CCI: The Chilling Horror Comics History of the 1950s

"The Chilling Archives of Horror Comics 'Zombies'" panel at Comic-Con International in San Diego came on the final day of the event, appropriately scheduled after the CCAS Sunday Devotional and Christian Comics panel in Room 32AB. Focusing on pre-Comics Code 1950s horror comics, the panel was led by Eisner Award-winning comics historian and co-editor of Yoe Books, Craig Yoe, and Steve "Karswell" Banes, host of TheHorrorsOfItAll.com vintage comics blog, which to date has over 1,500 horror shorts posted.

IDW Publishing and Yoe Books recently released "Zombies," a hardcover collection of 1950s horror comics hand picked by Yoe and Banes. The book is already sold out on the distributor level, and is the duo's third horror collection through IDW, including "Bob Powell's Terror" and "Dick Briefer's Frankenstein."

Before digging into the gory history of '50s horror comics, Yoe called up a fan cosplaying as a zombie to sit in-between he and Banes for the duration of the discussion. To begin, Yoe light-heartedly commented on the panel preceding his, "We were glad to see we were following the Christian Devotional panel. I recently saw online the top ten zombies of the Bible -- there were quite a few people who came back from the dead in the Bible. In some sense, Jesus is a zombie," he was quick to add, "I don't mean that with any disrespect. Simply, he rose from the dead like Lazarus rose from the dead."

The 1950s was a great time for horror comics. Superheroes had worn themselves out. The 15 minutes of fame were over for funny talking animals. And while the "next big things" of romance and Western comics started out, during the early Cold War era, horror comics reigned supreme.

"'Eerie' by ACG was the first horror comic to come out, " Yoe said. "There were [horror] stories in other books, but 'Eerie' was the first to collect them all together solely as a horror publication."

Yoe delved further into the origins of horror comics, stating EC Comics' first published books were of the New and Old Testament stories. The company's line started out publishing "educational comics" (what the "EC" originally stood for), but then changed the meaning of the letter "E" to "Entertaining." When the Bible stories failed to sell, the company focused on spotlighting American history in their books. When those stopped selling, on a lark EC started printing "Tales from the Crypt" and "Crypt of Terror" with amazing talent of the day working on them, including Jack Davis and Wally Wood. "They were a little formulaic, but they were the very best stories -- even by today's standards," Yoe said. "They ruled the horror comics scene, then all these other publishers jumped in too, including Marvel who was known as 'Atlas' back then.

"We kinda liked those other ones better than the EC stuff, ironically. It was less mainstream at the time -- EC was the big guy of horror publishing."

"They [EC] were real slick, and the lesser publishers were following their lead -- sometimes even swiping artwork," Banes added.

Yoe continued, "Horror comics became so popular in the '50s sometimes romance or cowboy stories would feature horror. Like a cowboy character meeting a zombie. Even the talking animal comics of the time became more scary as the publishers were trying to tap into that market. There were a lot of novel approaches to the zombie themes, like military zombies or zombies in crime comics." Yoe clicked to a slide showcasing Golden Age detective Ken Shannon, who is usually a straight edge character, coming face to face with a member of the undead.

Even kids comics adopted horror themes. "'Casper,' when you think about it, is a cute comic book series about a little dead boy," Yoe said.

The panelists shifted focus to the recent "Zombies" HC collection, highlighting key moments in the book and their favorite covers. "We focus more on really good art -- the stories might be a little 'eeh,' but we look for the art. It gets your attention," Banes said. Yoe pointed out "the 50s zombies weren't as brainless as they were before."

1952's "Weird Tales of the Future" #3 cover artist, Basil Wolverton's claim to fame was his ability to draw ugly people. "So it was fitting he drew horror," Yoe said. "He was in a contest to draw the world's ugliest woman, which he won. The judges panel included Salvador Dalai, Boris Karloff and Frank Sinatra. His work is dripping and spooky with lots of atmosphere. It's amazing what a tree here or a style dip there can do."

Eventually they came to a Frank Frazetta cover to "Beware" #10 from 1954. "We think this is a pretty powerful one," Yoe said, adding, "One thing I've noticed about horror comics of the 1950s -- they're really a warning to blonde girls wearing red tops to not enter graveyards at night. It's just asking for trouble." Yoe mentioned another re-occuring theme in classic horror -- the men are typically wearing orange jackets or suits. A brief thumb through of "Zombies" confirms this observation.

Contained in the "Zombies" collection are scans of original horror pages, lent to Yoe by classic horror enthusiast, Bill Leech. Yoe tried to include an original art story in each of these new collections, saying, "It's great to see the artwork up close without the bad color and bad printing mushing it up. You can really see the artist's pen strokes and pencil lines underneath the inking."

Yoe and Banes made it clear the Comics Code Authority essentially killed classic horror comics, listing restrictions the Code laid on horror publishers, "They couldn't use the words 'terror,' 'horror' or 'whore' nor have zombies as part of the code. Once the Code became prominent, you didn't see any more of this stuff for a long, long time," Yoe said.

"It got less interesting, that's for sure," Banes agreed.

With the Comics Code in full force, it became common for artists to not sign their work or be credited for it. "A lot of artists were anonymous -- they were ashamed of their work, influenced by the hatred out there from more conservative groups," Yoe said, adding, "Or they remained anonymous because the publisher didn't want them to sign their work so a competitor couldn't identify them and try to hire them away. So the artists would add a 'tick' -- like a specific way of drawing eyes or clothing. But sometimes even we can't identify the artist."

One of these artists who tried to keep his name clear of his horror work was A.C. Hollingsworth, whose art on "Diary of Horror" is featured in the "Zombies" collection. Hollingsworth is one of the few black horror artists of his time. He went on to do fine art, and the evolution of his style can be seen in his later "Jungle Girl" stories, which Banes said "almost looks like a different artist, but you can tell his style by the cat-like eyes of his women." Banes pointed out other "isms" of artists used to identify their work, from detailed putrid flesh, to the way a woman's ankles were drawn.

The "Dark Mysteries" stories in the "Zombies" collection were not approved by the Comics Code. The people who worked on the title wanted to make it as gory and over the top as possible to drive sales.

As a result of the restrictions, the Code opened the door for the return of superhero comics in the 60s, and it's obvious Marvel's original intentions for some of their most beloved characters were rooted in horror; there were mutants, a giant green Hulk and a Spider-Man, "but horror's time was clearly over," Yoe said. He mentioned even though it damned the horror comics of the 50s, "the Code was more concerned about crime. The Code was not a government thing, but a self poilicing thing that helped people cover their ass."

Besides superheroes, The Code also paved the way for fantasy, supernatural and sci-fi comics. Still, Yoe let slip his true desires for "cape" comics, "Rather than fly around in capes, I wish the superheroes would die, die and die again. Then come back as zombies."

Yoe closed the panel by announcing a classic horror anthology series titled "Scary" from IDW. It's in full color and contains classic horror tales residing in the public domain, long forgotten. "We're looking for people to suggest stories and help scan stories," Yoe said of "Scary," which is set to debut in Fall 2012 around Halloween.

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