Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Tales from the U.S. Senate. America VS. EC Comics.

There was a time when horror comics were actually scary. And the best of those scary comics came from a wonderful publisher called EC Comics.

Originally founded by publisher M.C. Gaines as "Educational Comics", they specialized in comics with stories from the Bible and other subject matter of social and educational benefit. When Gaines turned the company over to his son, William M. Gaines,

the younger Gaines changed the company's name to "Entertaining Comics" and began publishing titles like The Haunt of Fear, Vault of Horror, Tales from the Crypt, Two-Fisted Tales, Shock Suspenstories , Weird Science and Mad (yes, that Mad).

And believe me, these ARE entertaining comics. Problem is, some folks decided that these comics weren't appropriate for children. Which is funny, because they were never aimed at children. EC's titles were singled out, over and over again in a Senate Subcommittee hearing on the supposed connection between comic books and juvenile delinquency. I have reprinted a portion of the hearing transcript (Which I culled from Wikipedia) for your amusement:

  • Chief Counsel Herbert Beaser: Let me get the limits as far as what you put into your magazine. Is the sole test of what you would put into your magazine whether it sells? Is there any limit you can think of that you would not put in a magazine because you thought a child should not see or read about it?
  • Bill Gaines: No, I wouldn't say that there is any limit for the reason you outlined. My only limits are the bounds of good taste, what I consider good taste.
  • Beaser: Then you think a child cannot in any way, in any way, shape, or manner, be hurt by anything that a child reads or sees?
  • Gaines: I don't believe so.
  • Beaser: There would be no limit actually to what you put in the magazines?
  • Gaines: Only within the bounds of good taste.
  • Beaser: Your own good taste and saleability?
  • Gaines: Yes.
  • Senator Estes Kefauver: Here is your May 22 issue. [Kefauver is mistakenly referring to Crime Suspenstories #22, cover date May] This seems to be a man with a bloody axe holding a woman's head up which has been severed from her body. Do you think that is in good taste?
  • Gaines: Yes sir, I do, for the cover of a horror comic. A cover in bad taste, for example, might be defined as holding the head a little higher so that the neck could be seen dripping blood from it, and moving the body over a little further so that the neck of the body could be seen to be bloody.
  • Kefauver: You have blood coming out of her mouth.
  • Gaines: A little.
After the hearings, the majority of comics publishers formed a self-governing body called the Comics Code Authority which dictated the standards and practices of comics publishers from the mid-1950's to the beginning of the 21st century. Not too surprisingly, most of the rules and regulations were things that would have made it all but impossible for EC to continue publishing their titles as they were. For example: Comics titles could no longer contain words like "horror", "crime", etc. I get the feeling a little professional jealousy was involved.

By 1955, EC went out of business as a comics publisher, converting MAD into a magazine.


  1. I personally think Bill Gaines' judgment on good and bad taste is dead on. It's a HORROR comic!

  2. As a side note: Dr. Frederick Wertham who got this whole hearing (and by hearing I mean witch hunt) going with his book "The Seduction of the Innocent" was such a super-freak that he singled this cover out because the man was holding the axe handle in a "phallic" way. ;)

  3. Isn't Wertham the same guy who thought that Batman was pure homo-eroticism?

    Clearly Robin was intended to be a stand-in for the young readers of the comic - here's someone the 10-year-old kid could identify with: a kid who's hanging out with a cool billionaire superhero, fighting crime and having adventures!

    The accusation of homo-erotic undertones, frankly, says more about the accuser than the subject, IMO.

    Speaking of which ... hilarious episode of The Venture Brothers this week.



  4. Yep, Wertham got the ball rolling on all the Batman and Robin Bashing. I beleive his exact words re the Caped Crusaders were "...the wish-dream of two homosexuals living together...". Which kinda confuses being gay with being a pedophile.

    He also thought Wonder Woman was an emasculating lesbian.

    Honestly, I think he was a little afraid of women.

  5. Good post, but I do have some points to make:

    1. MC Gaines died in a boating accident in 1947, so he didn't turn the company over to his son, rather his son inherited the company.

    2. While I love the EC Comics, they made themselves an easy target with the over-the-top gruesome nature of some of the stories. And many of their rivals were even worse, imitating the graphic violence without the solid storytelling.

    3. Juvenile delinquency was a big story in the 1950s and everybody was casting about for a reason why these teens were forming gangs. I go with the obvious: Many kids didn't have a father around during the World War II years and quite a few of those kids never had a father at all because he died in the war. Absent fathers led to gangs in the 1950s, just as they have from about 1980-present.

    4. Wertham rode that wave because he had a simple explanation that was compelling; the lurid covers of some of the comics of the time certainly made for good copy for the newspapers and magazines. Yes, he was a dolt in a lot of ways (Batman and Robin, for example), but he never would have gotten traction with his theories if some of his criticisms hadn't been on the mark. BTW, Wertham acted as an expert witness for the defense in some trials of teenagers accused of murder, selling the notion that they were good kids ruined by comics.

    5. While I agree that it's unfortunate that the CCA effectively banned comics that would appeal to teens and adults, it was not entirely without positive consequences. Would there have been a Silver Age of comics with uplifting stories and heroic heroes without it? Or would we have seen the gradual descent into the gritty, grim comics of today much earlier? I suspect the latter.

    Pat from Silver Age Comics

  6. Pat,
    You do make some excellent points.

    1. Nice catch, I did misstate that. You are correct, William Gaines did, indeed inherit the company.

    2. I don't disagree with you on this one, but I still maintain that the EC titles weren't actually intended for the young readers that Wertham meant to protect.

    3. I think you are right on the mark here. I just think that blaming the issue on comics is just like blaming schoolyard fights on the Power Rangers. Kids can learn technique from media, but the violence itself came from somewhere else.

    4. I don't mean to over-simplify Frederick Wertham. And he occasionally made valid points. Of course, even a broken clock is right twice-a-day. I guess what always gets me is how he talks about the blatantly lurid and violent imagery and then he fixates on weird things. Like his insistence that the shadow of someone's collarbone in a comics panel was a subliminal image of female genitalia.

    5. You know, I was going to make this point myself, and I'm glad you bring it up. It is, in fact, the backlash from the Keefauver Hearings and the new rules of the CCA that prompt some of the weirdest, most entertaining writing ever to occur in comics. When you can't show people getting killed and every baddy has to be punished by the conclusion of the story, there's nowhere to go but Ace the Bathound. :)

    Thanks for your input.


  7. Re: #2, I agree. I suspect most of the readers of EC back then were teenagers and young adults who could handle the gore. It's an irony that the Silver Age turned out to be the only era in comics where the market really was solely comprised of what Wertham claimed was the case in the Golden Age: 8 to 13-year-old kids.

    BTW, on your post on the Dell Dracula, I dug out a copy of #3 from my garage and will post a review today and give you credit for inspiring it. Good find; I had forgotten all about that comic.