IIn the days of my callow youth in the early 1970s I spent more hours than I now care to admit hanging around newsstands and convenience stores, surreptitiously reading the latest issues of Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen and Kamandi, the Last Boy on Earth. On occasion I would pause and let my eye wander off to the side of the comics rack and allow it to linger on the covers of men’s magazines and other “forbidden” fare. Among these were horror magazines with titles like Creepy, Eerie, Nightmare, and Psycho. I was fascinated by these black-and-white magazines, but I barely needed to look beyond their nightmarish covers to know that they were too visceral, too sexually tantalizing, too should I say it? horrible for my tastes. I’ve since come to appreciate horror comics, but little did I know then that while I was guiltily eyeballing these curiosities, a young lad in the north of England named Stephen Sennitt was unashamedly revelling in their full, gory glory. Ghastly Terror: The Horrible Story of the Horror Comics is the result of that decades-long obsession.
The book is divided into three parts, roughly demarcating the history of horror comics in the United States in three sometimes overlapping eras: 1946-59 (the era of the four-color horror comics that peaked with the famous E.C. titles of 1950-54 and crashed with the emergence of the anti-comics crusade of 1954-55), 1964-75 (the era of the black-and-white horror magazines), and 1969-present (an era in which horror comics were embraced by a variety of mainstream, underground, and alternative publishers).
The first part of the book is the weakest. Sennitt skims over the origins and history of horror comics in the 1940s and 1950s, preferring instead to give the reader an extensive taste of what the comics of the period were like. (For readers interested in finding out about these titles I can recommend Mike Benton’s excellent Horror Comics: The Illustrated History [Taylor, 1991] and Lawrence Watt-Evans’s article, “Horror Comics of the 1950s: The Other Guys”). Similarly, Sennitt’s discussion of the important E.C. horror titles (Tales from the Crypt, The Haunt of Fear, and The Vault of Horror) launches right into the middle of the ongoing debate on whether the E.C. titles were really as good as everyone says. (Sennitt is less than enthusiastic.) Both of these chapters could have been expanded, particularly since the book is intended to be an introduction to horror comics for the non-comic-reading audience.
Sennitt comes into his own, however, in the chapters devoted to the black-and-white horror magazines of the 1960s and 1970s. Two publishing groups dominated the field: Warren and Skywald. Jim Warren was single-handedly responsible for creating the black-and-white horror magazine industry with his Creepy, Eerie, and Vampirella. Notoriously eccentric and miserly as an editor, Warren successfully assembled a cast of established creators (including survivors from the dismantled E.C. empire as well as mainstream artists, such as Steve Ditko, the co-creator of Spider-Man, who did some of his best work in the early issues of Creepy and Eerie) and new talent (such as pioneering airbrush artist Richard Corben) to re-create horror comics.
Sennitt’s appreciation of the Warren magazines is fulsome, but he really hits his stride and comes up against established opinion when he launches into an evaluation of the Skywald magazines of the early 1970s. Established by two comics impresarios (Marvel production manager Sol BrodSKY and publisher Herschel WALDman) in 1970, Skywald rapidly rose up and challenged Warren’s hegemony over the black-and-white horror comics market. Skywald’s intent was to out-gorify Warren, which it succeeded in doing. The bloody and debauched stories found in the pages of Nightmare and Psycho exemplars of what Skywald editor Al Hewetson called the “horror-mood” outdid some of the worst excesses found in the 1950s comics. Skywald’s magazines have long been held in low esteem by critics and fans alike, but Sennitt’s championing of their worthiness seems to be part of an emerging reassessment of their merit.
The final chapters of Ghastly Terror! covers the horror comics that have been published by mainstream, underground, and alternative publishers over the past thirty years. In Sennitt’s opinion these titles, while creditable, were mostly poor substitutes for his beloved Warren and Skywald magazines. Only one title, a short-lived venture called Taboo, even compares with the greats of the previous age.
Sennitt peppers his book with useful “best of” lists “Top Twenty Most Gratuitous Precode Horror Comic Covers” . . . “Top Ten Creepy Stories” . . . “The Ten Best Horror-Mood Magazines” . . . “The Top Ten Greatest Horror Comic Titles Ever!” (Skywald wins hands down on this one, of course). In addition, although the book is well illustrated, none of the illustrations are in color a distinct disappointment in a book about comics. Finally, the book contains too many capsule descriptions of the many stories of revenge, dismemberment, eye-gouging, and other such fun and games found in the horror comics. While the intensity and enthusiasm Sennitt brings to the descriptions of these stories is admirable, it can be hard going for someone for whom flesh-eating ghouls, slimy mummies, and creeping horrors aren’t endlessly fascinating.
Ghastly Terror! is nothing less than an extended love letter to horror comics. While I would have preferred more hard facts about the history of the horror genre, Sennitt’s manic passion for the comics and their creators is clearly heartfelt (albeit a bit disturbing…). Jimmy Olsen didn’t know how good he had it!
Ghastly Terror! is the first volume of a new “comix history” series of books from Critical Vision.