Monday, October 12, 2009

Happy Horrordays!

Since 1938, Superheroes have been the dominant genre in comic books. When superman hit the scene the industry changed almost overnight from adventure and comedy to men in tights leaping tall buildings. Superheroes took a struggling new medium and changed it into an industry that thrives to this day.

However, if there is a second most influential genre in comics it would have to be Horror. Vampires, werewolves, demons and creatures of the night have appeared in comics since the very beginning but it was with the emergence of EC comics that the horror genre in comics found it’s voice.

Entertaining Comics, also known as EC Comics, specialized in Horror, crime, science fictiona nd satire from the 1940s through the mid-1950s. The most notable title was Tales From the Crypt, until censorship pressures, driven by Frederick Wertham’s campaign and book Seduction Of the innocent, prompted it to concentrate on the seminal humor magazine, MAD which adopted a magazine format and avoided the Comics Code Authority. The publishing company was privately owned by Maxwell Gaines and later, during its period of notoriety in the early-mid 1950s, by his son, William Gaines.

The elder Gaines was originally an editor with all American Comics. When All American merged with DC, Max Gaines retained the rights to one comic; Picture Stories from the Bible. With this title he set out to establish a comic company that would focus on history, science and religion which would be marketed through churches around the country. Maxwell Gaines had been one of the earliest comics publishers and his Famous Funnies is considered to be the first true comic book.

In 1947, the elder Gaines was killed in a boating accident and his son William Gaines took over the business. Not being interested in an educational comic books Gaines took a decidedly different track.

He introduced series focusing on Horror, Science Fiction, War, Crime and Suspense. His editors, Al Feldstein and Harvey Kurtzman, gathered highly accomplished freelance artists. Among them were Joe Orlando and Wally Wood. Kurtzman and Feldstein themselves also drew stories, which generally were written by them and Craig, with assistance from Gaines. Other writers including and Otto Binder who would later co create Brainiac and Supergirl for DC were later brought on board.

EC had success with its fresh approach and pioneered in forming relationships with its readers through its letters to the editor and its fan organization, the National EC Fan-Addict Club. This was a practice that Stan Lee Would later adopt with the Marvel “Bullpen” to great success.
EC’s horror line focused on adult story lines, often with twist “O’Henry” style endings and high quality, often gory, art. As the popularity of , Tales From the Crypt, Vault of Horror and The Haunt Of Fear continued to grow, the stories and in particular the covers kept pushing the envelope of both censorship and taste. These were comics aimed at a teenage rather than a pre-teen audience and each new excess in storytelling and art was met with resounding approval. It also helped that these were very well crafted stories, that could compete in quality with the likes of Television’s Twilight Zone. Gaines was, in fact a pioneer in showing that comics could be a legitimate form of literature.

Gaines could not, however foresee that his company would become the prime target of a real life withc hunt.

In the late 1940s, the comic book industry became the target of mounting public criticism for the content of comic books and their potentially harmful effects on children. In 1954, the publication of Frederick’s Wertham's Seduction Of The Innocent and a highly publicized Congressional hearing put comic books under increasing criticism. At the same time, a federal investigation led to a shakeup in the distribution companies that delivered comic books and across America. Sales plummeted, and several companies went out of business.

The result of this backlash was the establishment of The Comics Code Authority. The CCA code expanded on the ACMP's restrictions. Unlike its predecessor, the CCA code was rigorously enforced, with all comics requiring code approval prior to their publication. Among the Code's new rules were that no comic book title could use the words "horror" or "terror" or "weird" on its cover. The Comics Code had little impact on DC, Dell or the other comics companies as they had all more or less adopted self censorship that was similar to that of the CCA. In fact it seemed as if the CCA was aimed specifically at driving EC Comics out of business.

When distributors refused to handle many of his comics, Gaines ended publication of his three horror and the two Suspense Story titles. EC shifted its focus to a line of more realistic comic book titles, including M.D. and Psychoanalysis (known as the New Direction line). It also renamed its remaining science-fiction comic. Since the initial issues did not carry the Comics Code seal, the wholesalers refused to carry them. After consulting with his staff, Gaines reluctantly started submitting his comics to the Comics Code; all the New Direction titles carried the seal starting with the second issue. This attempted revamp failed commercially and after the fifth issues, all the New Direction titles were canceled. Eventually Gaines would move MAD over to a magazine only format where it would become tremendously successful and influential, abandoning the comic book format altogether.

With the demise of EC, horror would literally disappear from comics until the early 1970’s. At that time the CCA began to lose influence because of Marvel and DC publishing stories that focused on drug abuse (Green Lantern/Green Arrow and Spiderman). This opened the door for Marvel to introduce a line of horror based comics that would enjoy great creative and popular success. Titles such as Tomb Of Dracula, Werewolf By Night and Ghost Rider drove marvel sales through much of the decade. Tomb Of Dracula in particular raised the creative bar at marvel both in the writing by Marv Wolfman and art by Gene Colan. This was the forerunner of the adult comic for an adult audience.

Since it’s revival in the 1970’s horror has remained a staple in comic books with titles like Army of Darkness, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Hellboy leading the way. While things that go bump in the night have not displaced superheroes as the most popular genre in comics, horror (happily) is here to stay.

Both the EC Classic horror comics and Tomb Of Dracula have been collected in both hard bound and soft bound editions over the years. I highly recommend them as must have additions to any serious comic collection!

That’s 30!


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