In 1954 the Comics Code wiped out classic titles like Tales from the Crypt, but Myron Fass's company, Eerie, dodged the censors by using glossy paper and distributing horror comics as "magazines."
Mike Howlett has written an exhaustive history of Eerie Publications, telling us all about Weird and Witches' Tales; sister magazines like Ogle and Jaguar; the parent company, Countrywide; the editors, writers, and artists who created, adapted, or outright plagiarized the stories; the source material; the business disputes; the lawsuits; the lasting influence -- in short, every conceivable angle of interest connected to this odd, half-forgotten, post-pulp, pre-punk corner of our cultural heritage. Though encyclopedic in scope, the book is mostly organized in chronological chapters rather than in short topical entries; as a result, though there is much to interest a casual reader, it is usually buried under a pyramid of material that will only concern devoted collectors.
Oddly, the stories themselves receive relatively little critical attention, except to show us how they survived and changed over time. Fass and company were endlessly recycling material, and obsessively calibrated the level of sex, violence, and gore to precisely match the market demand. So old pre-Code horror comics were touched up to make them more gruesome, then re-drawn a few years later to make them less so, then re-written after a decade or so to add another grotesque angle, and so on. Howlett provides side-by-side comparisons of the art from stories like "Three in a Grave" and "Skulls of Doom," along with brief plot summaries. It is fascinating to see how both the images and the text shift and grow, and to compare the approaches of the various creators, all openly stealing one another's work.
But the book's narrative is mostly concerned with the history of the company. It offers a titillating glimpse into the world of a third-rate publishing house. In addition to the plagiarism and the cut-up art, there's the quick-buck exploitation of celebrity deaths and current events, the inexplicably irregular issue numbers, squabbles over copyright and titles, and the gun-toting publisher who cheats, bullies, and sometimes threatens his workers. And yet, there's also the recruitment and mentoring of young artists, and the obvious care, attention, and labor poured into what by all rights ought to have been hack work. In the end, it's amazing that the comics could be so bad, but more amazing that they could also be so good.
Howlett's book shares something of this quality. It's better than we have any right to expect, and probably better than the subject deserves. It stands as a monument, less to the cheep glory of Eerie Publications, than to the obsessive nature of niche fandom. After a point, it becomes impossible to distinguish the book's virtues from its vices: the depth of research, the easy prose and chummy tone, the staggering completeness -- all of these go in both columns.
The real attraction of the book, however, has got to be its art. Quite a lot of the Eerie art appears here, and it is interesting to see something of the range it represents, both in terms of style and quality. Much of it, as may be expected, is of the "good-bad" variety: it's excessive, kitschy, often ridiculous, and sometimes obscene; that is the secret of its charm. Bill Alexander's cluttered, garish, and oddly stiff cover compositions are a case in point. Other pieces, however, are amazingly good. Not "good-bad," just good. Of course, the National Gallery is unlikely to cover its walls with headless corpses and sea monsters, but many of the images here are beautiful despite their subject matter: Johnny Bruck's wonderful but disconcerting cover paintings deserve a special mention is this regard.
Sadly the sheer volume of pictures included necessitates that most of the art is much too small. Chapter 16, for example, reprints nearly 150 cover images, a great many of them classics of the genre, and a few strange masterpieces. Even the bad ones deserve a full page so that we could really appreciate exactly how bad they are, and the chapter could easily have been a book on its own. The quality of reproduction is very good, but the covers are reprinted nine to a page, each image about the size of a matchbook.
It may seem childish, but I am left wishing for a book with fewer words and more pictures.