The firm, first known as Educational Comics, was founded by Max Gaines, former editor of the comic-book company All-American Publications. When that company merged with DC Comics in 1944, Gaines retained rights to the comic book, Picture Stories from the Bible, and began his new company with a dubious plan to market comics about science, history and the Bible to schools and churches. A decade earlier, Max Gaines had been one of the pioneers of the comic book form, with Eastern Color Printing's proto-comic book Funnies on Parade, and with Dell Publishing's Famous Funnies: A Carnival of Comics considered by many historians to be the first true American comic book.
When Max Gaines died in 1947 in a boating accident, his son William inherited the comics company. After four years (1942-46) in the Army Air Corps, Gaines had returned home to finish school at New York University, planning to work as a chemistry teacher. He never taught but instead took over the family business. In 1949 and 1950, Will Gaines began to introduce series focusing on horror, suspense, science fiction, military fiction and crime fiction. His editors, Al Feldstein and Harvey Kurtzman, gave assignments to such prominent and highly accomplished freelance artists as Johnny Craig, Reed Crandall, Jack Davis, Will Elder, George Evans, Frank Frazetta, Graham Ingels, Jack Kamen, Bernard Kriegstein, Joe Orlando, John Severin, Al Williamson, Basil Wolverton, and Wally Wood. Kurtzman and Feldstein themselves also drew stories, which generally were written by them and Craig, with assistance from Gaines. Other writers including Carl Wessler, Jack Oleck and Otto Binder were later brought on board.
EC had success with its fresh approach and pioneered in forming relationships with its readers through its letters to the editor and its fan organization, the National EC Fan-Addict Club. While the stories were sensational, the art was highly regarded.
EC Comics promoted its stable of illustrators, allowing each to sign his art and encouraging them to develop idiosyncratic styles; the company additionally published one-page biographies of them in the comic books. This was in contrast to the industry's common practice, in which credits were often missing, although some artists at other companies, such as the Jack Kirby- Joe Simon team, Jack Cole and Bob Kane had been prominently promoted elsewhere at the time.
EC published distinct lines of titles under its Entertaining Comics umbrella. Most notorious were its horror books, Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror and The Haunt of Fear.
These titles reveled in a gruesome joie de vivre, with grimly ironic fates meted out to many of the stories' protagonists. The company's war comics Frontline Combat and Two-Fisted Tales often featured weary-eyed, unheroic stories out of step with the jingoistic times. Shock SuspenStories tackled weighty issues such as racism, sex, drug use and the American way of life. EC always claimed to be "proudest of our science fiction titles", with Weird Science and Weird Fantasy publishing stories unlike the space opera found in such titles as Fiction House's Planet Comics. Crime SuspenStories had many parallels with film noir. As noted by Max Allan Collins in his story annotations for Russ Cochran's 1983 hardcover reprint of Crime SuspenStories, Johnny Craig had developed a "film noir-ish bag of effects" in his visuals, while characters and themes found in the crime stories often showed the strong influence of writers associated with film noir, notably James M. Cain.
Superior illustrations of stories with surprise endings became EC's trademark. Gaines would generally stay up late and read large amounts of material while seeking "springboards" for story concepts. The next day he would present each premise until Feldstein found one that he thought he could develop into a story. At EC's peak, Feldstein edited seven titles while Kurtzman handled three. Artists were assigned stories specific to their styles. Davis and Ingels often drew gruesome, supernatural-themed stories, while Kamen and Evans did tamer material.
With hundreds of stories written, common themes became apparent. Some of EC's more well-known themes include:
- An ordinary situation given an ironic and gruesome twist, often as poetic justice for a character's crimes. In "Collection Completed" a man takes up taxidermy in order to annoy his wife. When he kills and stuffs her beloved cat, the wife snaps and kills him, stuffing and mounting his body. In "Revulsion", a spaceship pilot is bothered by insects due to a past experience when he found one in his food. At the conclusion of the story, a giant alien insect screams in horror at finding the dead pilot in his salad. Dissection, the broiling of lobsters, Mexican jumping beans, fur coats and fishing are just a small sample of the kind of situations and objects used in this fashion.
- The "Grim Fairy Tale", featuring gruesome interpretations of such fairy tales as "Hansel and Gretel", "Sleeping Beauty" and "Little Red Riding Hood".
- Siamese twins were a popular theme, primarily in EC's three horror comics. No less than nine siamese twin stories appeared in EC's horror and crime comics from 1950-1954. In an interview Feldstein speculated that he and Gaines wrote so many siamese twin stories because of the interdependence they had on each other, as if they were siamese twins themselves.
- Adaptations of Ray Bradbury science-fiction stories, which appeared in two dozen EC comics starting in 1952. It began inauspiciously, with an incident in which Feldstein and Gaines plagiarized two of Bradbury's stories and combined them into a single tale. Learning of the story, Bradbury sent a note praising them, while remarking that he had "inadvertently" not yet received his payment for their use. EC sent a check and negotiated a productive series of Bradbury adaptations.
- Stories with a political message, which became common in EC's science fiction and suspense comics. Among the many topics were lynching, anti-Semitism and police corruption.
The three horror titles featured stories introduced by a trio of horror hosts. The Crypt Keeper introduced Tales from the Crypt, the Vault Keeper welcomed readers to The Vault of Horror and the Old Witch cackled over The Haunt of Fear. Besides gleefully recounting the unpleasant details of the stories, the characters squabbled with one another, unleashed an arsenal of puns and even insulted and taunted the readers: "Greetings, boils and ghouls..." This irreverent mockery of the audience also became the trademark attitude of Mad, and such glib give-and-take was later mimicked by many, including Stan Lee at Marvel Comics.
EC's most lasting legacy came with Mad, which started as a side project for Kurtzman before buoying the company's fortunes and becoming one of the country's most notable and enduring humor publications. When satire became an industry rage in 1954 and other publishers created imitations of Mad, EC introduced a sister title, Panic, edited by Al Feldstein and using the regular Mad artists, plus Joe Orlando.
Beginning in the late 1940s, the comic book industry became the target of mounting public criticism for the content of comic books and their potentially harmful effects on children. The problem came to a head in 1948 with the publication by Dr. Fredric Wertham of two articles: "Horror in the Nursery" (in Collier's) and "The Psychopathology of Comic Books" (in the American Journal of Psychotherapy). As a result, an industry trade group, the Association of Comics Magazine Publishers, was formed in 1948, but proved ineffective. EC left the association in 1950 after Gaines had an argument with its executive director, Henry Schultz. By 1954 only three comic publishers were still members, and Schultz admitted that the ACMP seals placed on comics were meaningless.
In 1954, the publication of Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent and a highly publicized Congressional hearing on juvenile delinquency cast comic books in an especially poor light. At the same time, a federal investigation led to a shakeup in the distribution companies that delivered comic books and pulp magazines across America. Sales plummeted, and several companies went out of business.
Gaines called a meeting of his fellow publishers and suggested that the comic book industry gather to fight outside censorship and help repair the industry's damaged reputation. They formed the Comics Magazine Association of America and its Comics Code Authority. The CCA code expanded on the ACMP's restrictions. Unlike its predecessor, the CCA code was rigorously enforced, with all comics requiring code approval prior to their publication. This not being what Gaines intended, he refused to join the association. Among the Code's new rules were that no comic book title could use the words "horror" or "terror" or "weird" on its cover. When distributors refused to handle many of his comics, Gaines ended publication of his three horror and the two SuspenStory titles on September 14, 1954. EC shifted its focus to a line of more realistic comic book titles, including M.D. and Psychoanalysis (known as the New Direction line). It also renamed its remaining science-fiction comic. Since the initial issues did not carry the Comics Code seal, the wholesalers refused to carry them. After consulting with his staff, Gaines reluctantly started submitting his comics to the Comics Code; all the New Direction titles carried the seal starting with the second issue. This attempted revamp failed commercially and after the fifth issues, all the New Direction titles were canceled.
Gaines waged a number of battles with the Comics Code Authority in an attempt to keep his magazines free from censorship. In one particular example noted by comics historian Digby Diehl, Gaines threatened Judge Charles Murphy, the Comics Code Administrator, with a lawsuit when Murphy ordered EC to alter the science-fiction story "Judgment Day." The story depicted a human astronaut visiting a planet inhabited by robots as a representative of the Galactic Republic. He finds the robots divided into functionally identical orange and blue races, one of which has fewer rights and privileges than the other. The astronaut decides that due to the robots' bigotry, the Galactic Republic should not admit the planet. In the final panel, he removes his helmet, revealing himself to be a black man. Murphy demanded, without any authority in the Code, that the black astronaut had to be removed. As Diehl recounted in Tales from the Crypt: The Official Archives:
"This really made 'em go bananas in the Code czar's office. 'Judge Murphy was off his nut. He was really out to get us', recalls [EC editor] Feldstein. 'I went in there with this story and Murphy says, "It can't be a Black man". But ... but that's the whole point of the story!' Feldstein sputtered. When Murphy continued to insist that the Black man had to go, Feldstein put it on the line. 'Listen', he told Murphy, 'you've been riding us and making it impossible to put out anything at all because you guys just want us out of business'. [Feldstein] reported the results of his audience with the czar to Gaines, who was furious [and] immediately picked up the phone and called Murphy. 'This is ridiculous!' he bellowed. 'I'm going to call a press conference on this. You have no grounds, no basis, to do this. I'll sue you'. Murphy made what he surely thought was a gracious concession. 'All right. Just take off the beads of sweat'. At that, Gaines and Feldstein both went ballistic. 'Fuck you!' they shouted into the telephone in unison. Murphy hung up on them, but the story ran in its original form. "
Feldstein, interviewed for the book Tales of Terror: The EC Companion, reiterated his recollection of Murphy making the racist request:
"So he said it can't be a Black [person]. So I said, 'For God's sakes, Judge Murphy, that's the whole point of the Goddamn story!' So he said, 'No, it can't be a Black'. Bill [Gaines] just called him up [later] and raised the roof, and finally they said, 'Well, you gotta take the perspiration off'. I had the stars glistening in the perspiration on his Black skin. Bill said, 'Fuck you', and he hung up."
Although the story would eventually be printed uncensored in Incredible Science Fiction #33, it was the last comic book ever published by EC. Gaines switched his focus to EC's Picto-Fiction titles, a line of typeset black-and-white magazines with heavily illustrated stories. Fiction was formatted to alternate illustrations with blocks of typeset text, and some of the contents were rewrites of stories previously published in EC's comic books. This experimental line lost money from the start and only lasted two issues per title. When EC's national distributor went bankrupt, Gaines dropped all of his titles except Mad.
The Vault of Horror, Tales from the Crypt, and The Haunt of Fear
The Vault of Horror, Tales from the Crypt, and The Haunt of Fear are three bi-monthly horror comic anthology series published by EC Comics in the early 1950s. The Vault of Horror hit newsstands with its April/May 1950 issue and ceased publication with its December/January 1955 issue, producing a total of twenty-nine issues. The title was popular, but, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, comic books came under attack from moralizing parents, clergymen, schoolteachers, and others who believed the books contributed to illiteracy and juvenile delinquency. In April and June 1954, highly publicized Congressional subcommittee hearings on the effects of comic books upon children left the comics industry shaken. With the imposition of the highly restrictive Comics Code Authority, EC Comics publisher William Maxwell Gaines canceled The Vault of Horror and its two companion titles in September 1954. All three titles have been reprinted at various times since their demise and have been adapted for television and film.
Horror comics emerged as a distinct comic book genre after World War II when young adult males lost interest in caped crimebusters, and returning GIs wanted titillating sex and violence in their reading. One-shot Eerie Comics (1947) is generally considered the first true horror comic with its cover depicting a dagger-wielding, red eyed ghoul threatening a rope-bound, scantily clad, voluptuous young woman beneath a full moon. In 1948, Adventures Into the Unknown became the first regularly published horror title, enjoying a nearly two decade life-span.
In 1950, publisher William Gaines and his editor Al Feldstein discovered they shared similar tastes in horror and began experimenting with such stories in EC's crime comic War Against Crime and its companion title, Crime Patrol. With issue #12 of War Against Crime, the title was changed permanently to The Vault of Horror. The Vault Keeper became the title's sardonic host and commentator, occasionally sharing duties with The Old Witch and The Crypt Keeper. Due to an attempt to save money on second-class postage permits, the numbering, however, did not change with the title — the first issue of The Vault of Horror was #12.
Like its horror companion titles, Tales From the Crypt and The Haunt of Fear, The Vault of Horror had its own distinctive qualities and atmosphere — in this case, created by its main artist, Johnny Craig. Craig illustrated all the covers for the entire run and was responsible for the lead story of all but issues #13 and #33. He also wrote all his own stories (save two) in Vault, something rarely done at EC, and became editor with issue #35 (February, 1954). Gaines and Feldstein wrote almost every other story until late 1953/early 1954 when outside writers Carl Wessler and Jack Oleck were brought in. Other contributing artists to The Vault of Horror were Feldstein, George Evans, Jack Kamen, Wally Wood, Graham Ingels, Harvey Kurtzman, Jack Davis, Sid Check, Al Williamson, Joe Orlando, Reed Crandall, Bernard Krigstein, Harry Harrison and Howard Larsen.
With The Crypt Keeper and The Old Witch, The Vault-Keeper was one of the hosts for EC's horror comics (known as the GhouLunatics), He served as narrator, and added a lighter touch to the often gruesome stories by using a number of puns. In addition to appearances in his own book, he also had a guest story in each issue of Tales From the Crypt and The Haunt of Fear. Although The Vault-Keeper was originally designed by Al Feldstein, Johnny Craig is the artist most associated with the character, having drawn all his lead stories in the Vault of Horror with the exception of two. Craig would also draw The Vault-Keeper in his guest appearances in the other comics, although another artist frequently drew the rest of the story. For the final four issues of The Vault of Horror, The Vault-Keeper was joined by Drusilla, hostess of the book. The Vault-Keeper appeared in animated form on Tales from the Cryptkeeper and was voiced by Dan Hennessey.
In 1954, Gaines and Feldstein intended to add a fourth book to their horror publications by reactivating an earlier title, The Crypt of Terror. They were stopped dead in their tracks, however. Horror and other violent comics had come under scrutiny by moralizing parents, schoolteachers, clergymen, psychologists, and others who viewed the material as dangerous to the well-being of children and a significant contributor to the juvenile delinquency crisis in America (although the formulaic nature of the books usually resulted in truly immoral characters receiving a well-deserved, if gruesome, comeupance.) Matters came to a head in April and June 1954 with a highly publicized Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency. Hearings targeted violent comic books — which fared poorly in the proceedings. While the committee stopped short of blaming the comics industry for juvenile deliquency, they did suggest it tone down the product. Publishers were left reeling.
The industry deftly avoided outside censorship by creating the self-regulatory Comics Magazine Association of America (CMAA) and a Comics Code Authority (CCA) that placed severe restrictions on violent comic book genres. Publishers were forbidden from using the words "terror" and "horror" in titles, for example, and forbidden from depicting zombies, werewolves, and other gruesome characters and outrè horror fiction trappings. Gaines was fed up; he believed his titles were being specifically targeted and realized they were doomed to future failure. He threw in the towel, canceling The Vault of Horror and its companion titles in September 1954. The last issue of Vault was its twenty-ninth, (#40, December/January 1955). Since an issue of The Crypt of Terror had already been produced, it was published as the final issue of Tales from the Crypt, February/March, 1955.