The Art and Artists of the Notorious 1950s E.C. Comics
By Grant Geissman
New York: Harper Design, 2005
Hard back: ISBN: 006074698X Price: $29.95
One of the most significant art movements of the last century didn’t occur in the academies of Europe or in the universities and bohemian neighborhoods of American metropolises. It occurred between the colorfully lurid covers of comic books
One of the most significant art movements of the last century didn’t occur in the academies of Europe or in the universities and bohemian neighborhoods of American metropolises. It occurred between the colorfully lurid covers of comic books. The cramped sweatshops of comic-book publishers produced a body of work that is enormously influential in contemporary highbrow and popular culture. In their heyday, many adults dismissed comic books as a waste of time at best and as a catalyst for juvenile delinquency and depravity at worst. Yet, Roy Lichtenstein’s iconic comic-book–inspired paintings sell for millions, Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel about the holocaust, Maus, won a special Pulitzer Prize in 1992, and Michael Chabon took home the fiction Pulitzer in 2001 for his rich epic, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, set in the comic-book world before the Second World War.
In the years after the war, E.C. Comics and its artists became a profoundly influential cultural force. E.C. Comics existed for only ten years. Its founder, Max C. Gaines, had midwifed the comic-book medium in the 1930s. After seeing the success of “premiums,” free color comic inserts that promoted consumer products, Gaines bet that people would pay money for books of comic strips and packaged the first modern comic book. He also encouraged a friend, DC Comics publisher Harry Donenfeld, to publish a new, untried comic feature called “Superman” in Action Comics. The risk paid rich returns, spawned numerous imitators, and launched the superhero comic-book industry.
In 1945, Gaines founded E.C. Comics, which published “educational” comics (such as Picture Stories from the Bible) and “entertaining” comics for young readers (Animal Fables, Tiny Tot Comics). But a success like Superman eluded him. Sales of E.C.’s titles were tepid, and the company was in the red when Gaines died in an accident in 1947. His son Bill Gaines, who was studying to be a chemistry teacher, reluctantly took over the family business. He changed E.C.’s lines from lackluster educational titles to eye-grabbing Western, romance, and crime comics that aped more successful publishers. More important than these changes, Gaines partnered with Al Feldstein, an aspiring freelance writer and illustrator, and the two of them hired a stable of unknown yet promising young artists: Harvey Kurtzman, Wallace Wood, Jack Davis, and Al Williamson, among many others.
E.C.’s success didn’t last long. In 1954, pseudo-psychologist Fredric Wertham published his book Seduction of the Innocent, which claimed juvenile delinquency was caused by comic books. Wertham’s campaign reached a crescendo when the U.S. Senate investigated the comic-book industry. Gaines testified before a Senate subcommittee, which targeted E.C. as the offender par exemplar. The comic-book publishers agreed to regulate themselves with a Comics Code Authority, which approved comics that could be sold on newsstands. This effectively killed all of E.C.’s titles except one, MAD Magazine, which Gaines and his cohorts cultivated into an American icon.
Foul Play! adequately summarizes E.C.’s history, but most of the book is composed of brief biographies of the personalities who produced E.C.’s finest work. Each section generously includes photographs, illustrations, and ephemera from their repertoire, and concludes with a reproduction of a complete E.C. comic by the artist. Readers will recognize George Evan’s “Blind Alleys” and Jack Davis’s “Foul Play,” still quite ghoulish after fifty years. These stories and images have been anthologized and imitated so many times in so many formats that the originals seem archetypical.
Other artists from E.C. are not as well-known but are starting to get the interest they deserve. In the last few years, Fantagraphics has published two coffee-table monographs, collecting and analyzing the work of Bernie Krigstein, a brilliant artist and illustrator who often seemed hampered by genre publications and limited budgets. He’s represented in Foul Play! with an exquisitely illustrated version of Ray Bradbury’s The Flying Machine and some rarely seen illustrations and paintings. Geissman also gives space for Marie Severin, colorist for E.C. and one of the few women to hold a significant role in the comics world in the 1950s.
Unlike a lot of books that celebrate icons without critical inquiry, Geissman doesn’t pull any punches, and includes the politics, eccentricities, and failures that marked the tenure of these talents. Their stories are as interesting as the ones they wrote. MAD Magazine was an effort by Gaines to placate Kurtzman’s demands for more money. Their rivalry made and nearly unmade the magazine and pushed Kurtzman toward more ambitious projects, culminating in “Little Annie Fanny” for Playboy. Another fascinating E.C. veteran is Graham Ingels, who left New York and comics behind to teach art, only to reemerge from hiding two decades later.
Geissman is a signal example of the collector as author. His previous books include Tales of Terror! The E.C. Companion and Collectibly MAD, but writing is a side gig. His day job is as a contemporary jazz guitarist and studio musician. Yet Geissman displays little of the sloppy enthusiasm that often mars fan-boy writing. The accompanying text isn’t a distraction; it’s articulate, informative, and engaging. Foul Play! is a thoughtfully assembled, beautifully reproduced labor of love, containing a valuable history and rarely seen artifacts for collectors as well as readers with a passing interest in pop culture.