This week in From the Vault we begin a multi-part look at the history of horror comics from the 1940s through the 1970s which covers the genre’s heyday of the 1950s, its decline after the establishment of the Comic Book Code, and of its revival in the 1960s and 1970s.
Horror comics in America were born out of two primary influences…first we had the pulp magazines which presented various types of chilling and lurid stories. These included well-known pulps like Weird Tales, Phantom Detective, Black Mask, and lesser known pulps like Ghost Stories, Horror Stories, and Dime Mystery. Typically these pulps featured covers with graphic scenes of torture and near nudity. In the 1940s there was an outcry against these magazines and most of them disappeared (but are HIGHLY collectible today). The other major influence was the horror films of the 1930s and 1940s, particularly the very popular films produced by Universal Studios.
Naturally the fledgling comic book industry jumped on board and added horror comics to its stable of superhero, funny animal, mystery, and Western-themed comic books. Among the very first ongoing horror comics was “The new Adventures of Frankenstein” debuting in Prize Comics #7 (1940). After World War II the character got his own title in Frankenstein #1 (1945) but was played more for humor than horror. One for the first true, ongoing series that WAS played for horror was Adventures into the Unknown which was published by American Comics Group and was their longest running title at 174 issues from 1948 – 1967.
By the late 1940s, even Timely Comics got into the act changing its superhero title Marvel Mystery Comics into a horror/suspense title renamed Marvel Tales with issue #93. Harvey Comics did the same with its costumed-crimefighter comic Black Cat by re-tooling it as the horror comic Black Cat Mystery with issue #30.
Comic publishers had only dipped their toes into the pool of horror up until the late 1940s but that was all about to change. In 1947, William Gaines inherited his father’s company EC Comics which had stood for “Educational Comics”. In 1949 Gaines decided to try his hand at several different genres including war, adventure, suspense, Sci-Fi, and most notably and most notoriously, horror comics. Along with his editors, Al Feldstein and Harvey Kurtzman, Gaines recruited some of the top artists in the business including: Johnny Craig, Reed Crandall, Jack Davis, Will Elder, George Evans, Frank Frazetta, Graham Ingels, Jack Kamen, Bernard Krigstein, Joe Orlando, John Severin, Al Williamson, Basil Wolverton, and Wally Wood.
EC introduced titles like Weird Science, Weird Fantasy, Two-Fisted Tales, Frontline Combat, Crime SuspenStories, Piracy, and of course its three legendary horror titles: Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror and The Haunt of Fear. The covers of these three magazines pulled no punches and featured ghoulish illustrations of rotting corpses, torture, severed heads and limbs, (EC’s artists REALLY seemed to love axes!), various monsters, and scantily clad women. Typically EC’s stories featured ironic twist endings where a character got what was coming to him, usually in grisly fashion.
Many of the stories were based upon well-known stories from literature including “Model Nephew” which was an adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Terrible Old Man”; “Rx Death” an adaptation of Arthur Machen’s “Novel of the White Powder’; “The Monster in the Ice” and adaptation of “The Thing from Another World”; “VooDoo Horror” and adaptation of “The Portrait of Dorian Gray”; and many, many more. In fact, EC deserves a lot of credit for keeping many of these tales and their original authors in the public eye. Another favorite of the EC horror titles was to do twisted versions of well-known fairy tales like Sleeping Beauty and Little Red Riding Hood.
The three horror titles introduced the concept of the horror host. The Crypt Keeper introduced Tales from the Crypt, the Vault Keeper welcomed readers to The Vault of Horror and the Old Witch cackled over The Haunt of Fear. The horror host would later be used by both Marvel and DC in their horror comics.
Kids loved EC’s titles but you know who didn’t? An uptight, buttinski psychiatrist named Dr. Fredric Wertham. In 1954 Wertham wrote a book called “Seduction of the Innocent” in which he blamed pulp magazines and comic books for turning kids into juvenile delinquents. Congress held special hearings on the matter and a defiant Gaines was called to testify before a senate subcommittee. Gaines and EC became public enemy #1 in the comic industry. The hearings resulted in the formation of the Comics Code Authority and the institution of the Comics Code seal. All comic books had to be submitted to the CCA for approval.
Specific restrictions were placed on the portrayal of kidnapping and concealed weapons. Depictions of "excessive violence" were forbidden, as were "lurid, unsavory, gruesome illustrations." Vampires, werewolves, ghouls and zombies could not be portrayed. In addition, comics could not use the words "horror" or "terror" in their titles. The use of the word "crime" was subject to numerous restrictions. Where the previous code had condemned the publication of "sexy, wanton comics," the CCA was much more precise: depictions of "sex perversion", "sexual abnormalities", and "illicit sex relations" as well as seduction, rape, sadism, and masochism were specifically forbidden.
Gaines ceased publishing all of EC’s horror titles and began publishing a new group of comics but they did not sell nearly as well. When EC’s distributor went out of business Gaines dropped all of his titles except for one…a humor comic known as Mad. Gaines changed the format of Mad from comic to magazine as magazines did not have to be submitted to the CCA and a legend was born. 60 years later Mad Magazine is still in business and Gaines, who passed away in 1992, would no doubt be proud.
In the next From the Vault we will take a look at how horror comics post code in the 1950s and early 1960s.
Tim Janson is a columnist and reviewer for Mania Entertainment. He writes Level Up, the weekly look at videogames and the horror dedicated column, Tuesday Terrors. Tim has written for Fangoria, Newsarama, City Slab Magazine, Twitch Film, and Cinefantastique. He is a member of the Horror Writers Association (HWA). Be sure to follow him on Facebook and Twitter.