Golden Age Showcase: The Purple Zombie

So we lost one of the greats yesterday: George A. Romero.

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While he did create other films and was a fervent activist throughout his life, the man will always be remembered as the founding father of the zombie movie.

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Fun fact: after he made his first film Night of the Living Dead Romero screwed up some paper work with the copyright office and as a result, the film is now in the public domain.  You can watch it for free and I highly recommend it.

Yes, zombies are a pop culture staple nowadays.  While their time as the dominant force of pop culture has waned, they’re still around making boatloads of money, especially in the comic book world.

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So I thought it might be fun to talk about one of the earliest zombies in comic books, and how different a walking corpse from the 1940’s was from the present day walking corpse.

Today we’re talking about the Purple Zombie.

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Origin and Career

The Purple Zombie made his first appearance in Eastern Publishing’s Reg’lar Fellers Heroic Comics #1 in August of 1940.

Comic Book Cover For Reg'lar Fellers Heroic Comics #1

The character was created by Tarpe Mills, which was a pen name for Golden Age writer and artist June Mills.

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Mrs. Mills was actually the first lady to create a female superhero, a black cat costumed heroine named Miss Fury.

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Let it be said that the early comic book scene wasn’t entirely dominated by male New Yorkers, it was just mostly dominated by them.

When reading the Purple Zombie stories you can actually see a lot of tropes that plague (pun intended) the modern zombie.  He was created by a mad scientist named Dr. Malinsky who was seeking to create an unstoppable army in order to take over the world,

Comic Book Cover For Reg'lar Fellers Heroic Comics #1

However, it’s worth mentioning that there is no specific mention of how this zombie was created.

After establishing himself as an evil bastard, Dr. Malinsky realizes that he has the same problem Dr. Frankenstein had, that his creation realizes what it is and isn’t all that fond of his purpose.  The creation bypasses years of therapy and emotional issues by strangling his creator.

Comic Book Cover For Reg'lar Fellers Heroic Comics #1

You’ll notice three things that make this guy different.  First, he’s bulletproof and super strong, thus avoiding the trope of zombies that need to be shot in the head and who are only effective in large groups.  Second, he’s surprisingly articulate for a zombie and has no need or desire to consume the brains of the living.  Third, his skin looks more black than purple which…raises a lot of very icky moral questions that are a bit more unsavory today than they would have been seventy years ago.

Nevertheless, this zombie sets out to find the people who backed his creation and remove them from the face of the Earth.

Comic Book Cover For Reg'lar Fellers Heroic Comics #1

It’s never mentioned who the backers were working for, but with a name like Otto Von Heim it’s safe to assume they were working for the Nazis.

In a rather interesting twist, this zombie was actually captured and sentenced to death for the murders.

Comic Book Cover For Reg'lar Fellers Heroic Comics #2

This is where he gets his purple skin, and his jailers realize that he can’t be killed.

The zombie is released into the care of Malinsky’s former assistant and swears to do nothing bug good from here on out.

Comic Book Cover For Reg'lar Fellers Heroic Comics #2

Again, some kind of uncomfortable racial overtones here (it’s worth mentioning that pre Romero zombies were often associated with African or “voodoo” religions) but as origin stories go it’s pretty fleshed out and well done for the Golden Age.

Sadly, the zombie’s brush with organized crime wasn’t over.  Realizing that a large, bulletproof, super strong, nearly unkillable monster could be useful in committing crimes a gangster named Joe Coroza kidnapped the Purple Zombie in an attempt to use him as a weapon.

Comic Book Cover For Reg'lar Fellers Heroic Comics #2

His human friend tries to rescue him, but is forced to contend with an army of mechanized skeletons as well as the gangsters.

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However, it turns out that the man who created the moving skeletons was actually a good guy and the Purple Zombie decided to join forces with him and go off to fight in Europe for the forces of democracy.

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It’s nice to know that the idea of using creatures more often associated with horror to do good is older than a lot of people think.

Comic Book Cover For Reg'lar Fellers Heroic Comics #5

The plan is a success and the Zombie and his skeleton pals successfully stop the death ray from killing thousands more.  Their solution…cold blooded murder.

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After successfully defeating the death ray and single handily winning the war (I assume) the heroes find themselves forced to land in a mysterious lab.

Comic Book Cover For Reg'lar Fellers Heroic Comics #7

It turns out that the scientist forced them to land there so he could show them their time machine and in the very next page… Comic Book Cover For Reg'lar Fellers Heroic Comics #7

Jesus, this comic jumps around more than an over caffeinated toddler.

The two find themselves in 64 A.D in the middle of the Roman Empire.

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The Romans do the surprisingly sensible thing and declare these two strangers to be madmen.  They also understand modern English.

Thankfully, lions are no match for the two.

Comic Book Cover For Reg'lar Fellers Heroic Comics #8

Unfortunately, they now have to contend with the entire city of Rome burning.

Thankfully, they are saved by the actions of their colleagues in the present day who manage to transport them out of danger into the Medieval Ages.

Comic Book Cover For Reg'lar Fellers Heroic Comics #9

It turns out they’ve landed straight in the middle of the Crusades and wind up meeting King Richard I of England.

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They would have been on good terms if it wasn’t for their sudden transportation to the court of Queen Elizabeth I.

Comic Book Cover For Reg'lar Fellers Heroic Comics #10

Honestly, I don’t know if the author is trying to be educational, or if she’s just name dropping random historical figures who were popular at the time.

They meet up with Sir Francis Drake while he’s bowling,

Comic Book Cover For Reg'lar Fellers Heroic Comics #10

(fun side note: the story is that Sir Francis was supposedly bowling when he received news of the Armada so props for possible historical accuracy)

and the two men help him defeat the Spanish Armada until they’re whisked away to the French Revolution.

Comic Book Cover For Reg'lar Fellers Heroic Comics #11

I’m beginning to think the scientists controlling the time machine hate our protagonists.

The two suffer through one more trip into prehistoric times,

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and then they’re transported back to the modern day where it is revealed that the Purple Zombie wasn’t actually dead to begin with.  He was actually faking his death in order to escape and wound up becoming an unwitting participant in the original experiments.

Comic Book Cover For Reg'lar Fellers Heroic Comics #12

So I guess you could argue that the Purple Zombie wasn’t actually a zombie.

Goddammit.

So what happened?

The page above is the last page we would ever see of the Purple Zombie.

We’ve talked about Eastern Publishing before and how it was going through a rather turbulent time in the late 1940’s when it merged with a bunch of other publishers to become Standard Publishing and eventually stopped making comics in the 1950’s.

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But even if Eastern Publishing had survived, I think that the Purple Zombie would have been doomed anyway.  For starters there were companies in the 1940’s who were using zombies and monsters much more effectively and with much better artwork.

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And even if the Purple Zombie had managed to become more popular, it stood no chance against the backlash against comics in the 1950’s that wound up creating the Comics Code.

With that being said I actually like the Purple Zombie.  While he had a pretty average power set and wasn’t technically a zombie, he had a pretty good back story and enough heart and dedication to be a pretty good superhero.

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Comic book company showcase: EC comics

Happy Halloween everyone!

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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.

Origin

The company was founded by a man named Maxwell Gaines.

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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.

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In 1934 Gaines published a collection of stories called Famous Funnies through a company called Dell Comics.

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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

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and began publishing material under the name All American Publications.

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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

Wonder Woman

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Green Lantern

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and Hawkman

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In 1944 Donenfeld would buy All American Publications and merge it with National (and several other companies) to form a company called DC Comics.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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,

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war,

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and science fiction.

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But by far their biggest sellers were their horror titles such as The Vault of Horror

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The Haunt of Fear,

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and most infamously, Tales from the Crypt.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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