The Long, Gory Life of EC Comics

Why the Crypt-Keeper never dies.


When William M. Gaines became publisher of EC Comics, he inherited a company deep in debt and struggling to survive. Within a few years, he transformed it into the most innovative publisher of comic books in the 1950s. Although EC's brief reign came to an end amid Senate hearings and industry self-censorship, Gaines and his stable of artists and writers created a legacy that continues to inspire American pop culture, in no small part because of EC's notoriety.

EC's lasting appeal is the subject of Chip Selby's slick and entertaining documentary Tales From the Crypt: From Comic Books to Television (available from cryptdvd.com) and Grant Geissman's lavishly illustrated coffee table book Foul Play!: The Art and Artists of the Notorious 1950s E.C. Comics! (Harper Design). In the film, Selby talks to such filmmakers as George A. Romero and Joel Silver, who credit EC's pioneering blend of gory horror and black humor with jump-starting their film careers.

At a time when the Hays Code restricted movie content, EC Comics brought visceral horror to the mainstream, where it now flourishes. With the help of artist and writer Al Feldstein, Gaines turned his back on the instructive comic books that used to be EC's product–the company's initials, which originally stood for Educational Comics, now referred to Entertaining Comics instead–and launched what he called a "new trend." Other publishers filled drugstore spinners with westerns, romances, and the few superhero books to survive World War II, but those genres didn't interest Gaines. Inspired by radio programs like Inner Sanctum, he and Feldstein experimented with horror. Feldstein's "Vault of Horror" and "Crypt of Terror" stories were popular enough that Gaines spun off the features into their own books. In January 1950, Vault of Horror and Crypt of Terror (renamed Tales From the Crypt three issues later) hit newsstands.

EC was onto something. With Gaines and Feldstein as co-editors and Feldstein writing most of the stories, EC launched more horror titles, including The Haunt of Fear and Crime Suspense Stories. Artists like Graham Ingels and Jack Davis provided the gore, while adaptations of Ray Bradbury short stories gave the magazines credibility. By 1953, other companies were imitating EC, and horror comics accounted for nearly a quarter of all comics published.

When psychiatrist Frederic Wertham began his crusade against comic books, EC was one of his targets. Wertham was a leftist influenced heavily by Frankfurt School Marxism and by Theodor Adorno in particular. Comics were the products of mechanistic, capitalist production, he argued, and could therefore affect children's minds mechanistically. Confusing anecdote with data, he argued that all of the juvenile delinquents he studied read comics, and that comics therefore were responsible for their delinquency. Horror comics, he felt, were especially insidious.

Wertham was a media darling, writing for popular magazines and speaking around the country. When Congress took an interest in his critique in 1954, Wertham was the star witness, appearing before the Senate Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency. The only representative of the comics industry to testify was Gaines.

Gaines was a successful businessman but a poor politician, and his decision to appear before the subcommittee was a blunder. Gaines took credit for publishing the first horror comics and compared Wertham's understanding of comic books to a frigid old maid's understanding of sex. By his own admission, Gaines stumbled when he defended the cover art for one of his books. The cover depicted a woman's severed head, and when asked if the cover was in good taste, Gaines said it was. The only way it would have been in bad taste, he said, was if it showed gore dripping from the head. (Gaines didn't tell the senators that a rejected version of the cover had done just that.)

The subcommittee's final report rejected the idea that comics were solely to blame for juvenile delinquency. Still, it recommended that the comics industry police itself, which is what happened. Faced with bad publicity and local bans on comics, the major publishers adopted the Comics Code Authority.

Officially, the code was meant to clean up comics. Unofficially, it was meant to put EC Comics out of business. In addition to prohibiting profanity and "excessive" violence, the Code decreed that government officials and institutions could not be portrayed in any way that would "create disrespect for established authority."

Enforcement was voluntary, and publishers could choose to publish without the code's seal of approval, as Gaines did at first. But when skittish distributors refused to carry his comics, he gave in–and after a year of struggling with code dictates, he quit entirely. With the threat of government censorship as their excuse, the code became an instrument the larger publishers could use to eliminate some of their competition. Gaines canceled the entire EC line except for Mad magazine. It survived because it didn't look like a comic book, so it wasn't a target–which didn't mean children weren't reading it.

Wertham was no happier than Gaines. For him, the code wasn't enough, and, going back to his Frankfurt roots, Wertham continued to complain about what he saw as the fascist elements in characters like Superman. (The fact that Superman was created by two Jewish guys from Cleveland didn't matter.)

Meanwhile, EC's influence spread into other media, spawning movies and, eventually, an HBO television series. If EC's horror comics hadn't been driven off the stands, they might be remembered as just a footnote between the superhero booms of the '40s and the '60s. Thanks to Wertham and Congress, they became forbidden fruit, which, as everyone knows, is the tastiest of all.?