[GoH] The Fall of E.C. Comics

“Gutter of Horror” is a Brazilian column from DinamoStudio website that talks about horror comics.

This is the translated version of the article.

The backlash against horror comics began way back in the early days when the genre was popular within the pulps (more on that here). Parents, religious authorities and teachers worried about the potential negative effects to children – although that kind of comics was not made for them, adolescent and teens were a big audience for horror comics. But the situation was lead and highlighted by the publication of two 1948 articles from Dr. Fredric Wertham: “Horror in the Nursery” e “The Psychopathology of Comic Books”. At that time, some crimes committed by teenagers were seen as similar to crimes featured in comics and parents started to target the medium – not so different from what we've seen in recent years with blaming films or video games for acts of violence.

But it was really in 1954 that things got ugly, especially after the publication of Wertham’s book, “Seduction of the Innocent”. What happens is that Wertham, realizing that his worst patients were comic book readers, deduced that it was the stories featured in comics that was driving them to delinquency. Add to this, the creation of a Congress hearing about juvenile delinquency highly promoted in the press ended up targeting comics and popularize the fear of the medium. The nationwide backlash harmed distributors and put some publishers out of business. Comic book industry got scared and Comics Code Authority was created, a tool to regulate what could and couldn’t be done in a comics book.

Bill Gaines and E.C. Comics were particularly affected by it since the seal eventually become what censors wanted: a weapon to censor everything that they didn’t thought was appropriate. That included absurd demands as to prohibiting using words like “horror”, “terror” and “weird” on the covers of any comic. Most of E.C.’s titles had those and other terms that was forbidden and distributors refuse to pick E.C’s titles up – even those who were highly popular - marking the beginning of the end for the company. Gaines ceased publication of its 3 horror comics and SuspenStory titles. All this happen still in 1954.

Trying to survive, E.C changed focus to stories based on real life professions such as M.D. and Psychoanalysis. It also renamed its remaining science fiction titles but, since the previous issues didn’t carry the seal of the Comics Code, distributors refuse to sell it. After consulting with his team, Gaines, reluctant, send the comics for the Codes’ evaluation and then all titles in this “new direction” got the seal after its second issues. But the titles were not successful enough and ended up being cancelled after just a few issues.

Several were the battles that Bill Gaines had to fight with the Comics Code Authority to keep his publications free from censorship and many were the times he had to face awkward questions from people who weren’t interested in take care of National Security but to point fingers at something to blame it for America’s problems at the time.  When the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency was created, it was presided by Senator Estes Kefauver, which was nothing more than an opportunist searching for self-promotion – years before he had gain fame by having presided the audience with the Mob boss Frank Costelo, that were broadcasted on TV – and Gaines was the only one that testifying in favor of all the Comic Industry. Alone and being target by a horde of giant monsters, Gaines wouldn’t stand a chance.

In one of the most notorious and bizarre stories related to EC and the Code, Gaines threatened to sue Judge Charles Murphy, who was the Comics Code head at the time, because of a demand given by him to change the science fiction story “Judgment Day”, published in Incredible Science Fiction #33 – which were a reprint of a story published in pre-Comic Code Weird Fantasy that took the place of an original story already rejected by the code. The problem with this story? The main character was black. The story in question followed a human astronaut, representative of Galactic Replubic, visiting a planet inhabited by robots. He finds them divided in blue and orange races that were functionally identical, but one of them has more privileges and rights than the other. The astronaut decided that we couldn’t admitted the planet among the members of the Galactic Republic since they were not overcome their prejudices yet. Only in the final panel we see the astronaut taking his helmet and reveling himself to the reader as a black man. Murphy wanted the black astronaut was removed, even if this was not actually a real reason within the Comics Code rules. Of course Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein (the writer of the story) fought and tried to sue Charles Murphy: by removing the character, the whole story loses its meaning. But in one of the few small victories in those dark times, E.C. won and the judge ended up seeing the "Judgment Day" published in its original form.

Incredible Science Ficion # 33 was the last title published by E.C. Gaines once again shift his focus to what was called “picto-fiction”, a line of titles in black and white with illustrated stories, and tried to rewrite some stories previously published by E.C. But that didn’t pan out and, when E.C’s national distributor went bankrupt, Gaines cancelled all titles – except MAD, since it was a magazine and this format was outside the constraints of the Comics Code. It was the end of and era. The Legay of E.C. Comics was never forgotten, but after the Comics Code Authority, American Comic book Industry was never the same.

Rafael Algures is a Bachelor of Philosophy specialized in Neurosciences of Language. He is also a copywriter, content and science writer, and a comic book creator. His latest work, “Gutter of Horror: Transition”, is available at Amazon – digital and paperback.

Further reading: Tales of Terror!: The EC Companion, by Fred Von Bernewitz and Grant Geissman
                             [GoH] The rise of E.C. Comics
                             [GoH] The peak of E.C. Comics