Corpse on the Imjin! and Other StoriesBy Harvey Kurtzman et al.; edited by Gary Groth Fantagraphics Books, 240 pages, $28.99
Came the Dawn and Other Stories By Wallace Wood, et al.; edited by Gary Groth Fantagraphics Books, 208 pages, $28.99
In an essay that ran in issue #250 of The Comics Journal -- and was recently republished on the Hooded Utilitarian website -- the critic Ng Suat Tong took to task one of the comics' most sacred cows, EC. In the essay, entitled EC Comics and the Chimera of Memory, Suat argues that nostalgia has blinded critics and readers to EC's many faults; that while the house that Bill Gaines built might have influenced many and laid the groundwork for the underground era, the stories themselves rarely deserve the lofty reputation they have attained.
While I don't agree with everything Suat says in his essay -- I think he's far too harsh on poor Bernie Krigstein for example -- I do agree with several of his points. My main takeaway from his essay is that we need to be more careful and much more selective when discussing EC's aesthetic value. Rather than saying "Mad was great," we should be saying which stories in Mad were great because, as anyone whose read the first three issues knows, Kurtzman and company weren't always firing on all cylinders. In fact, a good deal of the EC material could be less than stellar to put it mildly, and many stories that were initially regarded as exemplary haven't held up well over time.
Nothing convinces me of that more than two new releases from Fantagraphics -- the first in their ongoing EC Library project. Corpse on the Imjin collects all of the war and related comics Harvey Kurtzman did for Frontline Combat and Two-Fisted Tales, while Came the Dawn collects early horror tales and some ShockSuspenStores drawn by Wally Wood. Rather than try to collect every single EC comic every published in chronological order, editor Gary Groth and company are instead releasing volumes that collect the best or most interesting work by individual artists and writers -- future books will focus on Jack Davis and Al Williamson for example.
Corpse on the Imjin seems like an ideal place to begin this republishing journey. Kurtzman was arguably the most talented and influential member of the EC gang, and his war stories are widely revered by fans. Opening up Imjin, however, you see that that reputation is built on some shaky ground.
Certainly the most well-known stories still hold up. The title tale remains one of the best things Kurtzman ever did and Air Raid!, Kill! and Big If! all hold up rather well, despite being invested with more than a bit of overwrought melodrama. But for every Imjin there are stories like Contact!, a simplistic, jingoistic "us versus them" tale that naively suggests America will win the Korean War solely because "we believe in good."
Least you think that's an exception, consider "Prisoner of War" where a yellow-bellied P.O.W. decides to capitulate with the enemy only to be mowed down with a machine gun (of course the prisoners that have the guts to make a break for freedom end up safe and sound). These stories severely undercut the pacifist reputation that Kurtzman war comics have earned (to be fair Kurtzman himself dismisses Contact! in a posthumous interview at the end of the book). But even stories that appear to emphasize Kurtzman's anti-war leanings, like Rubble! or Dying City! (done with Alex Toth) paint Communist side in such simplistic, negative terms (leaving the Americans to always come off as they sympathetic guys who fight because they have to, gosh darn it, not cause they want to) that it's hard to feel as thought there isn't more than a little flag-waving going on in the background.
I should note that only the first third of the book consists stories Kurtzman wrote and drew himself. The rest of the volume is stories done with artists not usually known for their work with EC, like Toth, Dave Berg (of "Lighter Side of" fame), Russ Heath and even Joe Kubert (not his best work by far). Toth is the one that comes out as the real star here, particularly on F-86 Sabre-Jet, a mesmerizing tale of derring-do aeronautics that verges on abstraction at times as Toth reduces the planes and clouds to very basic black and white shapes. Apparently the two feuded badly over this story, but it remains the most visually captivating thing in the book.
If there are any pleasant surprises in Imjin, it's in the first few stories taken from Two Fisted Tales, where, committed to doing pure action pulp, Kurtzman invests the work with a frenzy and panache that many of the Al Feldstein-edited titles didn't have. Pirate Gold, for example, is a fun, jet-propelled story of an amnesiac sea captain out for revenge that achieves a delicious chill in the near final sequence as said captain hacks away at one of his transgressors, screaming "Thank ye" all the while. It's a great bit of showmanship that underscores Kurtzman's talents as a cartoonist. Overall, Imjin both reveals Kurtzman greatness and underlines his weaknesses as an author.
Came the Dawn, meanwhile, collects the Shock SuspenStories "preachies" with a few early (and really not very good) horror stories thrown in for good measure (and perhaps to see how far Wood came along in such a short span of time). It seems an odd choice to highlight Wood's work given that he's best known for the sci-fi material he did with EC. It's a choice made even odder given how banal and overwrought the Shock material is.
The "preachies" were little morality tales dealing with race, corruption, police brutality, drug abuse and other social issues, usually given the O.Henry type of twist ending so beloved by Feldstein and Gaines. These reveals would usually be of the stupefying kind one could see coming a mile away that added little to the story . To wit: the anti-Semite accidentally discovers that he was adopted and his biological parents were Jewish! The bigot turns his back on a neighbor of mixed race ... only to discover that an African-American had given him a life-saving blood transfusion as a child!
While Feldstein, Wood and company certainly deserve credit for being willing to openly discuss these issues at a time just about every other cartoonist and comic book publisher was quietly sweeping their Sambo caricatures under the rug and whistling out of the side of their mouths, it doesn't change the fact that these stories are horribly overwritten, didactic in the extreme and often self-righteous (one story about a young man gone bad shows his self-absorbed parents tearing up his horror comics in disgust), with the few ethnic characters taking on silent, saintly, martyr-like roles (the flip side of Sambo to be sure).
There's also a sexism and misogyny that runs through Dawn that's more than a little creepy. The title story deals with a man who stumbles into at first what seems to be a Penthouse Forum fantasy only to become convinced his dream girl is not to be trusted, with --- ho hum -- deadly consequences. The Assault is even more disconcerting, as it features mob violence (a favorite reoccurring motif for Feldstein) in the service of a seemingly abused teen girl who (of course) turns out to be a conniving slut and seductress. That's not even mentioning the scenes of women being tied up and whipped by Klu Klux Klan figures not once but twice in Under Cover! and The Whipping. Clearly, these guys have some issues they needed to work out.
Of course, the central draw of this volume is Wally Wood. And yes, Wood's art, particularly in the later "preachy" stories, is exemplary. His rich, intensely detailed scenes, exemplary use of shadow and contrast and curvaceous women are all on ample display here. But you know what? I'm really tired of reading comics where, well, the art is good but the story's lackluster. Or vice versa. Or having to graciously overlook some rather large defects in order to best appreciate a particular artist's work. I've had it with mitigating my enjoyment of this medium.
There was a time in my life (my adolescence to be exact) that I agreed with the general consensus and regarded EC, as Groth put it, "a significant benchmark in quality comics." Re-reading them now, however, I wonder what exactly it was that captivated me so. A few stellar moments in Imjin aside, it's certainly hard to regard this -- particularly the material in Came the Dawn -- as worth of the praise that's been lavished upon it.
EC is an important historical publisher. You can draw a straight line from their work to the work of underground cartoonists like Robert Crumb, Spain Rodriguez, Art Spiegelman. For that reason alone these comics should be studied and discussed and I'm grateful to Fantagraphics for getting these works out into the general public. But the sort of hagiography that has existed up till now regarding EC needs to be suffocated once and for all. If we are going to include EC in the comics canon at all, then we need to do so with a more critical and careful eye. We need a scalpel when selecting EC's best, where up until now we've been content to use a steam shovel.