Of the Golden Age comics houses, EC was the greatest
YOU NEED only glance at a list of the top-grossing films worldwide to see the enduring influence of the “Golden Age of Comic Books” on popular culture. In the more than 60 years since that period ended, its foremost surviving publications, Marvel and DC, have grown into entertainment empires, their pages reinvented as cinematic “universes”.
There is a third name missing from this roster. The pomp of EC Comics was brief—lasting less than a decade—and its legacy, while immense and profound, is also diffuse and, crucially, unbranded. Marvel and DC have logos, lawyers and corporate behemoth owners. EC Comics belongs to a collective memory. Its style and ideas live on in a realm beyond copyright, free for all to plunder.
A new, lavishly illustrated volume (pictured)—written by EC aficionado-cum-archivist Grant Geissman and published by Taschen, an art-book specialist—seeks to make that memory into something more solid. “The History Of EC Comics” divides its account into three distinct eras that span the lives of two men: founder Maxwell Gaines, and his son, William.
Max and Bill, as they were known, were contrasting types. Max, pithily summarised as a “hard-nosed, pain-wracked, loud, aggressive man”, was a dynamic opportunist. Born into a family of Jewish immigrants, he was driven to drag himself up by the bootstraps. Like many American Jews making their way in the world—without whom there would be no comic-book industry, nor a Hollywood to make films out of its characters—he had felt it necessary to anglicise his name (his parents went by Ginsberg). Bill, by contrast, was unassuming, shy and academic.
What linked them, other than blood, is that each initially had no interest in comics as a form, yet grew to cherish it, then transfigure it. Max pioneered comic books purely as a business proposition, binding newspaper “funnies” in bulk for resale in what his longtime editor, Sheldon Mayer, described as “[a] schlock operation. We bought the material for practically nothing and slapped the books together. Max wasn’t concerned with the literary or entertainment part of it. I had to argue with him to run story strips in chronological order.”
Max would go on to co-found, then part ways with, All-American Comics, the forerunner to DC. He was instrumental in the era-defining arrival of Superman, and it was thanks to him that Wonder Woman, conceived as an early icon of women’s liberation, became the first major female superhero. By the time he died in 1947 in a boating crash, aged just 52, Max was dedicated not only to the success but the integrity of the venture he had established three years earlier, under his sole ownership, as Educational Comics.
Bill reluctantly took over the family business aged 25. Following wartime military service he had planned to become a chemistry teacher, yet he found his feet with remarkable speed. By 1950 his father’s Educational Comics, with their well-rendered Bible stories and wholesome adventure heroes, had been replaced with his own “New Trend” of Entertaining Comics. These more than lived up to their billing: they were a vivid and thrilling panoply of horror, science fiction and war titles that would help define the visual and storytelling language of American pop culture.
Bill was the right man at the right moment. Although closely involved in the construction of storylines, his genius did not lie on the creative side. He was one of those people with a supreme gift for guiding other talents. He assembled a stable of artists and writers (his core team of Al Feldstein, Harvey Kurtzman and Johnny Craig worked as both; the separation of these disciplines, and the hierarchy of the writer as auteur and artist as hired hand, came later). Each was assigned to the genre they best suited.
EC’s “Tales From The Crypt” developed a deliciously gruesome and lurid horror idiom that would inspire Stephen King, the film-maker George Romero and the “body horror” genre. “Weird Science” and “Weird Fantasy” were the gold standard of comic-book sci-fi; their eye-popping imagery and ingenious plots, set on the furthest shores of the human imagination, are pastiched and imitated to this day. As far as was commercially feasible, Bill indulged the neurotic perfectionist brilliance of Kurtzman as a creator of war comics (“Two-Fisted Tales”, “Frontline Combat”) that never glorified or glamorised battle, but combined high excitement with deep moral contemplation.
In 1956, assailed by a nationwide moral panic, EC became the victim of a cultural hit job in the guise of the Comics Code Authority. The final straw came when Judge Charles Murphy, the CCA administrator, demanded Bill change the anti-racist ending of “Judgement Day”, an aptly titled sci-fi story. Gaines in effect shut up shop and transferred the company’s energies entirely to its new humour title, Mad. In the third part of this saga, Mad would triumph, its impact on American comedy as powerful as EC’s was on comics and movies. That story deserves its own, separate telling.
No comics publisher before or since would deliver such quality in so copious a quantity. As well as being the acknowledged precursor of the underground comics scene that emerged in the late 1960s, EC proved a vital conduit between a previous age of pulp serials and a succeeding era of mainstream pop culture. EC’s dazzling graphic invention, dark humour and twist endings would exert an enormous influence on a generation of writers, artists and film-makers—notably Steven Spielberg and George Lucas—that has, in turn, been carried ever further.
The History of EC Comics. By Grant Geissman. Taschen; 592 pages; £150
Author: | Post link: https://www.economist.com/prospero/2020/09/23/of-the-golden-age-comics-houses-ec-was-the-greatest
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