seemed.
Even before Bill Gaines entered the comics business, the medium was assaulted regularly by parent groups, clergy, legislators and police. They complained that crime and horror comics glorified violence and would surely be the downfall of American youth (much to the delight of young readers everywhere who were even happier to part with their allowance for such forbidden fruit). The industry self-regulated itself with a stamp that read: "Authorized ACMP (Association of Comics Magazine Publishers). Conforms to the Comics Code." The early code carried little weight, however, since most publishers ignored it and the public was largely unaware of its significance.
EC left the ACMP in 1950. "I used to go up to (ACMP administrator) Schultz and yell and scream and pull my hair and talk him out of almost anything. And if you look at my old books with the seal on them you'll see what we could publish with the association's approval because Schultz was just getting a salary," Gaines explained.
Code or no code, a psychiatrist named Dr. Fredric Wertham took it upon himself to illuminate and eliminate the harm he felt was being done to young comic book readers. Publishing magazine articles as early as 1948, Wertham attacked all comics with zeal, but had a particular ax to grind with regards to crime and horror titles. He lobbied unsuccessfully for legislation to prohibit sales of comic books to individuals under the age of fifteen. He failed to arouse any substantial public outcry until 1953, when an excerpt in "Ladies Home Journal" previewed the publishing of his manifesto, The Seduction of the Innocent (a book now out of print and prized by collectors).
Parents were shocked at what they read and saw. Batman and Robin were plainly homosexual, Wertham proclaimed, as was Wonder Woman. Lurid pictures culled from comics depicted acts of depravity and torture that "modern youth will surely emulate," Wertham warned. When Seduction was finally published, it was reviewed by the major media outlets of the day and provoked newsstand boycotts and pressure to control the "comic book menace." Public comic book burnings were so common that part of the current value of an EC comic can be directly linked to its avoidance of these bonfires.
On June 1, 1953, the Senate Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency in the United States was created. It's mission was to take a second look at the "possible influence of so-called crime comic books" (it had assembled a study between 1945-1950 as well). Dr. Wertham seized upon the opportunity to further his crusade, and testified on April 21, 1954. the substance of his testimony can be summed up in just one of his statements from the record: "I think Hitler was a beginner compared to the comic book industry."
As the testimony from other parties wore on, it became obvious that a scapegoat was being constructed to which the scourge of juvenile delinquency could be pinned. Much like Beavis and Butt-head function today, the whole of comics were damned for what really boiled down to deteriorating familial and economic factors. The target was so large, anyone with an opinion stood in line to lob grenades.
Amusingly, a furor was unleashed when it was revealed that psychologists and educators who testified in defense of comics were paid consultants in the employ of comic book publishers. Today, of course, they would be known as expert witnesses.
Bill Gaines couldn't stomach simply observing the absurd proceedings. He asked to testify before the sub-committee and was granted the privilege. Appearing after Dr. Wertham, Gaines read this prepared statement:
It would be just as difficult to explain the harmless thrill of a horror story to a Dr. Wertham as it would be to explain the sublimity of love to a frigid old maid....My father was proud of the comics he published, and I am proud of the comics I publish. We use the best writers, the finest artists; we spare nothing to make each magazine, each story, each page, a work of art....Our American children are for the most part normal children. They are bright children, but those who want to prohibit comic magazines seem to see dirty, sneaky, perverted monsters who use the comics as a blueprint for action.
The truth is that delinquency is the product of the real environment in which the child lives and not of the fiction he reads.... The problems are economic and social and they are complex. Our people need understanding; they need to have affection, decent homes, decent food.
During his questioning, Gaines found notoriety for this particular exchange:
Estes Kefauver: This seems to be a man with a bloody ax holding a woman's head up which has been severed from her body [Crime SuspenStories #22, rendered by Johnny Craig]. Do you think that is in good taste?
Gaines: Yes sir; I do, for the cover of a horror comic. A cover in bad taste, for example, might be defined as holding the head a little higher so that the neck could be seen dripping blood from it and moving the body over a little further so that the neck of the body could be seen to be bloody....
Chairman (Senator Robert C. Hendrickson): Here is another one I want to show him.
Kefauver: This is the July one [Crime SuspenStories #23, art by George Evans]. It seems to be a man with a woman in a boat and he is choking her to death here with a crowbar. Is that in good taste?
Gaines: I think so.
Hannoch: (despairingly) How could it be worse?
Public opinion began to stack squarely against the comic industry. By October, 1954 the majority of comic book publishers formed the Comics Magazine Association of America (CMAA). The now-familiar "Comics Code Authority" stamp was introduced to great fanfare and publicity. All comics would be submitted to an independent review panel before publication, and only those books that were deemed wholesome enough for the eyes of the nation's youth were allowed the stamp of approval.
The Comics Code represented the kiss of death to EC's line of horror and suspense comics. Not only did the new rules forbid the use of the words "horror" or "terror" in a title, but explicitly specified that "scenes dealing with, or instruments associated with the walking dead, torture, vampires and vampirism, ghouls, cannibalism and werewolfism are prohibited."
Gaines used his EC titles as a forum to fight the formation of the Code, taking out full page house ads that attempted to rally his fans and supporters in the industry, but realized in a short time that his struggle was futile. Though the entire art form was assigned blame in the sub-committee's final report, EC comics had clearly been singled out and held up as an example. Two days before the CMAA was officially established, Gaines announced that he was suspending publication of his horror and suspense comics. An era had ended. Blandness and mediocrity invaded the nation's newsstands as quickly as Feldstein-rendered zombies had swarmed the typical EC small town.
Many of the artists and writers from the "New Trend" era promptly found work in EC's Mad and Panic magazines. There, the EC style lived on in the form of wicked parody and razor wit. Oddly enough, the drawing styles of Will Elder, Jack Davis, Al Feldstein and John Severin were first encountered by many baby boomers via Mad paperbacks and reprints in the 1960s and early 1970s, making their serious work in the earlier EC horror titles seem incongruous at first to the average under-40 reader who has worked backward through history. Still, EC's New Trend line stands the test of time nearly a half-century after their original publication date.
William Gaines died in 1992, but his legacy lives on throughout comics culture and modern comics shops. Keeping EC comics available to a new generation is Russ Cochran's vocation. A former physics professor at Drake University in Des Moines, Cochran now works full-time publishing lavish reprints of vintage comics, among them the entire EC library.
"I met Bill Gaines through a fan letter I wrote to him," Cochran explained. "We got together in New York in the mid-'60s, and hit it off really well. Whenever my business took me to New York, I'd try to hook up with him."
An enormous fan of the EC comics he treasured as a child, Cochran very much enjoyed the talks he had with Gaines. "He spoke to me at times about the whole sub-committee thing. It obviously bothered him a bit, but he was not a bitter person at all."
In the course of their conversations, Cochran discovered that Gaines had kept and meticulously stored all of the EC original artwork. "Everything was ready for the printer. It was pretty amazing," Cochran explained. "Bill wanted to see the material in print again, so we worked something out."
Cochran now owns book and magazine rights to EC comics in a variety of formats, foremost among them is the wonderful bound and slipjacketed black-and-white EC Library which first appeared in 1978. Available in hardcover, the 13 handsome sets of 53 books feature color covers and commentary between issues by EC authorities as well as quotes by original artists and writers. Curious about the "actual photographs" of the GhouLunatics that are offered for a quarter on the letters pages of EC's horror mags? Cochran prints them for posterity on the last page of The Haunt of Fear, Volume 2.
"The source material was in such good shape, we were able to print completely conventionally," Cochran explained. "The original artists came in to do some minimal touch-up work on some pages; for example, Johnny Craig re-inked the cover of Haunt of Fear #4. The sets sell steadily, but when they sell out I won't reprint them until demand builds up again."
Also available are actual full-color original format reprints that appear monthly on the newsstands. "Most of the EC artists did their own coloring at first with mixed results, but when Marie Severin started as colorist for all the titles, it became obvious that her contributions were vital to the final effect. We re-colored everything exactly like the comics appeared back in the '50s without any guesswork. The printers used old comics as their template." Cochran expects to publish the original-format re-issues for 6 years, at which point he will have exhausted the EC vaults. Both reprint formats are available at your local comic retailer, or by calling 1-800-EC CRYPT.
For the collector, original EC horror comics fetch very high resale prices. Bryan Ash of Capitol City Comics in Milwaukee, Wisconsin reports consistent demand. "They have always brought good prices, and don't fluctuate much at all." Near-mint copies of The Haunt of Fear, The Vault of Horror and Tales from the Crypt can get between $175 to $800. "Public awareness is always there. The HBO Tales From the Crypt series keeps the name in circulation. Trading cards featuring stills from the series and EC cover reprints are available from Cardz Distribution. And the books are just plain fun to read.
"What set EC apart was the fact that many of the artists wrote their own stories and therefor were the best interpreters of what they had in mind," Ash explained. "One can always sense a vein of humor in any EC story, whether it's in the Ghoulunatics comments at the end of each tale or in the story itself."
"The resale market for original EC comics is consistent because of the availability of good reprints," remarked Bruce Ayers of Capitol City Comics in Madison, Wisconsin. "As long as they are available in some reprinted form, the prices will continue to avoid drastic increases."
One must be careful when assembling an EC collection due to the unusual numbering pattern favored by EC and other publishers of the era – looking for issue #1 is a fruitless mission in most cases.
"The death of some of our earlier titles lead to some numbering problems," Gaines explained. In order to preserve the valuable second class postal entry and deposit paid for any given title, Gaines would simply change the name of the book while retaining the numbering system of the title before it. "Rather than put up a new deposit, we tried to change the title so the post office would allow us to go on....That's how (the EC sci-fi title) Weird Fantasy #13 through #17, the first five issues, were followed by #6."
At one point, Ayers owned an entire set of original EC's, but unfortunately did not have Vault of Horror #12 on hand the day William Gaines popped into his Madison shop searching for the issue. "Gaines wanted to make sure he had complete sets for all of his relatives before auctioning his own collection," he recalls. "Many people in the industry found the prospect of selling EC's back to Gaines --- a notorious penny-pincher --- very amusing."
Ayers has also noted an interesting secondary market of fan-produced material. "Fred von Bernewitz compiled The Full Edition of the Complete EC Checklist (published by Wade Brothers) in 1955, and it's been reprinted up to the mid-'70s. If you can find a first printing of that publication, it's worth about $100." Also out there waiting for collectors to dig up are issues of the EC-enthusiast newletters of the '60s and 70's-era, Squa Tront and Spa Fon, named as such to commemorate what was staple dialogue for any EC alien.
So, if you feel that you're up to a night of serious terror, creep over to the local comic shop and grab a fistful of relics from the frightening '50s. Then turn down the lights, curl up with a ghastly comic yarn, and worry about what might be lurking under your bed...
Special thanks to Bryan Ash of Capitol City Comics for the loan of an entire Russ Cochran EC Library. Completely Mad by Maria Reidelbach (Little, Brown), The Illustrated History of Horror Comics (Taylor) by Mike Benton and the Russ Cochran EC Library (with commentary by Max Allan Collins, John Benson, Bill Mason, Bill Spicer, Mark Evanier, Doug Menville and Bhob Stewart) provided invaluable research material for this article.