There are lots of important works in the history of comics. But there are just a few comics that are absolutely vital to understanding America's cultural history. A new series of reprints from Fantagraphics spotlights what is possibly the most creative, groundbreaking five-year span in comics publishing, ever.
When William M. Gaines inherited his father's company, a small publisher of Biblical comic books, it didn't exactly seem like a turning point in popular culture. Nevertheless, in 1950—long before the very idea of "alternative comics" was even contemplated, let alone comics as an "art form"—Gaines created his own line of New Trend comics that were completely unlike the standard fare of the day. While he explored some typical genres—horror (Tales From the Crypt), science fiction (Weird Science), crime (Crime SuspenStories), and war (Frontline Combat)—and he was most assuredly interested in making lots of money, Gaines introduced a bold concept to the production of American comic books: artistic freedom.
Gaines had a knack for recruiting masterful illustrators with distinctive personal styles, and then allowing them to bring his and editor Al Feldstein's sometimes important/sometimes hackneyed writing to amazing life. Further, he gave the artists credit, marketing them with full-page bios. That's not exactly how things worked in the mid-century comics industry, where big outfits like DC made its artists hew to a company style in anonymity. While comparatively small, Gaines' EC Comics—renamed Entertaining Comics rather than his father's Educational Comics—became a powerhouse of artistic talent: Al Williamson, Graham Ingels, Jack Davis, Basil Wolverton, Will Elder, Alexander Toth, Johnny Craig, Joe Orlando, John Severin, Reed Crandall, Jack Kamen, Bernard Krigstein, and Frank Frazetta. Among others. It's a landmark achievement in publishing that's never really been equaled.
Sadly, this new golden age of comics was a short-lived one. EC's genre books were eventually driven out of business following a 1954 investigation by the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency (led by Tennessee's Sen. Estes Kefauver); the industry soon adopted the Comics Code Authority to get rid of lurid comics—specifically the ones published by EC. While the company's influence over pop culture arguably rose to even greater heights in the form of MAD Magazine, the concept of artistically driven comics didn't really make a comeback until the late '60s with R. Crumb and other underground artists who cited those by-then-crumbling EC comics as an influence (one possibly even greater than their assorted drug intake).
Gaines had made another prescient publishing decision: He kept all the original artwork, which has resulted in a series of reprints over the past 40 years that have kept the EC legend alive. (The best effort is Russ Cochran's full-size Complete EC Library, published in the '80s and '90s.) Although many of EC's storied illustrators have received their own biographies and coffee-table retrospectives, Fantagraphics' new series of hardback volumes pays them special tribute. Each edition of the EC Comics Library will focus on a single artist or theme, reproducing their work in black and white. The first two arrived late last year, and they're doozies: Harvey Kurtzman's Corpse on the Imjin!, collecting his war stories from Frontline Combat and Two-Fisted Tales, and Wally Wood's Came the Dawn, assembling his horror and crime work from a variety of titles. The two couldn't be more different as artists, revealing the breadth of styles that EC was happy to support.
Kurtzman, who also edited the original MAD comic book (revolutionizing American humor in the process), brought an entirely new perspective to war comics: realism. At the time, the U.S. was mired in a conflict that was not nearly as simple to grasp as World War II. But rather than revert to standard jingoism, Kurtzman threw himself and his readers into the moral complexities of our anti-Communist action in Korea: A not-so-brave soldier dies alone in the mud after buckling his boot in the wrong place ("Big ‘If'"). Combat is not always glorious, but rather a vicious bloody struggle to kill someone up close, by your own hands ("Corpse on the Imjin!"). Taking an "enemy" village by force is less a victory than the decimation of entire families ("Dying City!"). Thoroughly researched and meticulously detailed, Kurtzman's stories are grim stuff in an era when most Americans believed their country could do no wrong. Furthermore, his own drawing style took a noirish cast with thick black lines that convey action and emotion in equal measures. Grade-school boys reading these dark tales at the time must have had their minds completely blown.
Meanwhile, Wallace Wood became an immediate fan favorite for the utterly entertaining horror and science-fiction stories he illustrated for EC's bread-and-butter books, ones with names like The Haunt of Fear or Weird Fantasy. Wood's style was more photo-realistic than Kurtzman's, though his frames also used noir-like lighting to heighten his doomed characters' fates. The tales here are mostly crowd-pleasers with the sort of twist endings that would later become a Twilight Zone trademark, but with Shock SuspenStories, Feldstein hit hard against the era's social ills, from anti-Semites who burn a Jewish couple alive ("Hate!") to white supremacists who whip a white woman to death to teach her to "stay with your own kind" ("Under Cover!"). These were not the sort of villains that Superman typically fought back then. EC had no fear of getting political, long before comics "grew up."
Handsomely produced (albeit a tad small, at 7 by 10 inches, compared to the original comics), Fantagraphics' EC Comics Library is a must-own for anyone who considers themselves a serious comics fan.