- Horror comics
Horror comics is a comic book genre that flourished briefly in America during the middle 1940s and early 1950s. The genre was infamous for its gruesomely illustrated tales of
ghostsand ghouls, zombiesand vampires, haunted housesand graveyards, sexual perversionand sadism, torture, cannibalism, lycanthropy, dementiaand miscellaneous outrè horror fictionelements. A warped sense of poetic justicecolored many tales and twist endings were a hallmark of the genre.
The first true horror comic book is open to debate with one-shots "
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" (1943) and " Eerie Comics" (1947) being contenders. The somewhat tame " Adventures Into the Unknown" hit newsstands in 1948 and claims the distinction of being the first horror title to see regularly scheduled publication.
In the early 1950s, horror comics publishers were given the undue reputation of having crossed boundaries of good taste. Public outcry, fueled by those who would censor the work, brought matters to a head in 1954 with Congressional hearings that targeted horror and other violent comic books as contributors to the juvenile delinquency crisis in America. In the aftermath of the hearings, the comic book industry deftly avoided outside censorhip by forming the self-regulating body
Comics Magazine Association of America. Under the Association's Comics Code Authority, many horror comic books publishers revamped their titles or, in some cases, simply ceased publication altogether.
Although the major publishers continued producing a small array of horror titles into the 1970s and 1980s — including
Marvel Comics' " Man-Thing" and " Tomb of Dracula"; and DC Comics' " House of Mystery", " House of Secrets", and " Swamp Thing" — the heyday of the genre was over.
Horror tropes played a small but evident part in comics of the early 1940s. The
Frankenstein monsterfirst appeared as a recurring feature character in issue #7 of anthology comics series "Prize" (1940) and the venerable "Classics Comics" series released gruesome artwork for several titles including "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde", (#13, 1943), "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" (#18, 1944), and "Three Famous Mysteries" (#21, 1944).
"Suspense Comics" (1943) tucked spiders, eyeballs, devils and other horror motifs in the artwork of their superhero and detective fare, and "Yellowjacket Comics" (1944) ran eight "Tales of Terror" features narrated by an old witch, a device borrowed perhaps from the radio show "The Witch's Tales" and one that would be copied by other horror comics writers and publishers. Two of the eight tales were adapted from the work of nineteenth-century American horror writer
Edgar Allan Poe.
Harvey Comicsreleased "Front Page", and, in 1946, "Strange Story". In both titles, Bob Powell's Man in Black acted as the sardonic narrator and commentator of unusual and spooky tales. Adventure and detective title "Mask Comics" (1945) featured two horrific covers by L. B. Cole— one, depicting moth people being lured by a candle labeled 'EVIL', and the other depicting Satan himself. "Spook Comics" (#1, 1947) and "Spooky Mysteries" (#1, 1947), while both detective and adventure books, incorporated the imagery of devils and tales of ghosts in their contents.
Full-blown horror comics trace their origins to the years immediately following
WWIIwhen tights-and-trunks superheroes and caped crimebusters fell from favor with hip comics readers. In addition, the many returning GIs who had acquired a taste for sex and violence from the comic books provided them by the Federal government during their years overseas sought the same stateside.
In January 1947, Avon Periodicals published "
Eerie Comics", a title some consider the first out-and-out stand-alone horror comic book not taking its inspiration from any known source such as radio, films, the pulps, or classic literature. Its cover featured a red-eyed, dagger-toting ghoul threatening a rope-bound, scantily clad, voluptuous young woman in a lonely and moonlit ruin. The anthology title featured six stories with an adult attitude that were fairly tame in the depiction of blood and gore. One tale followed a man haunted by the ghost of a stuffed tiger; another, a shipwreck on an island infested with flesh-eating lizards; and another, a man spooked by the bloody corpse of his murdered wife. While the writers are unknown, the book's artists included Joe Kubert, George Roussos, and Fred Kida. After its first issue, the title went dormant but reappeared in 1951 as "Eerie" and enjoyed seventeen regularly published issues.
In the fall of 1948, B&I Publishing (later known as American Comics Group) released the first regularly published, though somewhat restrained, horror comic book "Adventures Into the Unknown". B&I based the comic book on traditional prose ghost stories, rather than radio drama or earlier comics, with the first issue featuring a brief adaptation of
Horace Walpole's gothic novel" The Castle of Otranto". "Adventures Into the Unknown" was a popular success and enjoyed a run of 174 issues over a nearly twenty year period.
Horror had been a minor element in
Marvel Comicsthrough the war years with vampires and ghouls toiling in the employ of the Nazisand the Japanese, but the company entered the horror arena full-tilt in 1949 by dumping their costumed superheroes while retaining the gore. "Marvel Mystery" became "Marvel Tales" and two issues of "Captain America" (#74 and #75) became "Captain America's Weird Tales". Harvey followed suit in 1951 by discarding crimefighter The Black Cat, and converting her book to "Black Cat Mystery".
William Gainesinherited Educational Comics from his father Maxwell Gaines. Titles published by the company under Maxwell Gaines' tenure included the benign "Tiny Tot Comics" and "Picture Stories from the Bible". William Gaines however favored a more blatantly commercial emphasis. He changed the meaning of the acronym EC to Entertaining Comics, and added such lines as "Crime Patrol", "Saddle Justice", and "Modern Love".
In 1948, Gaines hired artist and writer
Al Feldsteinwho soon became an editor. Gaines and Feldstein shared similar tastes in suspense and horror, and, in 1950, the EC horror line was created with " The Haunt of Fear", " Tales from the Crypt", and " The Vault of Horror". Readers were greeted in each issue by a trio of ugly hosts — The Old Witch, The Crypt Keeper, and The Vault Keeper, who acted as sardonic commentators gleefully recounting the unpleasant details of the stories and mocking the reader with a twisted sense of humor.
Feldman did most of the early scripting with artwork provided by
Jack Kamen, Graham Ingels(who signed his work "Ghastly"), Wallace Wood, and Johnny Craig. Feldstein often wrote a story a day with twist endings and poetic justice taken to absurd extremes. In one tale, a kindly junkman commits suicide after receiving cruel, anonymous Valentines from a sneering rich man and his son. The junkman rises from his grave to seek vengeance with the rich man being delivered the sticky heart of his dead son on Valentine's Day. In the controversial story "Foul Play", a crooked baseball player is murdered and his severed head used as a baseball. Some EC staff were offended with the questionable taste displayed in the tale.
In the late 1940s, the comic book industry became the target of mounting public criticism for their content and their potentially harmful effects on children. In some communities, children piled their comic books in schoolyards and set them ablaze after being egged-on by parents, teachers, and clergymen. In 1948, John Mason Brown of the "Saturday Review of Literature" described comics as the "marijuana of the nursery; the bane of the bassinet; the horror of the house; the curse of kids, and a threat to the future." The same year, after two articles by Dr.
Fredric Werthamput comic books through the wringer, an industry trade group, the Association of Comics Magazine Publishers(ACMP) was formed but proved ineffective.
"Seduction of the Innocent"
In 1954, Wertham once again brought his wrath to bear upon comic books. In "
Seduction of the Innocent", he warned that horror and other violent genres were a serious cause of juvenile delinquency, citing overt or covert depictions of violence, sex, drug use, and other adult fare. Wertham asserted, largely based on undocumented anecdotes, that reading this material encouraged similar behavior in children. Many of his other conjectures, particularly about hidden sexual themes (e.g. images of female nudity concealed in drawings of muscles and tree bark, or Batmanand Robin as homosexual partners), were met with derision within the comics industry. His claim that Wonder Womanhad a bondage subtext was somewhat better documented, as her creator William Moulton Marstonhad admitted as much; however, Wertham also claimed Wonder Woman's strength and independence made her a lesbian. [Wertham, Fredric (1954) " Seduction of the Innocent"., pp. 192, 234-235, Reinhart & Company, Inc.] "Seduction of the Innocent" created alarm in parents and galvanized them to campaign for censorship.
enate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency
Public criticism brought matters to a head. In April and June 1954, the
Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquencyconducted investigations led by anti-crime crusader Estes Kefauver. The splash made by Wertham's book, and his credentials as an expert witness, made it inevitable that he would appear before the committee. His extensive testimony restated arguments from his book and pointed to comics as a major cause of juvenile crime.
The subcommittee's questioning of publisher William Gaines focused on violent scenes of the type Wertham had decried. When Gaines matter-of-factly contended that he sold only comic books of good taste, "
Crime Suspenstories", issue 22, April/May 1954, was entered into evidence. Gaines' testimony achieved notoriety for his unapologetic tone and he became a boogeyman for those wishing to censor the product. One exchange became particularly infamous:
*Chief Counsel Herbert Beaser: Let me get the limits as far as what you put into your magazine. Is the sole test of what you would put into your magazine whether it sells? 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?
*Bill Gaines: No, I wouldn't say that there is any limit for the reason you outlined. My only limits are the bounds of good taste, what I consider good taste.
*Beaser: Then you think a child cannot in any way, in any way, shape, or manner, be hurt by anything that a child reads or sees?
*Gaines: I don't believe so.
*Beaser: There would be no limit actually to what you put in the magazines?
*Gaines: Only within the bounds of good taste.
*Beaser: Your own good taste and saleability?
*Senator Estes Kefauver: Here is your May 22 issue. " [Kefauver is mistakenly referring to Crime Suspenstories #22,
cover dateMay] " This seems to be a man with a bloody axe holding a woman's head up which has been severed from her body. 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.
*Kefauver: You have blood coming out of her mouth.
*Gaines: A little.
*Kefauver: Here is blood on the axe. I think most adults are shocked by that.
Though the committee's final report did not blame comics for crime, it recommended that the comics industry tone down its content voluntarily.
In the immediate aftermath of the hearings, several publishers were forced to revamp their schedules and drastically censor or even cancel many popular long-standing comic series. Gaines called a meeting of his fellow publishers and suggested that they fight outside censorship and help repair the industry's damaged reputation. The
Comics Magazine Association of Americaand its Comics Code Authoritywas formed. The CCA code was very restrictive and rigorously enforced, with all comics requiring code approval prior to their publication. The CCA had no legal authority over other publishers, but magazine distributors often refused to carry comics without the CCA's seal of approval. Some publishers thrived under these restrictions, others adapted by canceling titles and focusing on Code-approved content, and others went out of business.
Gaines believed [Jacobs, F: "The Mad World of William M. Gaines", pages 112-114, Lyle Stuart, Inc, 1972] ["An Interview With William M. Gaines", Comics Journal #83 pages 76-78, Fantagraphics, Inc, 1983] that clauses in the code forbidding the words "crime", "horror" and "terror" in comic book titles had been deliberately aimed at his own best-selling titles "
Crime SuspenStories", " The Vault of Horror" and " The Crypt of Terror". These restrictions, as well as those banning vampires, werewolves and zombies, would make EC Comicsunprofitable and Gaines refused to join the association. [Von Bernewitz, Fred and Geissman, Grant "Tales of Terror: The EC Companion" (Gemstone Publishing and Fantagraphics Books, Timonium, MD & Seattle, WA, 2000) p. 94] Gaines ceased publication of his three horror titles on September 14, 1954, and, though some series such as American Comics Group's "Adventures Into the Unknown" continued publication, the Golden Age of horror comics was over.
The 1990s saw a brief resurgence of the horror genre. DC introduced its Vertigo line, which eventually featured a number of popular horror titles, including "Sandman", "
Hellblazer", and " Swamp Thing"; and independent publishers like FantaCo Enterprisesand Millennium Publicationsboasted lineups almost exclusively devoted to horror, vampire, and zombie comics. But this horror resurgence proved to be short-lived, and most of the small publishers went out of business before the new millennium (although Vertigo's comics continue to be solid sellers).
*Goulart, Ron. "Great American Comic Books". Publications International, Ltd., 2001. ISBN 0785355901
*Overstreet, Robert M.. "Official Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide." House of Collectibles, 2004.
*Watt-Evans, Lawrence. [http://www.watt-evans.com/theotherguys.html "The Other Guys"] : a brief history of pre-Comics Code horror comics. Retrieved June 8 2008.
* [http://www.geocities.com/Athens/8580/kefauver.html 1954 Senate Interim Report: Comic Books and Juvenile Delinquency] .
* [http://www.thecomicbooks.com/1954senatetranscripts.html 1954 Senate Subcommittee Transcripts]
* [http://www.comics.org/ Grand Comics Database] Comic book covers
* [http://www.reason.com/0506/cr.fh.the.shtml The Long, Gory Life of EC Comics]
Reason magazine(June 2005).
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