Forgotten Horror Comics of the 1950s: A Conversation with Historian Greg Sadowski
American horror comics had a very prosperous and very brief moment of popularity during the first half of the 1950s. But these comics were nearly driven to extinction in 1954, with the advent of the Comics Code Authority, a self-censorship body created because of public concern over the lurid content and presumably corrupting influence of horror comics.
When most readers consider horror comics, they inevitably think of EC’s three flagship titles: Tales from the Crypt, Haunt of Fear, and Vault of Horror. EC’s horror comics were the most popular of their kind, thanks in large part to publisher Bill Gaines–who along with his editorial staff was highly active in each issue’s presentation, story, and look.
But while EC had a reputation for professional, quality comics, I was surprised to learn, in the introduction to Four Color Fear: Forgotten Horror Comics of the 1950s, that EC only accounted for 7% of the total horror titles produced during that era. The rest came from lesser-known and currently extinct publishers like Harvey, Fawcett, and Avon.
Comic historian Greg Sadowski and his colleague John Benson (who wrote the introduction) compiled these lost horror comics into Four Color Fear, published by Fantagraphics. While the selections in the anthology are just as graphic, and occasionally even more so, than their EC counterparts, they are also markedly different. Unlike EC, whose editorial staff laid out the pages, artists working at other shops had more free reign. Many of the stories collected in Four Color Fear have a looser, occasionally cruder, and more indie-quality feel. They’re less weighed down by caption-heavy narration. And while they lack the professional slickness of EC’s output, the comics in Four Color Fear are way more madcap. If, for instance, you ever wanted to read a story about a lethal love triangle between a man, a woman, and a cactus, you’ll find it in this volume.
The following is The Faster Times’s conversation with Four Color Fear editor Greg Sadowski, conducted via email.
The Faster Times: You seemed to have a wealth of material to include in this collection. How easy or difficult was it to locate these forgotten horror comics?
Greg Sadowski: I was lucky with this one because (co-editor) John Benson had over 80% of these in his collection. John wrote the intro and was a tremendous help. The rest of the books came from a group of collectors who are always kind enough to help.
What were your considerations as you selected comics for Four Color Fear?
The quality of the writing was number one – each story had to be a compelling read. The art came second, though I think every story we chose has interesting art.
You mentioned you regret having to leave out legendary artist Steve Ditko’s work. Why didn’t he make the final cut?
Fantagraphics is reprinting all of Ditko’s early comics in separate volumes devoted entirely to the artist. We figured most people interested in that period would buy both books, and we wanted to give them the biggest bang for their buck.
EC seems to have been the most highly-regarded publisher of horror comics, even by its competitors. What specifically distinguished EC?
First and most importantly, EC’s success was due to publisher Bill Gaines. Everything runs down from the top. He surrounded himself with talented people and treated them with love and respect, and he loved publishing comics. When an artist arrived there and was accepted, he usually stayed.
Did the lesser known publishers like Avon, ACG, or Harvey have distinct styles (you describe EC’s general storytelling formula in the appendix) when it came to their horror comics?
Companies did tend to have a certain “house” look. Editor Sid Jacobsen at Harvey encouraged some of his artists to draw like EC artists. But as far as I know, EC was the only company whose editors (Al Feldstein and Harvey Kurtzman) laid out the story panels.
What was the demand for horror comics back in the 50s, compared to other genres?
I think horror outsold every genre except romance. The books were flying off the racks, which of course is why most companies published the genre.
Were most horror comics produced by studios or did publishers eventually create them in-house?
Most were created in-house, but a few came from outside packagers such as Jerry Iger and Bernard Baily.
What was the nature of the relationship between studios, like those run by Jerry Iger, and the publishers? Did the studios simply bundle comics together or did they work on commission, doing customized stories for each publisher?
In the early days (c. 1937-45) the shops often packaged the entire books, though some titles contained stories by different shops and were assembled by the publishers. By the late forties most publishers began running their own studios to eliminate the middle man. The shop system was on its way out by the horror period, with publishers hiring their own freelance artists and writers. I think Jerry Iger’s was the last to go, in the late 1950s.
Horror comics seemed to have a very brief heyday due to the adoption of the Comics Code Authority. Did you notice any evolution, from the early 50s until the mid-50s, in the way horror stories were told?
Well, like most commercial enterprises, the more you do something the more polished it becomes. This was certainly true at EC and Harvey. But at the fly-by-night companies, who were just trying to cash in on the craze, their style looks almost exactly the same from beginning to end.
Did the Comics Code Authority end horror comics for the publishers in Four Color Fear, or did they find ways to circumvent it, like CREEPY in the 60s?
Yes, the Comics Code (plus bad publicity and public opinion) ended the horror comics. CREEPY was able to circumvent the Code because it was a larger-sized black-and-white magazine, not a comic book. EC actually tried to do the same thing ten years earlier. Their horror magazines instantly failed, but MAD became an institution. So Gaines came out of it in good shape – one of the few.
You wrote that the first issue of EERIE “is now considered the very first true horror comic.” What distinguished EERIE from other previous attempts at horror?
Well, the one-shot EERIE 1 differed from the other attempts because in this case the entire book was devoted to horror. Before that, horror was featured as single stories in anthology comic books such as PUNCH and FUNNY PICTURE STORIES.
Did artists like Wally Wood, Joe Orlando, and Al Williamson have fan-followings or were their names only known by industry insiders?
Those three worked at EC, and EC was the first company to acknowledge their artists. They let them prominently sign their work, applauded them in the letters pages, and even featured full-page artist bios. So that’s where comic book fandom really began.
Were there any unique visual storytelling techniques that emerged from horror comics?
I think the genre in which one is working only incidentally inspires the creation of unique visual storytelling techniques. It always boils down to the talent of the individual artist, and his reaction to a particular script. It could just as easily be triggered by crime, romance, superhero, etc., as from horror.
Do you have a personal favorite in the collection?
I’ve always been a sucker for Basil Wolverton (above) and Jack Cole, so I’d say their group are my favorites.
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