Last year marked 60 years since the death of EC Comics, whose infamous horror titles were shuttered in 1954. Sure, the company stumbled forward bravely with its noble, if short-lived, “New Trend” titles, and you can certainly say that William Gaines had the last laugh with the unlikely endurance of the company’s Mad magazine. But for all intents and purposes, the classic EC line, composed of sensational horror magazines and gory crime comics, died with the publication of Tales From The Crypt #46, which shipped in November of that year.
EC was the victim of a set of inescapable unfortunate circumstances. In the first case, they were immensely successful, in a way that companies with more consistently family-friendly fare like Dell and National (DC) simply couldn’t compete with. In the second, the same dramatic success that fueled the line’s expansion also brought unwanted attention in the form of parent’s groups and national media. Fredric Wertham, a celebrated psychiatrist with an otherwise sterling record of pioneering social work, a friend of Richard Wright whose anti-segregation research was cited in Brown V. Board Of Education, marred his career with the 1954 publication of Seduction Of The Innocent.
Full-blown anti-comics paranoia gripped the nation, aimed at those books (like the EC titles, but also those published by Lev Gleason and others) targeted by Wertham for their supposed contribution to juvenile delinquency. Gaines made a disastrous appearance in front of a Senate subcommittee while undergoing amphetamine withdrawal, the surviving comics publishers banned together to submit to voluntary self-censorship with the establishment of the Comics Code (with the intent of forcing their upstart rival out of business), and sure enough EC ceased publishing comics in short order.
Even the passage of six decades has not dimmed passions regarding the company’s untimely death. The backbone of comics fandom formed around the proud remnant of the old EC “Fan-Addicts,” who built the company’s downfall into a kind of original sin at the heart of comics history. There was, and remains, a sense of artistic potential permanently stunted, a missed opportunity for the medium’s early maturation at the hands of a group of talented professionals dedicated to producing adult fare above and beyond the limitations of Dell’s Four Color.
That’s the story, anyway, but it’s largely full of crap.
EC remains popular in reprints and fan imagination, but the book’s actual creative legacy is a more muddled matter. We are now living in the era of two simultaneous EC archive projects from two of comics’ most distinguished archival publishers. In 2012, Fantagraphics began a series of artist-specific black-and-white volumes by theme and aimed at a general readership. Dark Horse, meanwhile, continues onward with its series of full-color hardcover reprints of the magazines themselves, and it is the fifth volume of The EC Archives: Tales Of The Crypt (Dark Horse) series that concerns this review.
It is a matter of personal taste as to which approach is more appealing. While there is no doubt that seeing the stories presented in black-and-white is an attractive lure, it’s difficult to imagine the stories having the same impact outside their original contexts. Dark Horse offers the magazines complete with text pieces and subscription forms, allowing the reader to see the package in roughly the shape it originally occurred, minus only ads. As far as recoloring jobs go, this is less awful than others, although the presence of computerized gradients in archival volumes is always galling. Faced with two significant alternatives, it might prove more practical merely to split the difference and put together a set of Gemstone’s bare-bone issue-by-issue newsprint reprints from the 1990s.
There’s no doubt that the EC stories are worth remembering, and that they deserve a place of respect on many shelves. But do these stories represent some great creative leap that was prematurely cut short in its prime? Volume 5 presents issues #41-46 of Tales, the very last horror comics published by EC. The writing is on the wall throughout the volume, where in the space of just six months the reader can trace the company’s fall through to the pained lament of the text piece in #46, declaring defeat, introducing an inventory issue composed of what would have been the contents of the first issue of the stillborn Crypt Of Terror series, and declaring the birth of the “New Trend.” (The fact that they were preparing another horror spin-off even as the villagers stormed the castle gates says everything about how popular the company’s books were.)
The stories in #46 are much like the stories in #41, and #20, and #3—exceedingly well drawn short features that work best as character pieces, but which all end in appropriate grisly and ironic fashions that tie up every loose end in a tidy bow. As nice as they are, and as much as the quality of the illustration upped the industry’s game in a way that would only become apparent decades after the fact, the stories themselves were already a dead-end by 1954. The subsequent “New Trend” books were a valiant attempt to work through the structural limitations the format imposed on EC’s most popular titles, but ultimately the format had become inextricable from formula. [TO]
Richard McGuire’s Here (Pantheon) is a masterpiece of the graphic novel medium. There’s no question about that. An expansion of the groundbreaking 1989 short story McGuire created for Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly’s Raw comics anthology, Here primarily takes place in a living room modeled after McGuire’s childhood home, and is entirely composed of two-page spreads presented from the same fixed perspective. The location doesn’t change, but the time line does, and the room morphs to reflect the time shifts, which range from a few years to a few millennia. That in itself is impressive, but the thing that makes McGuire’s work so innovative in both incarnations is the way he layers multiple time periods in a single image, creating intricate tableaux of one space at different moments in its history.
McGuire’s layering of images in the original short story was inspired by the then-new technology of Microsoft Windows, and the added space afforded by the graphic novel—the original story had six panels to a page—gives him more freedom to experiment with how these individual windows interact with each other when occupying the same image. Some spreads bleed together to capture extended events while others stand alone, often detailing separate moments that are united by a common thread. Some of these connections are obvious and some are more abstract, inviting the reader’s own interpretation as the layering becomes more complex.
There’s a musicality to the way McGuire crescendos and decrescendos by adding and subtracting visual elements to the page, building distinct visual melodies that all fit together to form one long song of time. Every individual window is like a different section of the orchestra, contributing a specific tone that is created by McGuire’s constantly shifting rendering style. Images of the natural environment that flourishes before and after mankind’s construction are painted with lush, delicate watercolors to create a more impressionist atmosphere compared to the crisply defined scenes of the living room, interpreted with a more precise line by McGuire and saturated palette by color artist Maëlle Doliveux.
Here is an outstanding experiment with comic-book structure, but it’s also a striking exploration of design through the ages. McGuire has meticulously researched every past time period to make sure that his environments and characters accurately reflect the era, and he makes informed, believable predictions about what the room (and the world) will look like in the future. Decor is especially important to the story, with McGuire using furniture and wallpaper as a quick way to establish the personalities of the room’s different inhabitants in a narrative that features minimal dialogue and no narration.
Here does have a firm beginning and end, starting with a woman wondering why she came into the room and concluding with her remembering what she was looking for. That story takes place over just a few seconds, but the book’s action occurs within that time span, making those final moments a perfect encapsulation of the narrative’s simultaneously epic and intimate scale. The combination of eternalist philosophy and honest emotional storytelling gives McGuire’s work an almost spiritual impact, speaking to something deep, profound, and universal. Sometimes it can feel like the weight of the world is resting on you, and maybe it is, because the history of everything is contained in each passing moment. [OS]
Created by Hugo Pratt in 1967, the charming sailor-adventurer Corto Maltese is one of the world’s most popular comic-book characters, but until now, his stories haven’t been adequately represented in the English language. IDW has created its new EuroComics imprint specifically to bring Pratt’s acclaimed works to English-speaking audiences, and Corto Maltese: Under The Sign Of Capricorn (IDW/EuroComics) is a stunning package that gives Pratt’s creation the respect it deserves. Oversized but not unwieldy, this first collection features fold-out front and back covers revealing maps of the territories explored by the title rogue, and the six stories are printed on thick, silky paper stock that highlights the specificity of Pratt’s inking.
Editor and designer Dean Mullaney understands the importance of these comics in the history of the medium, and the strong production design makes this an especially attractive collection. It should have no problem catching the eyes of readers, who will find themselves transported to exotic settings on exciting adventures when they dive into Pratt’s work. European comics tend to place a greater emphasis on immersing the reader in the environment, and Pratt is a master of realizing meticulously detailed foreign locales, many of which he visited firsthand. From the architecture and machinery to the natural foliage and native dress, every aspect of Pratt’s design works to pull the reader deeper into Corto’s world, and it’s worth taking the time to examine the fine linework of every panel.
These stories offer multiple perspectives on the socio-political climate of the time, dragging Corto from one conflict to another to reveal the tumultuous state of South American territory during World War I. Pratt constantly challenges stereotypes in his characterizations, and orientalist portrayals are revealed to be facades that are intentionally put up to deceive others: An African man working for the British Military Police is able infiltrate German forces by acting like a mindless brute, and voodoo priestesses are actually sly businesswomen with political motivations. People are rarely what they appear to be on the surface in Pratt’s tales, and this first volume only hints at the hidden complexities of the lead character.
Dean Mullaney also serves as translator with Simone Capaldi, and rather than converting the dialogue to colloquial English, they work hard to maintain the full intent of the original Italian. The rhythm of the dialogue takes a bit of time to get used to, but ultimately the heightened language works to the book’s benefit and helps further romanticize Corto’s exploits. IDW’s collection brings Pratt’s iconic work to the U.S. without losing any of its heart and soul, and readers should quickly seize this opportunity to experience one of the medium’s great works. [OS]
Artist Joëlle Jones and writer Jamie S. Rich have collaborated on a number of projects in the past, but their new miniseries Lady Killer sees Jones taking on added responsibility as lead writer, revealing a talent for action-packed dark comedy that makes Josie Schuller’s story immensely engaging and entertaining. On the surface, Josie is the typical 1960s housewife, but she leads a dangerous double life as an assassin-for-hire, hiding a ruthless killer beneath her prim facade. That dichotomy is highlighted in the opening scene of Lady Killer #1 (Dark Horse), which begins with the Jackie Kennedy-styled Josie posing as an Avon saleswoman to gain entry to the home of her target, whom she kills with a grisly stab wound to the chest. As the woman bleeds out on the ground, Josie laments the bloodstain on her skirt with a succinct “Darn it,” diffusing the tension of the scene with black humor.
Like the book’s cover, that splash page of Josie standing over her mark while the dead woman’s pet terriers track bloody footprints across the kitchen floor is an evocative visualization of the book’s “Betty Draper meets Hannibal” concept. Inspired by Norman Rockwell paintings and 1960s advertising illustrations, Jones’ art speaks volumes through facial expressions and gestures; in both the cover and the aforementioned splash, there’s a casual daintiness to Josie that is a sharp contrast to her blood-soaked surroundings. This book is all about that contrast, and after the killing, the action immediately jumps to Josie preparing pork chops for her family while her two daughters play and wait for their father to return from work.
Jones brings a new level of polish to her artwork on this title, using a clean, confident line that gives Lady Killer a slick retro look in the vein of those aforementioned visual influences. The art is loaded with period-specific detail in the costuming and interior decorating, and the issue’s cliffhanger moves the story outside of a domestic setting into a location that gives Jones the opportunity to explore a more sensual side of 1960s design. Laura Allred’s coloring accentuates the classic aesthetic with a bold, but limited, palette that is minimally rendered. The flatter coloring dates this book in the best way, giving the impression that this is a newly discovered story from a past time.
While this title is currently slated as a five-issue miniseries, the creative team has expressed interest in continuing Josie’s story if there’s enough interest. As Dark Horse commits more and more to licensed properties, it could use a stronger core of creator-owned ongoings, and the promise of Lady Killer’s first chapter suggests that it would be a great series for the publisher to commit to long term. [OS]
Boom Studios and cartoonist Roger Langridge have had a fruitful relationship since Langridge helmed the publisher’s outstanding The Muppet Show comic, and Boom has been the home of Langridge’s creator-owned projects ever since. His Snarked! miniseries was a delightful take on concepts from Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland stories, and while his latest project, Abigail And The Snowman #1 (Boom), takes place in a more realistic setting, there’s no shortage of whimsy in this tale about a young girl and a yeti. Abigail is the odd new girl in town with an active imagination that keeps her company when the rest of her schoolmates avoid her, but she finally gains a real friend when she meets a yeti at the playground, making it her mission to protect the creature from the bumbling goons that want to bring it back to the research facility it recently escaped.
The story plays out like E.T. by way of Jim Henson, balancing dramatic stakes with a more cartoonish sense of humor. Abigail is teased at school, her father can’t hold on to a job, and the yeti is on the run from men that want to put it in a cage, and devoting time to these personal struggles brings emotional depth to the narrative. Langridge understands the book’s target audience, though, and never gets too serious. Abigail isn’t tortured by her teasing, her father hides his financial worries by cracking jokes, and the two men chasing after the yeti are total clowns.
Langridge’s artwork is characteristically light and expressive, but there’s an undercurrent of sadness evoked by Fred Stresing’s muted color palette. When something silly does happen, the coloring immediately brightens up, and Stresing employs a bright pink background to highlight the most intense moments of comedy. With an engaging story and crisply animated artwork, Abigail And The Snowman is the latest success in Langridge and Boom’s ongoing relationship, and hopefully they’ll continue to work together to produce wonderful all-ages comics for years to come. [OS]
Anyone wanting to argue that Golden Age comics were garish, ugly, sensationalistic, and gruesome need look no further than the work of L. B. Cole. Cole worked during the height of the medium’s mass success, when newsstands across the country filled to overflowing with hundreds of cheaply printed comics pushed out from dozens of diverse publishers every week. The retail world of 2015 is a far different beast than that of 1945. It’s not as if companies don’t make interesting and engaging covers anymore, but the life or death of a series no longer depends on its ability to catch the wandering eye of a fickle 6-year-old leafing carelessly through a pile of comics at the foot of the newsagent. It wasn’t an environment that rewarded subtlety.
Cole’s covers do everything that, according to any decent art education, you should never do. Each piece features two or three primary colors in sharp contrast, often juxtaposed against a deep black background. Compositional niceties take a back seat to the imperative of highlighting the most exciting element of each cover in the most alluring, and often overcrowded, fashion: romance comics heroines have irresistable come-hither looks; fantasy books have giant red dinosaurs blocking out the logo; monster books put their fiends and ghouls dead center; and crime books feature the crooks aiming their guns squarely at the unwary reader.
Not without reason has Fantagraphics titled its monograph of Cole’s work Black Light (Fantagraphics): If these covers had been printed 20 years later they would have hung on walls from Haight-Ashbury to Telegraph Ave. The sharp contrast and tasteless spectacle makes for an attractive package. Not a one of the hundreds of covers on display, from titles as diverse as Guns Against Gangsters to The Living Bible, is anything less than an eye-popping masterpiece. They draw you in immediately to the strange worlds hidden beneath the covers. [TO]