Making Politicians Mad 

A look back at EC Comics--a grizzly collection that terrified readers, including some in Washington, D.C.

After Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver caught the national spotlight with his righteous--and slightly naïve--1950 Senate hearings aimed at cleansing the country of organized crime, he set his sights on saving the youth of America.

Kefauver was one of a handful of lawmakers concerned that comic books were corrupting the kids of this country. So another round of Senate investigations ensued in 1954, this one aimed at rooting out the poisonous charms of these dime-store anthologies.

And the man who was most prominently in the crosshairs of the lawmakers' indignation was William Gaines. Gaines sat at the helm of EC Comics, a New York company started in 1934 by his father. Originally a shoestring operation, EC hit it big when they began to publish comic book versions of Bible stories. But by 1950, the younger Gaines began offering young readers stories that were just as violent as those found in the Old Testament, but were a lot more fun to read.

Tales from the Crypt, Crime Patrol, Weird Science, The Vault of Horror, Two-Fisted Tales and Shock Illustrated were just some of the publications that EC churned out in the early part of the decade. Grisly violence and cruel plot twists marked the stories and Gaines hired a stable of talented artists and writers to deliver the goods.

Now comes Tales of Terror, a new book that looks back on the brief but influential EC era. It is chock full of interviews with the old timers who produced the fabled comics. More importantly, it is generously stocked with the artwork that Kefauver and his colleagues found so troubling. Naturally there are helpings of the minutia that comic-book geeks lap up, but far more interesting is the inclusion of Gaines' Senate testimony. (Gaines, it turns out, was hopped up on Dexedrine-soaked diet pills during his appearance, which helps explain his babbling defense of EC.)

Many comic impresarios were called, but Gaines was burned because Washington could not get over his company's unabashed portrayal of violence and evil. It was clear that Gaines was less interested in spooking his readers as he was in scaring the hell out of them.

A mid-'50s article penned by Gaines makes that clear. He tells would-be writers that if they are interested in working for EC, they had better forget about standard "ghosts, devils, goblins or the like." Instead, he tells them, "We love walking corpses. We'll accept an occasional zombie or mummy. We relish the contes cruels stories."

And cruel they were. Tales of Terror leaves little room for doubt.

A 1953 Crime SuspenStories cover gleefully depicts the moment a bullet pierces a man's temple. Another issue is prefaced with a close-up of a gallows victim, his tongue dangling from his mouth while his milky eyes look to the heavens. Those same desperate, moment-of-death eyes must have been a big hit with Gaines, because they appeared on a number of EC covers, including a 1954 issue that portrays the decapitated head of a woman. Kefauver singled out that graphic as particularly sickening.

But there were plenty of others. A 1953 Crypt jacket offers readers a maniac swinging an ax into a coffin (included in the book is a pre-"toned-down" rendition of the same cover, which was rejected by Gaines--that one showing chunks of flesh flying out of the casket.) An issue of The Vault of Horror is decorated with a picture of an arm--and only an arm--grasping a subway strap while horrified passengers look on. Meanwhile, the EC artists tapped into other adolescent fascinations, as well. The cowgirls, for instance, displayed on the covers of EC's western series Saddle Justice have more in common with Jayne Mansfield than they do with Calamity Jane.

It was all too much for the rigid '50s. The whole operation was doomed as soon as the gray-flannel stiffs in Washington, D.C., started poking around. And no one knew that better than Gaines. He closed up shop not long after the hearings. All except one publication, that is. He put all of his eggs into one proverbial basket. In this case he transformed his humor comic, Mad, into Mad Magazine. Now there was a publication--as any schoolteacher from the 1950s and 1960s can tell you--that really should have made people on Capitol Hill nervous.

More by Jeff Hinkle

  • Good Deeds

    Richard Price takes a fresh approach with well-worn characters.
    • Feb 20, 2003
  • Ink in Their Blood

    New books consider two famous Americans and their newspaper roots.
    • Jan 30, 2003
  • Two Thumbs Down

    A harsh film critic takes a sharp look at the film industry.
    • Dec 19, 2002
  • More »


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Readers also liked…

  • My Heart Can’t Even Believe It

    An excerpt from Amy Silverman’s new book exploring the challenges and joys of raising a child with Down Syndrome
    • May 12, 2016
  • Bathed in Light

    A 75th-birthday exhibition pays tribute to Harold Jones’ long career in photography
    • Oct 15, 2015

The Range

The Weekly List: 25 Things To Do In Tucson In The Next 10 Days

Stella Needs a Home

The Lantern Fest: Get Your Shine On

More »

Latest in Book Feature

  • Mystery Mastery

    Tucsonan Shannon Baker's new novel is getting her compared to Craig Johnson, C.J. Box and Linda Castillo
    • Sep 8, 2016
  • The Daughters

    An excerpt from a novel by Adrienne Celt
    • Aug 4, 2016
  • More »

Most Commented On

  • Dance Unlimited

    Twyla Tharps’s “Three Dances” and Artifact’s Animal Farm go toe to toe this weekend
    • Oct 6, 2016
  • It’s Open Studio Season!

    Tucson artists open their doors to show off metal jaguars, painted dreams, photos and more
    • Oct 20, 2016
  • More »

Facebook Activity

© 2016 Tucson Weekly | 7225 Mona Lisa Rd. Ste. 125, Tucson AZ 85741 | (520) 797-4384 | Powered by Foundation