EC Comics

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Entertaining Comics, more commonly known as EC Comics, was an American publisher of comic books specializing in crime fiction, horror fiction, satire, military fiction and science fiction from the 1940s through the 1950s, until censorship pressures prompted it to concentrate on the seminal humor magazine Mad. It was privately owned by Maxwell Gaines and later by his son, William Gaines.


Contents

Educational Comics

The firm, first known as Educational Comics, was founded by Max Gaines, former editor of the comic-book company All-American Publications. When that company merged with DC Comics in 1944, Gaines retained rights to the comic book, Picture Stories from the Bible, and began his new company with a dubious plan to market comics about science, history and the Bible to schools and churches. A decade earlier, Max Gaines had been one of the pioneers of the comic book form, with Eastern Color Printing's proto-comic book Funnies on Parade, and with Dell Publishing's Famous Funnies: A Carnival of Comics, considered by historians the first true American comic book.


Entertaining Comics

When Max Gaines 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 had 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, Will Gaines began to introduce series focusing on horror, suspense, science fiction, military fiction and crime fiction. His editors, Al Feldstein and Harvey Kurtzman, 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. Kurtzman and Feldstein themselves also drew stories, which generally were written by them and Craig, with assistance from Gaines. 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. While the stories were sensational, the art was highly regarded.

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 in 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.[3] These titles reveled in a gruesome joie de vivre, with grimly ironic fates meted out to 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 issues such as racism, sex, drug use and the American way of life. EC always claimed to be "proudest of our science fiction titles",[4] 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-ish 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. [5] 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 became apparent. Some of EC's more well-known themes:

  • 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 in order 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 a past experience when he found one in his food. At the conclusion 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", featuring gruesome interpretations of such fairy tales as "Hansel and Gretel", "Sleeping Beauty" and "Little Red Riding Hood".
  • Adaptations of Ray Bradbury science-fiction stories, which 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, which became common in EC's science fiction and suspense comics. Among the many topics were lynching, anti-Semitism 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 insulted and taunted 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 lasting 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 enduring 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.


Backlash

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 was meaningless. [6]

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.


"Judgment Day"

Gaines waged a number of battles with the Comics Code Authority in an attempt to keep his magazines free from censorship. In one particular 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 climactic scene of the science-fiction story "Judgment Day"[8] so that the protagonist would not be an African-American. 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. '&**$ 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 printed uncensored in Incredible Science Fiction #33, it was the last comic book ever published by EC. [11] 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, 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 of his titles except Mad.

Mad and later years

Mad always sold well throughout the company's troubles, and Gaines focused exclusively on publishing Mad in magazine form. This move was done to placate its editor Harvey Kurtzman, who had received an offer to join the magazine Pageant, but preferred to remain in charge of his own magazine. More crucially, the switch removed Mad from the auspices of the Comics Code.

Though Kurtzman did not last long with Mad after this point (leaving when Gaines wouldn't give him 51% control of the magazine), Gaines brought back Al Feldstein as his successor. The magazine enjoyed great success for decades afterwards.

The Tales from the Crypt title was licensed for a movie in 1972, and more successfully for a TV series in the 1980s, itself spawning films in the 1990s.

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