When comics fans think of horror comics, it’s only natural to turn to Entertaining Comics (EC), the publisher behind the iconic Tales from the Crypt, Vault of Horror, and Haunt of Fear. These fright-fests are so embedded in the comics consciousness that it’s easy to forget they were published 60 years ago. It’s also easy to forget that EC did not have a monopoly on the monstrous. In Four Color Fear: Forgotten Horror Comics of the 1950s, editors John Benson and Greg Sadowski and publisher Fantagraphics drive a stake into the notion that EC was the only game in town. From Benson’s introduction:
Yet the EC titles represented a mere seven per cent of the total 1950s horror comics output. What about the rest? Is it really possible that they were all so inconsequential that none merit a second look, even though they held 93 per cent of the genre? Truth to tell, many were pretty bad…But larger companies like Avon, Fawcett, Harvey, Quality, St. John and Standard also published horror comics, often exhibiting high standards and using excellent artists and writers, with a wide range of pictorial and narrative styles.
And Benson isn’t exaggerating when it comes to the artwork. This hefty, oversized paperback features illustrations by Basil Wolverton, Frank Frazetta, Joe Kubert, Al Williamson, and many others. From 1949-1954, these strange, demented tales operated without the dreaded Comics Code, and the artists and writers were free to let their imaginations run late into the graveyard, granting life to stories like “The Corpse That Came to Dinner” and “The Slithering Horror of Skontong Swamp.” While the flesh rots and the blood flows freely, some stories do tend to rely on the now-predictable twist in the last panel, but there are others that seem sprung from the nightmares of their creators, like “Green Horror,” for example, which features a murderous cactus. Wolverton’s aptly-titled “Nightmare World” is unsettling in its Dali-esque backgrounds and freakish visuals, while the atypical Frazetta story (with Sid Check) would have escaped me if not for the annotated table of contents. It looks very different from the late fantasy legend’s usual painted fare and is a bizarre footnote in his body of work.
There are enough goofy and ghoulish vignettes to satisfy the most bloodthirsty readers, and as an added bonus there is a palate cleanser in the middle: a glossy cover gallery, featuring the titillating, grotesque, and macabre images that likely caused as many scares as the interiors. (Oddest sensational cover text has to go to Witches Tales No. 25 [left], which boasts “Weird Yarns of Unseen Terrors”--presumably “unseen” until the reader opens the book? I’m not entirely sure.)
I spent several evenings skipping through the book and reading stories that happened to catch my eye (and drag it down the hall, yuck, yuck), and I was impressed by the economics of storytelling. Chapter after chapter, whole narratives began and ended within three to four pages; quite the difference from contemporary “decompressed” comics, where the storytelling takes a much more cinematic approach, focusing on dramatic moments rather than quickly capturing a reader, telling a story, and moving onto the next. Not only are the stories rich with text, but there is an extensive 20-page “Notes” section in the back that offers behind-the-scenes details and trivia on many of the tales. It’s such a packed package that it may very well last through next October, unless rightfully gobbled up after midnight, long after the trick-or-treaters have retreated to their safe havens. Thankfully, these zombies of old can now lurk atop bedside tables and in four color--the next bite only a page away.