Words an’ Pictures: This’ll Kill You! – The Shocking Suspense of Reed Crandall

“Carrion Death!,” Shock Suspenstories #9, 1953 http://bit.ly/2xhRgh2

Greetings comics fans! For my first post in a long while, I would like to do a brief spiel about one of my favorite suspense and horror illustrators, Reed Crandall (1917 – 1982).

Reed Crandall had a long, productive career with masterful artwork that spans several different genres. But what I would like to focus on in particular is his work with suspense and horror comics, beginning with his illustrations for E.C. (Entertaining Comics). Crandall was a relative latecomer to the E.C. crew, illustrating his first story for the company with “Carrion Death! in 1953’s Shock Suspenstories #9. Crandall’s work was an immediate asset to E.C., particularly in its crime and horror titles. This wasn’t just due to his ability to draw a shambling corpse, which he could certainly do, but primarily due to his attention to detail and ability to use that detail to highlight a character’s desperation.

“Carrion Death!” shows Crandall using this detailed close-up technique to great effect, pushing a relatively simple story — one of a criminal on the lam finds himself handcuffed to a dead policeman in the middle of the desert — into the realm of pure graphic brilliance. Crandall juxtaposes close-up panels with wider shots of the surrounding desert that highlight the vastness of the wasteland around the main character, heightening the suspense of the story as our anti-hero escapes justice only to find himself at the mercy of a different, crueler fate.

“Vampires Fly at Dusk!,” Creepy #1, 1964
http://bit.ly/2wUPlzb

“Carrion Death!” was hardly the only great work that Crandall did for E.C.; he proceeded to use his gritty style to illustrate grim revenge stories such as “Together They Lie!,” and “Space Suitors;” war stories like “Memphis!,” and “Battle!;” darkly humorous tales like “Only Skin Deep,” “Sweetie-Pie,” “In Each and Every Package,” and “The Silent Towns” (a Ray Bradbury adaptation); as well as some of the most depressing, soul-crushing stories in the E.C. catalog. These include “The Kidnapper” (about a poor couple whose newborn baby is stolen), “The High Cost of Dying” (about a destitute Parisian man who must choose between burying his wife and feeding his two children), “Mothers Day” (a story of childhood trauma and familial tension come to a boil), and “A Kind of Justice,” which is a heartbreaking tale about rape in a small American town and the (kind of) justice that follows. The last story listed is very much in the vein of the socially-conscious E.C. stories detailed in my previous blog post here, but out of all of them, it is probably the one I find most upsetting, due not only to its plot but also in large part to Crandall’s visceral illustrations.

In the years after E.C. crumbled, Reed Crandall returned to the world of crime and horror comics when he did several stories for Warren Publishing’s Creepy magazine beginning with its first issue in 1964. Crandall’s work here was in many ways similar to his work with E.C., but also featured more experimentation, particularly with the use of background, which he would often under-emphasize and at times completely omit in order to highlight a close-up.

“The Judge’s House”
(adapted from a story by Bram Stoker), Creepy #5, 1965
http://bit.ly/2y2DBID

Crandall’s artwork is also much slicker here, and looks more like his work that he did illustrating the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, which occurred between E.C. and Creepy.

Although it is different in many ways from his work with E.C., I might enjoy Crandall’s work with Creepy even more so, since the elements of what made his previous work so effective at evoking suspense were present, but the art seems to be more free and open to new ideas. Take for instance, the scene included above from “Vampires Fly at Dusk!” from Creepy #1, which utilizes a closeup and a fluid, abstract background to add dynamism to a monologue that would have most likely been in a single verbose, close-up panel were it found in an E.C.-era Crandall story.

Reed Crandall’s career was ultimately cut short by eye problems which caused him to become unable to work by 1974, but he left behind an incredible body of work, of which this post is only a very brief introduction. If interested, I would highly encourage anyone to check out not only the stories mentioned in here but also Crandall’s other work, which spans multiple genres and formats and only gets better the deeper you look.

— Quinn Stratton, Comic Blogger

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