Sunday, September 30, 2012

the first issues of 10 (plus one) horror comics magazines I picked up when young

One thing that strikes me about these is how lacking in oomph the covers were. Even when there's some well-rendered imagery, such as on the Weird Mystery issue (and the almost identically-composed one on The House of Mystery--someone clearly had a formula concept), or a clever situation, as with the House of Secrets, the busy-ness of the covers tends to dampen the effect. Happily, covers tended to improve by not long into the next decade, even among the most "mainstream" of comics. (Even in the '70s, it was notable to me at the time that the handsomest covers seemed to gravitate to the magazines with the weakest contents, such as House of Mystery and Ghosts.)
But I didn't care...if the comic I was looking at had the potential for some interesting horror fiction and art, I was game. Weird War Tales was one of the earliest of horror comics I was able to purchase, and when compared, as I would soon see, to the other DC horror titles it seemed to deliver the horror goods far more often than the traditional horror titles they had. The twist endings the stories tended to have would've been (and are) a bit obvious to more sophisticated reader, but even when they were telegraphed even for me as an 8yo, I tended to enjoy them. (And as one can see below, the "Weird" tag seemed to do well for DC in the recessionary '70s, and thus the creation of Weird Western, the first home of Jonah Hex--I borrowed friends' copies to read that one--and the shortlived addition of Weird Mystery as a title to the DC stable...and, even weirder, of the word Weird to the title of the venerable Adventure Comics for some issues headlined by the supernatural quasi/antihero character the Spectre--also please see below). The ferociously antiwar attitude the writers and artists were allowed to express in WWT didn't hurt my feelings (and between the three popcult prongs of WWT and the television series The World at War [the Granada documentary series was first being syndicated to US stations then] and M*A*S*H, my sympathy for the pacifist position was no doubt bolstered).

Meanwhile, Ghost Manor as a Charlton "book" looked (and as many commenters note, smelled) different (they used an odd sort of press and inks, apparently more appropriate for stamping the likes of cereal boxes), but they did some interesting things at Charlton...they let their artists have more leeway, for less pay, and perhaps most importantly were apparently the first to import Japanese horror manga stories, in translation of course, for US readers, in issues just before and perhaps even including this one. Note that both Ghost Manor and The House of Mystery (below) double dog dare you to knock the battery off their...eaves. (Old popcult advertising reference/joke.)
The House of Mystery was, in 1951, DC's first answer to EC's apparent spike in popularity with their new horror titles,  which had first appeared the previous year. DC's horror comics weren't as well-drawn nor quite as devoted to black humor, but tended to be reasonably good, derivative horror and suspense tales, particularly when compared to some of the particularly lurid imitators of EC, from Dell on down, which lacked the originals' relative wit and sometimes very real sophistication. When the Comics Code was established (see that seal of approval at far right on the cover), DC turned HOM into a vaguely science-fictional/superhero comic...until the late '60s, when it again became a horror anthology, with the addition of a Zacherle/Elvira/EC-style "host," Cain, to introduce stories and generally add an attempt at humor to the "book." (Cain's face can be seen on the left, on the banner across the top of the cover.) Sadly, the stories in HOM tended to be very bland indeed, much moreso than they had been even in the pre-Code issues of HOM.

And if you wanted evidence of how much better the early '50s DC horror stories had been, simply dip into this issue of The Witching Hour, which supplemented its relatively bland new stories with several 1950s reprints, which have a certain vigor missing from the (almost literally as well as utterly figuratively) bloodless new work. One model-esque and two haggish witches were the "hosts" in this "book"--the reprinted demon in the mirror story involved a psychic investigator sort who probably would've gotten his own book in less censorious circumstances back when, and it was, as I recall, very good fun.

Marvel, for its part, wasn't even trying to present new horror stories per se in their "standard" color comics in the 1970s, choosing instead to reprint the Atlas and Timely EC-imitation horror comics from those two ancestors of Marvel, and in new work concentrating on outre heroes/antiheroes, such as their version of Dracula and a rather Peter Parkeresque fellow (with a bit less pointless self-pity) who began turning into a werewolf at the appropriate phases of the Moon, mostly in his  "book" Werewolf-by-Night...Dracula or, as in this first issue I bought, Frankenstein's behemoth might make a crossover/guest appearance. (Marvel had published in 1973 two issues of a digest-sized fiction magazine called The Haunt of Horror, edited by Gerry Conway [who's since made a fairly prominent Hollywood career], but discontinued that and took the title for a black and white, 8.5 x 11" horror comics magazine they published for some years, in imitation of Warren's Creepy, Eerie and Vampirella b&w comics magazines...the latter for their part [not!] the first sustained effort to reach out to the horror comics audience, starting at the turn of the '60s, which had been abandoned by the other comics publishers.)(Correction: The Warren horror comics magazines began publishing in 1964; Dell Comics had stepped into the void first, with the initial issues of Twilight Zone in 1961, and Ghost Stories in 1962--founded after Whitman decided not to co-publish with Dell, and started their own Gold Key line, which took TZ among many other licensed properties away from Dell Comics...Gold Key added Boris Karloff's Thriller and Ripley's Believe It or Not: True Ghost Stories to their line later. Dell also added more horror titles in the '60s.)
The House of Secrets was another title DC had launched in the early '50s to catch the horror wave, and which had been returned to its roots (with a "host" added) in the late '60s...otherwise very much like HOM, as well, in its bland competence in the 1970s (the bits presented about and featuring the host, Abel, brother to Cain and rather bullied by him, unsurprisingly, were rather more memorable than most of the stories offered...another host was Eve, who was not their mother, but I'm sure was just as gleefully meant to tweak the reactionaries among the Old Testament religions as the brothers were).

Meanwhile, Weird Mystery Tales, a relatively shortlived "book," did introduce the one "host" who was less cartoonish than actually in the spirit of horror, "Destiny," who somewhat suggested Death the Reaper, as he wore a monk's habit with hood that always obscured his face, and carried the book of, well, destiny with him at all times...the other, more comic-relief hosts were portrayed as resentful of and a bit intimidated by him. Given that "mystery" in these titles always meant horror, at least in this period, the notion that it was weird horror seemed a bit redundant...particularly when compared with DC's much weirder humor, with a horrorish edge, comic, Plop! (another title of which I read others' copies, including those at a barbershop I was brought to by my parents).

Now, the Spectre was a badass. A murdered cop who was returned to this plane of existence to right wrongs and the typical superhero kind of tasking, he was, as a ghost, almost a minor god, capable of much more than even Superman, and therefore a bit difficult to write...because what, short of Cthulhu's masters, could stand up to or would interest him for long? Particularly as he was almost certainly the moodiest, for fairly obvious reasons, of DC's 1970s superfolk. As a result, the Spectre tended to go away and come back for stretches in the history of DC's publishing, having first appeared back in the early '40s as a somewhat less near-omnipotent figure. Adventure tended to be a "book" devoted for various stretches to superheroes who were being "tried out" for books of their own, or who were kept even if they didn't seem to sell well enough in their own title; the original DC Sandman had been one of the early stars, and Aquaman was the usual headliner in the months around the Spectre in this period. Note, as mentioned above, the addition of "weird" to this issue's title, perhaps to sell to the horrorists out at the spinner racks such as myself. I don't think that was the decider for me, but it didn't hurt. (I also preferred the rather obscure DC hero team The Challengers of the Unknown to such better-known groups as Marvel's Fantastic Four, since the Challengers were basically psychic investigators running across supernatural phenoms, vs. the rather colorful aliens the Marvel teams seem to always have to deal with.)
 Tomb of Darkness, a successor title to the very similar Beware!, was easily my favorite Marvel reprint "book" devoted to the Atlas/Timely EC-style horror comics of the early '50s...and as with the reprints featured in The Witching Hour and other DC books the stories had a punch and a vigor that the new stories, including in Marvel's outre hero books, tended to lack. It is because of TOD that I was first able to see what ghostly skeletons passionately kissing looked like, and for that I am grateful.  (Teeth rubbing together, as you might guess.)
Whitman/Gold Key's The Twilight Zone was the only horror/outre (with a bit of cod sf) title from them I would see (even the Boris Karloff title, originally a spinoff from the television series Thriller, didn't show up on my primary newsstand)..and if Dell had any such titles at the time, I (and my local drugstore, thanks to the lousy distribution comics were getting in the early 1970s) missed them entirely...I was lucky when I'd find two successive issues of Batman or Hulk/Submariner comics at their newsstand (I'll not quite consider Harvey's Caspar the Ghost or Archie's Sabrina the Teenaged Witch comics relevant here...I certainly didn't then).  Rather as with the Weird DC titles, the scripting of TZ comics was rather less bland (not vastly so, but somewhat) than that of the Houses' new stuff, even if the art was often rather perfunctory in the Gold Key comic.

Last and least among my childhood reads in this arena, Ghosts irritated me for being "true" stories about the supernatural, which I most firmly (then as now) did not believe to exist. The magazine tried to get around this, to some extent, by such stratagems as this issue's "The Nightmare That Haunted the World" being about how Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, but other stories tended to either endorse the reality of the supernatural, or, worse, be incredibly mealy-mouthed about it. Didn't buy too many (possibly not any) more issues of Ghosts...but, then, I never did buy any issues of Creepy or Eerie or the other larger-sized horror magazines, either, finding the borrowed copies dull, dull, dull, even when the art was interesting (and they were, of course, more expensive, as allowance was sporadic and often driven by specific purchases, such as of more text-heavy books).


Randy Johnson said...

I had that TOMB OF DARKNESS, but none of the rest.

Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Great covers, Todd! I hope you're still holding on to them. I have a couple of Gold Key Twilight Zone and House of Mystery comics but not the ones displayed here. I have read plenty of The House of Secrets and Weird Mystery Tales. The Weird War cover is quite something. Its merger with EC comics might have influenced DC’s decent output of “ghost” and “horror” comics. DC and Marvel both competed well in this arena.

Till date I don’t know what the fuss over EC comics was about. I found nothing objectionable in Gaines’ comics notwithstanding Fredric Wertham’s informed view in “The Seduction of the Innocent” and the Congressional hearing for a bunch of comics that were meant to be read for sheer fun. I read about this entire issue years ago including, if my memory serves me right, Wertham’s articles that resulted in the blow-up. Did America really need this sort of censorship? Times were different then, but still…

Marvel also came out with a swell series based on the classics such as Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone, which I have in my collection.

Todd Mason said...

Randy: I'm only sorry that spotty distribution kept me from getting too many more issues of TOD in my early years as a comics reader.

Prashant: Well, some of the covers do have some good imagery and rendering, but the framing strikes me as bad even for them. Actually, EC didn't merge with DC...but both EC (which was essentially publishing only MAD by then) and DC at different times were bought by Warner Communications, before that became Time Warner (and well before the relatively brief period of AOL Time Warner). So now they're corporate siblings, but not until well past even these early/mid 1970s issues.

No, the specific issues I had were lost some time back, in one of my moves from one residence to another. They were too "well-read" by me and my friends to be particularly collectible by that point.

Sadly, the hysteria over the possibility of nuclear war, and the hysteria over Communist subversion of American government, simply flowed into the typical US fantasy of this being a perfect nation that need just a little improvement on perfection, and since these comics were clearly perverse and dealt with crime and monsters and generally didn't seem to be Uplifting like that nice Bishop Sheen on television, they made a nice scapegoat for the supposed tide of juvenile delinquency (And Worse!) that was sweeping over the country in the early '50s...when factors such as lack of jobs for boys who hated high school (because all these returning veterans, from WW2 and latterly Korea, got first crack at those jobs) had a lot more to do with the uptick in gang activity and the like...the recessions of the early '50s didn't help. Not to mention that comics, as a relatively profitable but independent (at the time) and rather scruffy subset of the publishing industry couldn't stand up for itself too well, and certainly didn't have much in the way of political pull, when a House UnAmerican Activities Committee session or a Senator wanted to grandstand, and William Gaines's somewhat smartass, if not incorrect, testimony didn't help matters. Wertham was at least as het up about the supposed lesbian influence of WONDER WOMAN and the ugly behavior in the crime-fiction comics (even if one of the most popular was called CRIME DOES NOT PAY) as he ever was about EC's or the often imitative but also often clumsier other horror comics, but their revelry in grue upset him, too. (One of the most famous captions in SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT accompanies panels from a crime comic in which thugs are beginning to torture a woman, and one thug has an apparently hot fireplace poker in hand. Werthan suggests that children quizzed about this told their interviewers that the thug was about to rape the woman with the hot poker, which he hoped to suggest was Vastly Worse than the kids thinking the thug was about to brand her skin or hit her with it...not the crime itself, mind you, but that the young readers might think of that, rather than being Innocently unaware of that possibility. Wertham for his part couldn't bring himself to actually report what the kids said, rather than make an innuendo.)

Another set of publishers were responsible for CLASSICS ILLUSTRATED, the most famous of literary-adaptation comics, rather than Marvel or its predecessors, but I'll believe Marvel either reprinted the CLASSICS ILLUSTRATED titles eventually or tried their hand at their own series (perhaps more than one). DC has had similar adaptations series from time to time...I reviewed their version of HELL ON EARTH, a Robert Bloch novella originally in WEIRD TALES the pulp magazine, which kicked off a short, ambitious mid '80s set from DC, for example.

Walker Martin said...

Prashant brings up an interesting point about EC comics. Perhaps to our jaded view here in 2012, EC horror makes us wonder about what all the fuss was about and why the censorship which lead to the Comics Code, etc.

But as an 8 year old boy, I lived through it and was fascinated by the EC horror and crime titles. I didn't have the money to buy all of them but a friendly deli owner let me read them at his comic bookstand.

They scared the living hell out of me and gave me nightmares. After a few times of sleep walking and waking up screaming, my mother threw out all my EC comics. The nightmares soon stopped after the Comic Authority Seal of Approval killed the EC line of titles.

But now I have the EC Library to remind me of the horrors. I still remember the great cover of the severed arm hanging onto the subway strap as the commuter gasp in horror. I guess you had to be there to really get the full impact.

Jerry House said...

As the saying goes, we'd all be millionaires today, except our mothers threw out our comics collections.

Walker Martin said...

But Jerry, the problem is if our mothers did not throw out our comic collections, then they would worth peanuts because they would not be considered rare any longer. Without non-collecting mothers, we would all be cursed with worthless collections.

Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Todd, there's much about EC comics and the controversy it raked up that I have forgotten. This despite the fact that I helped bring out a cover-to-cover special feature on the world of comics in an Indian men's lifestyle magazine, probably the only issue of its kind in India at least. This was towards the end of the 1990s. Unfortunately, there is no online version unless I scan the magazine, convert it into pdf, and upload it. Now there's an idea though I'll have to check for copyright since I'm no longer with the now defunct magazine.

Thanks for the insight into the comics scene as it prevailed in the middle of the last century. I did wonder if the factors you mentioned, the end of WW2, recession and unemployment, nuclear war, and the threat of communism, did not make an already edgy US government and Congress overzealous in its bid to shield the ideals America stood for, to the extent of clamping down on free speech including censoring comic-books it felt were a threat to those ideals. I think Gaines got into the whole comics business to make quick profits, capitalising on the uncertainties of the times, except he failed to anticipate the backlash. What he definitely succeeded in doing was to rattle the US comics industry, for the better no doubt. At least we have the comics code which the rest of the world seems to be adhering to as well.

From the instances you and Walker Martin cited, I can see why parental pressure took the wind out of EC's sails. I agree, some of the graphics on EC covers and inside were disturbing and I can imagine their influence on young minds. I read these when I was well into my twenties so my response to these comics or the controversy would be radically different from that of one who lived through the period or close. To me they were just comics.

You're right about EC and DC being eventually taken over by Warner. Todd, I think, too, that Marvel did print more than one series of the classics and I have seen a few of them though the ones in my collection are three of a four-part series that includes "Moonstone," "A Christmas Carol" and "Beauty and the Beast." I also have over a dozen original issues of Classics Illustrated and Classics Illustrated Junior as well as a few new editions of the 1990s under Acclaim Books, a label that no longer reprints them. Thanks for the link to your review of comic-book version of "Hell on Earth." I'll check it out soon.

Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Jerry, isn't that the case everywhere! Aunt May gives away Peter Parker's comics too, at least in the movies. Much of my own comics collection is intact because my dad was a comics buff too. He not only introduced me to comics but even bought my first lot that included DC's World's Finest Comics and Shazam! among other things.

Todd Mason said...

Oh, my collection, folks, was too battered (and included a number of secondhand and possibly thirdhand copies) to be too much the collectors' goldmine even if my childhood stash wasn't made up of mostly widely-distributed (as much as any titles were widely distributed in the early '70s) titles.

Walker, you must remember that much of the opprobrium that was brought to bear on the horror and crime comics was due at least as much to the lesser imitators of EC, who were doing more-lurid variations than EC itself at times, and whose work would sit on the same newsstands as EC, DC, and Atlas comics. Sorry the EC titles gave you nightmares...their competitors, heirs (and the few reprints of EC comics I read at that time, as well) helped with mine, more than they contributed. Hence my horror fanaticism as a young'n, in all relevant media.

So, Prashant, you, too, should take into account that not everyone was as artistically responsible as EC was, nor as comparatively restrained as Atlas and DC were...I don't thing the Comics Code was really a boon so much as a way for the Archie Comics folks and to some extent DC to bully their competitors, and it didn't help the development of comics as an adult medium in the US one scrap. But it did help keep official government censorship out of comics, much as MPAA ratinngs did for commercial film.

Politicians everywhere are always willing to seize on something to grandstand about, and if the target can't effectively fight back, so much the better. Sadly, our most reactionary politicians were able to make their influence felt informally, so that self-censorship wasn't restricted, by any means, to the comics industry in the US in the 1950s...but that just made the intelligent or even just the annoyed that much more willing to be "subversive" of that oppression. Hence a whole lot of the humor, music and other cultural expression from the 1950s onward, which I enjoy and tend to cover in this blog. And William Gaines actually inherited the comics business from his father. A real Mitt Romney/Donald Trump-style Self-Made Man (well, to be fair, what he did and helped/allowed others to do--sometimes grudgingly--while working at EC was rather less pernicious than what those other heirs have managed to do, too often).

Before they ended up together as divisions of Warner, EC and DC didn't ever work together, even as much as DC and Marvel have from time to time. Though DC did buy the rights to Captain Marvel after winning the war of attrition with Fawcett over whether the Big Red Cheese was too much a ripoff of Superman. Nah. (I dug the Captain Marvel reprints that DC issued in those years, too.)

Todd Mason said...

And I'd certainly like to see your issue on comics, Prashant...

Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Todd, I agree, DC's horror comics may not have been as "well-drawn nor quite as devoted to black humour," but they came closest to the EC comics, both in art and content. I thought DC also did a reasonably good job imitating the EC covers, particularly the comic-book labels, The House of Mystery and The House of Secrets, that resemble EC's own "The Haunt of Fear," "Tales from the Crypt," and "The Vault of Horror." I find a lot of similarity between the two.

For the past few months, I have been exploiting the Creative Commons License and have downloaded a few vintage e-comics whose artwork left much to be desired. Titles include Avon Comics: City of the Living Dead, Weird Science Fantasy, Unknown World by Fawcett Publications, and Superior Comics: Mysteries Weird and Strange. There are two more short comics whose origins I can't trace, namely The Recluse, 1954, and A Tale of Horror: The Trecherous Gene. Pretty tame stuff though others might like them nonetheless.

Todd Mason said...

Oddly enough WEIRD SCIENCE and WEIRD FANTASY, later merged to become WEIRD SCIENCE FANTASY, were EC's own sf/fantasy comics. A lot of the same fans love them as do TALES FROM THE CRYPT (and SHOCK SUSPENSTORIES)...

Phillyradiogeek said...

As much as I love comics, my exposure to those outside of the superhero genre is very slight, much to my dismay. Someday I'll five into the horror/SF titles...someday...