The Horror! The Horror! The Entertaining History of EC Comics.
Posted by Tony Ingram on Mar 28, 2008
Maxwell Gaines pretty much invented the American comic book, but he also created a company that would become infamous. This is its story.
Max Gaines entered the comic book arena before there really was a comic book arena, back in 1934, when the only comics available in the US for the most part were reprints of newspaper “funnies”. He created Famous Funnies, the single ancestor of all modern US comic books, inspired pulp publishers like Martin Goodman (later of Marvel Comics) and Harry Donenfield and Jack Liebowitz (DC) to enter the fledgling industry, and founded All-American Comics, which published The Flash and Green Lantern, before selling it to DC. But his greatest legacy was the company that started out as Educational Comics.
EC was founded in 1946, with the proceeds from the sale of All-American, and was initially built around the only two titles Gaines had retained, Picture Stories from the Bible and Picture Stories from World History. Gaines’s intention appears to have been to use comics as an educational aid, which seemed like a good selling point, but Educational Comics quickly became Entertaining Comics, publishing funny animal strips and the like as well. The company did ok, but not particularly well. Then, in August 1947, tragedy struck-Max Gaines was killed in a boating accident. His son, William M Gaines, inherited EC, and he had a new approach which would eventually change not just EC but the whole comics industry.
Bill Gaines quickly phased out EC’s educational comics, which were not the success his father had hoped for, and began publishing a variety of different titles, looking for a genre that would have a real impact on the market. Western comics, funny animals and even a genuine superhero, Moon Girl (drawn by Sheldon Moldoff), sold moderately well, but it was in January 1950 that Gaines and artist/writer Al Feldstein finally hit on horror as EC’s way forward!
Two already existing books were re-titled to form the foundation of EC’s horror line-War on Crime becoming The Vault of Horror and Crime Patrol initially flirting with The Crypt of Terror before settling on Tales from the Crypt six months later. Both series’ actually started out as just another strip in their respective anthologies, but Gaines and Feldstein dropped the crime stories and changed the titles within two months, then dumped the Western title Gunfighter in favor of Haunt of Fear, completing their triumvirate of terror.
The books were for the most part written by Gaines and Feldstein to begin with, though other writers came later and Vault of Horror was pretty much the private playground of writer/artist Johnny Craig. All three, though, had their own distinct identities, thanks to another innovation-the horror host. The Crypt Keeper, the Vault Keeper and the Old Witch narrated the tales in their respective books in their own distinctive styles, but whoever was writing or narrating them, the stories were usually clever, often beautifully drawn by EC’s impressive stable of talent, and invariably quite horrible.
‘Foul Play’, one of the most infamous EC stories, for instance, told the story of evil Baseball pitcher Herbie Satten, who murders a much loved rival. Their fellow players exact gruesome revenge by dismembering hateful Herbie and playing Baseball with his body parts, marking out the Diamond with his intestines and using his heart and other organs as plates, his leg as the bat and, of course, his battered head as the ball! Other stories included scenes of drowning, rotting corpses strangling people and faces destroyed by acid-all very nasty even by today’s standards, let alone those of the early 1950s!
Horror comics were big sellers at the time and, as with other publishers such as Avon, for a time EC were riding high on their success (though they continued to publish titles devoted to other genres too, notably science fiction). Inevitably though, their gory, often disturbing content eventually drew unwelcome attention.
Enter Dr Frederick Wertham.
Wertham was a psychologist investigating the causes of juvenile delinquency, and when it was pointed out to him that a lot of delinquents read comic books (unarguable, really-pretty much all kids read comics at the time, and all juvenile delinquents were kids, ergo almost all delinquents read comics) he for some reason decided that the comics were contributing heavily to the delinquency. His response was to publish Seduction of the Innocent, a scaremongering book in which he reasoned that comic books were largely to blame for immorality and juvenile crime, asserted that many were full of images promoting torture and mutilation, and even ‘proved’ that Batman & Robin were gay by interviewing a homosexual who admitted he’d happily have changed places with either of them! It was all rather bizarre.
However absurd some of Wertham’s assertions were, however, they made an impact on the public consciousness. In 1954, following the books publication, the comics industry was effectively put on trial, and as the head of the company which had generated much of the controversy, Gaines was called to testify before a Senate sub-committee, defending the content of his comics. Unfortunately, successful businessman and talented storyteller though he was, Gaines was completely unprepared for this level of public exposure. When asked what criteria he used to establish if a story was fit to print, he said that he would print anything he felt was within the bounds of good taste.
When asked if he felt that a cover depicting a mad axe-man holding a woman’s severed head was in good taste, he said “yes”.
In the wake of the hearings, a number of companies went out of business and the comics industry was instructed to put its house in order. Gaines called a meeting of his fellow publishers and suggested forming a self regulating industry authority to avoid censorship from outside, and the result was the creation of the Comics Code Authority. From now on, all titles would have to comply with a rigorous set of standards in order to bear the Code’s stamp of approval. Unfortunately, this was not what Gaines had had in mind at all when he suggested the idea, and he declined to have any part of it. When many distributors refused to carry his books without the Code seal on the cover, sales plummeted and the EC horror line was canceled around the end of 1954.
Gaines continued to publish comic books for a short time, though he was forced to give in and submit to the CCA. He continued to fight the Code’s restrictions though, which to be fair did frequently seem to be aimed specifically at putting EC out of business, and after the Code demanded that a story in Incredible Science Fiction #33 be rewritten so that the hero was no longer African-American (the whole point of the story) EC gave up on comics altogether-though not before running the story in its original form. They did still continue to publish one title, though, switched to magazine format to avoid the censors’ interference. That magazine was Mad, and it has remained a best seller ever since, with Gaines continuing to oversee it until his death in 1992 despite having long since sold ownership of it. The Gaines legacy lives on.
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