EC Comics was best known for breaking necks. Once their signature style became fully developed, it was all about building up expectations and then twisting them and smashing them. This is most famously explored in the infamous Tales from the Crypt series and its sister titles of the horror genre.
Here’s an example: Al and his friend Carl get in a car wreck. Al wakes alone. He walks, looking for help, but as he meets people, they become deathly terrified of him, screeching and fleeing as if from a monster. He goes to Carl’s house and even he refuses to help Al. Eventually Al catches his own reflection in a mirror, and it’s a rotting mess, all stretched, discolored flesh and bone.Then, he startles awake, still in the car with Carl. He was having a nightmare. He’s relieved.
Now, what follows is where EC made its stamp on the world. A few frames later, headlights bleed into the panel and Al and Carl are once again the car they’re in is smashed into by oncoming traffic. Al wakes again, but this time he’s woefully aware that the atrocious scent wafting is from nothing but his own decaying flesh. That’s the trick, the shattering of expectations after the shattering of expectations. The readers have been built up and then twisted and busted up. It’s the EC way.
William Gaines was 25 in 1947 when he took over EC Comics for his deceased father. He quickly re-vamped the company, transforming it from an ‘educational’ outlet to an entertaining one, adding multiple titles focused on crime, suspense, horror, and science fiction. By 1952, they had added the highly influential culture-zeitgeist send-up MAD.
So, this is their popular history, but Qiana Whitted‘s new book, EC Comics: Race, Shock & Social Protest looks down a less explored path in EC’s history: their work with social justice stories. EC was always boundary pushing, being an icon of blood and guts and gunshot wounds, but it was not the gore that saw them being pressured by comics code authorities and the senate, wherein they eventually gave up on comics and kept only MAD magazine: it was their thoughts on human rights.
Whitted‘s work is split into sections that magnify certain techniques beloved by the writers and illustrators of the EC conglomeration. She spends a chapter each discussing EC’s didactic captions, their use of optical illusions, their focus on “Mob Rule”, a chapter comparing EC’s social justice ‘Preachies’ to other notable works of the time, and finally an appendix.
Each chapter is illuminating in its own way, with a deep dig into specific examples. Each mostly focuses on one or two stories, what they mean, and comparisons to other works or current events of the time. Of noted interest was the way EC used a reader’s stereotypes against said reader. The story “Judgement Day!” is the most glowing example of this.
An astronaut named Tarlton visits a distant planet with a prerogative: to approve them for inclusion in the Great Galactic Republic, for which he is an important ambassador. He quickly realizes that the borg-run country is lacking, as they segregate themselves by color. He critiques the government of the planet and decamps to his spaceship to relax. He removes his helmet to show himself as a black man, shattering expectations for the majority of EC’s 1950s-era readers.
Thus, “Judgement Day!” becomes a major crux of EC’s history, and consequently, of the book, seeing as it became a target for censors, both of the comics world and of the government. Without revealing the whole book, I’ll just say that EC Comics: Race, Shock & Social Protest exposes some despicable, lesser-known history of the era. For anyone interested in the history of comic books, or else the history of the censoring of race in 20th century America, this is an enlightening read.
This is a scholarly exploration of a much maligned genre of comic, with heavy examination of the implications both inside the comics and of the outside commenters. The beautifully illustrated, comic-style cover may send some in the wrong direction if they’re not ready for such a heavy reading, but if they stay with it, they will be richly rewarded.
EC Comics is an icon for multiple reasons, but its name is most closely associated with the smiling, disheveled Alfred E. Nueman or the cackling Crypt-Keeper. These are EC mascots, for sure, but let us propose the new icon for EC Comics: Tarlton, the astronaut that spun the heads of white politicians for no good reason except that he was a powerful black male character depicted in a comic book.