I’ve been reading some more EC comics reprints. This time it’s Came the Dawn, a collection of stories drawn by one of my favorites, Wally Wood. These are taken from EC’s horror vehicles as well as Shock SuspenStories, which often told modern-day morality tales, tapping into social issues of the day.
I’ve said before that what strikes me most about these stories is how mature they are. Unlike other comics of the time, they speak to the reader as something of an adult. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Shock SuspenStories selections, which handle material well out of a kid’s reach. There are a number of stories represented here that show a daring I’ve seldom seen in other Silver Age material (not that I’ve done a thorough inventory of the period).
The first is “The Guilty” from Shock SuspenStories #3 (June-July 1952). This is a twisted To Kill a Mockingbird in which a black man in a small town (“anywhere in the United States”, the narration sets it) is accused of killing a white woman. The details of the case are briefly discussed but they’re meaningless; the accused man, Aubrey Collins, doesn’t have a single spoken line in the entire story. Instead the focus is on whether or not he’ll even make it to a trial without being murdered. What’s noteworthy is a dialog choice made:
Although other swear words are given the usual treatment (Collins is referred to as “you black @#xx!!” later in the story), “nigger” almost appears as-is. This had to be fairly brazen at the time as, even though there were plenty of people using the term, it was not said in polite company, and certainly not to children.
The racism fueling “The Guilty” is pandemic. There’s only one character who wants to treat Collins as a person, an “out-of-town lawyer” from a “civil liberties organization”. (The District Attorney also seems more interested in the case than anyone else, though more because the evidence against Collins isn’t as firm as he’d like than because he’s worried the man is innocent.) Other than the lawyer, nobody comes off too well here, and I imagine there were a lot of people angry at how hateful and hurtful this depiction of wholesome American values was.
Incidentally, Collins doesn’t make it to his trial, and at the end we find out he was in fact innocent.
Two stories later in this collection comes “Hate!” (Shock SuspenStories #5, October-November 1952), another story in a similar vein. In this tale, a group of concerned citizens attempts to preserve their neighborhood from an unwanted intruder: the Jewish family who has moved in. Again, words an actions aren’t spared, and it’s made clear that the Jews are unwanted for being Jews and the length the other men will go to in order to drive them away. When a simple “Don’t move in…JEW! You’ll be sorry! We don’t want Jews in this neighborhood!” note fails to drive the family away, the men ratchet things up a notch:
It’s worth noting that once again, the targets of ire never say a word, and in fact that second panel there is the most we see of their faces. The story is told in the second-person narration familiar to EC comics readers. The protagonist is named “John Smith” but he’s not merely an Everyman who could be you, he is, in fact, you. The fact that you never really see or hear Dave and Ethel Gold does a good job of underlining the pointlessness of the hate.
But this second-person writing is also accusatory. In 1952, when this story appeared, the HUAC blacklist was in full force, and though it was ostensibly targeting communists, it had a decidedly anti-Semitic streak. People in the entertainment industry were being blacklisted, and there were a lot of Jews in the comics business (which was not far away from also being investigated.) This was a bold, shocking move to make.
The violence against the Jewish family culminates in their home being set on fire which ends up killing them. This, however, is not where it ends. Instead, the protagonist, You Smith, then finds out he’s adopted and his/your parents — and you might want to sit down for this — were Jews!! The hate machine then turns on him. It’s a clumsy ending, and it somewhat softens the blow a bit, but still a pretty gutsy attempt.
So, two stories, both written for adults, both accusing their fellow Americans of vile, disgusting hatred, hatred against others that was tearing the country apart and diminishing us morally. That’s noble stuff.
And then comes, “The Assault”. And…oh, boy.
It’s from Shock SuspenStories #8 (April-May 1953) and it’s a doozy. Lucy Cartwright returns home after being missing for two days. She tells of being forced into the cabin of Old Hodges, who “did things” to her. Although the language is less direct in the other two stories, it’s abundantly clear what Old Hodges is being accused of. As in “The Guilty” mob justice is debated, but not for long, as soon the old man is beaten to death by the outraged citizens. Also like, “The Guilty” we find out that Hodges was innocent all along. The real perpetrator of the rape was…
…well, that’s the thing. It wasn’t a rape. Little Lucy made it up to cover the fact that she’d been sleeping around with a fellow named George. Turns out little Lucy isn’t as innocent as she seems: in fact, she’s a bit of a sultry man-eater. When George declares he wants to marry her, she laughs and tells him she isn’t looking for marriage, just kicks.
Wally Wood could draw a sexy woman, and he puts that to effective use here. We now see Lucy as she is, a shameless smoking tramp just looking to ensnare men in her web. Her salacious lies led to the death of Old Hodges, and when George threatens to expose her she reminds him that she’s only 17, and he’d be admitting to statutory rape. George, knowing that Lucy is “rotten through and through” does the only thing he can do, and the story ends with him sobbing next to the bloody corpse of Lucy, “with the six bullet holes in her face”.
All three stories were written by Al Feldstein, which makes the sharp veering even more alarming. Hatred of blacks? Bad. Hatred of Jews? Appalling. Women? Buncha potential sluts looking to make life awful for some man.
In case you think it’s an outlier, the next story in this collection, “Came the Dawn” (Shock SuspenStories #9, June-July 1953, and the title story for this collection) gives us a hunter who returns to his isolated cabin to find a half-naked woman there. She claims to have gotten lost in the woods near her father’s cabin, fell in a stream, and came in to dry off. Cathy ends up coming on strong to our protagonist, Bob, spending the night with him and declaring that they’re engaged now. Bob hears a news report on the radio warning of an escaped madwoman who murdered her fiance, and who fits Cathy’s description. He locks her outside the cabin and tells her to beat it, when she screams. Upon opening the door he sees she’s been stabbed in the face and her clothes (which were his clothes she’d been wearing) removed, with a coarse blue asylum uniform discarded on her. So you see, you were thinking Crazy Bitch but the twist was that she was crazy but not the actual Crazy Bitch! Merely a slutty sexy whore who was understandably mistaken for a murderess and, for her sins, again took it in the face.
I’m gonna admit, that’s as far as I’ve gotten in the collection because man, those last two stories really bothered me. I get that comics and women have a long, ugly history that continues to this day, and especially in fifties comics things weren’t particularly forward-thinking in that arena. However, the jarring discontinuity between the first two stories and the last ones was, well, shocking. We must overcome fear and prejudice, but look out for those dirty, dangerous women.
I know, based on skimming, that further morality tales await me in these last parts of the collection, and I’m going to read them, but this sharp turn provided more of a surprising twist that made me re-examine beliefs than anything I think I’m going to encounter.