Published On: Sat, Jun 1st, 2013

The Death of Comics part 1: Horror comics: where did they all go?

The ’50s gave birth to Horror comics then buried them. While Atlas (which became Marvel) comics pushed past costumed crime fighters at the end of World War II (i.e. Marvel Tales), it was EC Comics that published The Crypt of Terror (became Tales From the Crypt), The Haunt of Fear, and my favorite, The Vault of Horror. The surprise endings were complemented with intriguing hosts and awesome artwork. Later titles Weird Science and Weird Fantasy interwove science fiction with the superior stories and artwork. The imitators flooded the market leading to Dr. Fredric Wertham’s book “Seduction of the Innocent” and the Comics Code Authority (1954).

EC Comics’ Tales From the Crypt #24

Wertham, a John Hopkins grad and acclaimed psychiatrist/author, accused comics of being loaded with Communist teachings, sex, violence and discrimination – just what the Senate Subcommitee hearings needed. He even attacked Superman (“gives children the wrong idea of basic physical laws”–kids think they can fly) and Batman reinforces homosexuality (I’ll save my comments about Robin for a later issue). There were book burnings, more Senate hearings and pressure from mainstream media (Time, Parents’ Magazine) resulting in “The Code”. The other publishers betrayed Gaines and created a set of criteria that eliminated the words terror, horror or crime from comic titles. The Comic Code outlined “appropriate” content stifling gruesome illustrations, especially zombies, vampires, werewolfs and cannibals – it marked the end of EC Comics.

Haunt of FearThe brilliant businessman Gaines didn’t flinch and modified Mad to a magazine format to avoid censors. Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko kept Atlas/Marvel “horror” afloat by mixing in even more sci-fi: Tales of Suspense, Strange Tales, Journey into Mystery and others. Like Mad (outside of scrutiny because magazines were exempt from “The Code”) Warren Publishing followed suite with Creepy and Eerie. Warren delivered the EC traditions and later added the popular Vampirella (which is more sex appeal than horror) about an alien vampire who battled the occult group Chaos while dealing with in-law problems – a great title that ran into the ’70s (revived by Harris publishing).

The battle raged on. Steve Bissette and John Totleben (both of Swamp Thing fame) created a cutting-edge format for unknown creators to break all the rules about comics – Taboo. This was no comic, but a horror anthology – literature: expensive, adult-only literature. Well, literature or not, it didn’t make it past customs (except in New Zealand where it was actually read) and it failed financially as it never reached its target audience worldwide.

Marvel distributed Amazing Spider-Man #96-97 despite not receiving the “stamp of approval” because of the issue’s anti-drug theme. This paved the way for then the famous drug story in Green Lantern/Green Arrow, which did receive approval, breaking the barrier that lent to reformation in code guidelines. No more restrictions on “horror creatures” and Marvel delivered a flurry of characters (e.g., Marvel Dracula, Ghost Rider) At DC, Bissette and Totleben were key in the mainstreaming of horror after “The Code” was no more. The dilution of the code allowed very talented creators on DC’s Vertigo line to bring us personal and social horror: Hellblazer, Saga of the Swamp Thing and others.

So, jump ahead with a couple of decades of societal changes where some things have changed, some have not. We may never recover from the ’50’s persecution of comics but Spawn, Lady Death, and Purgatori have made it into the hands of today’s youth. Black Bull’s Shadow Reavers and Jim Balent’s Tarot are struggling to stay afloat while offering up classic EC Comic-style horror. Innovation publishes some great horror and The Crow went mainstream. There is no predicting the acceptance of most work, but at least that barrier has been breached.

Wertham’s condemnation of comics relied heavily on “guilt by association” since most lawbreakers read comics. In our current state, where no one is responsible for his or her actions, it’s only a matter of time until Thor is subpoenaed in a tragic ball-peen hammer murder trial.

Some interesting notes:

  •  Entertaining Comics was originally called Educational Comics.
  • In response to accusations of copyright infringement by Ray Bradbury, Gaines hired the renowned writer to the science-fiction EC titles.
  • Wertham’s later writings communicated a completely different perspective on changes in society – dedication to the arts and freedoms of expression. It’s hard to believe it was written by the same man.
  • Original EC issues are extremely rare considered both collectible and historical.


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About the Author

- Writer and Co-Founder of The Global Dispatch, Brandon has been covering news, offering commentary for years, beginning professionally in 2003 on Crazed Fanboy before expanding into other blogs and sites. Appearing on several radio shows, Brandon has hosted Dispatch Radio, written his first novel (The Rise of the Templar) and completed the three years Global University program in Ministerial Studies to be a pastor. To Contact Brandon email [email protected] ATTN: BRANDON

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