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Cracking the Code of the Comic Book Classics
By The "Crypt-Keeper" (as dictated to Arnold T. Blumberg)
October 24, 2001
The culprit is identified and a plot is hatched in the classic EC story, "Foul Play."
© EC Comics
It's October, bores and ghouls, that exciting time when the forces of darkness shove their way into our reality and poke about for something juicy to gnaw on! It's the Festival of the Dead, All Hallow's Eve, Samhain, the time when we let down our hair (or tentacles or tendrils or whatever else protrudes from your horrific heads) and wallow in all that is evil and frightening. It's the perfect time of year for all you creepy comic book fans to sample some of the most sensational, shocking stories ever scrawled on the page! It's time to talk about EC Comics! So have a seat, my fiendish friends, rest those weary bones, and let me show you why those '50s freaks made history with their terrorific tales! What do you need...an en-grave-d invitation? Hee hee hee!
You see, I could talk for hours about the baleful behind-the-scenes chronicle of EC's gory genesis, but that wouldn't be much more than a simple history lesson (and if you've read your humble host's EC articles in the special "Halloween A-Z" issue of CINESCAPE, you already know the whole sordid story). No, in order to get a feel for the comics themselves, to come to a true appreciation for the grand ghoulishness that was EC at its height, we need to examine a few specific examples. And our first tasty tidbit is an all-American aperitif about my favorite pastime revenge! Oh yes, and baseball too! It's called..."Foul Play!"
Herbie Satten is a truly awful individual, a baseball player with the desire to win above all else. So what's a fellow to do but poison his spikes and leave the opposition dying on their feet as Satten brings in the win? Ah, but when his cohorts discover his grisly plot, they decide it's time to take matters and limbs into their own begloved hands. Play ball, Herbie!
The horrific climax as Herbie faces a twisted justice in the EC tale, "Foul Play."
© EC Comics
"Foul Play" (presented in HAUNT OF FEAR #19
, June 1953, and excerpted in the infamous indictment of comics, Dr. Frederic Wertham's SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT
) has everything that made EC great. It also has everything that made EC a target of the Senate investigative body that eventually brought about the end of the so-called "New Trend" titles! Satten is your basic irredeemable felon, a murderer with no conscience who thinks nothing of killing to further his own ends. As with all classic EC tales, a sort of frontier justice prevails, with the evildoer getting his own gory comeuppance in a truly poetic fashion. There aren't many baseball players who can say that they not only played the game, but also provided the equipment as well! If that tongue in his hurled head still functioned, Satten could say his career was truly a magnificent "body" of work! Ha ha ha ha ha!
I kill me. "Foul Play" has it all good vs. evil, creepy Jack Davis artwork, a twist ending awash in blood and guts as well as a goodly amount of revenge, and a suitably macabre feel throughout. It's such a well-remembered terror tale that Stephen King himself mentioned it at length in his non-fiction classic, DANSE MACABRE
, as a crucial influence on his young, corruptible mind. See, not only were EC Comics educational, they were inspirational as well!
Religious intolerance and the persecution of Christ were tackled in EC's "He Walked Among Us."
© EC Comics
Of course, it wasn't all gratuitous blood and guts, deliciously delightful as that may be. No, those sleazy sneaks at EC dared to inject a bit of socio-political commentary in between the skeletons and swamp creatures, and the result was some of the most potent commentary to be found in "kiddie" entertainment for years to come. In "He Walked Among Us" (WEIRD SCIENCE
#13, June 1952, illustrated by Wally Wood), for example, a heavy-handed but effective commentary on religious persecution was woven into the tale of an astronaut abandoned on a distant planet. He is ruthlessly tortured and put to death by guillotine, but generations later, when his compatriots come to find evidence of his demise, they discover a society of followers who now wear tiny guillotines as symbols of his selfless sacrifice. Yes, it's Christ's crucifixion with an EC twist, and through modern eyes it's all a bit overwrought, but for children seeking strange mystifying stories in the pages of their EC comics, it was an unexpected but valuable lesson about tolerance.
EC Comics also adapted a number of Ray Bradbury short stories, including the post-apocalyptic rumination titled "There Will Come Soft Rains" (which can be found in Bradbury's THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES).
© EC Comics
Talking of tolerance, there was no more powerful comment on the dangers of prejudice and rampant hatred than the EC epic known as "In Gratitude" (SHOCK SUSPENSTORIES
#11, October-November 1953, also illustrated by Wood), in which a returning soldier faces the ebullient welcome of his entire town. But his good friend, the man who sacrificed his life that he might live, will not be given the honorable burial that he deserves and why is that? His deceased comrade's skin is black, not white. Leave it to our heroic but troubled star to berate all of his fellow townsfolk about their narrow-mindedness and underlying dislike for anyone who is different from them. Today, the message comes across about as sledgehammer subtle as the one in "He Walked Among Us," but there's no denying its effectiveness or importance even now. Still featuring the patented EC twist ending, "In Gratitude" finds horror in the quiet racial bigotry that dwells in the human heart rather than in some oozing, ugly monstrosity.
Bernie Krigstein's cinematic climax to "Master Race," from EC Comics' IMPACT #1.
© EC Comics
Serious stuff, isn't it, kiddies? Why, it's tough for even your old pal, the Crypt Keeper, to find things to giggle about when faced with such historic bits of brilliance! But if these few fiendish examples weren't enough to impress upon you how important EC Comics was to the medium and pop culture, then look no further than the post-Senate crisis "New Direction" story, "Master Race," a horrifying Holocaust tale scribbled into the history books by artist Bernie Krigstein. Appearing in IMPACT
#1 (March-April 1955), the story is perhaps one of the earliest in any medium to touch upon the actual events that took place behind the hellish gates of Nazi death camps like Auschwitz and Birkenau. A black-garbed specter pursues a frightened man relentlessly through a subway station as he recalls the terrible crimes he witnessed in the camps a few short years ago. But when the stranger catches up to him, who will be the hunted, and who will be the hunter? EC employs its patented shock twist ending once again to great effect here, adding an emotional resonance not present in the admittedly run-of-the-mill monster romps seen in other EC titles.
So you see kiddies, it wasn't all fun and games. Sometimes you actually learned a thing or two! EC may have borne the brunt of the censorship attacks that characterized much of the mid-'50s, but today, their comics are fondly remembered as some of the earliest examples of real comic book literature. So you see, my dear fiends, EC Comics won't rot your brain that's my
job! Hee hee hee hee hee hee!
[Editor's Note: EC Comics remain some of the most sought after and expensive collectibles in comics. Gemstone Publishing has recently completed a multi-year reprint project, re-presenting every "New Trend" and "New Direction" EC, in library format (slipcased hardcover editions) and/or individual comic books. Some of the "pre-Trend" stories have also been reprinted, and some only in library format, such as the western and romance titles. EC reprints are available directly from the publisher and at comic shops and conventions everywhere. Note that there are still EC comics yet to be reprinted, however, including the Picto-Fiction stories that followed the "New Direction" titles and some early material as well. It looks like there's plenty of EC left to exhume, eh kiddies? Hmm, looks like the Crypt Keeper thing is catching...]