In the introduction to the massive, gorgeously illustrated recent book The History of EC Comics, author Grant Geissman asks, “Why should there be a gigantic, weighty tome in celebration of these comics?” His answer: “Put simply, because this lesser-known company had an enormous impact on American pop culture, managing to be both commercially successful as well as boldly innovative. At its creative peak in the 1950s . . . EC reads like a ‘who’s who’ of mid-20th Century comic books.”
Founded by legendary comic book pioneer M. C. Gaines, then inherited by his son William Gaines in 1947, EC Comics (Entertaining Comics), thrilled kids in the 1950s with lurid art, gory stories, sexy women, and space adventures. With titles such as Tales from the Crypt, Shock SuspenStories, The Vault of Horror, Two-Fisted Tales, and Weird Science, EC specialized in horror and crime stories, but also issued war comics, fantasy, and science fiction.
Geissman notes that Al Feldstein, Harvey Kurtzman, Johnny Craig, Wally Wood, and other famous comic book legends contributed to EC. Pop culture notables like George Lucas, Stephen King, Steven Spielberg, and Terry Gilliam were known to be inspired by EC titles.
Yet one is tempted to ask: Has the EC effect been too great? Has its dominance come at the expense of more challenging and transformative works of art, and robbed Americans of cultural literacy? In 2020 every American knows what a lightsaber is, and that industrialist Tony Stark is also the superhero Iron Man. They can name Stan Lee and Superman and the stars of Game of Thrones, but not Daniel Mendelsohn, Maria Schneider, or Louise Glück, who won the 2020 Nobel Prize for literature.
While EC is often revered as a colorful expression of the deeper fears and psychic complexes of humanity during the bland 1950s, the Eisenhower era wasn’t culturally barren. In an illuminating essay for Commentary, Fred Siegel explored how Americans were culturally hungry for highbrow culture in the 1950s, the decade in which EC also thrived. Far from being the blockheads described by elites, Americans at the time “were sampling the greatest works of Western civilization for the first time.”
There was a 250 percent growth in the number of local symphony orchestras between 1940 and 1955. In 1955, writes Siegel, “15 million people paid to attend major league baseball games, while 35 million paid to attend classical music concerts. The New York Metropolitan Opera’s Saturday afternoon radio broadcast drew a listenership of 15 million out of an overall population of 165 million.” He goes on: “NBC spent $500,000 in 1956 to present a three-hour version of Shakespeare’s Richard III starring Laurence Olivier. The broadcast drew 50 million viewers; as many as 25 million watched all three hours.” Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March, a National Book Award winner, sold one million copies in paperback in the early 1950s. Could today’s Americans boast such broad literacy?
When I was a college student in the 1980s, comic books were gaining traction as a legitimate art form, fueled by books like The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen. Allan Bloom’s 1987 polemic The Closing of the American Mind ignited such a firestorm because it hit so close to home. Students were in fact losing the critical thinking skills that can only be developed by taking on Homer, John Milton, and Shakespeare. The top grossing film in 1959 was Ben-Hur, a film that tackled adult themes of friendship, faith, loyalty, slavery, and empire. In 1989 the top grossing American film was Tim Burton’s Batman.
The History of EC Comics also explores the most famous event in the comic company’s history. In 1954 a subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee investigating the causes of juvenile delinquency examined what a majority of Americans (according to Gallup) thought was a cause of that delinquency: comic books. By 1952, as David Hajdu writes in his book The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America, more than twenty publishers were putting out close to 650 titles a month. In 1952 a third of all comic books were horror comics.
Testifying against comics before the committee was Fredric Wertham, a German-born psychiatrist who had come to the United States in 1922 to teach at Johns Hopkins. Wertham eventually became chief resident in charge of psychiatry and with a specialty in criminal behavior. His book Seduction of the Innocent has become a reference point for comic book fans. They view it as a work of intolerance by a 20th-century Torquemada. Yet Wertham, who was influenced by Marx, may have had a point—that too much bad pulp fiction was not good for people, especially kids.
It’s true that Wertham hurt his case with hyperbole. “Hitler was a beginner compared to the comic book industry,” he said. In what would become his most-mocked claim, Wertham wrote that Batman comics were homoerotic. Superman comics, he claimed, “arouse in children fantasies of sadistic joy in seeing other people punished over and over again while you yourself remain immune. We have called it the Superman complex.”
Louis Menand observed that at the Senate hearings, EC publisher William Gaines “was in the position many liberals find themselves in when they set out to defend the freedom of artistic expression: he claimed that comic books that treated social issues in a progressive spirit were good for children, and that comic books that were filled with pictures of torture and murder had no effect on them.” Gaines argued that the comics he published that reflected progressive values about racism and environmentalism were good, but that the shockers had no influence on people. Menand: “If art can be seriously good for you, though, it follows that it can be seriously bad for you . . . As Gaines must have realized too late, it was absurd to defend comic-book art by a standard of good taste. Disrespect for good taste was one of the chief attractions comic books had for pre-adolescents.” Furthermore, what Gaines meant by good taste is “not what most people mean.”
The hearings effectively canceled comics, which went into hibernation for several years—until the superhero renaissance of the 1960s. EC won in the end. Today, cultural commentators on left and right spend hours providing serious exegesis on the latest Marvel or DC blockbuster, or the hottest horror and sci-fi series on Netflix. Children of EC, many of them provide insights that go no deeper than Creepshow. It’s an EC world, we just live in it.
Mark Judge is the author of A Tremor of Bliss: Sex, Catholicism, and Rock ‘n' Roll.
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