EC Comics

From Academic Kids

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Entertaining Comics was headed by William Gaines but is better known by its publishing name of EC Comics. The firm was a publisher of comic books specializing in crime, horror, war and science-fiction from the 1940s through the 1950s. It also published Mad and other satire comics which evolved into MAD Magazine.

The firm, first known as Educational Comics, was owned by Max Gaines, who published Picture Stories from the Bible and biographies of important figures from science and history in comic book form. A decade earlier, Max Gaines had been one of the pioneers of the comic book form by repackaging and distributing comic strips in 64-page pamphlets.

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 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, he began to change titles in order to introduce stories with a focus on horror, suspense, science fiction, war and crime. At the same time, Gaines and his editors, Al Feldstien and Harvey Kurtzman, gave assignments to the best freelance artists working in the field.

The firm 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 and the stories always had a certain literary sheen.

EC Comics was unique in a number of ways. They promoted their stable of illustrators, allowing each to sign their art, encouraging them to develop idiosyncratic styles, and by printing one-page biographies of them in the comic books. This was in stark contrast to the industry's common practice, in which credits were often missing and generic "house styles" were the norm. As an example, Donald Duck writer-cartoonist Carl Barks was known for years as the "Good Artist" because his stories stood out from the pack, but readers had no other way of identifying his work. In EC stories, readers could easily identify the signed work of such artists as "Ghastly" Graham Ingels, Wally Wood, Jack Davis, Johnny Craig, Bernard Krigstein, Will Elder, Harvey Kurtzman, Al Feldstein, Jack Kamen, George Evans, Joe Orlando, John Severin and Al Williamson. Other artists of note who worked for EC included Frank Frazetta, Basil Wolverton and Reed Crandall. The comics were generally written by Harvey Kurtzman and Al Feldstein with assistance from Bill Gaines.

The sheer volume of material required just for Feldstein's titles -- four to five stories per week, every week -- led to a formulaic approach which became EC's trademark for good and for ill. Kurtzman was a slower, more meticulous editor, which is why his comics are more highly-regarded than Feldstein's and why he handled fewer titles. The neverending need for material also led to some humorous incidents, such as when Feldstein and Gaines took an excessive amount of inspiration from some short stories by science-fiction writer Ray Bradbury. Learning of the stories, Bradbury sent a note praising them, while remarking that he had "inadvertantly" not received payment for their use. Charmed and relieved, EC happily sent a check and began a productive series of Bradbury adaptations.

EC published distinct "lines" of titles under its "Entertaining Comics" umbrella. Most notorious were their 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 that were out of step with the jingoistic times. Many EC tales wrapped up with twist endings, but Crime SuspenStories and Shock SuspenStories positively reveled in them, and they became the comics' hallmark; several of the SuspenStories therein tackled weightier issues such as racism, sex, drug use and the American way of life. EC always claimed to be "proudest of our science fiction titles," and Weird Science and Weird Fantasy were certainly a step up from the standard space opera tales found in Planet 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 the most significant humor publication in history. A sister publication, Panic, was also produced when humor magazines were the industry rage in 1954.

The three horror titles featured stories introduced by a trio of horror hosts. The Crypt-Keeper was in charge of Tales from the Crypt, the Vault-Keeper ran The Vault of Horror and The Haunt of Fear was helmed by the Old Witch. Besides gleefully recounting the unpleasant details of the stories, the characters squabbled at one another, unleashed an arsenal of puns and even insulted and taunted the readers. This irreverent mockery of the audience also became a trademark of MAD. Such glib, snarky give-and-take was later mimicked by many, including Stan Lee in his Marvel Comics puffery.

After the comic book industry imploded during the 1950s in the wake of the hysteria caused by Dr. Fredric Wertham's book Seduction of the Innocent (and, just as important, a shakeup in the distribution companies who sold comic books and pulp magazines in America), most of EC Comics' titles were cancelled. Gaines attempted to revive a few of the science fiction based EC comics, watering down the story lines and artwork in order to conform to the newly founded Comics Code. Among the Code's new rules were that no comic book title could use the words "horror," "terror" or "weird" on its cover; one may judge the linguistic coincidence by looking at a list of EC's top-selling titles.

Gaines waged a number of battles with the Comics Code Authority, in an attempt to keep his magazines free of censorship during the later days of EC. One notable incident involved his threatening the members of the Comics Code Authority board with a lawsuit after being ordered to alter the climactic scene of a science fiction story, so that one of the characters would not be seen sweating.

When this approach proved unsuccessful, the company shifted its focus to a line of more realistic comic book titles, including M.D. and Psychoanalysis. This revamp also failed. Some believe that EC's publishing woes in 1955 and 1956 were largely thanks to an unspoken blackballing of EC titles by the industry and its distributors.

Luckily, EC found a large audience embracing its humor comics MAD and Panic. Eventually the company abandoned its other titles and focused exclusively on publishing MAD in magazine form. Although this move was done to placate its editor Harvey Kurtzman (who'd received an offer to join the magazine Pageant but preferred to remain in charge of his own), it had the happy result of removing MAD from the Comics Code. While no EC comic book lasted six years, MAD has been published without interruption for over 50 years.

The Tales from the Crypt title was licensed for a movie in 1972 and more successfully for a TV series in the 1980s.

See also List of EC Comics publications.

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