More Weird Tales from the Vault of Fear

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Here’s a little number I’m revisiting in light of my recent tale of terror, exploring the true story of EC Comics, as referenced in ‘Take a Dark Ride.’ Although this was a gentle satire on zombie movie archetypes, the heart of it for me was the old school story of the single, vengeful revenant, a standard and much imitated gothic scenario originally refined and up-dated by Al Feldstein and Bill Gaines at EC in the 1950s. These things always inspired me as a kid and an academic, and the following piece started out as a paper delivered at Watching the Media, a symposium on censorship held at Edge Hill University in 2011. I remember it well, because I dragged my poor, heavily pregnant wife all the way up there by train. Everyone thought she might drop at any moment, but when the paramedics arrived it was for a very senior professor who, although taken ill, still returned in the afternoon to deliver his lecture. But I digress – and I rarely admit that. Anyway, when the Chair summed up, he ran with my presentation and went into quite a lengthy Marxist analysis of zombies as a metaphor for bourgeois anxiety, a fear of the working and under classes. This is fair enough for the undead hoards of The Walking Dead and Z Nation – the George A. Romero archetype – but not for the EC zombies, my zombies. These zombies are born of sexuality and betrayal, and are much more personal.

The problem with conference papers – unless you’re the plenary speaker – is that you don’t have a lot of time to get to the point. I thus over-clocked the hell out of this one to get it down to fifteen minutes plus questions. I always wanted to share the full version, and this is a rather sneaky way to do it. The tone’s somewhat more academic than I’d usually adopt here, but it seems a bit daft to cut out the citations for the sake of informality. If you don’t know it, the story of EC Comics is fascinating, and if you do know it, or have come to the stories through the Amicus film adaptation of the early-70s or HBO’s Tales from the Crypt, then maybe I can still surprise you. So, got those restraints fastened up good and tight? Then I’ll begin…

John Lennon famously said of the early-50s that ‘Before Elvis there was nothing,’ but before Elvis there were EC comics. In the history of horror and censorship, EC comics are a legend: cool, cult objects from the shady, esoteric side of post-war American popular culture, before the King broke through on Milton Berle and Ed Sullivan, like the fetish photographs of Bettie Page, the Ed Gein murders, wild rockabilly, and the Mad Daddy on WHKK. EC comics are the ghostly Other and the evil twin of Disney and Golden Age superheroes; subversive, sexy, adult, and darkly humorous. The company name has become a critical synonym for a specific style of American Gothic in film, fiction, and graphic art, and, in genre orthodoxy, EC is a major symbol of the struggle between artist and censor, with innovative writer/publisher William M. Gaines frequently cast as the hero against the McCarthy-era fundamentalism of the psychiatrist Dr. Frederic Wertham, author of The Seduction of the Innocent: The Influence of Comic Books on Today’s Youth. But what exactly is the ‘EC style’ to which genre critics still casually elude? Where did EC comics come from? Where did they go?

After the Second World War, the marriage of Romantic literature, Victorian theatre, and Expressionist art that had defined Hollywood Gothic and the horror genre for a generation effectively ended when Abbot and Costello met Frankenstein in 1948. (They also met Boris Karloff the following year, the Invisible Man in 1951, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1953.) Post-war horror films moved away from nineteenth century literary archetypes – such as Universal Pictures’ Frankenstein and Dracula cycles – and towards pulp fiction and popular culture. The target audience, meanwhile, became more juvenile, as corporate America invented the teenage consumer.

The Hollywood Studio System had also changed considerably after the war, ‘declining to a state of panic,’ wrote Thomas F. Brady in the New York Times in 1949, ‘from the 1946 peak of excess profits and lavish waste’ (Brady: 1949). Hollywood Babylon had fallen, after a Supreme Court anti-trust ruling broke the big studios’ stranglehold on distribution in 1948, the same year that commercial network television came into its own, when NBC transferred Milton Berle and the Texaco Star Theatre show from radio to the small screen. Savage cost cutting meant that major studios abandoned second feature genre productions, creating a niche for very low-budget independent companies with extravagant names like ‘Golden Gate’ and ‘Galaxy’ but which, in the words of film historian Denis Gifford, ‘could seldom afford a permanent address’ (Gifford: 1991, 24). Edward D. Wood was working on The Streets of Laredo by 1948, but he was already thinking about Bride of the Atom.

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