Happy Halloween everyone!
A while ago we did a write up of an old comic book publisher called Camera Comics and since that post did pretty well so we decided to do something similar. Today we’re going to talk about a comic book publisher from the 1940’s, but this publisher isn’t obscure or unknown. In fact, this publisher was one of the greatest comic book companies ever created, a company that pioneered the comic book as an art form, and one of the founding fathers of the horror comic.
Ladies and gentlemen: EC Comics.
The company was founded by a man named Maxwell Gaines.
If you don’t know the name you definitely know his work. Gaines actually helped pioneer the modern comic book in 1933 when he worked for a company called Eastern Color Printing and was struggling to come up with an advertising idea for one of his company’s clients. He would up packaging newspaper comic strips into a magazine format with an included coupon from the client.
In 1934 Gaines published a collection of stories called Famous Funnies through a company called Dell Comics.
It was the first book of its kind to be distributed through newsstands and is widely considered to be the first American comic book.
Gaines would continue to publish original material and in 1938 he partnered with a man named Jack Liebowitz
and began publishing material under the name All American Publications.
Liebowitz just so happened to be a co owner of another comic book publisher named Harry Donenfeld, who owned a company called National Publications and agreed to fund All American Publications. Gaines and Liebowitz would go on to publish little known characters such as
In 1944 Donenfeld would buy All American Publications and merge it with National (and several other companies) to form a company called DC Comics.
While many people would have probably have just taken the money and enjoyed the retired life secure in their legacy, Max Gaines wasn’t done by a long shot.
Gaines used the money from the sale to start his own company: Educational Comics.
Gaines decided to not focus on superhero stories and published educational and historical stories instead. Titles like Picture Stories from American History and Picture Stories from the Bible were going to be published and marketed to schools and churches.
While it could have been a great direction for the company to go in, the plans were sadly derailed when Max Gaines died in a boating accident in 1947.
The company would be taken over by his son, William Gaines.
William wanted to take the company in a new direction. While he kept the Bible stories he decided to change the name to Entertaining Comics and publish non educational material.
The new EC Comics quickly gained a reputation as a publisher of high quality comic books. Among their many innovations was a letter section in the back of a comic book where artists could communicate with their fans. This was a first in the publishing industry and would go on to become a staple of comic books.
Another thing that EC did was adopt the novel idea that their artist SHOULDN’T be treated like complete and total garbage. This may seem like a strange thing to bring up but you have to remember that a lot of early comic book publishers didn’t pay their artists very well and didn’t give them the credit they deserve. EC was unique in that it paid their artists well and encouraged them to develop their own styles and techniques.
This paid off big time. EC Comics attracted some fantastic artists for their stories about more mature subject matter such as crime,
and science fiction.
But by far their biggest sellers were their horror titles such as The Vault of Horror
The Haunt of Fear,
and most infamously, Tales from the Crypt.
These weren’t your average comic book story. More often than not they would feature tales of wicked people suffering gruesome and ironic fates which were narrated by macabre individuals such as the Crypt Keeper.
Times were good and in the late 1940’s EC comics became known for its fantastic art and lurid storytelling.
So what happened?
In a perfect world EC Comics would have gone on to become one of the greatest and most popular comic book companies in the world and would have helped to advance the medium of comic books into a legitimate art form.
Unfortunately we don’t live in a perfect world and in 1954 a German psychologist named Fredric Wertham published a book called Seduction of the Innocent, which claimed that comic books were corrupting the minds of American children.
The backlash grew so strong that there was a Congressional hearing to investigate the rise of juvenile delinquency in America and the comic book industry suffered.
In response, the industry leaders banded together and created the Comics Code Authority. It was a regulatory body that established certain guidelines for what could be published and distributed to children. A company could still create any comic they wanted, but if they wanted to get it distributed they had to submit it to the Comics Code for approval and get a stamp if they wanted to see their book sold to make a profit.
The Code decimated the industry and EC comics was hit especially hard since you were no longer allowed to publish comics with words like “horror”, “crime”, or “terror”. You can read the full list of limitations here.
Despite poor sales and a decimated title library, EC Comics did manage to survive. Despite the fact they couldn’t publish any of their old comics they had a small title simply titled Mad.
Gaines decided to publish the title as a magazine, thus avoiding the Comics Code, and the new Mad Magazine continued to sell well and is still around today.
Gaines would sell EC Comics to the Kinney Parking Company in the early 1960’s. The history of that deal is way to complicated for this article but long story short, EC Comics would eventually be owned by the same company would later own DC Comics and Warner Communications.
William Gaines would die in 1992 and despite all the terrible things that happened to the company that he and his father built, the one thing that is ensured is their legacy and great comic book creators. Even though they had been decimated by the backlash against comic books in the 1950’s EC comics still had a fantastic reputation among fans and creators alike.
In the 1970’s Tales from the Crypt was licensed as a horror movie.
The movie followed the anthology style of the comic books and was a big enough hit to spawn another movie based off of the EC Comics title The Vault of Horror.
In the 1980’s there were two movies titled Creepshow and Creepshow 2. Both of them followed the EC horror comics format, both of them were influenced by EC Comic stories, and featured scripts written by Stephen King and George Romero.
In the 1990’s HBO would take Tales from the Crypt and turn it into a long running horror anthology series that lasted for ten years.
The legacy of EC Comics would be ensured, but if you’re interested in reading the original work then have no fear, reprints are here. While many publishers have made a killing off of reprinting these fantastic stories they are currently being republished by Fantagraphics Books.
In a world where superheroes dominated the comic book landscape EC comics dared to be different. To this day they are well known for their fantastic art work and exceptional storytelling abilities. They were the founders of the modern horror comic and deserve a place as one of the greatest, and most chilling, comic book publishers out there.
Happy Halloween everyone, sleep well.