Monday, December 24, 2012

EXTRA! EC Tries to Survive!

There needs to be several volumes of a good and comprehensive history of EC Comics. It probably produced the finest quality comic stories of any commercial publisher the business ever had. Fronted by William Gaines, he led a small number of fine editors who assembled the best artists and writers who were then floating around the industry. The reputation of the company is today legendary. Indeed, the reputation of the company in its finest days was also legendary...but not in a good way.

For EC was infamous in the eyes of the mundane public. It was singled out for a number of reasons and by a number of sources as one of the worst influences on then-modern American youth. Attacks from all sides eventually succeeded in taking the company to its knees, and it only survived by reducing itself to a single title and by fleeing the comic book format and going to magazine format as Mad Magazine. The move eventually made Gaines the single most wealthy publisher in the US. But the rest of the company faded away and became the legend.

For a brief time after the forces of evil had beaten down the comics industry, EC tried several methods to cooperate with the newly-formed Comics Code Authority and to circumvent the Authority. Gaines and his editors produced a line of more family-friendly comics, while at the same time moving a few titles to magazine size and avoiding the Code entirely. However, despite a few heroic efforts, the new lines failed. The fans who had so adored the gritty, cutting stories EC had provided just did not appreciate the pablum the company was reduced to offering, and those fans abandoned EC.

Today I got one of these later efforts by the publisher to try to spark the same electrical charge they'd generated with titles like TALES FROM THE CRYPT, and HAUNT OF FEAR, and WEIRD SCIENCE-FANTASY, etc. These new ones, though, were pedestrian books with no shock endings and almost no violence and not really much in the way of tension. The titles, while a noble effort, failed.

EXTRA was just such a comic book. It featured stories about investigative reporters digging to find the answers to crooked deals and violent crimes (which are never shown, or referred to in the mildest of terminology). Gone was the gore of the old EC. Vanished was the sarcasm and the tone of fatal irony. EC's bosses tried, but they failed. And their enemies laughed. Having cut off their own noses, they laughed.

My copy of EXTRA #3, cover art by the great Johnny Craig.

8 comments:

Henry R. Kujawa said...

Though I dind't realize it at the time, Johnny Craig's work was immortalized in the Amicus feature film, "TALES FROM THE CRYPT". These days I like to jokingly refer to it as "The Johnny Craig movie".

James Robert Smith said...

Craig had his moments in the various horror comics. His work was so clean and mundane when compared to the art of almost any of the other popular comic creators at EC. And yet...he could hit the mark when the script called for it.

MarkGelbart said...

There's an interesting book about the origin of the comic book code authority. It is The Ten Cent Plague by David Hajdu.

It reminds of the Hollywood blacklist. Hundreds of people lost their jobs.

After all the anti-comic book propaganda and hysteria, a lot of mainstream Americans unfairly viewed comic book artists as akin to child pornographers.

James Robert Smith said...

I'll look for that book. Thanks!

One of the biggest promoters of the Comics Code was John Goldwater of Archie Comics. Part of the impetus to create it and kill off the kinds of comics he personally loathed was the "Starchie" parody that ran in an early issue of Mad. He was, from what I've read in various accounts, furious over the story and obsessed with destroying EC Comics.

Kirk G said...

May I also recommend "Marvel Comics: The Untold Story" by Sean Howe. It's very good.

James Robert Smith said...

That's on my to-buy list. Although I have to say I lost a great deal of interest in owning the book when I read that the author refers to Lee as a "co-creator" of the Marvel Universe. Sorry, but that really did a number on my enthusiasm to get the book in hand.

Kirk G said...

I find Sean Howe to be very balanced in his approach. He presents the facts (obviously drawn from interviews) and when there's a discrepancy between versions of history, he presents both, clearly citing that there are differences in how things are recalled. I think it's the best book on the whole company evolution yet. Heavy emphasis on the more recent personalities in the 60s, 70s, and 80s.

James Robert Smith said...

I've heard that it's quite good, and I will get a copy. It's just not at the very top of my list as it was before I heard he referred to Lee as "co-creator". That's one that gets under my skin in a very big way. A lot of kids today don't even know who Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko were/are, yet they know who Stan Lee is and believe that he created the Marvel Universe when all he was doing was editing the books.

There is even a lot of rabid animosity toward Jack Kirby these days because his family wants what amounts to a fair share of the proceeds from the products of Kirby's fertile imagination. Yes, Kirby made a grave error by not putting his foot down earlier in his career. He should have demanded that Lee and Goodman admit that he created those characters and give him a share of the rights for them. But as I like to point out, in many ways he was a traditional man from a traditional age and he was more concerned with the here and now of supporting his family and so allowed himself to be robbed for the expediency of steady pay. It was a grave error, indeed. But we can say that now, in hindsight.