Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Rise and Fall and Rise and Fall and... of Pre-Code Horror

by Peter Enfantino

Four Color Fear: Forgotten Horror Comics of the 1950sThough they’ve never really gone away, the pre-code horror comics of the 1950s seem to be having another spike in their visibility, if not their popularity. Way back in 1999 John and I co-edited a special “Selective Guide to Horror Comics” Issue of The Scream Factory (#19). That issue featured a ground-breaking article on the pre-code horror companies other than EC. Author Lawrence Watt-Evans opined that several of these companies were producing product equal to, and sometimes superior to, the EC titles. That article has just been reprinted in Roy Thomas’ Alter Ego Magazine #97 (the Halloween Horror issue) and based on what I’ve seen at the publisher’s site (where a piece of the article is available as a free download), Roy has done his usual A-1 job of illustrating the piece with several rare items.

Several new books spotlight the gory, gooey, sadistic world of pre-code. Marvel’s doing a great job of reprinting some of their titles (now how about bringing the price down, guys?), IDW’s first volume in the reprinting of Dick Briefer’s Frankenstein should be out some time soon, and before me lie two very different studies of the genre.

Four Color Fear (Fantagraphics, $29.99) is 320 nicely reprinted pages, comprised of 39 horror stories from such 1950s horror comics as This Magazine is Haunted, Witches Tales, Web of Evil, Black Cat Mystery, Strange Terrors, and Chamber of Chills. The overwhelming impression I get after reading these dusty old relics is that EC might not have been the first, they might not have been the only one, but they certainly were the best. It's not even a close race. EC excelled at not just its art but also its stories. The other companies could ape EC's stable of artists (and do a decent job as in the case of Howard Nostrand's "homage" to Jack Davis, "Dust to Dust," which looks just like Davis) and rip off their ultra-violent storylines (Tales from the Crypt's sadistic butcher story "T'aint the Meat...It's the Humanity" becomes Mysterious Adventures' sadistic butcher story "Chef's Delight"). But if you're buying Four Color Fear for anything besides offbeat nonsense, you're obviously going to be disappointed. If, like me, you relish this stuff, you'll need this book.

Inside you'll find: "Wall of Flesh" about a crazed scientist who creates, well, a wall of flesh that absorbs anyone who touches it; Reed Crandall's ludicrously entertaining "The Corpse That Came to Dinner" about a young couple who discover the undead corpse of their recently deceased friend eating out of their refrigerator; "The Flapping Head," with typically nice art by Al Williamson but atypical story about a flying vampire head seeking to rebuild its body; and what must be not just the goofiest comic in this book but possibly in all of pre-code, "Green Horror" about a lusty, jealous and murderous cactus!

As a bonus to the stories, there are 32 full-page reproductions of classic covers (with comments on each) and editor Greg Sadowski provides exhaustive notes for each story as an afterword and drops a hint that we’ll be seeing a separate volume devoted to Atlas. Based on the job done here, I’ll be looking forward to that book.

Our second study is The Horror! The Horror! (Abrams ComicArts, $29.95), which presents a somewhat different angle. Author Jim Trombetta dissects various facets of the horror comics (the werewolf, war, crime, etc.) using quite a bit of psychology. Usually that throws up a red flag for me. While there are several instances where I questioned the logic of the author, there are an equal number when a lightbulb went on over my dim cranium and I actually looked at a story differently. Trombetta’s prose is scholarly but not academic (read: not boring). I would question whether such in-depth analysis is due a story about a young couple who buy a new house, quickly discover bottles of blood in the basement and then decide against moving out. When the “bloodman” (rather then the milkman) comes calling for “empties” and takes the couple along with him, I thought “what a couple of dopes” rather than look for any Freudian overtones.

According to Trombetta, “Skeletons perform any number of lonely personal revenges, but they most often appear less as the mirror of human self-hatred than as a quorum.” Huh? Just tell me how they can speak without vocal chords! A little far fetched is this description of the cover of Mysterious Adventures #18: “Here a superb Hy Fleischman skeleton grabs his ex-wife and demands that she join him in the grave. What ups the ante is that the ex-wife’s boyfriend is also on the scene – molested, prison-style, from behind by another skeleton.” Does anybody really see in this cover, even squinting, a skeletal version of Deliverance?

There are 16 strips here, several of which are dopey fun. ( I’d love to own a set of Dark Mysteries, with titles like “The Terror of the Hungry Cats,” “Terror of the Unwilling Witch,” “Vampire Fangs of Doom,” “Terror of the Vampire’s Teeth”). My favorite of the batch for sheer goofiness would have to be “The Eyes of Death.” Ralph Moore has always been jealous of fellow astronomer Don Reynolds’ success. Don seems to have all the fame and fortune that astronomers deserve: stars named after him, awards bestowed, lots of dough, and a sweet chick named Elaine. Ralph’s biggest problem is that his eyes are going bad and, sorta like a junk man with no arms, he’s having a tough time getting the job done. Despite the fact that this has nothing to do with Don, Ralph has a “moment” and tosses his partner down the observatory stairs. Now, here’s where it gets interesting. Instead of calling the cops and confessing, Ralph calls his cousin, the surgeon, to ask if the doctor can perform a super-secret operation to give him Don’s eyes. The doctor scratches his chin, pondering, and says “I can do it, Ralph…it’s unethical…but…all right, I’ll do it! No one will know – he’ll be buried with his eyes closed!” (At this point I pause and ask why author Trombetta didn’t research the medical field of the 1950s to get to the bottom of how something like this could occur? No autopsy?) Needless to say, Don’s corpse rises from his grave to reclaim his eyes at the climax. I have to believe that Trombetta is pulling our leg with his analysis of the story: “’The Eyes of Death’ (Dark Mysteries No. 7, July 1952) succeeds in becoming a true nightmare out of a kids’ campfire story, in which eyes can literally be ripped off. The story also presents an original idea of cosmic casuality that will no doubt have astronomers revising their theories.”

If all this comes off as too negative, don’t get me wrong. The Horror, The Horror is a delight from start to finish and features not only those 16 stories but hundreds of rare comic covers. Trombetta drops his professorial cap several times and made me laugh out loud. Regarding the cover of Dark Mysteries #13 (directly to my left). The author questions: “The guard expresses amazement: ‘It’s Tom’s leg…. But he was executed last night!’ What is striking, of course, is how many more questions this explanation raises than it answers: How does the guard know it’s Tom’s leg? If this is Tom’s leg, where’s the rest of him? Did his execution involve his dismemberment? Are the other prisoners afraid that the leg itself will, say, give them the boot? Or has something eaten the post-resurrection Tom in one large gulp, leaving only a drumstick, and are the other characters afraid they’ll be next?”

This is how I think Jim should have tackled this project. Forget phallic symbols and emasculating mother-figures. Sometimes a zombie is just a zombie.

(Page reproduction from "Green Horror" taken from the Bloody Pulp blog, an informative and entertaining examination of Myron Fass' eerie Publications. Highly recommended)


Walker Martin said...

I recently received FOUR COLOR FEAR but somehow I missed THE HORROR, THE HORROR. I've ordered it from amazon.com. Thanks for the heads up. ALTER EGO is already on its way to me and sounds like a great issue.

The Maverick said...

"According to Trombetta, 'Skeletons perform any number of lonely personal revenges, but they most often appear less as the mirror of human self-hatred than as a quorum.' Huh? Just tell me how they can speak without vocal chords!"

My sentiments exactly!

Dan Snoke said...

I was just thinking of blogging about these two books and the Alter Ego Magazine #97, but since I'm a lazy fellow who hasn't updated his blog in about four months, I'll just respond to your review. First, I'd like to say that I do think the best of the non-EC titles are just as good as the EC titles, but clearly EC had a much better batting average because they were willing to pay for the better then average artists. That being said it's a lot of work to track down the good stuff from the other publishers because of all the crap they published. That's why this types of collections should be a god send to those of us who don't have the time or money to track down the good stuff. What is really frustrating about these collections for me then is how many of the same stories in these two new books are ones that have already been reprinted in the last 15 or 20 years. Between the Mammoth Book of Horror Comics, Wolverton books etc, I think I probably have half this stuff already. Have we really run out of good stuff, or did people just assume the other reprints weren't seen by enough people, or does every body just want to feel good about publishing certain gems?

Also, the good thing about the Alter Ego reprint is the info about other reasons besides the Comics Code that may have lead to the down fall of so many horror comics. Was that in the original article in The Scream Factory (#19)? I read that issue not too long after it first came out, but I don't remember that info, so I'm wondering how much the article may have been revised. Keep in mind that it might have been exactly the same and I just don't remember it.

As far as the books go I think they are both worth getting, although I kind of give the edge to THE HORROR, THE HORROR because of all the great cover reproductions. Don't you wish that Taschen would do one of their books on 1000 images about Horror Comic covers? Also, I'm sure you're aware of this forthcoming book on Eerie Publication's gruesome comics of the 60s & 70s. Here is the author's Facebook page with lots of covers.


Peter Enfantino said...

Hey Dan!

Thanks for sending me your comments instead of popping them up on your blog. You make several good points. A lot of the stories in FCF have been reprinted before and they weren't all that great the first time around. If you went by the selection, you'd get the impression that EC was the only company that produced quality. That was my point. Just in the last week or so, I've discovered several blogs that reprint full pre-code horror stories (hell, sometimes full issues)--yes, I know they've been out there for years (yours may be one of them), but I live a sheltered life and somehow always come to this technology late (cd, dvd, ipod, etc.). Just ask John.

There are dealers out there selling several hundred issues on a dvd-rom (the legality of this may be a bit shady) and I've gotta believe this is the wave of the future.

I'm not sure yet what's in the Alter Ego piece as I haven't gotten my copy yet, Watt-Evans did go into several reasons for the fall of the horror comic at the climax of the piece but not sure if any revision was done. My sense is there wasn't. Roy Thomas has been nice enough to let me know that we'll be credited ion Alter Ego #99 even though he's not bound by anything other than Roy Thomas niceties. He's a good guy.

And I mentioned Mike Howlett's book back on the 12th in a "here's what's coming out" post. Have you gone back and read my EC posts? If so, I'd love to hear your picks for the best stories each mag produced.
And, please, let us have the link to your blog!

Dan Snoke said...

Well,Peter, as far as my blog goes I really have very few posts up and none of them have to do with horror comics at this point. What is on my blog so far are just random things I've pulled from my basement, scanned and put up. Usually it's based on a conversation I had with a friend. The last post was just random images of the Krampus I pulled off of the web for my friend George to see. But if you look around you might find something to look at if your tastes are as varied and weird as my own.

The fact is I'm one of those guys who started a family late in life and now I just don't have the energy, time or money to spend on all my interests as I used to. But I do still get to read a great deal on my train commute.

I hope I didn't give the impression I thought there was anything wrong with your reviews of the books. The fact is that I haven't really been scared by any comic I've read since the age of ten or maybe twelve. So the reason for me to read any horror comic for the last forty years of my life has been to appreciate the art, or just to get a thrill out of the sheer over the top antics. That's why i guess I'm not as crazy about the ECs as most people are. Sure they had some of the greatest artists, but by the time I was reading them, there was already the Warren publications for me to sneak a look at, and they were much more out there in my mind then the ECs. I also got tired of the old EC idea of the wicked people getting what they deserved.

Anyway, I just wish I knew whether all the great stuff from the non-EC publishers was already reprinted and that's why the stories are being repeated, or whether the compilers are just not digging deep enough. And yes, I've been trying to check out some of the websites that print whole stories, but since I don't have a laptop to take on my commute, that means I can't really browse when I have the most time.

Having said all that, I promise to read more of your posts (maybe this weekend). It looks like I might find some new titles to track down.

Take care,