Why Not Johnny Craig?

My article about the artist-editor of EC Comics “Vault of Horror” kicks off “But Is It Comic Aht?” No.2, an anthology of comix, interviews and noodlings attracted like metal filings to a magnet around the belief of Austin English, its editor/publisher, that “comics we all love were made for no real reason, drawn with passion independent of financial or cultural demand.

English’s own writing unfailingly teaches me something. His comix fascinatingly seem to break down the barrier between traditional all-in-color-for-a-dime books and more customarily considered gallery-worth objects. I look forward to what he’s assembled here.

But I see no price or place-for-purchase listed. (Perhaps a nod to English’s no-financial-demand credo.) However, you might check his company’s web site: dominobooks.org and see what you can learn.

The Horror! The Horror! Ghastly Ingels and the Art of Real Yuch

My latest is up at http://www.tcj.com/the-horror-the-horror-graham-ingels-and-the-art-of-real-yuch/

It begins:

As this volume’s only contributor to have actually read – and suffered the loss of EC comics – as a kid, I feel the weight of a generation – well, a thin, weird slice of a generation – on my shoulders. Like the one alone, you know, escaped to tell you. Like the last surviving veteran of a momentous battle, though this battle’s heart-wrenching outcome, the gutting of EC following the imposition of the Comic Code of 1954, was worth only two square inches in the local press. (I retain the Philadelphia Bulletin’s actual story, preserved behind Scotch tape on blotting paper, as a personally tailored flagellant if you doubt me.)

This Writing Life (con.)

Constant readers with unimpaired memories will recall my invitation a year and a half or so ago to contribute an essay to a book/catalog which would accompany a (at least) two-museum tour of original EC Comic art. My topic was to be EC’s horror comics, with concentration on the genre’s master, Graham “Ghastly” Ingles. The topic appealed; the promised check (by my standards) good; and I jumped on the offer.

I got into it. I reviewed all of EC’s horror books. I checked numerous secondary sources for information, quotes, and color. I found people to interview, who no one in the comic world and ever interviewed. And — kick of all kicks — I discovered what had happened to Ingles, who, comic world legend had it, had seemingly disappeared, reclusive, bitter, after the imposition of the Code in 1954 had wiped horror from the four-color universe.

The first bad news I received from the curator of the exhibit was that he couldn’t pay me right away, after all. The second bad news was, not only had the tour not expanded, one of the museums on board had cancelled. The third was… Well, there was no more news.

Last week I sent him an e-mail. He excitedly reported that the exhibition would open in two weeks. If I cared to come to Oregon — on my own dime — he would comp me to the event. (I declined.) And, oh yeah, there would be no book/catalogue. “Maybe… in a year or two” he would release an anthology. No mention was made of my money (and I was too polite to press him).

I said I did not care to wait. The Comics Journal will be posting my piece on line any day now.

Stay tuned.

Sex and the Single 11-Year-Old

For the December 1997 issue of The Comics Journal, the editors asked contributors to write about their favorite comic book story. While we are on the subject of EC comics — and my development as a pre-adolescent — my selection fits nicely here. This is an edited and truncated version, with the complete one available in my book Outlaws, Rebels, Freethinkers & Pirates.

Sex and the Single 11-Year-Old

In my much rejected and thoroughly reviled black comedy, The Schiz, one of my major characters, Stanley Doone, a reclusive, sexually repressed cartoonist engrossed in the creation of a 2500-page graphic quadrumvirate, Lunacies, Failures, Disaster, Tragedy, Bum Luck & Other Commonplace Happenings of the 20th Century, reflects upon his favorite comic book story as a child. fifty healthy, intelligent, handsome men and fifty healthy, intelligent, beautiful women are selected by the leaders of a doomed earth to be frozen into a state of suspended animation for a lengthy rocket ship flight to a distant planet, where they are to awake, still youthful, vibrant, potent, and create a superior world. One man arranges to wake early…. He wakes one woman at a time. When he gets bored, he kills her and defrosts another…. (Stanley had) never forgotten the look on the rocketeer’s face as he lingered over the suspended animation chambers, pondering his next choice — blonde? brunette? redhead? — as if at a Baskin-Robbins counter — rum raisin? butter crunch? chopped chocolate?

That story, “50 Girls 50,” drawn by Al Williamson and written by Al Feldstein, appeared in Weird Science #20 (July/Aug. 1953.) Its full plot Stanley (and I) knew was more complex — and more twisted. Sid, the rocketeer charged with setting the timers on the Deep Freeze (D-F) units, is seduced by Wendy into arranging to wake with her before the others so they can enslave them and rule their new world. But he decides to rise earlier and party all the way across the void. His “appetizer” is Laura, and only after he has tired of (“It’s been almost a YEAR… and I want SOMEONE ELSE…”) and fatally paralyze-blasted her does he wake Wendy. She immediately blasts (“So long, sucker!”) him, for her true plan has been to rule with “THE GUY I REALLY LOVE.” Before losing consciousness, Sid reveals the last laugh is his. “(When Wendy) THAWS her ‘REAL LOVE’… she’s going to watch him turn PUTRESCENT. You see, the FIRST phase of my scheme was to KILL EVERY MAN ON THE SHIP.”
Upon mature re-reading, “50 Girls 50” turns out not to be so dire as I imagined. Earth is not “doomed”; this is a simple mission of planetary exploration (or imperialistic expansion); mankind will endure. Moreover, I had forgotten an entire moral theme. The mission’s chief planner, a white-bearded, John-Huston–as-God, patriarchal sort, had counseled the crew pre-blast-off that the selection process had factored in a “perfect mate” for each, whose finding would be “inevitable.” Sid dismisses this idea as “hokum,” but his final final thought is “Just ONE thing bothers me, LAURA! Why did I pick HER FIRST… OVER WENDY? Hmmmmmm.”
However, this suggestion of Sid’s greater loss — and monogomy’s greater rewards — is undercut by “50 Girls 50″‘s inner workings. He did find Laura. And after a year he blasted her. No, Stanley had grasped the story’s essence. Any doubt of that is blown away by Wally Wood’s cover. A man stands inside a spaceship whose walls are lined with row-upon-row of long-haired, full-lipped, hour-glass-figured women, dressed for their voyage in tight, low-cut, crotch-high dresses and lying in clear plastic tubes like cigars on display. “Alone in space with FIFTY FROZEN DOLLS just WAITING TO BE THAWED!” he is saying. “Now, let’s see! EENIE… MEENIE… MINEY…”
But in my novel Stanley is in his 30s. It is unlikely this could have been his favorite comic book story AS A CHILD. It is more likely that, in one of those endearing, imaginative, breath-taking interweavings of truth and fiction that so stimulate and reward scholars and students of my work (if there were any), it was ONE OF MINE.
Which raises some interesting questions.

Due to a parental embargo on what reading matter was allowed to cross our portals, it is probable that I first read “50 Girls 50” in the residence of a more open-bordered friend. However, since an actual, much- battered Weird Science #20 exists among my personal papers, it is reasonable to assume I had acquired my own copy. And since this comic is no more dog-eared than any other EC I have retained (and is in far better shape than many Mads) and “50 Girls 50” no more abused than any other story in the issue, its attraction for me and its power to spring from my buried past and flourish in my fiction of 40 years hence seems worthy of exploration.
I have previously argued without refutation — in fact, darn well without any comment whatsoever — that what accounted for EC’s appeal was not the quality of its prose (exemplary) or art work (unsurpassed) but its masterful orchestration of Sex-and-Violence. Certainly, that is what comes trumpeting (and bassooning) out of “50 Girls 50” today. But what I want to know is, whether I read it in Fletcher Sparrow’s bedroom in 1953, when I was 11, or alone, when I was 12, What-the-hell-did-I-make-of-it? What hooks did it plant that caused its thaw for re-examination from the D-F units of my brain?
To put things in brutal perspective, I did not read Facts of Life and Love for Teenagers until 1955, and, even then, more murky areas than I like to recall remained. This state held true among my friends, except for Max Garden, whose parents, progressive types who kept Das Kapital on full display in their living room throughout the McCarthy era, told him about sex when he was four. “The only problem was,” he says, “Is I couldn’t figure out why in the world anyone would do it.” When dirty jokes came along several years later, he got the idea sex was fun. “It wasn’t that I liked sex any better, but I liked jokes, and suddenly there were a lot more of them around. Then, when I was 12, I got a boner, and it all came together.”
In 1953 and 1954 my friends and I may have been trying to whip together an understanding of sex from Over Sexteen and “Pardon My Blooper” and “cracker” postcards of outhouses and farmers’ daughters and the occasional stray jack or trey from a Wolf Deck that reached our sweaty hands, but I don’t recall it making much of a ripple in our daily lives. For us, it was still boys on one side of the cafeteria or gym or square-dance class and girls on the other, coming together only when it was absolutely necessary to do-si-do. The box-step and Spin-the-Bottle and being riveted by the rape scene in Blackboard Jungle were a year or more away, and it would be a full two before I actually knew a contemporary who claimed to have done what-I-didn’t-even-know-it-was-that-you-did-yet. The July/Aug. 1953-me, in Sid’s place, would have defrosted one of the guys so he would have had company for Wiffle-Ball.


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.”

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.