This article is by Brandon Engel
We are all familiar with the fate of virtually any sort of art that stirs controversy upon its initial release. At first, it’s perceived as subversive, and is often largely resisted by the general public. As time passes, tastes change, society typically becomes more permissive, and the thing that was shocking twenty to thirty years ago is ever-present, aesthetically and thematically, in mainstream media.
Such is the case with EC Comics, which were a major source of inspiration for a young Stephen King. Under the leadership of publisher William Gaines - whom many of you may also know for his involvement with Mad Magazine - EC established themselves in the early 1950’s as the pre-eminent publisher of horror comics. They published such titles as Tales From the Crypt, The Vault of Horror, The Haunt of Fear, and Shock Suspenstories. The covers typically featured highly stylized, lurid imagery which owed something to the tradition of “weird menace” pulp magazine covers.
Gaines worked closely with editor and visual artist Al Feldstein to oversee the production of content that was, in many ways, light years ahead of its time. Visually, the comics stood head and shoulders above competitors’ comics thank to the contributions of artists like Jack Davis and Graham Ingels. In terms of the writing, one of the traits that made EC historically significant in the annals of horror is that the publication featured many original stories by well respected authors, such as Ray Bradbury (another major literary influence of King’s).
The stories commonly featured some version of an O. Henry twist, and were typically moral plays, wherein the bad guy (or the worst of the bad guys) would ultimately receive his comeuppance at the end of the story. The stories would be introduced by one of three horror hosts: “The Vault-keeper,” “The Crypt Keeper,” and “The Old Witch.” They would make awful puns and provide comic relief that tempered the ghastliness of the stories themselves. And the stories were ghastly, with instances of people being eaten alive by vultures, cannibalism and even vividly illustrated dismemberment. It was a no-holds-barred kind of publication.
The books were immensely popular among young readers (with such gruesome plots, how could they not be?), and at one point in time, horror comics accounted for about 25% of the comic book market. And then, along came psychiatrist Fredric Wertham...
In 1954, Wertham published a book entitled The Seduction of the Innocent, which asserted that comic books contributed to juvenile delinquency. He took issue with the EC horror titles in particular, for juxtaposing macabre images next to advertisements for toy guns and knives. Wertham also had a litany of issues with other popular titles, and even went so far as to suggest that Batman and Robin promoted homosexuality (he may or may not have been correct on that point). Regardless, his book led to hearings about whether or not comic books were indeed endorsing illicit behaviors for young Americans. Gaines was forced to testify before a congressional hearing, and shortly thereafter, the Comic Code Authority was constructed by the Comics Magazine Association of America. The CCA organized a self-imposed set of censorship rules that a publication would be required to meet in order to get the Comic Code seal of approval. Publications that weren’t approved were generally sent back to the publisher, since sellers didn’t want to carry them.
As expected, this effectively terminated EC’s horror comics. Fortunately, EC had other properties to fall back on, such as the aforementioned Mad Magazine. But the influence of those comics endured. John Carpenter and George Romero were two filmmakers who grew up in the fifties and drew heavily from the influence of EC - the latter of the two eventually teamed up with Stephen King to produce the EC derivative horror anthology Creepshow (1982). King wrote five short stories in the EC tradition, and Romero did his best to replicate the comic book aesthetics in the composition of the shots, and the use of comic book style borders. There are also animated segments that feature artwork from original EC layout artists. King even stars in one of the segments as an east-coast bumpkin whose life is turned upside down when a meteor crashes in his back-yard.
In some ways, you might say that the film helped demonstrate that the general public was ready for material this intense. It was only 6 years after the release of Creepshow that HBO began airing its Tales From the Crypt series, which used stories from all of the EC horror titles as the basis for teleplays. As a bonus, because the program was originally broadcast on HBO, producers didn’t have to make concessions with the gore and violence. And later, there was an animated TV program for kids entitled Tales From the Cryptkeeper.
To his credit, you might say that Stephen King and George Romero played a large role in legitimizing this genre of material and making it palatable to a wider audience. And it really does go to show you that what’s outlawed one decade could very well be fodder for Saturday morning children’s programming a few decades later.
. . . . . . . . . .
Brandon Engel is a blogger with satellitestarinternet.com who writes about a variety of topics - everything from vintage exploitation films to energy legislation. Brandon has a penchant for horror literature, and his favorite authors within the genre include: H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Clive Barker, and, of course, Stephen King.