One of the joys of my childhood was taking that half-mile trek up Belair Road to this little drugstore that had the best magazine and comics rack in the area. It was here that I purchased all the early issues of FAMOUS MONSTERS, CASTLE OF FRANKENSTEIN and all the D.C. and Marvel comics. I even enjoyed such stuff as Archie and Little Lulu and other “safe” comic entertainment. I just enjoyed the smell of comic book ink and loved sitting in my back yard, under the cherry tree, reading page upon page of fascinating stories brought to life with imaginative art and garish coloring.
I did not discover the joy of comics until I was seven or eight years old, and that was in 1957-1958. Because of the harsh comic code that destroyed E.C. horror comics a few years earlier, I was not really a fan of the current horror comics, simply because they were not horrific enough. As a child, I did not know the politics that castrated the genre a few short years earlier and laid to rest the Golden Age of horror comic books. Since my childhood I discovered E.C. comics via published reproductions, and I even managed to buy a few of the original issues. To me the Amicus and George Romero movie adaptations did not do justice to the artistry of the original horror comic books. They thrived best as their own genre.
As a horror movie aficionado, I loved the classic Universal horror movies. I also discovered and loved the B studios and their horror output. PRC, Monogram and Columbia produced low-budget by-the-seat-of-their-pants products that were far less sophisticated yet still great fun.
The same thing occurred with the classic horror comics. Yes, E.C. was top dog of the litter, but many comparable companies produced excellent horror comics during the early 1950s, comic titles that are almost forgotten today but rival the E.C. brand in scripting/story and art. These are comics worthy of re-evaluation.
So in the past few months I have been devouring two wonderful trade paperbacks that not only give the history of the Golden Age of horror comic books, but also reproduce many of the best stories, in garish color.
The first volume is called THE HORROR! THE HORROR! COMIC BOOKS THE GOVERNMENT DIDN’T WANT YOU TO READ by R.L. Stine and Jim Trombetta (Abrams ComicArts, $30). This is one of those lush, full color, oversized trade paperbacks that simulates the case bound look and feel of a dust jacket by having the heavy-stock cover fold back underneath. The book contains tons of text detailing the history of horror comic books, and perhaps too much space is devoted to reprinting sample two-page spreads from some wonderful stories where we wish we could read the entire comic. Lots of comic covers are reproduced as well. But the entire purpose of the book is reproducing entire comic stories in their entirety and this becomes the chief strength of THE HORROR! THE HORROR! Even the reproduction reflects the age of the comics with yellowish paper now replacing pure white. Even some of the flaws of aging are reproduced as well. The book’s layout and visual audacity is beautiful, worthy of winning a graphic design award, but somehow all I wanted was to read the comics stories themselves. No need for interviews, historic significance, facts, etc. The comic art says it all.
Which is why the slightly smaller and less flashy counterpart FOUR COLOR FEAR: FORGOTTEN HORROR COMICS OF THE 1950s, edited by Greg Sadowski (Fantagraphics Books, $30), is the superior book in my estimation. Even though the paper stock is slightly thinner, the volume is still in full color and attractively designed. But the reason why FOUR COLOR FEAR has the edge is simply because the book literally piles complete full-color horror comics one after the other. And it appears that all the strips have been digitally cleaned up to make them appear brand new with colors that pop out at us. For me the glossy center section that reproduces front covers of comics is not essential. Just presenting complete comic stories is the essence of what makes both these books essential.
And to be honest, entering the world of comic book horror circa the early 1950s is a rather rude awakening. First, and most surprising, is the fact that most of these comic stories are not actually geared for children, at least not the eight-year-old variety. This world is one of damnation and redemption and fosters an Old Testament morality. The principal characters are scientists, newlyweds, henpecked husbands, sexily attired femme fatales who appear as wives and girlfriends. The stories often start with or feature a recurring dream, mostly nightmares, and they deal with the most unusual things. Funeral parlors are on strike so corpses cannot be buried and they literally keep piling up. For health reasons, nothing like this would be allowed to occur in real life, so perhaps this is the juvenile aspect, as children would accept all these ludicrous scenarios. In these stories we enter the world of the carny, of the undertaker, of people who indulge in vices such as gambling and high stakes poker games (playing for one’s life is the norm in this world). In stories such as “The Corpse That Came to Diner,” a newlywed couple is haunted by the suicide death of the wife’s rival for her love, who returns from the grave a ghoulish, rotting corpse and refuses to leave the lovers alone. Of course there is a surprise twist at the very end. In other stories people make pacts with the devil and lose. People sacrifice everything to achieve their life’s dream scientific discovery, only to find out that discovery is death. In another story a murderer is haunted by the dead, rotting corpse of the man he killed, who no matter where the body is dumped, it always returns to the murderer’s room. In a haunting yet ridiculous story, “The Brain-Bats of Venus,” we have flying pink monsters become the controlling brains of dead human corpses. These creatures sit on their now dead hosts’ human heads. While the premise is silly, the story chills the bones and images of human corpses being maneuvered by blob monsters with tentacles is one for the ages. And such audacity continues story after story, comic panel after panel.
In this pre-code comic book world, human victims are consumed and destroyed by any number of the Seven Deadly Sins. Women are generally manipulative, seductive or downright evil. Or, they play the other extreme, becoming the ideal trophy wife. Men are punished physically and mentally for their indiscretions, and in this moral universe, there is no escaping punishment for crimes or sins committed. Often the final panel is shocking, with rough justice being doled out by the bucketful (of blood). In such a comic universe, no one gets away with bloody murder and instant Karma levels the playing field in often the most shocking, surprising and gruesome ways.
I must admit that I enjoyed THE HORROR! THE HORROR! And FOUR COLOR FEAR more than I believed possible. I mean, these are stories 60 years old from comic books created for children. But man, as an adult these stories still pack a wallop and their ironic sense of justice still brings both a shudder and smile to my intense eyes glued to each panel. No E.C. titles are included in either volume, but these second tier comics are the real deal! Sit back, take your time (let that inner child out for a breath of fresh air) and enjoy!