Entertaining Comics, more commonly known as EC Comics, was founded by Max Gaines, but when he died in 1947 in a boating accident, his son William inherited the comics company. After four years (1942-46) in the Army Air Corps, Gaines returned home to finish school at New York University, planning to work as a chemistry teacher.
He never taught but instead took over the family business. In 1949 and 1950, Bill Gaines began a line of new titles featuring horror, suspense, science fiction, military fiction and crime fiction. His editors, Al Feldstein and Harvey Kurtzman, who also drew covers and stories, gave assignments to such prominent and highly accomplished freelance artists as 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.
With input from Gaines, the stories were written by Kurtzman, Feldstein and Craig. Other writers including Carl Wessler, Jack Oleck and Otto Binder were later brought on board.
EC had success with its fresh approach and pioneered in forming relationships with its readers through its letters to the editor and its fan organization, the National EC Fan-Addict Club. EC Comics promoted its stable of illustrators, allowing each to sign his art and encouraging them to develop idiosyncratic styles; the company additionally published one-page biographies of them in the comic books.
This was a contrast to the industry's common practice, in which credits were often missing, although some artists at other companies, such as the Jack Kirby-Joe Simon team, Jack Cole and Bob Kane had been prominently promoted.
EC published distinct lines of titles under its Entertaining Comics umbrella. Most notorious were its horror books, Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror and The Haunt of Fear. These titles reveled in a gruesome spirit, with grimly ironic fates meted out in many of the stories' protagonists. The company's war comics Frontline Combat and Two-Fisted Tales often featured weary-eyed, unheroic stories out of step with the jingoistic times. Shock SuspenStories tackled weighty political and social issues such as racism, sex, drug use and the American way of life.
EC always claimed to be 'proudest of our science fiction titles', with Weird Science and Weird Fantasy publishing stories unlike the space opera found in such titles as Fiction House's Planet Comics. Crime SuspenStories had many parallels with film noir. As noted by Max Allan Collins in his story annotations for Russ Cochran's 1983 hardcover reprint of Crime SuspenStories, Johnny Craig had developed a 'film noir like bag of effects' in his visuals, while characters and themes found in the crime stories often showed the strong influence of writers associated with film noir, notably James M. Cain.
Superior illustrations of stories with surprise endings became EC's trademark. Gaines would generally stay up late and read large amounts of material while seeking 'springboards' for story concepts. The next day he would present each premise until Feldstein found one that he thought he could develop into a story. At EC's peak, Feldstein edited seven titles while Kurtzman handled three. Artists were assigned stories specific to their styles. Davis and Ingels often drew gruesome, supernatural-themed stories, while Kamen and Evans did tamer material.
With hundreds of stories written, common themes surfaced. Some of EC's more well-known themes include:
An ordinary situation given an ironic and gruesome twist, often as poetic justice for a character's crimes. In 'Collection Completed' a man takes up taxidermy to annoy his wife. When he kills and stuffs her beloved cat, the wife snaps and kills him, stuffing and mounting his body.
In 'Revulsion', a spaceship pilot is bothered by insects due to an earlier experience, when he found one in his food. In the end of the story, a giant alien insect screams in horror at finding the dead pilot in his salad. Dissection, the broiling of lobsters, Mexican jumping beans, fur coats and fishing are just a small sample of the kind of situations and objects used in this fashion.
The 'Grim Fairy Tale', featured gruesome interpretations of such fairy tales as 'Hansel and Gretel', 'Sleeping Beauty' and 'Little Red Riding Hood'.
Siamese twins were a popular theme, primarily in EC's three horror comics. No fewer than nine Siamese twin stories appeared in EC's horror and crime comics from 1950 to 1954. In an interview, Feldstein speculated that he and Gaines wrote so many Siamese twin stories because of the interdependence they had on each other.
Adaptations of Ray Bradbury science-fiction stories appeared in two dozen EC comics starting in 1952. It began inauspiciously, with an incident in which Feldstein and Gaines plagiarized two of Bradbury's stories and combined them into a single tale. Learning of the story, Bradbury sent a note praising them, while remarking that he had 'inadvertently' not yet received his payment for their use. EC sent a check and negotiated a productive series of Bradbury adaptations.
Stories with a political message became common in EC's science fiction and suspense comics. Among the many topics were lynching, antisemitism and police corruption.
The three horror titles featured stories introduced by a trio of horror hosts. 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. Besides gleefully recounting the unpleasant details of the stories, the characters squabbled with one another, unleashed an arsenal of puns and even insults taunting the readers: 'Greetings, boils and ghouls...' This irreverent mockery of the audience also became the trademark attitude of Mad, and such glib give-and-take was later mimicked by many, including Stan Lee at Marvel Comics.
EC's most enduring legacy came with Mad, which started as a side project for Kurtzman before buoying the company's fortunes and becoming one of the country's most notable and long-running humor publications. When satire became an industry rage in 1954 and other publishers created imitations of Mad, EC introduced a sister title, Panic, edited by Al Feldstein and using the regular Mad artists, plus Joe Orlando.
Beginning in the late 1940s, the comic book industry became the target of mounting public criticism for the content of comic books and their potentially harmful effects on children. The problem came to a head in 1948 with the publication by Dr. Fredric Wertham of two articles: 'Horror in the Nursery' in Collier's and 'The Psychopathology of Comic Books' in the American Journal of Psychotherapy.
As a result, an industry trade group, the Association of Comics Magazine Publishers, was formed in 1948, but proved ineffective. EC left the association in 1950 after Gaines had an argument with its executive director, Henry Schultz. By 1954 only three comic publishers were still members, and Schultz admitted that the ACMP seals placed on comics were meaningless.
In 1954, the publication of Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent and a highly publicized Congressional hearing on juvenile delinquency cast comic books in an especially poor light. At the same time, a federal investigation led to a shakeup in the distribution companies that delivered comic books and pulp magazines across America. Sales plummeted, and several companies went out of business.
Gaines called a meeting of his fellow publishers and suggested that the comic book industry gather to fight outside censorship and help repair the industry's damaged reputation. They formed the Comics Magazine Association of America and its Comics Code Authority. The CCA code expanded on the ACMP's restrictions. Unlike its predecessor, the CCA code was rigorously enforced, with all comics requiring code approval prior to their publication. This not being what Gaines intended, he refused to join the association. Among the Code's new rules were that no comic book title could use the words 'horror' or 'terror' or 'weird' on its cover. When distributors refused to handle many of his comics, Gaines ended publication of his three horror and the two SuspenStory titles on September 14, 1954. EC shifted its focus to a line of more realistic comic book titles, including M.D. and Psychoanalysis, known as the New Direction line. It also renamed its remaining science-fiction comic. Since the initial issues did not carry the Comics Code seal, the wholesalers refused to carry them. After consulting with his staff, Gaines reluctantly started submitting his comics to the Comics Code; all the New Direction titles carried the seal starting with the second issue. This attempted revamp failed commercially and after the fifth issues, all the New Direction titles were canceled.
Gaines waged battles with the Comics Code Authority attempting to keep his magazines free from censorship. In one example, noted by comics historian Digby Diehl Gaines threatened Judge Charles Murphy, the Comics Code Administrator, with a lawsuit when Murphy ordered EC to alter the science-fiction story 'Judgment Day', in Incredible Science Fiction #33, Feb. 1956. The story, by writer Al Feldstein and artist Joe Orlando, was a reprint from the pre-Code Weird Fantasy #18, April 1953, inserted when the Code Authority had rejected an initial, original story, An Eye for an Eye, drawn by Angelo Torres, but was itself also 'objected to' because of 'the central character being black.'
The story depicted a human astronaut, a representative of the Galactic Republic, visiting the planet Cybrinia inhabited by robots. He finds the robots divided into functionally identical orange and blue races, one of which has fewer rights and privileges than the other. The astronaut decides that due to the robots' bigotry, the Galactic Republic should not admit the planet. In the final panel, he removes his helmet, revealing himself to be a black man. Murphy demanded, without any authority in the Code, that the black astronaut had to be removed.
As Diehl recounted in Tales from the Crypt: The Official Archives: 'This really made 'em go bananas in the Code czar's office'. Judge Murphy was off his nut. 'He was really out to get us', recalls EC editor Feldstein: 'I went in there with this story and Murphy says, 'It can't be a Black man'. But... but that's the whole point of the story!' Feldstein sputtered. When Murphy continued to insist that the Black man had to go, Feldstein put it on the line. 'Listen', he told Murphy, 'you've been riding us and making it impossible to put out anything at all because you guys just want us out of business'. Feldstein reported the results of his audience with the czar to Gaines, who was furious and immediately picked up the phone and called Murphy. 'This is ridiculous!' he bellowed. 'I'm going to call a press conference on this. You have no grounds, no basis, to do this. I'll sue you'. Murphy made what he surely thought was a gracious concession. 'All right. Just take off the beads of sweat'. At that, Gaines and Feldstein both went ballistic. 'Fuck you!' they shouted into the telephone in unison. Murphy hung up on them, but the story ran in its original form.
Although the story would eventually be reprinted uncensored in Incredible Science Fiction #33, that comic book was the last EC published. Gaines switched his focus to EC's Picto-Fiction titles, a line of typeset black-and-white magazines with heavily illustrated stories. Fiction was formatted to alternate illustrations with blocks of typeset text, a format now called a light novel, and some of the contents were rewrites of stories previously published in EC's comic books. This experimental line lost money from the start and only lasted two issues per title. When EC's national distributor went bankrupt, Gaines dropped all his titles except Mad.
The episode 'Judgment Day' is included in this installment with other examples from Weird Science and Weird Science-Fantasy. Artists are Bernie Kriegstein, Al Williamson, Frank Frazetta, Wally Wood and Joe Orlando. There are also examples of the stories supplied from my favorite science fiction writer in my youth, Ray Bradbury.