In my prime EC Fan-Addict years, 1952-to-1954, during which I was ten, eleven and twelve, the Pulitzer Prize for fiction went to The Caine Mutiny (drek), The Old Man and the Sea (suitable for pre-publication in Life), and “None.” The Best Picture Oscar went to An American in Paris (drek, with dancing), The Greatest Show on Earth (drek), and From Here to Eternity (drek, Montgomery Clift and Deborah Kerr notwithstanding.) And the most popular songs were Leroy Anderson’s “Blue Tango”, Percy Faith’s “Theme from Moulin Rouge“, and Kitty Kalen’s “Little Things Mean a Lot”, none of which have been publicly heard, outside of an elevator, in decades.
This is not to suggest that daring, mind-challenging works were not coming into existence. Invisible Man, The Adventures of Augie March, and Junkie were published. Beat the Devil and The Wild One were released. And Hank Williams, Big Mama Thornton, and Hank Ballard made their way up niche-market charts. But none of this was within immediate reach of the eyes, ears, or grubby fingers of those of us at Henry C. Lea Elementary.
Is it any wonder EC made an impression?
I have no major disagreement with Gary Groth’s recent remarks. I applaud his formulation that a comic’s value is “intrinsically literary.” I swallow, with only a slight gulp, his recognition that EC’s prose was often cliche-ed, formulaic, “overwrought and fatuously earnest.” But as one who had his world rocked by – and sped to the newsstand each Tuesday and Thursday to skim the cream from its most recent deliveries – I take umbrage (“Take my umbrage… Please!”) at his equating ECs to “decent” noir B-movies.
You think Lee Marvin tossing hot coffee in Gloria Grahame’s kisser was something? You ought to see that ranch hand after its owner smote him with her branding iron. You consider Kiss Me Deadly perversely erotic? How about that cheating wife and her lover whose heads were transplanted onto each other’s bodies by her cuckolded husband?
Decency, as Mae West might have said, had nothing to do with it.
Sure, with ninety-minutes at their disposal, B-movies may have deepened and shaded characters more than EC could in a six-to-eight-page story. And maybe this time allowed movies to present more disturbing world views. (Or maybe not. EC damn well frequently disturbed me.) But in two areas critical to the interests of red-blooded American boys, EC kicked the ass of anything 1950 Hollywood films – A, B, C, or D – could offer.
I am talking SEX and VIOLENCE. Many EC alumni have expressed displeasure at or remorse over their involvement with such matters. Gary barely mentioned them when assessing EC. But I see no reason to treat S&V like one more crazed aunt locked inside an attic. (Which reminds me of that young man chained in the attic by that old hag… But I digress.) I consider sex and violence central to EC’s glory and responsible for its elevation in my personal artistic pantheon.
The Hays Code, remember, had tethered Hollywood since the 1930s. The silver screen dared not tarnish itself with too much licentiousness or brutality. But EC could strew its pages with rotting flesh, exposed body cavities, amputated limbs, and eviscerated organs. It could flash the kinkiness of an interplanetary explorer defrosting for his pleasure and disposal one beautiful woman after another and offer for its juvenile readers’ contemplation what exactly transpired once the salivating maniac or fanged beast or pulsating blob got his hands or paws or tentacles on the scantily clad damsel set like a canape before him.
EC cadged us toward the carnival’s back tents. It spot-lit corners of the mind we would need to master. If in the process, it drew us toward a higher class of text and illustration than our dimes usually purchased, that was good too.
But it was not the main thing.
One problem with viewing comics as “literary” works is that, unlike fiction and poetry, they do not have a single author but, like films, are collaborative ventures. Our culture has accepted a film’s director as its auteur. By the same token, it seems, a comic’s editor should be considered its. If so, Al Feldstein, who is usually traduced for his tone-deaf prose, stone-handed drawing, and having usurped Harvey Kurtzman’s throne at MAD, was EC’s Orson Welles. Feldstein edited six of the seven horror, crime, and sci-fi books, where EC’s sex and violence glowed most stunningly. He wrote twenty-seven of these comics’ twenty-eight stories, usually from ideas fed him by Bill Gaines, EC’s publisher, who’d scribbled them down while up half the night from the Dexedrine he was popping.
In the interviews I’ve read, Feldstein has not seemed the introspective type. His stance has always been of the “Just-trying-to-create-good-comics-and-make-a-living” variety. But something in his psychic wiring must have found certain of Gaines’s snippets particularly compelling for him to elaborate upon them so frequently. Convenience alone can not account for the number of avenging corpses rising from graves, nor mere coincidence explain the many wrong-doers undone by similar wrongs snapped back on them, amplified. I’m especially intrigued by the frequency with which children slew parents in Feldstein’s stories. This wasn’t going on in many places, but I can recall four examples – and I haven’t read these comics in sixty years. But that could be my own psychic wires clicking.
Feldstein was a Jewish kid from Brooklyn. He grew up in the Depression and quit school to serve in World War II. (Of EC’s fourteen primary artists, all but Al Williamson, who was too young, mirrored his war service; nor did any, as far as I can tell, graduate college.) He was about twenty when the death camps were liberated and Hiroshima bombed. I can only imagine that the rage and terror, repulsion and guilt trapped within him, powered those tales in ways he did not care to explore. I do not doubt a personal vision as strong as Hemingway’s pounded upon Feldstein, compelling his imprinting it on the page. And this vision resonated with children like myself, fearful, powerless, groping for our own strengths, needing to test ourselves against terrors in order to move beyond them.1 So maybe Ryan is right.
I have more trouble with the sexual aspect of Feldstein’s work. While freer than most writers of his era to indulge his fantasies, he was also more punitive toward the characters who acted them out. John Updike tormented adulterers with depression and guilt. Feldstein lopped off their heads or burnt them alive. If they received a scarlet letter, it was branded on their flesh. In real life, sexual misbehavior might have cost one alimony. Feldstein made Shahira law seem like Thomas Jefferson had drafted it.
Feldstein reflected a society which, while fascinated by sex, was terrified or ashamed of this fascination. How these reflections played out on latency age males like myself is interesting, if embarrassing, to consider. As a rule, during a movie’s “mushy parts,” we headed for the refreshment stand to stock up on Jujubes, while the six-shooters re-loaded. I don’t think a Saturday matinee smooch stays with me, whether planted by Burt Lancaster or John Wayne, whether on Virginia Mayo or Gail Russell. But Feldstein scripted and EC’s artists delivered sexually charged images I have never escaped.
I suspect that my friends and I, while knowing little of the realities of sex, sensed something important and forbidden going on. Those panels seemed one of those fog-filled streets, at whose end something tempting yet dangerous lurked.
Gary posed the question whether ECs were ‘good’ only in comparison to other comics or “good” by more objective standards. I am not sure objective standards exist by which to measure art. (Which standards, for instance, would mount Duchamp’s urinal in any museum or perform Cage’s “4’33″ in any concert hall?) Certainly, EC’s comics were the best of their time, and if you measure art by its influence on other artists or its cultural impact, EC was, at least, significant.
For one thing, its excesses helped blow-out America’s tolerance of comics and, through the resultant Comic Code, gut them of content for a generation. This oppression instilled in those of us left bereft a new respect in the First Amendment. It also left a vacuum, which the underground cartoonists would more than fill. Inspired by what EC had wrought, they surpassed it in new subject matter and attitude. And this assessment does not even consider “MAD,” one of the most influential periodicals of the decade.
But as devoted an EC fan as I am, I can’t recall recommending them to anyone, except as artifacts of socio-cultural interest, since a niece and nephew were pre-teens. The Code may, in retrospect, have come at a convenient time. It forced my circle, once we’d tired of thumbing through our “Poor” to “Fair” condition holdings to seek alternatives. We then found Kurtzman’s war books simplistic compared to All Quiet on the Western Front and Johnny Got His Gun. MAD paled beside Lenny Bruce and Jules Feiffer. Mickey Spillane and Playboy addressed the urges Feldstein had stirred.
Still, this does not settle the matter. While comics may be a literary form, and few of Feldstein’s words may remain with me, I can recall dozens of images spun from them. They adhere more firmly than any part of Mrs. Dalloway or The Idiot. I can’t contend that EC’s mix of the erotic and sadistic was helpful to my navigation of those foggy streets, but it was certainly compelling. My friends and I would not have lingered for a moment over a “romance” comic, but we devoured Feldstein’s. They touched something elemental within us.
The SEX and VIOLENCE endure. Is that not the most to ask of art? Does that not confirm EC as GREAT?