Eye on Comics

Comics criticism and commentary from Don MacPherson

EC as One, Two, Three

Posted by Don MacPherson on January 14th, 2007

The EC Archives: Shock SuspenStories Volume 1 hardcover
Writers: Bill Gaines & Al Feldstein
Artists: Jack Kamen, Jack Davis, Joe Orlando, Graham Ingels & Wally Wood
Colors: Marie Severin, Anna Bolhis, Cory Dunnihoo, Joshua G. Jones, Tracy L. Morris, Leona D. Cahoj & Liz A. Rost
Cover artist: Wally Wood
Publisher: Gemstone Publishing
Price: $49.95 US

There have been a number of online comics news reports lately spotlighting Gemstone Publishing’s decision to scale back its offerings, specifically its line of Disney comics (featuring both new and reprint material). However, I certainly doubt that translates into a doom-and-gloom forecast for the publisher, especially when it’s now offering material such as The EC Archives. As other publishers have found in recent years, there’s a clear demand for high-end reprints of classic stories and art from the industry’s past, and one would be hard-pressed to find material that suited the term “classic” more than the crime and horror stories of EC Comics of the 1950s. As a testament to the importance of this material, this inaugural hardcover volume of Shock SuspenStories — featuring the first six issues of the original series — comes from filmmaker and Hollywood mover and shaker Steven Spielberg. The stories found within this attractive, oversized collection can be predictable and clumsy, but they’re nevertheless entertaining, and not just on a campy level. Perhaps what’s most interesting about the storytelling is how it paints a picture of Western society from half a century ago.

An overbearing husband hounds his doting, obedient wife ever moment of their lives together, leading to an unexpected and grisly end to their marriage. Scientists scramble to save mankind from an approaching alien threat, but the monsters’ advance cannot be stopped. A nasty man who feels dominance over the natural world finds that it also contains supernatural forces bent on an ironic revenge. Stories of horror, science-fiction and everyday murder shed a light on the dark side of humankind and morals one ought not ignore.

I think I enjoyed Jack Kamen’s contributions here more than the others. He boasts such a clean style and sharp eye for anatomy. There’s a brighter tone in his work, but he nevertheless manages to capture the same tense atmosphere as the other artists, mainly with the effective expressions he brings to the characters. It’s interesting to see how refined and effective the storytelling is throughout the book. It was particularly enjoyable to sample the work of the late Wally Wood, who demonstrates a sharp eye for anatomy, movement, action and perspective. Also interesting is the chance to examine the art of Jack Davis. He’s best known for his cartooning work for Mad Magazine, so it’s not often one gets to see him tackle more conventional comic-book storytelling.

My favorite stories in this volume are those devoid of supernatural or science-fiction elements. It’s the crime stories and everyday horrors that are the most intriguing because they reflect actual possibilities. From the housewife who transforms her husband’s abusive demands for cleanliness into his demise to the murdering husband who is horrified to learn that his effort to hide a body has come back to bite him in the ass, the ham-fisted effort to bring poetic justice into play at the end of stories is almost universally effective with the short stories in this volume.

The book had me hooked with the first story, “The Neat Job.” It focuses on marriage in the 1950s and almost alien notions of matrimonial devotion, abuse and lack of love. The story has as its foundation marriage as a social requirement and a woman’s subservient role. At first glance, the story might be seen as horribly sexist. But in reality, the plot reveals that such a scenario is not natural, that a woman should be treated as an equal. It’s got a typical horror twist to it, but it’s nevertheless satisfying. I also found it interesting that an ultimately weak character proves to be a threat while still maintaining that same timidity. Other stories also explore social structures and values of yesteryear, and those sequences always stood out as the most engaging for the modern reader.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate the strength of the storytelling in these classic comics and their lasting influence even 50 years later is to point to other samples of pop culture that followed in their footsteps. Look at Boom! Studios various pirate- or zombie-themed anthology comics of today or DC’s horror anthologies from years gone by (Flinch and Wasteland) to TV projects from Alfred Hitchcock Presents to Spielberg’s own Amazing Stories from the 1980s, EC’s short stories of horror and crime have made themselves known time and time again, sometimes purposefully and sometimes subconsciously. 7/10

2 Responses to “EC as One, Two, Three”

  1. Palladin Says:

    Love the title!

  2. Don MacPherson Says:

    Thanks Palladin. Coming up with the titles is one of my favorite things about the new site (when the titles are any good… I tanked with the one for Ed’s Terrestrials).