EC Comics, short for Entertaining Comics, pioneered the comic book industry during the 1940s and 1950s. Known for their groundbreaking horror, crime, and science fiction stories, EC pushed boundaries and delighted readers with their unique blend of art and storytelling.
I came to EC Comics late. Having been weaned on the Tales From The Crypt TV series from the 1980s, I generally ignored the comics when I saw them in flea markets and second-hand bookstores, thinking them inferior to the show, which I adored. A friend finally shamed me into reading them during the 1990s, and I ended up loving it, regretting all those times I passed on buying them during my youth. Now I’m a full-blown EC nut, and can’t get enough of the collections Fantagraphics and Dark Horse Publishing keep churning out.
So in this post, The Longbox of Darkness will explore the rise and fall of EC Comics, delving into the factors that contributed to their success and eventual decline. After all, every halfway decent horror comics blog should have at least one post dedicated to this topic, wouldn’t you agree?
I. The Golden Age of EC Comics
A. The Origins of EC Comics
EC Comics was founded by Max Gaines, who had previously been involved in creating the first four-color comic book. In 1944, Gaines established Educational Comics, which initially focused on educational and religious material. Following his death in 1947, his son William Gaines took over the company and shifted its focus to more entertaining content.
B. The Arrival of Horror and Science Fiction
Under William Gaines’ leadership, EC Comics embraced horror and science fiction genres, producing titles like Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror, and Weird Science. The company hired top-notch artists and writers, such as Al Feldstein, Wally Wood, and Harvey Kurtzman, who were instrumental in crafting the unforgettable stories and visuals that defined the EC brand.
C. The Impact on the Comic Book Industry
EC Comics’ innovative approach to storytelling and artwork had a profound impact on the comic book industry. They raised the bar in terms of quality and creativity, inspiring other publishers to follow suit. EC also popularized the use of twist endings, a narrative technique that would become a staple of the horror genre.
II. EC Comics’ Iconic Titles and Talented Creators
A. Tales from the Crypt
Perhaps the most iconic title from EC Comics, Tales from the Crypt featured spine-chilling stories of horror and suspense. Originally published from 1950 to 1955, this anthology series included stories penned by notable writers like Al Feldstein, who also served as the series’ editor, and Bill Gaines. The artists who contributed to this series included legendary names like Johnny Craig, Jack Davis, and Graham Ingels. Tales from the Crypt introduced readers to the Crypt-Keeper, a ghastly narrator who would go on to become a pop culture icon in his own right, especially after the launch of the popular TV show of the same name.
B. The Vault of Horror
Another popular title in the horror genre was The Vault of Horror, which ran from 1950 to 1955. Much like Tales from the Crypt, it was an anthology series that featured a mix of supernatural and psychological horror stories. The series was primarily written by Al Feldstein, with occasional contributions from other writers such as Gardner Fox and Carl Wessler. The roster of artists for The Vault of Horror included Johnny Craig, George Evans, Jack Kamen, and Harvey Kurtzman, among others. The Vault-Keeper, a macabre character akin to the Crypt-Keeper, served as the series’ narrator and host.
C. Weird Science
Weird Science, published from 1950 to 1953, was EC Comics’ foray into the science fiction genre. The series featured imaginative tales of space exploration, time travel, and futuristic technology. Weird Science was primarily written by Al Feldstein, with occasional contributions from other writers such as Ray Bradbury, whose stories were adapted into comics with his permission. The artists who worked on Weird Science included Wally Wood, Joe Orlando, Al Williamson, and Frank Frazetta. Each issue of Weird Science contained a mix of thrilling and thought-provoking stories that captivated readers and showcased the endless possibilities of science fiction.
D. Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat
EC Comics also ventured into the realm of war comics with Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat. Two-Fisted Tales, published from 1950 to 1955, focused on various aspects of war and conflict, from historical battles to contemporary military encounters. Frontline Combat, which ran from 1951 to 1954, similarly explored the harsh realities of war. Both series were created and edited by Harvey Kurtzman, who wrote many of the stories and emphasized the grim nature of warfare rather than glorifying it. Artists who contributed to these titles included Jack Davis, John Severin, Wally Wood, and Kurtzman himself.
MAD, which started as a comic book in 1952 before transitioning into a magazine format in 1955, was EC Comics’ satirical gem. Conceived and initially edited by Harvey Kurtzman, MAD parodied popular culture, politics, and society with biting humor and clever artwork. The magazine featured the talents of writers and artists like Will Elder, Jack Davis, Wally Wood, and Don Martin, who contributed their unique styles to the magazine’s irreverent and zany content. Despite the fall of EC Comics’ other titles due to the Comics Code, MAD managed to thrive and became a cultural institution that continued to entertain readers for decades.
These titles, along with the talented writers and artists who brought them to life, were instrumental in defining the unique and unforgettable legacy of EC Comics. Their stories and art have left a lasting impact on the comic book industry and continue to inspire new generations of creators and readers alike.
III. The Controversy and Censorship
A. The Public Outcry
The graphic nature of EC Comics’ horror and crime stories soon caught the attention of parents, educators, and politicians. Critics, like the infamous Doctor Fredric Wertham, claimed that these comics were corrupting the youth and inciting juvenile delinquency. This public outcry led to a series of Senate hearings on the effects of comic books on children.
B. The Comics Code Authority
In response to the mounting criticism, the Comics Magazine Association of America established the Comics Code Authority (CCA) in 1954. This self-regulatory body imposed strict guidelines on comic book content, effectively censoring any material deemed too violent or risqué.
IV. The Decline of EC Comics
A. The Impact of the Comics Code
EC Comics struggled to adapt to the new regulations imposed by the CCA. Many of their popular titles, including Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror, were forced to cease publication. The company attempted to pivot to more code-friendly genres, but their sales dwindled, and they were unable to recapture their previous success.
B. The End of an Era
By the late 1950s, EC Comics was a shadow of its former self. The company ceased publishing new comic book titles and focused solely on their satirical magazine, MAD, which had managed to evade the restrictions of the Comics Code. This marked the end of EC Comics’ storied run as a comic book publisher.
IV. The Legacy of EC Comics
A. Influencing Future Creators
Despite their controversial history and eventual downfall, EC Comics left a lasting impact on the comic book industry. Their inventive storytelling and striking visuals inspired generations of creators, including legendary artists and writers like Stephen King, George Romero, and Neil Gaiman.
B. Collectibility and Adaptations
Today, EC Comics’ original issues are highly sought after by collectors, and their stories continue to be adapted into various forms of media, including movies and television series. The Tales from the Crypt TV show, which aired from 1989 to 1996, is one such example, drawing from the classic EC Comics stories and introducing them to a whole new audience.
C. A Testament to Creative Freedom
The rise and fall of EC Comics serves as a cautionary tale about the dangers of censorship, but it also stands as a testament to the power of creative freedom. The company’s willingness to push boundaries and take risks paved the way for future generations of comic book creators, who have continued to innovate and challenge the status quo.
The Enduring Impact of EC Comics
Though EC’s reign was relatively short-lived, their influence on the comic book industry cannot be overstated. The company’s daring approach to storytelling and artistry not only inspired countless creators but also demonstrated the importance of creative freedom and the potential pitfalls of censorship. As we look back on the rise and fall of EC Comics, we can appreciate the lasting legacy they left behind and the indelible mark they made on the world of horror and comic books.
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