A complete history of EC Comics, the horror comic, and one of the most iconic titles in comic book history: Tales from the Crypt.
[caption id="attachment_119242" align="alignright" width="409"] Dexedrine diet pills.[/caption]
William “Bill” Gaines, the bespectacled publisher of EC Comics, fidgeted in his chair as he prepared to give his opening statement to the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency. The year was 1954 and diet pills were all the rage. Originally prescribed to World War II soldiers to keep them alert during combat, amphetamines quickly became the drug of choice for obsessive dieters, like Gaines, who sought a pharmacological solution to curb their appetite.
By the late 1960s, drugs like Aminorex and Dexedrine (which is the pill Gaines took that day) had been taken off the market as a health hazard, but for the moment, the pill was doing the trick. A boost of energy was one of the touted benefits of Dexedrine – just enough for a housewife to get through her daily chores or, say, a successful comic book publisher to get through the hardline accusations of a panel of senators determined to indict industry leaders for pedaling corrupting materials. Now, in Room 110 of the United States Courthouse on Foley Square, with all eyes and television cameras focused on him, Gaines delivered his statement.
A Senate hearing and the corruption of youth
“Entertaining reading has never harmed anyone,” he began. “Those who want to prohibit comic magazines seem to see dirty, sneaky, perverted monsters who use the comics as a blueprint for action. Do we think our children are so evil, so simple-minded, that it takes a story of murder to set them to murder, a story of robbery to set them to robbery?”
Bill Gaines speaking before the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency.
[caption id="attachment_119241" align="alignleft" width="300"] Bill Gaines at the hearing of the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency.[/caption]
Though his words have a ring of truth about them that is instantly recognizable today, they could hardly be considered tactful at that moment. The men of the Subcommittee were not interested in a defense of the comic book industry, especially the comics that Gaines' company produced. Gaines would later blame the Dexedrine for his foggy mindset and his testimony, which some saw as the pivotal moment that brought about the end of the comic book industry as they knew it.
The Senate committee chairman, Robert Hendrickson, Republican of New Jersey, sat on the panel to his right. But, it was Estes Kefauver who stole the show. Having run for President in the Democratic primaries in 1952, Kefauver brought an air of authority to the hearings. With his voice gaining momentum and volume as he proceeded, Gaines delivered the final proclamation that set his testimony at complete odds with the senators’ agenda and the rigid mores of the popular culture.
“Nobody has ever been ruined by a comic.”
Kefauver and the rest of the Subcommittee would have begged to differ. By that point, renowned German-American psychiatrist, Dr. Fredric Wertham, had already delivered his first public attack on the comic book industry in an interview with Collier’s Magazine called “Horror in the Nursery” (by Judith Crist; March 27, 1948). “The time has come,” declared to Wertham in the article, “to legislate these books off the newsstands and out of the candy stores."
Kefauver directed Gaines’ attention to Exhibit A: the cover of Crime SuspenStories #22. The cover featured a full-color illustration of a man holding up a woman’s severed head with one hand, her eyes rolled back and blood dripping out her parted lips. His other hand gripped a blood-splattered ax. “Jolting Tales of Tension in the EC Tradition,” read the caption. That cover has since been touted as the most notorious comic book cover ever produced - the one that the senators singled out as exemplative of the pressing moral issue facing America.
[caption id="attachment_119243" align="alignright" width="206"] Controversial Johnny Craig cover.[/caption]
The cover and the issue it belonged to were part of a movement that dated back to just after World War II when returning GIs sought more titillating material than the popular detective and crime comics of the time. In these pulp-inspired stories, the murders got more gruesome and the sex got steamier. Titles like Guilty and Famous Crimes paved the way for the arrival of a new genre of comics – one that provided an impetus for these Senate hearings and an investigation into the corruption of the moral fabric of America: the horror comic.
“Do you think that is in good taste?” Kefauver demanded, pointing at the cover.
“Yes sir, I do, for the cover of a horror comic,” Gaines replied.
"You have blood coming out of her mouth,” Kefauver charged back.
Did Gaines, who was not an unintelligent man, realize the absurdity of having to defend comic books as a standard for “good taste”? Did he realize at that moment at the witness table that he was fighting an impossible battle, one in which he had no other choice but to deny the very basis of his business’ success? For the past seven years, he and his team of maverick artists, writers, and editors had prided themselves on their ability to cater to a readership completely uninterested in “good taste.”
In other words, the images and stories in the comics catered to people's expectations and desires. The work was marketable. That is what Gaines meant by his assertion that the cover art was in "good taste," though that is certainly not how Kefauver and the rest of the Subcommittee saw things. With the effects of the Dexedrine starting to wear off, Gaines continued his drug-addled testimony. By all accounts of the time, his statements were a PR disaster for his company, the industry, and comic books in general. Did he recognize at that moment that this was the beginning of the end?
Read Part II
Edited by Kyle Weckerly