The other day, there was a link in the Random News Round Up section of Tom Spurgeon’s always great The Comics Reporter to an essay in the New Yorker by art spiegelman on revered EC Comics artist Bernard Krigstein. I came to a total stop in my light reading of it at this sentence…
…Krigstein was a true intellectual. He would have had more in common with the staff of Partisan Review or Commentary than he did with his colleagues on Nyoka the Jungle Girl, Space Patrol, and Strange Tales of the Unusual.
No, not because I’m not familiar with the Partisan Review (uh, I’m not…); it was the list of then contemporary comicbooks. The last one in particular. Strange Tales of the Unusual! You’ve got to be putting me on. art snuck that in there in a mischievous fit after too many slices at Ben’s Pizza. No freaking way. That’s like having a comic called Exciting Stories of The Spectacular… except much, much more dull. It might have well have been called Interesting Anecdotes of the Peculiar.
OK. Sure enough, after a little searching I find out that “Strange Tales of the Unusual” had a dozen or so issues from one of Martin Goodman’s 50s comicbook imprints. You can see the covers on The TIMELY-ATLAS Cover Gallery : Blake Bell’s Visual Tour Of Marvel’s “Horror” Books. Here’s the first one:
At first they’re kinda funny in that lame ironic sort of way. Many of the covers repeat these type of not very interesting teases, with such snoozer titles as “Man Afraid!”, “Those Who Plan!”, and “The Long Wait!”… always with the quotes and exclamation point. I’d guess they’re tales of people driven to such heights of paranoia by the cold war that the slightest irregularity in the daily routine would drive them to the brink of madness, sort of like the situation of the housewives in countless infomercials who shake their heads in disgust that performing the most common of household tasks invariably causes embarrassing and messy accidents.
Eventually it had to dawn on me the climate of the times, and I realized just how sad this all was. The strange and unusual situation of trying to make a horror comic without any horror. The seal of the Comics Code Authority was in effect, and zombies, decapitation and injury to the eye motifs were a thing of the past. After a time the creators of these tepid thrillers realized that they could go a long way with the weird and monstrous, and some innovation was forced to occur. At EC they were lucky to have Krigstein, who produced his comics masterpiece ‘Master Race’ under the code.
Given much of our current cultural climate it seems timely that we now have a more detailed record of those times and the factors that led to comicbooks coming under the scrutiny of the US Congress, David Hajdu’s new book The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America. I haven’t read it yet, but I’m sure it’s pretty good!