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Grotesques: The Terrible, Awful, Wonderful Days of Pre-Code Horror

So it’s still Halloween time here on the nerd farm. The air’s turning cold, the leaves are falling, the dead are walking the night, keeping us all up with their mournful caterwauling… You know, the usual.

It’s our favorite time of year, and we thought we’d continue our celebration this week with a look at the covers of some Pre-Code Horror Comics. If you’re reading this at all, you’re probably at least somewhat familiar with the subject: horror ruled the newsstands in the first half of the 1950s, until one Dr. Fredric Wertham

…who was sort of a pop psychologist of his day, published Seduction of the Innocent, a book blaming America’s juvenile delinquency problem on funnybooks. There was public outcry, Senate hearings were held, and the comics industry caved to the pressure with the institution of the Comics Code Authority, which banned everything cool, and killed the horror comic deader than Bela Lugosi.

But, man, we sure got some great stuff before that happened!

It all started, some say, with an unassuming little book from 1946 called Eerie Comics.

It ain’t much to look at, I know. I mean, it’s not bad. Pretty typical Golden Age fare from artist Bob Fujitani. a half-Japanese, half-Irish artist who sometimes worked in the World War II years under the pen name Bob Wells. Other than his heritage, though, Fujitani’s cover isn’t all that remarkable. Replace the gothic elements with gangsters or jungle stuff, and it would look like a few hundred other covers of the era. But it’s nowhere near the graphic excesses we’d see only a few years later.

That is the cover to Black Cat Mystery #50, from 1954. As you can see, the state of horror comics covers changed a lot in the 8 years separating these first two books. Things went from leering suggestion and mild titillation for the troops who’d picked up a taste for funnybooks in the war, to outright grotesquerie. Black Cat is a great example of how things went in the comics industry in general in that time, though. The series started out in 1946 as a super hero book, starring a heroine who was sort of a female Batman. But as the popularity of super heroes waned, the book became Black Cat Western, featuring the same lead character, now transported to the Old West. And then, as horror overtook the industry, the book became Black Cat Mystery, and our tough-gal hero was no more.

You know who we did continue to see, though? Artist Lee Elias. He created the Black Cat, drew many of her adventures, and stayed on throughout the run, contributing covers and interior art even after the book went full horror. That’s his work up above, and on our next cover, featuring the worst date ever, from Chamber of Chills #23.

I really like Elias’ stuff. He had a great old-school funnybook illustration style, heavily influenced by Milton Caniff (for whom he worked as an assistant), but cleaner and more open, with a dynamic flair all his own. I mostly remember his 1970s work, on books like Invaders and The Human Fly, but his 50s stuff is gorgeous in a way those books never really prepared me for. His stuff’s a bit looser (though even more grotesque) on this final Elias cover, from Tomb of Terror #15:

Heh. I’m not exactly sure why that dude’s face is exploding (or why there’s gears and bolts flying out of it, for that matter), but check out that cheeky cover copy: “Never has a story burst with the terror of Break Up!” HAH! Somebody was seriously trying to cop the Crypt Keeper’s attitude! And that somebody, you may be shocked to hear, was Harvey Comics. Harvey was known primarily in my day for wholesome (if haunted) kiddie fare like Casper and Hot Stuff. That image was mostly brought on by the Comics Code, of course, but still. It just goes to show you how far some publishers were willing to take things to get noticed on the newsstands in the days before the clampdown.

Also from Harvey, as long as we’re talking about them, is this great Howard Nostrand cover from 1954’s Witches Tales #25:

Grotesque, AND inventive! I like it!

Not everyone was that out there, though. Atlas (later to become Marvel) kept things a bit more sedate, as with this Bill Everett cover for Venus #19.

I mean, sure, that guy’s skull is coming out of his face, but he’s not being all gooey about it or anything. And that counted for “subtle” back in the Pre-Code days.

Venus, by the way, was another one of those books that transformed from super hero to horror with the ebb and tide of funnybook sales. It did so far less convincingly, of course, because there’s nothing remotely scary about that title. But never let it be said that Martin Goodman ever let something as silly as logic get in the way of making a buck!

Atlas fared a little better with this Joe Maneely cover for Adventures Into Weird Worlds #2.

While I think that tentacle thing would have scared the snot out of me when I was wee, it’s still not exactly operating at the gross-out level of our previous covers here. This is not to say that Atlas wasn’t above a little viscera every now and then, however, as you can see from this second Maneely cover, this one from Astounding #30.

Now, THAT’S what I call a horror cover! Giant bulging eyes, shooting out some kind of death ray that’s melting a guy’s flesh clear off his bones! While he’s standing in a CEMETERY, no less! At least they won’t have to go far to scoop that goo into a grave…

Of course, no collection of Pre-Code horror covers is complete without a visit to EC Comics. EC was the premiere publisher of the genre, employing the best artists in the business to crank out horror tales with a degree of cleverness and sadistic glee that not many of its competitors could match. Whether you’re talking about the Gothic phantasmagoria of “Ghastly” Graham Ingles…

…or the rock-solid draftsmanship of the great Jack Davis…

EC was definitely the class act of 1950s horror comics. Or what passed for it, at least. Because they could get pretty gruesome, too, as you can see from this horrifically gorgeous Jack Davis piece done for Tales From the Crypt #37.

So if EC had the class, I suppose that meant their competitors had to go for shock and awe. And for my money, nobody working on Pre-Code horror covers brought that any better than Bernard Baily. Now, you may know that name. And you may know it because he’s the co-creator of beloved super hero characters The Spectre and Hourman.

That’s a far cry from the stuff he was turning out in the Fifties, though. Really, that stuff seems like the work of a different, and perhaps less-talented, artist. I guess horror just brought out the best in him. Or the worst. Because… Well… Just check out this cover for Mister Mystery #12:

Heh. One prominent feature of the 1950s anti-comics hysteria was what Fredric Wertham called “the injury to the eye motif.” And to be fair, there were an awful lot of comics covers on which someone was on the verge of having an eye gouged out, often by some leering maniac (YAY, leering maniacs!). But on that Mister Mystery cover, Baily took the action right up close and personal, and in the process created what has become maybe the most notorious example of Wertham’s perceived motif.

And even when he was being less… in your face? …than that, Baily’s horror stuff is just plain creepy. I mean, take a look at these covers he did for three consecutive issues of Weird Tales of the Future. He starts off with the relative calm of issue six…

…before moving on the a disturbing parade of horrors for number seven…

…and finally just going completely WTF wrong with issue eight:

Seriously, look at that guy! What the hell is wrong with him?! I mean… Even if his heart wasn’t sitting on the counter across the room from him, he would still be terrifying! Gah!

That’s not the pièce de résistance of messed up Bernard Baily covers, though. For that, we must turn to 1953’s Weird Mysteries #5, and this little over the top gem:

HAH! Oh, man! That’s just so baldly sensationalist. Not as gross, I suppose, as some of the rotting flesh stuff from earlier, and not as urgent as Baily’s own injury to the eye cover, but holy crap. That’s brilliant. I sincerely hope it turned Fredric Wertham’s stomach.

As ingeniously horrible as it is, though, it’s not the cover that brought down an industry. No, for that we have to turn back to EC Comics in 1954, and Johnny Craig’s cover for Crime Suspenstories #22.

Seems rather unassuming in the face of all the gooey mess we’ve seen tonight, doesn’t it? I mean… It’s not even a horror comic! It’s a CRIME comic, fergoshsakes! But this is it. This is the cover that did comics in. Not for its content, exactly, but more for the circus that played out around it.

In the wake of Seduction of the Innocent, as we said at the outset, Senate hearings were held to determine the corrupting influence of funnybooks on America’s youth. EC Comics publisher Bill Gaines was a primary target for Wertham, and for crusading Senator Estes Kefauver, who pushed for and lead the investigation into funnybook depravity. Gaines took the stand in spite of being dreadfully ill and under the influence of some pretty heavy-duty cold medicine. So he can perhaps be forgiven for what happened next.

Shown Craig’s cover durig his testimony, and asked if he thought it was in good taste, Gaines said something to the effect of, “Yes, for a horror comic. Bad taste would have been if he’d been holding the head a little higher, so you could see the stump of the neck.”

Guh.

Even after that, though, the Senate found no need to censor the comics industry. The whole thing had just been a political football, a scare tactic used to drum up votes from worried parents. But the damage was done. The general pubic still came to view comics as a depraved industry, little better than pornography. Maybe worse, because it targeted children. The industry chose to censor itself to survive, and it barely hung on, even then.

EC cancelled its entire line about a year later, moving their most successful title, the humor comic MAD, over to the more respectable magazine format, where they could corrupt young minds all they wanted. Most publishers went out of business, though, and the few that remained cut production drastically. Artists starved, with a generation of them leaving comics altogether. The medium shriveled on the vine, losing the mass audience because it was left publishing only the most sanitized of children’s fare, its growth stunted in ways that still affect it today. And all because America’s youth liked horror stories.

Now, THAT’S scary!

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About Mark Brett (486 Articles)
Shaved Yeti. Alien. Writer of stuff. Read my fiction at http://reportsfromthefieldblog.wordpress.com/. Read my thoughts on comic books and other dork culture ephemera at https://dorkforty.wordpress.com/.

1 Comment on Grotesques: The Terrible, Awful, Wonderful Days of Pre-Code Horror

  1. Dale Bagwell // October 24, 2018 at 7:41 pm // Reply

    Now those are some really cool AF covers. Yeah that whole unnecessary witch hunt and the comics code that followed immediately after that put EC Comics out of business was pure bullshit. Apparently the rumor that’s been spread forever after was that it was put together by the rest of comic companies mainly because Gaines’ horror comics was putting a serious hurting on the sales of the publisher’s comics, so they banded together mafia-style and shut Gaines down.
    Thank God the codes is a thing of the past and horror comics can thrive again. But so far they haven’t come even close to their 1950’s predecessors.

    Liked by 1 person

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