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Saturday, April 16, 2016 

That's what EC's last output was like

The Washington Free Beacon spoke about Dark Horse's plans to reprint the old EC's Shock SuspenStories, an anthology that was rife with some dismayingly nasty approaches to sexuality and violence, and unfortunately gave the slapdash Fredric Wertham the ammunition he needed to use against comicdom. And, guess who wrote the introduction for their archives:
It’s not all drawings of frightened women with howitzer-shell breasts that strain against their blouses as they struggle in their captors’ grip. Well, mostly it is drawings of women with absurd figures, surrounded by phallic symbols. A powerful undertow of sexuality ran through the comic books of the 1950s—and a sick sexuality, often enough, with hints of rape, voyeurism, and sadism lurking just beneath the surface of the colored panels.

We can natter on about how comic books, in their golden ages, deserve a place alongside the high art of the culture—as maybe they do, the high art of the second half of the 20th century was not always much to write home about. But don’t let anyone tell you that a steady current of prurience and perversity wasn’t what tugged along the tales in something like EC Comics’ Shock SuspenStories.

Don’t let Stephen Spielberg tell you, for example. EC Comics was the publisher of such story-driven comics as Tales From the Crypt and Weird Fantasy—to say nothing of Mad magazine, begun in 1952, the same year publisher Bill Gaines and editor Al Feldstein added Shock SuspenStories to their stable. Intended as an anthology comic, collecting several “Jolting Tales of Tension” in each issue, Shock SuspenStories ran through 1955. And now, a publisher called Dark Horse has decided to reissue those comics in book form, with a foreword by Spielberg, who resolutely ignores the themes of ugly sex that run through the stories, while insisting that Shock SuspenStories represents serious, legitimate art.

[...] So, in one story, the head of an orphanage bans Halloween celebrations—only to have a murderer hide parts of his mutilated body in a jack-o-lantern. A hunter, proud of his bearskin rug, is (were you in any doubt?) skinned and made into a rug. A lumberjack uses his fists to beat a rival into blindness, and the victim, unable to see, later accidentally kills the lumberjack with an errant stroke of an ax. “The Neat Job,” a hilariously overwrought tale, features a woman psychologically and physically beaten down by her brutish husband’s demands that she be neater and better organized—so she cuts him into pieces, which she stores in neatly labeled jars. When a story opens with a man shouting at his workers that they have “no guts,” you just know that disembowelment is waiting for him in the story’s final panels.
Honestly, those kind of EC tales don't sound appealing, even if rape was never actually featured explicitly, and I think they really gave thriller stories a bad name. The CCA wasn't justified, but when I think of what EC's output was like under Gaines, sometimes I can't help feel irked at him for giving the Wertham crowd the ammunition they wanted for crippling the medium. The stories all sound sensationalized, even the one featuring an abusive husband, and it's hard to tell whom we're supposed to root for. Yet who but the one and only Spielberg - who mostly went downhill as a film director since the turn of the century - offered to write up the introduction for DH's new archives.
EC Comics always had a preachy side, and the format of Shock SuspenStories allowed Gaines and Feldstein to indulge the right feeling of the era’s liberalism in a good number of the eight-page stories. So, for example, “The Patriot!” is interesting as a historical relic, a boilerplate bit of anti-anti-communism, with a man mistaken for a communist and beaten by a mob. “The Guilty!” mocks Southern racists, “Confession” attacks big-city police brutality, and “Hate!” takes on anti-Semitism. (The exclamation point was nearly mandatory for a Shock SuspenStories title.)
If there's one part here that raises eyebrows, it's if EC was apologizing for communism. After all the harm Lenin and Stalin caused in their time, and they try to make patriots look like savages. I vaguely remember reading that Wertham attacked that story, accusing it of having the potential to encourage violence against people not considered patriots (rather odd coming from a leftist), but the real problem is that it makes patriots and/or conservatives look like barbarians who employ assault on people whom they think are slighting their positions. I'd seen pictures from these EC products years before in history books too, and the gory items certainly turned me off.

What can I say? EC's output under Gaines looks pretty crappy, and it's regrettable he had to give a man as stupid as Wertham was ammunition that wound up damaging even the better products from other companies for many years.

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