Maybe Some Day We’ll Catch Up to the Fifties

I’ve been reading 50 Girls 50 and Other Stories Illustrated by Al Williamson, an anthology published by Fantagraphics. Al Williamson was one of the artists working for EC Comics in the 50s, and this collection includes stories from various EC titles combining the words “Weird”, “Fantasy”, “Science”, “Crime”, and “SuspenStories”. He often worked with Roy Krenkel and the legendary Frank Frazetta, but even on his own Williamson is amazing. Check out this page from “Space-Borne”, collected in this book (the panel on the left is used for the cover):

That is pretty great, and that’s the kind of stuff he was putting out monthly. Can you imagine?

Now, the artwork is obviously the main attraction here, but confession time: I have not read as many EC comics as I’d like to have. I’ve often grabbed what I could, but reprints tend to come in the form of expensive hardbound color editions. I’d kill for black and white phonebooks, but that’s not to be, I guess. So for me the thrill here was enjoying another small taste of a dish I’ve longed to eat.

For those who don’t know, EC was more or less shut down during the comics panic of the 1950s. The book that helped fuel the panic, Seduction of the Innocent (which is out of print and I still maintain should be picked up and published by the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund) and the Comics Code Authority that came out of the hearings were more or less designed to shut down horror and crime comics in general and EC’s version of such in particular. EC editor William Gaines also didn’t do his company any favors when he testified poorly before the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency, and gave the panel a specific target to aim for.

Reading these stories it struck me what a massive loss we suffered when EC was destroyed. The stories here, even with their obvious twist endings and Silver Age goofiness are written for mature audiences, and I mean that in the actual sense of the word. They often deal with adult subjects in adult manners. In these 6-8 page stories the characters get a real depth to them because they’re allowed to be real characters instead of simplistic mannequins. And despite the comics being derided as harbingers of delinquency, there is a strong moral center to them. Misdeeds are punished. Arrogance is brought low. Crime, selfishness, and hatred seldom pay.

Thanks to the Comics Code, we had about twenty years where comic books had to back away from the notion that they were for anyone other than children. They weren’t allowed to tackle significant topics or speak with any nuance. The architecture that EC had constructed was abandoned, and while we did get some pretty good stuff, it’s hard not to wonder where we’d be now if this hadn’t happened, if this twenty-year stagnation-at-best-regression-at-worst had instead continued.

The underground comix of the 70s would probably have happened sooner, and not been so far underground. Superheroes, thrust back in the mainstream by the removal of horror and crime comics, might not be the overwhelming majority of books. Mature comics might more often mean actually mature comics and not just comics where superheroes swear and fuck and kill people. Maybe it wouldn’t have taken until the 90s for mainstream companies to return to genres beyond caped fisticuffs. (Many of Marvel’s flagship superheroes were born from EC-type “weird” and “monster” comics, but boy, you wouldn’t know it these days.) Man, I’d like to take a look at that world some time! (On the other hand, romance comics weren’t really affected by the CCA and they eventually just died out on their own, so who knows.)

For some time I’ve had a big hunk of credit at a nearby comic shop that I haven’t been able to make myself use. I think it’s high time I picked up those Weird Science collections that have tempted me so much.

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