Death Panels, Part I: How Human Villains Murdered the Horror Comics of Yesteryear

October calls for scares, and despite the very scary state of the world, there is still a desire for entertainment that frightens us. Here we look at the broad, deep legacy of horror comics in a series that delves into the genre's many variations and highlights from the 1940s to the present.

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Jack Cole

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​A parade of grotesque killers -- human and undead -- got horror comics in trouble during their heyday in the 1950s, but it was real-life parents and other uptight suburbanites, incensed by the popularity of the genre, who (temporarily) eliminated them from mainstream American culture.

Among the hundreds of horror titles available during the boom years of the 1940s and early 1950s were EC Comics' Tales from the Crypt (along with sister books The Vault of Horror and The Haunt of Fear), Eerie, Creepy, and This Magazine is Haunted. Recently, the genre has again become widespread and influential, with Mike Mignola's Hellboy universe and the continued interest in vampires and zombies leading the pack. But it was during the Golden Age that the horror anthology comic flourished. Although horror comics were ubiquitous and often disposable, key titles of that era continue to circulate in reprinted editions, inspiring new generations of readers and visibly influencing current work.

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Dr. Fredric Wertham
​The public outcry over these anthology comics (particularly EC's short-lived but vastly influential Tales from the Crypt) was part of a larger hysteria over "juvenile delinquency." Its flames were fanned by Dr. Fredric A. Wertham, German-born quack author of the laughable The Seduction of the Innocent, a volume that claimed comics were directly responsible for the corruption of American youth. This led to widely publicized congressional investigations and, eventually, the Comics Code Authority in 1954. This agency, drunk with new power, censored comics so ruthlessly that the periodicals were driven into an extended hibernation through the late '50s and early '60s.

The original 27-issue run of Tales from the Crypt has been reprinted numerous times, most recently by Gemstone Publishing; Fantagraphics recently announced plans for reprints next year. We have Volume 2 of the Gemstone Crypt series, and most striking about these stories is that, despite being "hosted" by a trio of desiccated, mole-covered creatures (the Crypt-Keeper, the Old Witch, and the Vault-Keeper), the villains tend to be real-world types, with a surprising number of cheats, liars, and con men among them. The stories are less about such criminals visiting violent harm upon others than they are about them receiving their just desserts. For example:

An abusive butcher is ground into meat:

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Jack Davis

Con men posing as oil speculators are blown up when they accidentally hit Texas tea:

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George Evans

An ambitious magician runs into trouble with a new trick:

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George Evans & Jack Kamen

A recent collection called Four Color Fear, edited by Greg Sadowski, collects terrific examples of horror comics from non-EC sources, including Eerie, Web of Evil, and Chamber of Chills. The work in this volume is much wider ranging in subject matter and style than Tales from the Crypt, which tended to follow a handful of formulas. Stories in Four Color Fear include:

"Green Horror," in which a desert cactus rips itself from the earth to wreak murderous vengeance:

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The Iger Studio

The tongue-in-cheek "I, Vampire," with art by Howard Nostrand, in which the undead narrator proposes building a voluntary human blood bank that would obviate vampires' need to attack human victims for sustenance:

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Howard Nostrand

"Colorama" has an extraordinary premise and unusual design. The reader takes the part of the protagonist, with each panel drawn from the reader's point of view. The reader begins to have difficulty processing color and experiences the world as a collection of indistinct, globular forms:

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Bob Powell

Special mention must be made of the two stories included here that are illustrated by the great Basil Wolverton, "Swamp Monster" and "Nightmare World." Each is a wonderful example of Wolverton's unique, highly recognizable style, which was completely outside the dominant comics "look" of the era. Wolverton's self-taught work is strongly concerned with constantly varied character design, whereas most comics of the Golden Age depended upon standard templates.

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Basil Wolverton

For all of this, the terror in these never felt exactly gratuitous. The work may have exploited young readers' interest in the perverse underside of humanity, but looking at these stories now, what one notices is the artists' enthusiasm for depicting standard genre fare in new and unusual ways. If there's any perverse glee in these comics, it's largely to be found in the relish with which the artists approached the challenge of drawing yet another dismembered corpse, another drooling psychopath, or another knifed blonde. Whether the subject is supernatural or not, these stories are showcases for artists working to stretch or alter genre expectations using whatever creative tools they have at hand: their own native style, use of shadow versus color, a deft way with detail or line. That's what keeps these stories odd, entertaining, inventive, and often shocking after 60 years.

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