The continuing story of the history of 'Tales from the Crypt' and EC Comics Horror
Read Part I
Going back in historyBy 1952, over twenty publishing companies, including Gaines’ EC Comics, were putting out nearly seven hundred titles per month. Approximately one hundred million comic books were sold each week. In his book, The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), cultural historian David Hajdu presents reports that the average comic book issue had a pass along rate of six or more readers. In the early 1950s, comics reached more people than magazines, radio, and television.
Comics and pulp
The crime comics of the time and the pulp magazines on which they were partly based saw the rise of a subgenre of narrative that featured sadistic villains and graphic scenes of torture and death. With influences from the Grand Guignol theater of Paris, these stories moved ever closer to the outright salacious tone of the horror genre proper. In 1947, Avon Publications, a subsidiary of the American News Company, published Eerie, the first comic book with original horror content. When Gaines showed on the scene in 1947, the market was primed for a new direction. Titles like Tomb of Terror, Adventures into the Unknown, The Tormented, and Chamber of Chills began to pop up. By the early 1950s, a third of all comics were horror comics.
Max Gaines and the founding of Educational Comics
Before the realization of that new industry direction and before Gaines himself even entered the scene, it was Gaines' father, Maxwell Charles Gaines, referred to as Max, who pioneered the industry and provided the conditions for the spark to happen. Born in New York City in 1894, Max grew into a combative and uncompromising personality. In The Mad World of William Gaines (1972), author Frank Jacobs recounts an incident when a four-year-old Max leaned out of a second-story window and fell out, catching his leg on a picket fence on the way down. The leg became the source of a lifetime of pain and discomfort, often contributing to his aggravated temperament as an adult. Gaines and his father did not get along, the latter charging that the former would never amount to anything. By Gaines’ recollection, Max “expected the worse from his son and was rarely disappointed,” and would often employ the stern reproaches of a leather belt to make his point. Nonetheless, Max proved a pivotal character in the history of the American comic book. Famous Funnies, 1933. The first comic book.
Up until around 1933, comics were printed predominantly in strip format, though a couple of newspaper tabloid inserts had been published by then. Max became the first to compile the strips into what cultural historians recognize as the first true American comic book – a 36-page book called Famous Funnies: A Carnival of Comics (1933). With the subsequent Funnies on Parade, Max invented a whole new market for publishers – the beginning of the comic book industry. In an essay entitled Narrative Illustration: The Story of Comics, Max traced the origins of the comic book to the time of the prehistoric caveman, who would scratch and paint records of mythologies and daily life on cave walls. He contends that these stories satisfied mankind’s innate urge to depict a story and tell it for the record. “[Comic books’] appeal to the consumer,” he writes in the piece, “is also of profound significance and their method of approach has been recognized and adapted to purposes of propaganda and advertising. Many of their artists have ingenuity, imagination, and an unerring control of the pen in communicating ideas.” Max went on to found Educational Comics in 1944 after he acquired the rights to the comic book title, Picture Stories from the Bible. With the objective of using his company to market religious and educational stories to schools and churches, Max set about making his mark on the industry. Picture Stories from American History, Land of the Lost, and Animal Fables became the company’s bread and butter. These wholesome preliminary titles were a far cry from the slew of gleefully distasteful ones that his son Bill would later publish.
On August 20, 1947, Max took a speedboat trip out onto Lake Placid in New York with his friend Sam Irwin and Irwin’s 8-year-old son, William. Tragedy struck when another speedboat collided with theirs. Max was able to hurl Irwin’s son out of the way at the last second before the collision. Unfortunately, Sam and Max were both killed. Gaines was 25-years-old when he inherited his late father’s business. His mother had to request it of him. Thus, his plans of becoming a high school chemistry teacher were put aside for this unexpected (and not altogether welcomed) venture. Gaines' first act as the owner of the company was to reinvent the business model from the ground up. He changed the name of the company from Educational Comics to Entertaining Comics or EC Comics. Probing the history of the new EC Comics, a cultural historian can divide their publication cycles into two distinct trends. The first trend saw the production of mostly western, comedy, romance, and crime titles. Comics like Gunfighter, Saddle Justice, and War Against Crime! became their focus – what became known as the teenage market for comic books.
Al FeldsteinIn 1948, Albert Feldstein, know to his friends and colleagues simply as Al, came onboard as an artist and effectively started the next publication trend, launching the company in a whole new direction and into comic book history. Because the industry was flooded with imitators who sought to cash in on the craze, sales took a dip for many of these companies. Feldstein sought a solution. In an interview with The Comics Journal #177 (May 1995), he recalled this pivotal moment.
“I came to [Gaines] one day and said, ‘Look Bill, why are we following these idiots and, when the trend dies, getting caught? Why don’t we innovate, and why don’t we have people follow us?’ At that time, we were very good friends. We used to go to roller derby together and he used to drive me home because we both lived in Brooklyn. We’d chat on the way home and we got to talking about what we liked when we were kids. Bill was a science fiction and horror fan, and I was a horror movie fan, and I said, ‘Why don’t we try horror?’ I reminded him about the ‘Old Witch’s Tale’ on Lights Out, Arch Oboler’s stuff on radio." As a genre, horror flourished in America in the years after the Great Depression and leading up to WWII. Pulp fiction, which became all the rage in the 1920s and 30s, emphasized exploitative and sensational subject matter. In November 1923, the first issue of Weird Tales was published. After visiting the Grand Guignol theater for inspiration, publisher Henry Steeger revived the Dime Mystery Novel series and added Terror Tales in September 1934 and Horror Stories in January 1935. The lurid stories of the pulp magazines are predecessors to those of the horror comic. The radio shows that Gaines and Feldstein admired, like The Shadow (1930) and The Spider (1933), also proved highly popular. The 1930s also saw the proliferation of the Universal Pictures horror films. Movies like Todd Browning’s Dracula (1931) and James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) were highly influential. The stage was set for these horror comic book titles to take root in the market. In fact, prior to the Gaines and Feldstein’s car ride discussion, the idea of creating a horror comic had already been floating around. According to Hajdu in The Ten-Cent Plague, comic book artist Sheldon Moldoff had already proposed horror to Gaines and created a mock-up of two issues – Tales of the Supernatural and This Magazine is Haunted. The two issues sat in a cabinet the night Gaines and Feldstein hatched their plan. Eventually, some of the stories in the Moldoff comics would get published through EC Comics’ horror titles.
Developing the horrorThey first tested the market for this new format in December of 1949 with the inclusion of two original horror stories embedded within Crime Patrol #15 and its companion publication War Against Crime #10: “Return from the Grave” and “Buried Alive.” One of the key features of the radio thrillers that both Gaines and Feldstein drew inspiration from was the presence of a host to introduce, comment on, and close out the stories. Crime Patrol first introduced readers to the Crypt Keeper; War Against Crime introduced the Vault Keeper. In “Return from the Grave,” two greedy executives convince a down-on-his-luck business owner to commit suicide so that they can take control of his company. When they get a call for a large order of perfume, the men are thrown into a panic because they do not have the perfume formula to manufacture the product. The formula, as it turns out, is written on a piece of paper that was in the pocket of the suit the old man was buried in. The men set to digging up the grave, but rather than find the formula, they discover an empty coffin with a note that reads: “I have discovered how you have stolen money from me for the last three years driving me to suicide. I have risen from my grave... and will not return until I have taken my revenge!" The two executives meet their demise, of course. It is worth noting that many of the repeated story formulas for the EC horror comics (all of which were developed by Feldstein, Gaines, and later, other key figures that would play pivotal roles in the overarching legacy of EC Comics) involved malevolent characters meeting their demise at the hands of the people they wronged. This theme of evil-begets-more-evil, or punishment being inflicted on the sinner, is categorically at odds with the moralistic objections of the Senators who would later push for a permanent halt in the production of such materials. In “Buried Alive” an anxious gravedigger named John is tortured by a nightly recurring dream that he has buried alive the person whose grave he dug earlier that day. The dream involves a case of mistakenly proclaimed catalepsy which causes everyone to believe the person to be dead. In the dream, John can hear the moaning from the graveyard of the person buried alive. He awakens from these dreams in a panic, and to clear his conscience of any possible mistake, he goes to the cemetery in the dead of night to dig up the grave and find out if the person was, in fact, buried alive. He does this on two occasions, and to his relief, the person is undeniably dead. He covers back up the grave but is puzzled the next morning after each occasion to read in the local newspaper that a grave was found that day to be desecrated by an unknown graverobber. In an unexpected revelation, the dreams the gravedigger was having turn out to have been premonitions of his own being buried alive, and he awakens from a cataleptic state to find that he is buried six feet underground in a coffin. As panic sets in and oxygen runs short, John seems on the verge of death, when suddenly he hears digging above him. In a final plot twist, characteristic of the juiciest pulp fiction, the graverobber who digs up the grave and inadvertently saves the protagonist is none other than the protagonist’s best friend. These types of stories proved highly popular. Final, revelatory plot twists and dramatic turns in the direction of the plot became hallmarks of the genre. When Gaines and Feldstein noticed an uptick in sales, they decided to stay the course and keep producing horror stories. By issue #16 of Crime Patrol, there were more horror stories in the publication than crime stories. Gaines suggested changing the title of the comic to something else.
Title changes and the U.S. mail system
In the early 1950s all magazines, including comics, had to be shipped through the U.S. mail system with a Second-Class Entry status. Publishers had to register and pay a fee to obtain the status. To avoid paying that fee, they would simply change the title of an old publication and keep the same shipping status. For this reason, when Crime Patrol became The Crypt of Terror and War Against Crime became The Vault of Horror, the title of the publication changed but the numbering of the issues stayed the same. The Crypt of Terror (later renamed Tales from the Crypt with issue #20 in December 1949) debuted with issue #17 and The Vault of Horror debuted with issue #12. In May 1950, The Haunt of Fear was introduced with the Old Witch hosting the stories. It was common for the Crypt Keeper, the Vault Keeper, and the Old Witch to routinely make appearances in each other’s magazines. Apart from their titles, nothing distinguished one comic book from the other. Each publication featured a morbid, tongue-in-cheek style humor in conjunction with the horror stories, which focused on subjects like murder, the supernatural, monsters, witchcraft, and zombies. A new era had begun. Read Part III Edited by Kyle Weckerly