Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Happy Halloween -- A Horror Comics Grabbag!

Since I've blathered on about horror movies all this month, seems appropo to see through main day with a smattering of horror comics -- best of all, Pre-Code horror comics!

Definition of terms for the uninitiated: Pre-Code horror comics are those titles published before October 1954, when the Comics Code Authority was instituted, effectively purging crime and horror comics from the newsstands (other than Classics Illustrated's few genre titles) for almost a decade.

Before the horror comics hit, words like 'horror' and 'terror' rarely graced a comic cover (two words the Comics Code outlawed as of that fateful Halloween season of '54). I mean, Willie The Teen-Age Terror (1945, Timely) -- a promotional Wisco-Klarer giveaway mini-comic (a freebie in Crackin' Good and Laurel Graham Crackers, reprinting stories from Oscar Comics) -- was as scary as it got, folks. Look out America!

That all changed by 1950. Once Avon published the Eerie #1 one-shot in 1947 and ACG (American Comics Group) really opened the floodgates with the debut of the first-ever ongoing horror comic series Adventures into the Unknown in 1948, the cats, bats and bugaboos were out of the bag.

Sample cover of the premiere -- and longest lasting -- of all ongoing horror anthology comics: Adventures into the Unknown #21, with an Ogden Whitney (of Herbie cult fame) cover.

The EC Pre-Code horror comics have (deservedly) stolen the thunder of the era -- they really were the best of the bumper crop -- but there's an abundance of riches to be excavated. In my old Saga of the Swamp Thing days, I was able to amass a pretty expansive collection of cheapjack Pre-Code horror comics. I love 'em, and as I'm at last unpacking a portion of my comics collection a few of the Pre-Codes are turning up. This prompts me to bring your attention to just a handful of the Pre-Code horrors you might find amusing on this overcast 21st Century Halloween day...

Golden Age artist Bernard Bailey did his share of Pre-Code horrors, including this cheery Grim Reaper cover for Beware Terror Tales #3 (Fawcett, Sept. 1952). The wizened host of this anthology was The Mummy, leering from the bottom left corner of this cover ballyhooing "The Haunting White Shadow" cover story; the other two in this issue, "The Dry Doom" and "Death's Round Trip," were pretty weak tea, too.

The rather dopey Tales of Horror (1952 Toby/Minoan) kicked off its run with one of my favorite lousy Pre-Code covers, which I've always featured in my slide lecture Journeys Into Fear to introduce the censorship portion of the horror comics timeline (and which I now inflict annually on CCS students). Tales of Horror #1 (cover dated June 1952) featured a quintet of stories: the cover story "The Ugliest Man in the World," plus "Demons Below Us," "Willie," "Exile to Death," and "Problems of Space Travel." Better yet was Tales of Horror #5 (March 1953), sporting four tales -- "The Man Who Lost His Shadow," "Sisters of the Witch," and "Game of Death", plus a pretty stunning cover for the story "Hand of Fate." The Toby/Minoan covers often used bold imagery, concepts and strong use of primary colors (red!), making these cherry acquisitions for their cover graphics alone.

Worlds of Fear #5 (Fawcett, July 1952) boasted an iconic mold-filled Sheldon Moldoff cover and some terrific interior art on Bob Powell's "Heartbeat House!" and more by Sheldon Moldoff and Mike Sekowski (who my generation came to know as the primary Silver Age Justice League of America artist). Worlds of Fear #7 (Nov. 1952), below, was also graced with another nifty Moldoff cover and a trio of stories, "Journey to Chaos" (no relation to Big Numbers), "Ghost of the Swamp" -- and believe you me, there were a lot of Pre-Code swamp ghosts! -- and the cover story "Satan's Stradivari" -- Pre-Code sax & violins! "An-a-one, an-a-two..."

But nobody did wilder, more frenzied Pre-Code horror comic covers than Lee Elias, famed for his Beyond Mars comic strip and among my all-time favorite teachers at the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art, Inc. back in '76-'78. Lee didn't like to talk about his work for Harvey before the code -- "I'm not proud of a lot of that stuff," he once told me -- but I love all of it. There's plenty of comparatively tame Elias covers, like this bloodless but delirious Tomb of Terror #11 (Harvey, Sept. 1953) gem for "The Closet!", a story illustrated by another of my favorite horror cartoonist Howard Nostrand. The issue also sported a McCarthy era curio delineated by Bob Powell entitled "Communist." A more typically savage Elias cover blesses Tomb of Terror #16 (July 1954), below, the final Pre-Code horror from Harvey. The numbering continued with the safer post-Code Thrills of Tomorrow sf series, which this issue anticipated with its own sf theme, despite the horrific cover. It was, if you will, a transitional issue: "Tales of Horror in Other Worlds!" set the tenor, accompanied by another tale illustrated by Bob Powell ("The Report") and "Tag, You're It" by Howard Nostrand. Still, the party was over -- the Code rule dropped on the Pre-Code publishers like a ton of bricks.

Note: All cover scans today are from
  •, where you can always find Pre-Code horror comics and Pre-Code reprint collections for you own collection.
  • I shop with 'em when I can afford it -- the prices on the Pre-Codes are far dearer than they were in 1984! -- and recommend their service.

    Happy Halloween, one and all!