Let’s Talk Comics – April/May/June 2018

by Rob Lamberti

There is one publisher of Golden and Atom Age comic books that musters unsurpassed loyalty and devotion by fans, and with it, a stable market for them.

EC Comics currently boasts some of the most serious fan boy — and fan girl — followings. Digital fan sites pepper social media and merchandise is currently available from a website. They hunger for recent reprints and omnibus editions almost as much as the high-priced originals.

Along with the comics, fanzines are collected with almost the same passion as the comics.

The EC titles while under the watch of publisher and owner William Gaines are not for the faint-hearted. Some of the horror and shock comic covers are just plain gruesome, while the war covers poignant, and the sci-fi books are just plain beautiful. Their undying appeal lies in part in the freedom of expression and social criticism by both writer and artist.

However, those same comics garnered the most attention from censoring politicians and a psychiatrist who doctored his research to claim crime and horror comics were a significant cause of “juvenile delinquency” in the 1950s.

Pressure from government and kowtowing publishers created a self-policing Comics Code Authority that in effect made the traditional EC story impossible to publish. And if distributors didn’t see the authority’s label on a comic, it wasn’t distributed. No distribution means no income, and no income leads to a ghastly death for the comic and its company.

Gaines dropped all the EC titles in the end except one, the satirical Mad.

The Gaines family has a long history in comics. Max Gaines developed the concept of the modern comic book in the 1930s and later became co-publisher of All-American Comics, which was behind characters including Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Flash and Hawkman. All-American later merged with Detective Comics to become National Comics, a precursor of the existing DC Comics.

The elder Gaines used money from the sale of All-American to launch Educational Comics (and later Entertaining Comics). The first book to carry the EC label was Picture Stories from the Bible in 1942. By 1947, Max Gaines’ other titles included Land of the Lost, Picture Stories from World History, Picture Stories from American History, and Picture Stories from Science. This was known as the Pre-Trend era of EC.

His son William took over after Max’s death in a 1947 boating acident and transformed the company that pioneered horror, crime, war and scince fiction, known as EC’s New-Trend era.

The stable of artists assembled by William includes those still considered among the greatest in comic art: Wally Wood, Johnny Craig, Frank Frazetta, Jack Davis, George Evans, Joe Orlando, and Reed Crandall. Writers including Otto Bender, Al Feldstein, Harvey Kurtzman and Jack Oleck would dish out tales of irony, poetic justice or gritty tales of heroic and non-heroic soldiers. Ray Bradbury’s tales were also adapted to the comic format.

Beyond that, William worked hard to build a relationship and maintain with his readers, listing the artists and writers who worked on a book, publishing bios of the creative talent, including the secretaries, and communicating with letter writers and launching an EC fan club.

Titles included Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror, The Haunt of Fear, Two-Fisted Tales, Shock SuspenStories, and Weird Fantasy. It was the EC bullpen of artists that launched the GhouLunatics, the three witch hosts now part of popular culture, the Vault Keeper from Vault of Horror, the Crypt Keeper from Tales from the Crypt and the Old Witch from Haunt of Fear.

These titles along with copycats published by other comic book publishers would gain the attention of American psychiatrist Fredric Wertham, who published the Seduction of the Innocent in 1954 as a warning that comic books were a cause of delinquency. It caught the attention of politicians who would create financial havoc for the industry.

Sean Howe, author of Marvel Comics the Untold Story, wrote William’s catalogue of comics “embraced outsiderism and railed against the hypocrisies of conformist American society. But EC’s stories also included vile scenarios, like a group of murderers who use the corpse of their victim to play a game of baseball.”

It was those gruesome scenarios that caught the attention of a U.S. Senate subcommittee studying youth crime and William’s testimony before it didn’t go well at all.

To save itself, the comics industry created the Comics Code Authority, a self-governing body that no longer allowed deaths, monsters, vampires, disrespect of the law and demanded that good always triumphed.
The fallout — including the hysteria of moral outrage — forced dozens of comic book publishers to fold. Comics were burned, parents were angry and circulations plummeted.

It wouldn’t be until 2012 when researcher Carol L. Tilley found evidence of what many suspected, that Wertham falsified, manipulated and overstated his findings.

The damage had been done, however, and the EC comic lines wouldn’t survive the self-imposed changes. The company tried a New Direction campaign, but titles like Extra!, Psychoanalysis, Valor, Aces High and Impact, although beautiful, couldn’t muster the same loyalty from the readership. And William Gaines tired of the fight to get past the censors.

EC shut down its comic titles in 1956, except for Mad, initially published in 1952 in the standard comic book size format and was later formatted into a magazine to avoid the confines of the authority.

The last EC comic book was Incredible Science Fiction 33, which the code stepped in to prevent the uncensored reprint of a story whose central character was black. William Gaines hotly contested the decision and threatened to sue, and the authority backed off, but he also had enough.

The publisher tried to issue other magazine-sized comics, but they couldn’t withstand the bankruptcy of EC’s distributor. Those titles, published in the context of adult tales, include Confessions Illustrated, Crime Illustrated, Terror Illustrated and Shock Illustrated.

A collector can’t go wrong with EC books, regardless of title.
The originals from the 1940s and ’50s, while subject to fluctuating prices caused by supply and demand like any other book in the hobby, aren’t as affected by fickle collectors. They usually maintain their value better no matter the condition, and investors know they will always find a ready market for the titles. They are not as sensitive to the “what’s hot, what’s not” market trends like many superhero titles have been.

There is also a strong market for modern reprints and hardcover archives, a more affordable way to explore the titles. Note that I didn’t say inexpensive.

Original fanzines, in particular Squa Tront and Spa Fon, published by artist Frazetta in the 1950s, are also very popular. The titles come from alien exclamations made by lizard aliens in the story Aliens! in Weird Fantasy 17. Fantagraphics resurrected the fanzine titles in the 1960s and ’70s and are equally collectable.

A growing section of the EC market is Canadian editions of ECs, published by Superior Comics, which are gaining in interest and value, as they are scarcer than their American counterparts.