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 firstname.lastname@example.org.