The most interesting comment Miss Griffiths made on my report cards (See: blog of, I think, August 25) was “Some guidance is needed by home and school towards better reading matter… (to wit) more uplifting and challenging literature.”
I had always been a reader. (In family lore, I had “taught” myself, developing the ability to recognize words and, hence, “read” before I entered kindergarten.) My magazine subscriptions had run from Jack and Jill through the newly launched Sports Illustrated. I’d progressed from Frank Merriwell, through Penrod, to Jeeves. When our class joined a club enabling us to buy paperbacks through the mail, my favorite acquisition was Frederick Lewis Allen’s Only Yesterday. When we were allowed admittance to the Upper School library, I checked out Guadalcanal Diary.
I read well above grade level. So I had the “challenging” part covered. But as for “uplifting,” Miss Griffiths may have had a point. Especially if she had comic books in mind.
The following is a portion of a piece that appeared in March 1988 in The Comics Journal. It has been reprinted in its entirety in my book “Outlaws, Rebels, Freethinkers & Pirates.”
REFLECTIONS OF A FAN-ADDICT PAST
The first EC comic I ever owned was MAD #3. On a motor trip with my parents in 1952, I plucked it from a revolving metal rack in Bowling Green or St. Augustine or Cody, Wyoming. I was 10 years old: tall, skinny, wore glasses, was uncoordinated, shy. For the rest of the trip I sat in the back seat of our ‘50 Hudson and, between bouts of hysterics, read “Dragged Net” and “Lone Stranger” aloud to my parents, who smiled.
Either Fletcher Sparrow or Davey Peters placed MAD #3 for me in the context of the world of ECs. I met them both within the next year. Fletcher was the one friend I made when my parents thought it would benefit me socially to become a Boy Scout. I went to a few meetings of the local troop, the Jaguars, whose mascot was a stuffed red fox because, I suppose, there were few jaguars in the vicinity of West Philadelphia for a troop member’s uncle to pop. Most of the Jaguars were orthodox Boy Scouts, enamored of helping old ladies cross streets and rubbing together sticks. Such activities lit few sparks for me; but one night, walking home, discussing literary matters with him, Leif Israel, and Bernard Weinstein, I mentioned “Dragged Net” and Fletcher riposted with “Superduperman.”
I discovered Davey in his natural habitat, scouring the back rows of the comic book stand in the drugstore at 48th and Spruce. I had gone to the drug store with Max Garden to play pinball machines. I had met Max when we had been allies in the pretzel fight at Herbie Bender’s birthday party, and he had met Davey in the lobby of the Academy of Music, where both had been strong-armed by their mothers into attendance at a Philadelphia Orchestra Youth Concert. At the time Fletcher and Davey entered my life, I was still unformed, a dabbler, an unprincipled generalist, equally content to drop a dime on Little Lulu, Tarzan, or Uncle Scrooge. But Fletcher and Davey burned with the single-mindeds’ zeal. They possessed the truth – a truth that scorned all cute, sassy talkinganimals and ridiculed all superheroes, noble and pure. This truth held that ECs were the only comics of value and brooked no derivation from its creed. Once Fletcher and Davey had admitted me into their bedrooms – and showed me the contents of the cartons on their closets’ floors – I, too, quivered, enraptured by the source of their vision’s heat.
The ages 10, 11, 12, I see now, are significant developmentally. The child, while still totally dependent on the parent, is, for the first time, gaining freedom from it. The parent can urge the child to pursue rewarding activities and associate with worthwhile company: Boy Scouts; Youth Concerts; Herbie Bender, who was a principal’s son. But the child can ride its bike out of the parents’ view. It can take the 42-trolley downtown. It can spend hours behind its friends’ bedroom doors. For the first time, the child can separate sufficiently from the family to carve its identity with its own hands.
Fletcher Sparrow and Davey Peters were not the sort of company parents would want at the table when such carving was going on. Fletcher was a thin, pale, only child, a year older than me, who spent hours trying to comb his hair like Tony Curtis. He lived in a tiny apartment with his mother, a dental hygienist, and her occasional boyfriend. He swore and smoked and showed his mother’s falsies to his friends. Davey was short, prematurely cynical, and prankishly inclined. He had already established a C.V. that would have made most child analysts drool: chasing Mrs. Kephart with her homeroom flag; ambushing a patrol car on Sansome Street with Roman candles; dousing toy cars with lighter fluid, torching them atop a steep backyard obstacle course, and taking home movies while they dropped and burned.
And, of course, EC comics were on few adults’ list of recommended reading. At the time, EC published 10 titles: Tales From the Crypt, Vault of Horror, Haunt of Fear, Crime SuspenStories. Shock SuspenStories, Frontline Combat, Two-Fisted Tales, and MAD. They were, quite simply, the finest comics of their age. EC’s stable of writers and artists – Harvey Kurtzman, Bill Elder, Jack Davis, Wally Wood, Al Feldstein, Johnny Craig, Joe Orlando, Jack Kamen, Bernie Krigstein, George Evans, Reed Crandall, Al Williamson, Graham “Ghastly” Ingels, John Severin – was unequaled; and its publisher, William M. Gaines, gave their talents full rein. Under his aegis EC scaled the heights of genre art, using a popular form to – through the mastery of style and technique, the expansion of boundary and content, the infusion of magic and surprise – expose its audience to the new and different and make it rethink the world. EC was also sound politically. Its stories took courageous and commendable positions for the 1950s – opposing racial and religious discrimination, battling censorship, and scorning McCarthyism – which would not have dented the consciousness of Superman or The Lone Ranger, let alone Donald Duck. Finally, through lively letters pages, various promotional activities, and a generally self-mocking, conspiratorial editorial tone, EC fostered a community of spirit between company and reader that made us all feel intimately involved with its good work.
But what truly made EC great was the horror and the sex. The man who was chained in the old hag’s attic. The husband who incinerated his wife with flood lights and the one who froze his. The wife who put her husband’s hacked-up remains in Mason jars and the one who used the shop display windows for hers. The man who was eaten by piranha in his bubble bath and the one who slid down the pole honed razor-sharp and the one who fed himself to dogs. The woman who was steamed by the smoke ring and the one rotted by perfume and the one whose face was torn from her cranial bones. The space colonist who had 50 beautiful women in suspended animation and unthawed them one at a time like Sara Lees. Thirty years later, the images still sear the brain.
Horror and sex. At 10, 11, 12, the child remains weak and vulnerable. It is aware of the possibilities of destruction and its inability to protect itself against them. EC, arguably, assisted adjustment here. Several sterling issues a month, four heart-poundingly plotted, excruciatingly well-drawn, stories an issue, by ax and acid, fang and talon, club and disintegrator ray, EC allowed us to confront destruction in every imaginable form. We could read it and discuss it. We could contemplate it and brood about it and replay it in our dreams. We might shiver. We might shudder. But we overcame destruction. Several issues a month, we woke or walked from it, unbruised and not visibly scarred.
And sex. The child is also about to turn adolescent. It will be consciously pursuing its libidinal drives. EC, whose basic male-female relationship was: Boy meets Girl; Boy kills Girl; Girl – “rotting, pulsating, oozing slime” – returns from the grave for Boy, was less therapeutically valuable here. Of course, for a child in the early ‘50s there was little healthy sex depicted anywhere. Superman and Lois did not kiss. Tubby and Lulu did not play doctor. Tarzan and Jane never behaved like they had a clue from where they got Boy. Even in adult American popular culture, sexuality was repressed or violent far more often than it was fun. Ricky and Lucy had separate beds. Allison McKenzie was raped. The older guys on the corner talked only about girls they “got” or “scored” or “banged.” At least EC took the sadomasochistic to extremes; and extremity in art, I believe, can be valuable. The extreme can pry apart an audience’s defenses and force it to confront what exists within itself but has been concealed. Such confrontations can lead to self-education and growth; in some circles, they are prized.