Hello, fellow comic fanatics! While this is technically the second installment of Words an’ Pictures, it is the first in which I will actually be primarily discussing comics and not just rambling about myself (as I did in my introductory post). As such, I figured that it would be good to kick things off by discussing a true classic, and the first thing that came to my mind were the many fantastic comics published by E.C. (Entertaining Comics) way back in the 1950s.
For those unfamiliar, E.C. began as Educational Comics, and was run by a man named Max Gaines from 1944 up until his death in 1947. After this, E.C. was taken over by Gaines’ son, William, who not only changed the name of the company to Entertaining Comics, but also proceeded to change the world of comics forever.
E.C.’s landmark titles included Tales From the Crypt, The Vault of Horror, The Haunt of Fear, Two-Fisted Tales, Weird Science Fiction, and Mad, and they were written and drawn by some of the absolute best talent the medium has ever seen. These comics had such an impact, even, that there was also a cult television show produced by HBO in the 90s devoted to adapting E.C’s horror and crime stories that borrowed the Tales From the Crypt moniker (an excellent examination of which can be found in JFR Blog Editor Michael Lane’s series here).
To try to discuss all aspects of E.C. comics in one post would be insane, so instead I will focus in on one particular title this week — and it is arguably my favorite of their catalog: Shock Suspenstories. The stories contained within it proved that aside from being masters of science-fiction, brilliant humorists, and slingers of gore, the good “boils” and “ghouls” at E.C. were true patriots.
Shock Suspenstories‘ first issue was first published in 1952 (relatively late compared to many of E.C.’s other titles) and ended after only 18 fantastic issues. Unlike E.C.’s other titles, SS did not have a clear theme, instead featuring a mix of the genres that E.C. stories were known for, namely crime, horror, and science fiction. For this reason, I often suggest SS to people who are just getting into E.C., particularly if they don’t know exactly what they’re looking for.
Although the genre mix did continue throughout Shock Suspenstories’ run, a slight theme began to emerge by its second issue. It was in the second issue and beyond that SS began to feature a new sort of story that did not necessarily fit in with anything E.C. had published up to that point. The first of these stories, The Patriots!, was published in the second issue and was written by Al Feldstein and penciled and inked by Jack Davis (already well known for his gruesome work as the primary illustrator for Tales From the Crpyt’s nauseating narrator, The Crypt Keeper).
The Patriots! is a harrowing tale of blind patriotism and mob mentality gone horribly wrong at a Korean War veteran’s parade in the American heartland. While E.C. had already published controversial stories relating to the Korean War in their war titles Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat, they had never before done so in a context that hit so close to home.
In the issues to follow, Shock Suspenstories featured stories that covered topics of alcoholism (Deadline), police brutality (Confession), vigilante justice (The Assault), and racism (Blood-Brothers, In Gratitude…, The Whipping, Under Cover!), among others. These stories addressed problems that pervaded American society but in 1950s society were either kept under wraps or simply ignored, being too painful for most to think about. The Whipping! and Under Cover!, both illustrated by Wallace “Wally” Wood, were particularly shocking in their portrayal of vigilante hate groups resembling the Ku Klux Klan.
These stories contain hard-hitting material that is shocking by today’s standards, and much more so by the standards of the 1950s. These are stories that portray a dark element of American society that is in many ways more terrifying than the horror tales presented by The Crypt Keeper. Many of the stories feature characters who go completely against society’s norms and expectations to teach those around them a lesson, such as the young veteran in In Gratitude…, who delivers a stirring speech against the racism perpetrated against a non-white army buddy of his who died on the field of battle.
Another story, however, features a character who knows that what he is seeing is wrong, but ultimately does nothing. A prime example of this is the character Detective Doyle in the story Confession, who knows that his fellow police officer’s torture of a suspect is grossly unjust, but ultimately lets it happen for fear of losing his job. It is stories like this which hit the hardest, being unfortunately all the more realistic.
Stories that cut to the heart of painful and controversial social issues as directly as Feldstein’s are hard to find anywhere, and when I first read them I was absolutely shocked to see them in comic books that hit the stands in the early 1950s. Looking back, however, it seems to make sense. Comics were so marginalized in mainstream culture at the time that they were the perfect setting for subversive literature. While comics were viewed as trash by older generations at the time, they were extremely popular among young people, and E.C.’s line was no exception.
By printing these stories, E.C. was exposing a whole generation of young people to a different perspective, showing them that the injustice surrounding them was not to be ignored. In this way, E.C. did a service to American society that can never truly be overstated or repaid, but the ending of this true story is less like the ending of In Gratitude…, where the public learns their lesson, and comes off more like something that would be found in a story contained in The Vault of Horror.
William Gaines and the rest of E.C. was crucified in the media for allegedly warping the minds of children, and was eventually crippled by the implementation of the Comics Code Authority, an organization put in charge of censoring comics. The CCA’s strict guidelines all but destroyed E.C., which continued with Mad in magazine form but was forced to stop publishing all of its other titles by 1956.
Unfortunately, many of the social issues found between the pages of Shock Suspenstories are still prevalent, and reading them feels as important today as I can imagine that it did in the early 1950s when they were first published. It is also important to read these stories as a prime illustration of the idea that one should always stand up for what is right, because after all, if a bunch of nerdy comic book creators in the 1950s could do it, anybody can.
— Quinn Stratton, Comic Blogger