Monday, September 27, 2010

It's An Entertaining Comic! Part 1: The Haunt of Fear

A quick note before we begin. The following piece first appeared (in a slightly different form) in Jim Kingman's small press fanzine, Comic Effect, back in 2003. It was reprinted a few years later in the British horror comic magazine, From the Tomb, edited by Peter Normanton. I wrote three installments for the series and all three will appear here in the next month. I'll then be tackling the remainder of the EC titles. -Peter Enfantino

EC Comics! Entertaining Comics!

Some have called them “a travesty,” “vile,” or “an abomination.”

Some have called them “the greatest comics ever published.”

I fall somewhere in the middle of those camps, leaning towards the “greatest” label. A lot of the EC stories were pretty nasty and I can certainly see why parents of the 1950s would deem them “vile.” After all, this was long before parents let their preteens stay up late to watch such fun-filled family fare as Jackass or The Osbournes. Ostensibly, we (as in that generation) still had morals. Comics filled with necrophiliac morticians, conniving, large busted women, and undying corpses (who fall to pieces as they slowly shamble towards their adultering mates) could be interpreted as the antithesis of Father Knows Best or Ozzie and Hariet. Ozzie never had to worry about murderous business partners or bad cops. Robert Young wouldn’t be caught dead romancing a vampiress. But there was more at work here than just monsters, human and otherwise.

Certainly there was rougher edged entertainment aimed towards the adults of the 1950s: the murder-filled pages of Manhunt, the noir films that were coming into their own in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and the novels of Jim Thompson, David Goodis, and the other “Gold Medal” writers, works that almost trumpeted the viciousness that man could invite on his fellow man. But these blasts of criminal activity didn’t come wrapped in four color covers.

What most parents and legislators failed to recognize was that, unlike the gangster flicks and JD novels, the ECs, for the most part, were morality tales. If you did bad, you got punished (the one major exception to that rule, Shock SuspenStories, will be covered in a future installment).

Usually the protagonist of the EC stories would get their comeuppance for some evil deed the character committed. The character might have: a/ dumped his wife for a younger woman; b/ cheated his partner out of money; c/ treated an animal unkindly; d/ committed murder; or e/ all of the above. But some of this stuff was just mean-spirited. A perfect example:

A female sword-swallower is trying for years to save up money to buy a trick sword, but can’t put away the dough because her obese husband spends every dime on food. She finally manages to stash away two hundred dollars but the husband finds the money and spends it on one huge meal. The woman forces the slob to swallow a sword, ties him up, and leaves him in the final panel, warning: “Be careful, Alec! The least little movement might send the sword blade through your chest! Don’t even breathe hard! And above all...hah...try not to belch!” (from “Fed Up” The Haunt of Fear #13).

But, in the beginning, the ECs were certainly not as gruesome as some of the other infamous pre-code titles like Weird Mysteries or Weird Chills (pre-code expert Lawrence Watt-Evans calls the latter title “the single most unpleasant title I ever read.”), nor were they particularly original, let alone groundbreaking. Here and there are the standout classics, but for every “Poetic Justice” there are several stories like “The Vamp,” wherein the protagonist discovers his very pale, peculiar sweetheart is actually a vampire . Of course, the chief reason so many of these stories simply follow the “EC Revenge Outline” is that most of these stories were written by Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein. Both had been brought up on a steady diet of horror radio shows and pulps. Their “licks” were copped from authors like H. P. Lovecraft, Robert Bloch, and Ray Bradbury. In fact, Bradbury finally got fed up with being plagiarized (though, in a nice way) and asked for monetary compensation. This led to the 24 Bradbury authorized adaptations that dotted the EC line (including two in Haunt).

Stale stories aside, EC Comics certainly staffed itself with fine artists: Wally Wood, Johnny Craig, Jack Davis, George Evans, John Severin, Al Williamson, Joe Orlando, and Al Feldstein himself. The artist who would truly define EC’s horror comics was Graham Ingels, who would sign “Ghastly” to his grisly art.

Later, when the plethora of horror comic titles gobbed up the newsstands and drained some of the sales from EC, the publisher resorted to aping the comics that had been introduced to rip off EC in the first place. This gave way to infamous stories like “Foul Play” (where a man is ripped to pieces and his body parts are used as baseball equipment) and “Midnight Mess” (a man is strung upside down by a restaurant full of vampires, and has his jugular tapped) which, in turn led to the by-now familiar story of Frederic Wertham and Seduction of the Innocent .

The EC Comics line came to an end in 1954 (with the exception of Mad, a title that was reintroduced as a magazine and became an institution) with the advent of the restrictive Comics Code, but diehard fans and their fanzines, reprintings, movies, and television have kept the legend alive.

I’ve always wanted to do a series of essays on the individual titles, a list of ten favorite stories. Better writers than I have picked lists of “The Best of...” and written tomes on the EC legend. That’s not what I want to accomplish. I just wanted an excuse to reread these stories twenty (and sometimes thirty) years after first laying my eyes on them and this e-zine is the perfect forum for just such a freewheeling “thought piece.” As I recall, there were three events that led to my fascination with EC Comics: the Amicus film, Tales From the Crypt, starring Peter Cushing and Joan Collins; the special EC issue of the long-gone and lamented The Monster Times newspaper (which will get its' day in the sun on this site soon; and the East Coast Comix reprinting of Shock SuspenStories #12 (the classic heroin addiction cover). Suddenly there was something a little bit edgier than Where Monsters Dwell or Creatures on the Loose for a 14 year-old comic reader.

For this first installment, I read all 112 stories published in the 28 issues of The Haunt of Fear (actually the color reprintings published by Russ Cochran in the 1990s). I made notes on all the stories and assigned them the obligatory 1-4 star ratings. The eleven stories selected are my favorites of the bunch. This is not ‘The Best of Haunt of Fear.” Writers John Benson, Bill Mason, and Bhob Stewart do a remarkable job of critiquing the stories in Russ Cochran’s indispensable EC Library boxed set of Haunt. I can’t even touch the kind of in-depth notes and comments these three share with us. This is "Peter Enfantino's Favorite Stories from The Haunt of Fear.” The stories I can see myself rereading over and over. I hope you’ enjoy my recommendations and maybe it will nudge you into dipping your toes into the murky water that is Haunt or maybe even taking a dive in to the deep end and buying a copy of the box set. It may just be the friendly nudge you need to introduce you to a whole new universe. If you’ve got any comments or disagreements, I’d love to hear from you.

"Room For One More" (Haunt #7) Art: Graham Ingels/ Story: Bill Gaines
Rodney Whitman has his eye on the final spot in the family mausoleum. Only problem is, there are three other surviving members of the family who will vie for that spot when the Grim reaper shows up to claim them. In order to be the recipient of the death site, but not actually die before his time, Rodney starts bumping off his relatives and hiding their bodies. Totally offbeat and goofy, “Room for One More” is another yarn from the seemingly bottomless EC Revenge Well, but this one has that extra zaniness to push it to another level. Then there’s the “Ghastly” Graham Ingels art. Ingels could make the worst tale readable, but when he was given something with substance, no one could touch him. He was the 1950s version of Bernie Wrightson. I love Johnny Craig’s art as well (though I think his stuff got better, as witnessed by his work for Warren in the 1960s), but just compare the results of Craig’s take on the story (on the cover of #7) with the full story as drawn by Ingels. Craig’s art almost has a calm to it (despite depicting a corpse bursting through a basement floor) while Ingels oozes darkness and doom. Ingels contributed a story to every issue of Haunt with the exception of the first issue.

"The Gorilla's Paw" (Haunt #9) Art: Jack Davis/ Story: Gaines/Al Feldstein
"Wish You Were Here" (Haunt #22) Art: Ingels/Story: Gaines/Feldstein
As I noted in my introduction, it’s no secret that Gaines and Feldstein liberally “borrowed” from many sources to create their comic tales. Frankenstein was reimagined several times throughout the titles, as was Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. But it’s a testament to just how well the writing duo could pick at a corpse that two different versions of W. W. Jacobs’ classic “The Monkey’s Paw” make this list.

In “The Gorilla’s Paw", Floyd, passing an old curio shop is fascinated by a row of trinkets. Beckoned in by the shop owner, Floyd is first repulsed and then obsessed by a severed gorilla’s paw. He buys it and finds that every time he wished for something, he gets it. But every wish comes with consequences. When he wishes he had never bought the paw, the next morning his money is in the paw and he finds out that the curio shop owner has been murdered. The story ends with a classic AAAAAAH!: while talking to his buddy on the phone, Floyd demeans himself for being a dope, wishes he had his buddy’s brains, and... well, you get the picture (and, yes, you do get the picture!).

Closer to the original Jacobs story, “Wish You Were Here” opens with elderly couple Jason and Enid Logan pondering their money problems. When Enid remembers the jade statuette they’d found in Hong Kong and the three wishes it supposedly grants, her husband cautions her that according to the old yarn he’d once heard, each wish will come with a severe price. Enid reasons that it won’t hurt to try and so she uses her first wish, for “money...lots of money.” Of course, she gets her wish, and the price is the life of her husband. She becomes instantly wealthy from her husband’s insurance money, but the problem now is that her husband isn’t around to help her spend it. Since she has two wishes left, no problem, right? A grisly ending (the second for Jason, by the way) caps off a genuinely creepy story. As with “Poetic Justice,” (see below) “Wish You Were Here” was faithfully adapted for the Amicus Tales From the Crypt movie.

"Poetic Justice" (Haunt #12) Art: Ingels/ Story: Gaines/Feldstein
Henry Burgundy, “the town’s richest man,” can’t bear to watch kindly old Abner Elliot anymore. After all, the old man’s ramshackle house and plethora of pets threaten to devalue the neighborhood and are just a general eyesore and nuisance. So, Burgundy hatches a plan to run the old man out of the neighborhood. His schemes to demoralize Abner succeed and the old man commits suicide. In classic EC style, Abner rises from the grave and doles out a little EC-style justice to Henry Burgundy.

If I was to pick one story that epitomizes what I love about EC Comics, it would be “Poetic Justice.” It’s all here: Graham Ingels’ drippy, morbid art, a beautifully told, compact story, and one of the best punchlines ever delivered. Of course, my love for the story might also have something to do with the fact that it was wonderfully adapted by Milton Subotsky for the Amicus Crypt movie. Abner (here renamed Arthur Grimsdyke) is sensitively played by horror movie veteran Peter Cushing and the spirit of the story is captured almost frame for frame. Subotsky (and Amicus co-partner/ producer Max Rosenberg) certainly had a love for and working knowledge of EC Comics. They picked ten of the better stories from several different titles to comprise their two EC films. Just before the release of the second film, Vault of Horror, it was rumored there would be a third film, Tales of the Incredible, but the box-office failure of Vault (probably due to its’ R rating more than anything else) doomed the third installment.

"What's Cookin'?" (Haunt #12) Art: Davis/ Story: Gaines/Feldstein
Eric Edwards approaches Herman and Charlie with a proposition. He’ll help the two restaurateurs increase the business at their roadside stop,The Chicken Coop, if they’ll cut Edwards in on the profits. Sure enough, Edwards multiplies business by building huge fat-fryers and spits. The two partners decide that Edwards’ cut is too big and they torch him in his bed one night. Evidently, they don’t do a good enough job on Eric as he manages to escape (skin crackling and afire) and exact EC vengeance on the two. Absolutely vile! You won’t look at your fried chicken quite the same again. Filmed for the HBO Tales From the Crypt TV series, starring Christopher Reeve and Judd Nelson.

"Wolf Bait" (Haunt #13) Art: Davis/ Story: Gaines/Feldstein
Five riders on a horse-driven sleigh are chased by a pack of wolves through Russia in a violent snowstorm. Down to no bullets and a few miles to go to shelter, they must decide which passenger should be sacrificed to safe the rest. When the choice is made, out of the sleigh goes... well, we don’t know. The second to last panel shows a silhouette of a wolf pack attacking something, but who it is must be guessed at. The Crypt-Keeper’s final words include “Who did they toss overboard? Well, I’ll tell you! When I got there, there wasn’t enough left to tell who it was!”

"A Little Stranger" (Haunt #14) Art: Ingels/ Story: Gaines/Feldstein
Villagers can’t figure out whether a vampire or a werewolf is responsible for a series of murders. The bodies have punctures on the neck, but they’re also munched on. Guess what! It’s a tag-team job. Zorgo, a werewolf and his beautiful vampire girlfriend, Elicia, have joined forces to wine and dine on the hapless villagers. The torch-wielding mob finally catches up with the duo, dispatches them, and buries them in “The Devil’s Graveyard,” a place “where murderers and other creatures of evil are interred!” But you can’t keep a good ghoul down, and nearly a year later, all the creatures interred in the graveyard rise to witness the birth of Zorgo and Elicia’s offspring. I know what you’re thinking. This sounds like a really bad Mexican horror movie starring Paul Naschy. The sheer goofiness of the story is what pushes it into classic status for me. Gaines and Feldstein clearly decided to poke fun at the horror genre, in particular the Universal monster fests such as House of Dracula and House of Frankenstein, capped off by a wacky final full-page panel illustrating the birth of The Old Witch, the mascot/narrator of The Haunt of Fear. Thirteen years later, Archie Goodwin would pay homage to “A Little Stranger” with “Monster Rally” (Creepy #4, August 1965), an origin story for Uncle Creepy (illustrated by Angelo Torres).

"Dig That Cat...He's Real Gone" (Haunt #21) Art: Davis/Story: Gaines/Feldstein
Dr. Emil Mansfred has discovered the secret of cheating death. By “removing a certain gland from a common cat” and transplanting it into the body of a skid-row bum, he creates a man with nine lives. The two hatch a plan to reap the benefits of the extra lives. The bum becomes “Ulric, the Undying,” charging exorbitant sums to cheat death in several different manners: electrocution, jumping from a plane without a parachute, and going over Niagara Falls without a barrel. Before too long, the man with nine lives decides that he wants the whole pie, not just fifty percent, and he offs the doctor. Ulric gets his in the end, of course, when he makes a fatal mathematical error. “Dig That Cat...” was adapted by writer Terry Black and director Richard (Superman) Donner as the first episode of the HBO Crypt TV show in 1989. While I’m not a big fan of the TV show (way too much gore for my tastes), there were a few episodes that captured the flavor and atmosphere of EC and “Dig That Cat...” was one of them. Starring Joe Pantoliano as Ulric, the episode is directed subtly, a trait lost on future Tales makers. In all, eleven Haunt stories were adapted for the show.

"Hansel and Gretel" (Haunt #23) Art: Jack Kamen/Story: Gaines/Feldstein
The Old Witch tells the true story of those lovely young fairy tale children, Hansel and Gretel, two tykes that just couldn’t stop eating. When they literally eat everything in the house, their parents dump them deep in the forest, where the two imps come across the cottage of a nice old lady. She invites them in for lunch, revealing that her husband died and left her with a chest full of jewels and gold. Seeing their meal ticket before their eyes, Hansel and Gretel push the old woman in her oven and cart the booty home. Like the rest of the installments in Gaines/Feldstein’s “Grim Fairy Tale” series (eight of the fifteen stories appeared in Haunt), the slant was on comedy. These fables could have come from the pages of Mad (in fact, “Little Red Riding Hood” appeared in Mad’s sister title, Panic) with their smartass kids and goofy plot devices (the wicked witch of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” consults a Howdy Doody lookalike on a television screen rather than the mirror on the wall).

"Indisposed" (Haunt #25) Art: George Evans/Story: Gaines/Feldstein
Henpecked Henry has finally had enough of his wife Rita and makes good use of their new garbage disposal. Unfortunately, the disposal wasn’t properly installed and, on the night the boys are over, Rita makes a “return appearance” all over Henry’s kitchen sink. Fabulous artwork by Evans, with a particularly grisly final panel.

"Marriage Vow" (Haunt #26) Art: Ingels/Story: Otto Binder
Martin Saunders marries Eva not just for her beauty, but for her money. But the honeymoon ends very quickly and all that’s left for Martin is the money. After convincing Eva to change her will, leaving him the riches, Martin loosens the balcony and the woman falls to her death. Unfortunately for Martin, Eva believes in “Til Death Do Us Part” even after she’s dead. The corpse comes back craving companionship and in a “oh...lord...choke” final panel we get the full picture on love after death. Yet another example of why Ingels was the greatest horror comics artist of the 50s.


EC Horror Comics of The 1950s
Hardcover, edited by Ron Barlow and Bhob Stewart
(Nostalgia Press, 1971)

The EC Library: The Haunt of Fear
5 hardcover volumes. (Russ Cochran, publisher. 1985)
The definitive overview of the title, with in-depth critiques and interviews with the contributors.

Trade Paperback, edited by Grant Geissman
(Harper, 2005)

The Haunt of Fear
(EC Comics, May 1950-December 1954)
(reprinted by Russ Cochran/Gemstone, November 1992-August 1998)

Squa Tront #1-12
(EC Fanzine 1967-2007)

Hardcover, edited by Digby Diehl. (St. Martin’s Press, 1996)
An overview of the EC title, and the EC horror titles in general. My recommendation comes with a qualifier: I could have done without the sixty pages devoted in this nice glossy book to the TALES FROM THE CRYPT TV show. A lot of cover and art repros.

Hardcover, by Fred Von Bernewitz and Grant Geissman. (Gemstone/Fantagraphics, 2000)
In my opinion, the best overview of EC in one volume. Beautiful repros, including every EC cover, and a lot of information on the staff.

NEXT WEEK: Crime SuspenStories!

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