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.