Books revive '50s comics as Comics Code dies

By Andrew A. Smith

Scripps Howard News Service

 

Feb. 1, 2011 -- Ding dong, the witch is dead.

Or maybe I should say all other witches are symbolically back from the dead. Because the witch in question – the industry’s self-censoring Comics Code Seal of Approval – is the one that outlawed from comic books monsters, sex, crime and anything else the preachers, politicians and parents of 1954 thought could harm young minds ... which was virtually everything.

But when the Code’s primary enforcers – magazine distributors – became mostly irrelevant to the comics industry in the 1980s, so did the Code. And over the years it’s been modified as social norms changed, so the current version isn’t nearly as Medieval as the original. But it’s still a milestone of sorts that the last two publishers to still use the Code   – Archie Comics and DC Comics (for its kiddie line) – are dispensing with the Seal and instituting their own ratings systems this month.

By coincidence, a couple of recent books give examples of what had 1954’s Guardians of Decency in such a froth.

The Horror! The Horror! Comic Books the Government Didn’t Want You to Read! (Abrams ComicArts, $29.95) focuses on the gory horror comics that appeared mostly from 1950 to 1954. The author is Jim Trombetta, who has worked as a Shakespearean scholar, a reporter and a TV script writer, so there’s a lot of cross-disciplinary speculation going on here.

Actually, too much speculation for my taste – I’m of the “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar” school. If you’re going to make broad sociological generalizations about what a given story, cover, art style or genre has to say about 1950s society, you’re going to have to work pretty hard to convince me.

Trombetta does work hard, shoehorning dozens of short, silly, gleefully gory stories into quasi-academic categories like “Death and the Maiden,” “The Gorgon” and “The Age of Nuclear Terror.” He backs his analysis up with plentiful examples, and he constructs a series of engaging arguments raising, say, a random eye injury to the level of eternal mythological symbolism. I wasn’t completely convinced, mind you, but I was vastly entertained.

Trombetta’s examples are covers or short snippets, because he can only operate under “fair use” laws for pre-Code horror stories that are still under copyright (which is most of them). That’s actually a plus, in that most books exploring this topic rely on the small percentage of pre-1954 horror stories in the public domain. That means we see those same stories repeatedly (two such well-traveled tales appear in The Horror), and major publishers like EC Comics, Timely (now Marvel) and National (DC) usually get short shrift.

But Trombetta samples from all publishers for a truly comprehensive presentation. There’s even a DVD of an alarmist (and almost entirely false) 1950s documentary about comics poisoning our children! “The Horror” belongs on every fan’s bookshelf, and more than a few academic ones. It’s the most thoughtful and thorough analysis on 1950s horror comics extant, and it will be quoted by scholars and reporters for decades to come.

Meanwhile, Feral House’s The Weird World of Eerie Publications ($32.95) tackles our topic obliquely; it’s a history of a 1960s-1980s magazine publisher whose titles were largely filled with reprinted (or re-drawn) pre-Code horror comics. These black-and-white magazines, like Weird, Witches’ Tales and Tales of Voodoo, lurked in the shadows of far superior mags like Warren’s Creepy and Marvel’s Dracula Lives during a short-lived boom.

Eerie Publications was the very definition of a sleazy, fly-by-night company. Publisher Myron Fass took old pre-Code horror stories by minor publisher Ajax/Farrel (and any others he could safely steal or cheaply buy) and either reprinted them outright (with extra blood added) or had them redrawn (with orders to “gore it up”) by underpaid and mistreated artists, many from South America. These magazines were just part of Fass’s empire, which included sweaty men’s mags, lurid confessionals and other sorts of garbage.

But there is a subculture that loves this sort of nonsensical, over-the-top, bloody carnage (think of the “Saw” movies), and author Mike Howlett is an unashamed member. While I don’t share this particular enthusiasm, I enjoyed seeing him take his hobby horse out for a ride.

Weird World won’t win any academic prizes, and there are a lot of unnecessary four-letter words. But Howlett has done history a service by putting more effort into a book about a forgotten corner of comics than Eerie Publications ever did on the comics themselves.

Contact Andrew A. Smith of the Memphis Commercial Appeal at capncomics@aol.com.

Views: 445

Comment by George on February 4, 2011 at 12:31am

I vividly remember those sleazy Eerie Publications mags (especially "Tales of Voodoo") from the late '60s and early '70s. They were the goriest entertainment I had ever seen up to that time (I wasn't old enough to get into R-rated movies). Sneak-reading them in classrooms was great fun. In terms of subversion, they went way beyond the Warren mags. Of course, I didn't know they were redrawn pre-Code comics at the time.

 

One thing to keep in mind about the Code: It was based heavily on the movie production code set up in the early 1930s. Some of the movie code's dictates -- evil always punished; authority figures treated with respect; no "exaggerated" depictions of female anatomy -- were copied by the Comics Code. The movie code was in effect, more or less, until the ratings system replaced it in 1968. The comics industry has similarly outgrown its own code. It's been a long time since little kids were the bulk of the audience.

Comment by Cavaliere (moderator emeritus) on February 4, 2011 at 2:58am
I have yet to hear from anybody sane who thinks the death of the Code is a bad thing. I did read a rant somewhere else from an anonymous poster who really seemed to think it signaled, more or less, the end of American civilization. Boy, is he going to be surprised when that doesn't happen.
Comment by Captain Comics on February 4, 2011 at 10:11am

Have you got a reference or link to your information about the Code/movie ratings info, George? I'm writing a Code story for CBG and would like to mention it.

 

Also, I didn't have room to mention everything of interest about the Myron Fass magazines, some of which wouldn't be of interest to non-fans anyway. But here are some nuggets:

 

* Fass's art director for a long time was Human  Torch creator Carl Burgos, embittered toward the regular comics industry for perceived wrongs.

 

* Dick Ayers did some work for Fass, but wasn't embittered at all -- he just enjoyed the work.

 

* Fass's No. 2 was a man named Harris, who got his hooks into Vampirella rights (partially) when Warren was going through a bankruptcy/restructuring, and he still does, which is why Harris Publications and Dynamite are both publishing Vampirella comics.

 

* Weird World of Eerie Publications by necessity refers frequently to Fass's competitors, so there's info about the history of Skywald and other publishers that I didn't know, and was pleased to learn.

 

* Fass openly carried a firearm, and once took a shot at Harris in the office. This was intended primarily for intimidation ... but Fass might have been a bit unbalanced, so who knows?

 

* Fass's first magazine was going to be named Eerie. But Warren was also in prep stages for an Eerie magazine, heard about Fass, and got an ashcan out to New York newsstands before Fass did. So Fass had to change his title (to Weird), but still took the name Eerie Publications for his company -- probably out of spite.

 

There's more, but that's all that crosses my mind today.

 

Comment by George on February 4, 2011 at 7:47pm

/www.artsreformation.com/a001/hays-code.html

 

Here is the text of the movie industry's "Hays Office" production code of 1930. It wasn't actually enforced until 1934. Then it was vigorously enforced, until movies such as "Psycho" and "The Apartment" (both 1960) began chipping away at its rules.

Comment by George on February 4, 2011 at 8:20pm
The prohibition on showing explicitly how to commit a crime was adopted by the Comics Code. (Remember, Wertham and other critics regarded comics as "how to" manuals for aspiring criminals.) As late as 1980, the Code rejected the "angel dust" issue of Daredevil because it showed teens using drugs in too much detail. The story appeared two years later, with the "smoking" scenes redrawn and in shadow.
Comment by George on February 5, 2011 at 3:14pm

"I have yet to hear from anybody sane who thinks the death of the Code is a bad thing."

 

I'm no fan of the Code, but there's no denying certain elements of the industry brought the Code on themselves.

EC received a number of letters from servicemembers, which convinced Gaines and Feldstein they had a substantial adult readership. EC probably did have more adult readers than the other companies. But the rest -- the majority -- were kids. And little published by EC was suitable for pre-teen children, any more than today's Vertigo comics are suitable for that age group.

In later years, EC artists like Jack Davis, Johnny Craig and Graham Ingles were embarrassed by their work in horror comics, and were reluctant to discuss those days. They did feel EC went too far.

And there were cheapjack, fly-by-night publishers who outdid EC in gory excess. Stanley Morse published horror tales with such charming titles as "Hate" and "Violence." These comics tarred the whole industry. What really appalled adults and authorities was that comics was an unregulated industry -- unlike movies, TV and radio, which had codes governing their content. LIke I've said before, the early '50s was a different era, and you really can't judge another era by today's attitudes.

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