The History of 'Tales from the Crypt' and EC Comics Horror Part III

The History of 'Tales from the Crypt' and EC Comics Horror Part III

The conclusion of the history of 'Tales of the Crypt' and EC Comics Horror.

Johnny Craig

[caption id="attachment_119251" align="alignleft" width="281"] Johnny Craig.[/caption] As with any successful enterprise, you need a talented team to carry out the vision of the company.  The artists and professionals at EC Comics became the who’s who of the industry – all of whom shared a driving passion for the comic form.  There was Jonathan Monroe Craig, known to his friends and colleagues as Johnny, who joined EC Comics back when it was under the control of Max in 1947.  After Max’s death, Craig went from doing lettering and correcting artwork in the art department to becoming a regular artist for the company.  Starting with the western and crime titles, Craig made his mark on the industry with his artwork for The Vault of Horror, The Haunt of Fear, and Tales from the Crypt. Sporting a clean and uncluttered style, Craig’s artwork took root in the reader’s imagination.  His compositions showed just enough of the macabre to suggest crucial story elements while leaving out elements of explicit violence.  Focusing on anticipation and dread rather than explicitness and gore, Craig’s name quickly became a mainstay within the industry.  A well-versed comic book reader could easily identify a Johnny Craig piece simply by observing the style of the piece.  Famed comic book writer, Wally Wood, once said of Craig that he drew “the cleanest horror stories you ever saw.”  It was Craig’s cover of the woman with the severed head that was the topic of debate at the 1954 Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency. [caption id="attachment_119252" align="alignright" width="300"] Jack Davis.[/caption] During his career with EC Comics, Craig drew the covers of twenty-nine issues and many more stories.  Known for being a slow and deliberate artist with a meticulous style, it would typically take Craig about a month to finish a story, whereas other EC artists finished within a week.  Unlike the other artists at EC Comics, Craig was also a writer.  He routinely scripted stories for The Vault of Horror as well as Crime SuspenStories.  In early 1954, Craig became the editor of The Vault of Horror and went on to create the character of Drusilla, a pin-up style goth companion for the Vault Keeper.

Jack Davis

Another key figure in the story of the EC Comics’ horror line was John Burton Davis, Jr., known by Jack, who had been drawing comics since the age of 12, when his cartoon artwork was published in Tip Top Comics No. 9 (December 1936).  At age 25, Davis illustrated a training manual for the Coca-Cola company, which gave him the means to buy a car and head to New York.  There, he attended the Art Students League of New York.  To his consternation, all the comic book publishers rejected his work except for one.  Gaines saw potential in Davis’ work and immediately gave him assignments.  Davis recounted this moment in a 2011 interview with The Wall Street Journal: “Every time you went in to see Bill Gaines, he would write you a check when you brought in a story. You didn't have to put in a bill or anything. I was very, very hungry and I was thinking about getting married. So I kept the road pretty hot between home and Canal Street. I would go in for that almighty check, go home and do the work, bring it in and get another check and pick up another story.” If it was the need for a paycheck that brought Davis into the front doors of 225 Lafayette Street, it was his talent that kept him there.  Davis’ distinct style, which was Expressionistic in the way he elongated his figures and exaggerated their proportions, became a mainstay of the EC Comics’ horror line.  He is noted for his work on Tales from the Crypt where he updated the appearance of the Crypt Keeper by adding hairy warts on his face and a salivating mouth and exaggerating the size of his hands and feet.  He illustrated the cover for every issue of Tales from the Crypt from #29 to #46. Where Craig was slow and deliberate in his art style, Davis was fast – churning out as many as three pages per day.  The prospect of reverting to starving artist mode provided its own set of motivations.  “I’d have to be fast,” recalled Davis, “because when you turned them in, that’s when you’d get your money.  The faster you drew, the faster the money came in.”  Other artists for the comics included Jack Kamen, Graham Ingels, George Roussos, Joe Orlando, Al Williamson, Fred Peters, George Evans, Bill Elder, Reed Crandall, and Bernie Krigstein.

Marie Severin

[caption id="attachment_119253" align="alignright" width="300"] Marie Severin.[/caption] Another key figure was a woman named Marie Severin.  Severin acted as the colorist for the comics.  She made a point to study the juxtaposition of colors to find which ones (there was a range of 48 colors from which she had to choose) worked best together.  Along with choosing and proofreading the colors, Severin would use coloring to subtly shield some of the more gruesome and explicit content in the stories.  Feldstein referred to her as the “conscience of EC.” “I would never assume an editorial position,” she said. “What I would do very often is, if somebody was being dismembered, I would rather color it in yellow because it's garish, and also [so] you could see what was going on. Or red, for the blood element, but not to subdue the artwork. ... I mean, the main reason these people were buying these books was to see somebody's head cut off, y'know? ... And [the editors] trusted me with a lot a stuff. They knew that I wouldn't subdue artwork; I would just kind of shield it a little bit so if a parent picked up the book in the drug store, they wouldn't see that somebody's stomach was all red.” Public frenzy over comic books.

The end of an era

[caption id="attachment_119254" align="alignright" width="207"] Public frenzy over comic books.[/caption] By 1954, the jig was up.  In April of that year, psychiatrist Fredric Wertham published his book, Seduction of the Innocent: The Influence of Comic Books on Today’s Youth.  The book was a response to growing unease about the influence of the comic book industry on the minds of the youth of America.  In the book, Wertham cited pictorial representations of violence and sexuality in comic books stories as being responsible for the corruption of children, contributing specifically to juvenile delinquency and illiteracy.  Horror comics like the EC Comics titles were at the forefront of the controversy. In addition to asserting that Batman and Robin were actually gay partners and that Wonder Woman had a bondage subtext as well as a lesbian slant, Wertham rejected the horror comics outright. Today, cultural critics could hardly be so sweeping in their generalizations nor so quick to their conclusions about the effects of comic books on young readers; you are more likely to encounter freedom of speech defenses and warnings against the censorship of such material rather than outright condemnation.  Times have changed.  In 1954, this debate was taken quite seriously by parents across the United States who were legitimately concerned for children’s welfare.

The Comics Code Authority

Mirroring the intent behind Hollywood’s 1930s Production Code and opting for self-regulation rather than government interference, the comic book industry created the Comics Code Authority.  New York Magistrate Charles F. Murphy, an acknowledged expert about juvenile delinquency, headed the organization.  As part of the restrictions set in place and enforced by the Comics Code, stories had to end with good triumphing over evil; depictions of “excessive violence” were prohibited as were “lurid, unsavory, gruesome illustrations”; depictions of sex or sexual subject matter, including seduction and sadism, were strictly prohibited; and the words “horror” or “terror” were forbidden in comic book titles. Production of Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror, and The Haunt of Fear was halted nearly overnight.  In September 1954, Gaines and his team published their final issues of each of the three horror comics.  Prior to deciding to cease production, Gaines had been toying with the idea of reviving The Crypt of Terror title for a fourth horror comic book under the company's belt.  Because an issue of The Crypt of Terror had already been produced by the time of the hearing, it was published as the final issue of the Tales from the Crypt series.  That was in September of 1955.

The legacy of horror

[caption id="attachment_119255" align="alignleft" width="300"] The Crypt Keeper, HBO TV series.[/caption] Tales from the Crypt lives on.  From 1964 to 1966, Ballantine Books reprinted selected stories from the comic book in a series of paperback EC anthologies.  But, it was the 1972 British movie adaptation by director Freddie Francis that kept alive the legacy of the title.  In 1989, HBO adapted the stories in the various EC Comics titles for their iconic TV series, Tales from the Crypt.  The Tales from the Crypt title, over all the other horror titles of the time period, has since taken on a special significance in comic book history as being a perfect example of the short-lived genre that persisted in the early 1950s.  In that specific sense, Tales from the Crypt is a sort of cultural time capsule, a piece of nostalgia that conjures up for us more innocent times - times when you and I were still young and impressionable and could be made to feel afraid of things that go bump in the night.  Our current fears of mortgages and credit scores don't have quite the same flavor to them.  At that age, we delighted in the knowledge that we were consuming images and words that were't "wholesome" or "educational" (or any of the other things that our parents and teachers told us we should read), but what did we care?  Ultimately, that is the cultural significance of Tales from the Crypt today.  It turns us into children again.