[7 October 2010]
In the history of comics, EC is famous—and revered—for its envelope-pushing ‘50s horror books like Vault of Horror and Tales From the Crypt, which challenged good taste (some would say, shredded it) and provided a subversive counter-culture for kids to plug into years before the concept was even widely understood. Famously, the books drew the ire of conservative groups, who organized everything from church-sponsored book burnings to Senate hearings in Washington. EC’s publisher William Gaines appeared before this Senate subcommittee to argue, inarticulately and not very convincingly, in defense of free speech and the ability of children to differentiate between a fantasy comic book and real life.
The Senators were not impressed; the industry was publicly chastised, distributors ceased carrying EC comics and the company went bankrupt. Other publishers hurried to establish the self-censoring Comics Code Authority, while Gaines got out of comics altogether to become the founder of Mad magazine. (Because of its larger, magazine size, Mad was not constrained by the Comics Code.) David Hajdu’s 2008 history, The Ten-Cent Plague, does a fine job of recounting this history in detail.
Greg Sadowski, editor of Four Color Fear, is on a different mission. He is happy to credit Gaines and EC for their groundbreaking work, but he is unwilling to consign everyone else to oblivion. As he states in his brief introduction: “EC titles represented a mere seven per cent of the total 1950s horror comics output. What about the rest? Is it really possible that they were all so inconsequential that none merit a second look, even though they held 93 per cent of the genre?”
The answer is a resounding no. Some of them are fairly great, and some of these are collected in this nice, oversized package. Clocking in at over 300 10 1/2” x 7 1/2” pages, Four Color Fear is a lovingly accumulated and organized collection of 40 (40!) 5-to-11-page stories starring ghosts, ghouls, zombies, demons, and monsters of all stripes. None of this would pass for literature, nor does it want to: the point was to hook the kids and keep ‘em hooked long enough to reach the end of the story—then hook ‘em again.
Some of the writers and artists are well known names from the era, many of whom worked for EC themselves—Wallace Wood, Joe Kubert, Frank Frazetta, Al Williamson, Bob Powell. Others are not as famous, but overall, the consistency of art and story is impressive.
Where to start? Sadowski claims that he has arranged the stories for maximum impact, so it’s possible to start at page one and continue straight through, but a collection like this almost begs to be opened at random. “Dust Unto Dust”, illustrated by Howard Nostrand (yeah, me neither) opens with a series of panels that look startlingly cinematic—a hand groping out from beneath a mounded grave, reaching further as the animated corpse hoists itself into open air. “Pit of the Damned” features angular drawings and unexpected color and lighting effects in its tale of a carnival owner who goes too far in trying to drum up business. Basil Wolverton’s illustrations for “Swamp Monster” are truly freakish, which would not surprise anyone familiar with his later work.
Certain themes do recur, for better or for worse. Corpses back from the dead are popular, as are pacts with the devil and trips to hell. Trips to exotic locales crop up—India, Africa, Egypt—usually with the purpose of trading on whatever “occult” traditions are associated with such places. Of course, twist endings are almost universal, but not universally effective: more than one story ends with a supposed twist (“and then HE DIED!!!”) which isn’t so much a twist as the entirely expected outcome of the preceding pages. Oh well: there’s another story on the next page you can try.
Four Color Fear offers some nice bonus features too, which elevate it from being a simple compilation of reprinted stories. A 32-page glossy section features an array of comics covers from the era (I’m assuming they are the covers of the books from which the stories are taken, but don’t quote me on that). These are beautiful reproductions, and their inclusion in the volume is an unexpected delight.
Also much appreciated are the notes in the back, which provide interesting information about some of the stories included, as well as more covers. About the story “The Slithering Horror of Skontong Swamp,” Sadowski points out that “the expansive full-page spread on page nine would have been impossible at EC, where arists had to coform to [senior artists] Feldstein’s and Kurtzman’s layouts. Equally expansive is the story’s eleven-page length, a fairly common occurrence at [comics publisher] Fawcett but unthinkable at EC.”
In case I haven’t made this clear yet: this book is tremendous. Anyone not already a fan of horror comics in general, or EC-type comics in particular, or the Golden Age comics from the ‘50s, may well stumble over the sometimes-cramped draftsmanship or silly, predictable storylines. For fans of the genre, Sadowski has performed a valuable service—rescuing these stories from obscurity and reminding us that, yes, EC was one of the important publishers of its era—only one of many.