EC Comics to the Rescue!

Entertainment Comics, usually called EC (comics), was a line of, you guessed it, comics, published in the 1950s by William Gaines, later publisher of Mad Magazine.  I just finished a book, Came the Dawnthat features stories from EC drawn by Wallace Wood. They fall into two categories:  horror tales, e.g. those from Tales from the Crypt; and noir-ish social tales, including straight up crime stuff, but also a lot of stories about mob violence, prejudice, and institutional corruption.  They can be surprisingly blunt and hard-hitting, and the fine upstanding citizens of the small towns and cities of American don’t come off all that well in them.

Gaines, shown below in the 50s and in the 70s, was called before the Congressional committee on juvenile delinquency to testify about his productions.  Estes Kefauver, a full-blown FDR liberal didn’t see the use of this sort of freedom of speech.  Legislative pressure and bad publicity forced him to cease publication of his lurid comics, which had been popular, but we got MAD Magazine out of the deal!  Subversive, maybe, but nobody could say it wasn’t in good taste!

The color cover below was the subject of a particularly amusing repartee between Gaines and the congressional inquisitors:  he didn’t give an inch, but the Congress was not having any of it.  He might not be a communist, but he was clearly a danger to society. I have read online that the audio recordings of the hearings are available at various websites.

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?
Gaines: Yes.
Senator Estes Kefauver: Here is your May 22 issue. [Kefauver is mistakenly referring to Crime Suspenstories #22, cover date May] 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.

The congressional scrutiny of comics was sparked by a popular book, Seduction of the Innocentby a psychoanalyst, Frederic Wertham.  He was concerned about violence and role models for the young in our society, but just how much of a nincompoop scold, and how much of a thoughtful, but over-zealous crusader against pop entertainment he was, I’m not sure.  The little I have read of him makes him seem more complex than the anti-comics bogey man image, but that’s just Wikipedia talkin’.

The artwork and the stories have a clear relationship with the contemporary film noirs, but the highlighting of social injustice, as injustice, and not just bad luck, and often openly preaching against it, do not.  In the story on the left, a black man is framed and then killed by the chief in a faked escape attempt.  The man on the right is another corrupt chief:  he lets his men beat an innocent man to a pulp to make him confess to a hit-and-run killing he had nothing to do with.  Many of the stories have O’Henry endings:  the black man is killed just after a white man confesses to the crime; the victim of the hit-and-run was the chief’s wife, whom he murdered.

Of course, women, drawn with standard 1950s Playboy fantasy voluptuousness, play a big role in the stories.  I imagine that they kept a lot of readers reading when the social justice themes started to lose their interest, but sometimes they are just plain old noir femme fatales.  In the story below, a seventeen year old piece of  jailbait gives her lover the lowdown so he won’t blow her story about being molested by a harmless old man, killed by a mob led by her hysterical dad.

In the title story, Came the Dawn, we are led to believe that the love bunny is actually a homicidal maniac escaped from a local asylum, but we learn the truth in another one of those surprise endings.  The story does a clever reversal of sex roles, with the man seeming to be the victim and the woman the sexual predator, but she turns out to be really in love after all.

In the panels below, a handsome fellow has just firebombed the house of some Jews who dared to move onto the block, and his wife is horrified.  Worse is coming:  his mother reveals that he was adopted, and that his birth parents were Jews.  Still, that wife is quite a dish!  (The dead Jews weren’t bad looking either…)

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6 Responses to EC Comics to the Rescue!

  1. ericjbaker says:

    Great post. I read plenty of so-called lurid comics in my youth, and seeing this artwork really brings me back.

    Do you know any other good books on the subject of controversial comics from the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s (the titles you mentioned, Warren Publishing, etc.)? I’d like to fill in some knowledge gaps.

  2. Lichanos says:

    I’m just a reader, not a scholar of the genre. I suggest visiting the Fantagraphics.com website. They publish a lot of collections of comics, old and new, and sometimes books about comics.

  3. sledpress says:

    I’m moved to mention a delightful “Martian Manhunter” riff done by DC Comics in the 90s, a weird eulogy or this era titled “American Secrets.” William Gaines, lovingly depicted, is in fact the keeper of the secret, which involves the “Potrzebie” zeppelin you used to see in the margins of Mad Magazine.

    In this case, since it’s a comic, it’s the superheroes themselves and not just the comics which have been proscribed: a lighter riff on the concept of Moore’s “Watchmen.”

    • Lichanos says:

      Thanks for the pointer. I couldn’t finish “Watchmen” and didn’t like the film of Vendetta, but I think a light riff on the theme is something I would like. I’ll check it out!

      • sledpress says:

        It’s a festival of Fifties nostalgia, nothing like so fraught as Moore’s work (which I like, but it’s a bit earnest). You will not believe who saves the day at the eleventh hour.

        a bit earnest. Yes, that’s it.

        Got it (American Secrets 1-3) on ebay!
        L.

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