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Let Us Compare Terrologies

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JOE McCULLOCH

on the grisly joys of pre-Code horror comics.

Image Courtesy of Fatbottom Books
Four Color Fear: Forgotten Horror Comics of the 1950s
Edited by Greg Sadowski
Fantagraphics Books, January 2011, 2nd ed. 320 pp.

The Horror! The Horror!: Comic Books the Government Didn’t Want You to Read!
Edited by Jim Trombetta
Abrams ComicArts, November 2010. 304 pp.

It’s clear in retrospect that the comic book store I frequented at the age of 12 was a piece of shit. The year was 1994, a time of exciting developments in alternative and self-published comics — eventual lodestones such as Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth and Jeff Smith’s Bone were available in rapidly escalating serialized form, for instance — but this place carried almost nothing but the most gimmick-laden and hyped-up superhero releases. It didn’t matter to me at the time; I was perfectly happy with die-cut, foil-embossed foldout covers beckoning me into the mighty arms of Shadowhawk, whose challenge to crime by way of breaking the backs of individual criminals was just then transitioning to his global search for an HIV/AIDS cure. My younger brother, meanwhile, was only interested in 20-year-old back issues of Ghost Rider, and you can only find so many of those in such a small shop.

Still, even there, a few alternatives existed. As with seemingly every funnybook outlet larger than a mall kiosk at that time, there were cheap facsimile reprints available of the vintage crime, sci-fi and especially horror works put out by Entertaining Comics (EC) in the 1950s. Even as children, we recognized that these reprints were history, too; we knew the sad story of the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency’s comic book hearings, in which EC publisher William M. Gaines famously maintained that a cover image showing a man holding a bloody axe in one hand and a woman’s severed head in another — with the bloodied stump cut off by the cover’s bottom — was, to his mind, in good taste for a horror comic. A “bad taste” cover, he said, might position the head a little higher, so as to actively illustrate the point of severance and any related oozing. The result was the formation of the Comics Code Authority, a regulatory body tasked by comic book publishers with assuring clean content in their works, thereby driving EC out of business and turning back the lashing, teenage-like development of U.S. comic book storytelling and forcing it into a docile extended childhood.

I might not have said it like that at 12, but it was all part of the received historical narrative. Many of the recognized “eras” of comic books had already been demarcated by back-issue collectors — the Golden Age, the Silver Age — with each age transitioning under the constant shadow of superhero domination. The only exception was EC’s time, the “pre-Code” era, so lawless and raw it was apparently Ageless.

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For Halloween, a look at Four Color Fear: Forgotten Horror Comics of the 1950s.

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    For Halloween, a look at Four Color Fear: Forgotten Horror Comics of the 1950s.
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