Friday, September 18, 2020

Booksteve Reviews: The History of EC Comics by Grant Geissman

There are comics fans and then there are EC Comics fans. To say one is a comic book fan does not necessarily mean they like EC Comics. Conversely, to say one is an EC Comics fan may well mean that person is almost exclusively a fan of EC Comics. 

For the most part, EC Comics fans are and always have been some of the most organized, knowledgeable, creative, and downright nicest people I have ever run across in comics fandom. You know, pretty much the opposite of what was predicted by the late Dr. Wertham and those he so misguidedly stirred up back in the 1950s. 


If you aren’t familiar with EC Comics, the 1950s publisher was known for its particularly grisly horror comics, its sleek, thought-provoking science fiction, its social justice tales, its anti-war stories, and, finally, its astonishingly influential humor comics.


For the first few years I collected comic books, I was completely ignorant of EC except for Mad and, as an elementary school student, I only occasionally saw an issue of that and had no idea of the folks behind it. I first saw the three ghoulunatics—The Old Witch, the Crypt Keeper, and the Vault Keeper, when they appeared for a few panels in an issue of Marvel’s Not Brand Echh in 1968. Had no idea who they were. I picked up a few of the later editions of the first Mad paperbacks, too, but had no idea exactly what I had. 


Then I spotted the ads for Woody Gelman’s Horror Comics of the 1950s, forever revered by hardcore EC fans today as “The Big Book.” Only once did I ever see a copy in stores, though, and the dust jacket was badly torn so I didn’t buy it. 


My real introduction to EC Comics came when I discovered comics fandom. Alan Light’s Flashback was first, with several Wallace Wood science fiction stories reproduced in murky black and white scans from the original comics. Then I mailordered a copy of the program book for the one and only EC Convention because it had a fun and naughty cover, also by Wallace Wood, an artist whose work I already knew from Marvel, DC, and Tower Comics. The con book also had a well-chosen selection of reprints in the back. From there, things moved rapidly, as the Tales from the Crypt and Vault of Horror movies came out and articles about EC popped up with regularity in fandom and even in “real” newspapers. I learned of Dr. Fredric Wertham and his long-standing anti-comics movement. I even read a copy of Seduction of the Innocent via inter-library loan. (Didn’t believe a word of it!) I was a charter subscriber to the short-lived East Coast Comix project, which reprinted vintage EC issues in full and in color but with new text pages. Other EC-related fan projects were everywhere by the late 1970s, many of them from Russ Cochran via his direct line to EC Publisher William M. Gaines. There was even a hardcover biography of Gaines himself that briefly flirted with the bestseller lists!


It was Cochran, though, who truly resurrected EC Comics, spending several decades in contextually reprinting every single horror, science fiction, humor, etc. story that EC had ever published in quality, annotated, slipcased hardcovers from Gaines’ preserved collection of all the original art. 


All of which is a long-winded way of bringing us to today’s offering—an EC Comics fan’s wet dream—The History of EC Comics by Grant Geissman. Grant Geissman, you say? Sounds familiar. “Isn’t he a highly respected jazz guitarist?” Why, yes. Yes, he is. But he’s also highly respected as an EC Comics historian, having previously written or co-written more than a half dozen other books on EC and Mad, all from major publishers. 


This one is from Taschen, the German publisher that delights in putting out those amazing oversized art books dedicated to people, places, and things once thought not to deserve an amazing oversized art book. As with all Taschen books, this one offers beautiful design work. Comics being a visual medium, the entire book—about 600 pages—is perfectly designed to emphasize the colorful, visual history of EC Comics.


But the text isn’t lacking, either. Beginning well before the days of EC proper, Geissman walks us through the history of both M.C. Gaines and his son William M. Gaines, two people who had some major issues with each other but each of whom played several important parts in the overall history of comic books. 


We learn about All-American Comics and its connections to both DC and EC comics; we get the lowdown on Educational Comics and how it became Entertaining Comics; we revisit the infamous Congressional hearings on juvenile delinquency; we witness Mad becoming a cultural icon far and above its four-color beginnings. 


It’s all here. One could argue that some sections could have used more detail but that, of course, would make this huge book even bigger. The story of Mad could undoubtedly fill a volume this thick all on its own. No, Grant wisely gives us the big picture without getting bogged down in the smaller details. All the necessary points are there and all the major players are present and accounted for: Gaines, Feldstein, Kurtzman, Craig, Wood, Orlando, Evans, Ingels, Kamen, Krigstein, Davis, the Severins, Elder, Williamson, Torres, Krenkel, Frazetta, Ray Bradbury, and even the ever-fascinating Lyle Stuart. (There’s a man who deserves a book just about him. Is there one?)  


There’s not a naked page to be found. Every single one here is adorned with art, photos, or rare letters and documents, a large number of which were completely new to me, and all of which are annotated. Many well-known EC covers are printed in giant size, along with lots of original art, all with some of the best reproduction I’ve ever encountered. (The famous splash for “Food for Thought” by Williamson and Krenkel and friends looks astonishing!) A few seminal stories are reprinted in full including the quite literally legendary “Master Race” by Feldstein and Krigstein and “My World,” by Feldstein and Wood.


One of my favorite sections is the 75-page section at the back that shows the cover of every single comic book that could be called an original EC, in order by title and then number. Even the magazine version of Mad is covered up through issue 35. (Yes, I know the Grand Comics Database has all that, too, but here there’s no having to bounce between web pages and the images are much bigger!)


Sounds too good to be true, you say? Well, inevitably, any book of this size will contain errors. In this particular case, I found two. Choke! Gasp! Exactly two. Just…two. There may or may not be a few others but nothing else jumped out at me. That there were only two relatively minor errors that made it into a book this size is actually quite remarkable. And neither were really about EC. When it comes to the EC stuff, the man really knows what he’s talking about!  

What were those errors? Nope. I’m not gonna be that guy who reads hundreds of pages of greatness and then dwells on two errors. I’m here to celebrate this book! Ultimately, it comes across like the biggest and best darn EC fanzine ever! In the end, there wasn’t much information in it that I didn’t already know but to have it all in the same place like this, to view it all in perspective and in order, felt just amazing.  

If you’re a newcomer to EC, it goes without saying that this would be an excellent, if cost-prohibitive, jumping on point. If you’re one of those organized, knowledgeable, creative, and nice EC collectors I mentioned above, what are you waiting for? Sell your lesser-grade duplicates of Panic and Saddle Romances on eBay so you can afford to buy a copy of Grant Geissman’s The History of EC Comics.  

EC for me, see!


Booksteve recommends! 

Monday, September 07, 2020

Plan Nine From Outer Space--Coming Soon

 This piece from a 1959 monster mag actually manages to make the film often said to be the worst film ever made (although it isn't) sound like something worth looking forward to as its initial release neared.  

Wednesday, September 02, 2020

Dr. Rock and Mr. Roll-1965

Another fascinating movie that never was.


Monday, August 31, 2020

The Someday Funnies

I skipped this book, THE SOMEDAY FUNNIES, when it came out a few years back but only because I couldn't afford its $50 price. Ordered it last week, though, for FOUR BUCKS on Amazon! I assumed it was a used copy but it arrived today and it's a fresh, new, still sealed copy! I can't imagine why this didn't get more coverage when it was first published as it's quite the significant book! The stories were all done in the early 1970s ABOUT the 1960s...sort of. You get a never before published SPIRIT story by Will Eisner, Conan meets Shazam and Sherlock Holmes by Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor-Smith, a new Asterix story by Goscinny and Uderzo, Captain Marvel by Denny, Beck and Don Newton, Barbarella by Forest, and new works by scores and scores of others, both familiar and unfamiliar--Trina, Ralph Reese, Justin Green, Jeffery Catherine Jones, Vaughn Bode, Wallace Wood, Jack Kirby, Russ Heath, Gray Morrow, Guido Crepax, Shary Flenniken, Kim Deitch, Alan Kupperberg, and what may be one of the weirdest combos ever--Stan Goldberg and Dick Giordano illustrating a piece by Doug Kenney. Obviously, I haven't had time to read it yet but just looking through it, I'd have to say the results are mixed at best, but undeniably a major, fascinating project. And yet for some reason, it pretty much died on release. The new book smell alone is worth the four bucks. If you're a serious comics aficionado and think you know all the works by these guys, guess again.

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Mitzi in Cincinnati-1932

I never went to the Lookout House or the Beverly Hills Supper Club, both the sites of tragic fires in the end, but as a teen, I went to movies at Cincinnati's then down-on-its-luck RKO Albee a lot. As a singer, Mitzi Green would bring her act to both those other clubs over the years but back in its day, the RKO Albee was considered a major national showplace and thus was chosen to be the first stop on a promotional vaudeville tour for America's favorite child star of 1932.

Thursday, August 06, 2020

My First Beatles Songs

Mark Twain famously said that everything came to Cincinnati ten years after it had already hit everywhere else. Thus, Beatlemania to me was in the 1970s and Disco in the ‘80s. My first Beatle record was their last single, THE LONG AND WINDING ROAD. I had been only five years old when the Fabs first appeared on ED SULLIVAN. We watched THE SCARECROW OF ROMNEY MARSH on WALT DISNEY’S WONDERFUL WORLD OF COLOR that evening. I wasn’t completely oblivious to the Beatles music in the Swingin’ ‘60s, though. I simply never heard much of it then nor ascribed much importance to it when I did.

Here, in what I believe to be the correct order, were my first Beatles songs:

1)   HELP: I remember hearing it for the first time in 1975 on my Uncle Jim’s car radio as we drove to Virginia Beach. I thought it was great and it got me interested enough to watch the movie when it premiered on TV a couple years later.
2)   RUN FOR YOUR LIFE: Never a single but I remember hearing it on the radio in a corner grocery store down the street from where we were living in 1966. I didn’t pay any attention to the creepy words. I just liked the sound.
3)   TICKET TO RIDE: I have always loved a good snow scene and this song is in the snow scene in HELP, which became my favorite scene when I caught it on TV.
4)   WE CAN WORK IT OUT: My mother didn’t listen to Top 40 radio stations but I remember hearing and really liking this one on one of her more conservative stations early one morning before school, probably in ’67 or ’68. 
5)   PAPERBACK WRITER: Heard this one on the radio a few times in 1968 and it became a constant earworm, even though I couldn’t understand many of the lyrics.  
6)   YELLOW SUBMARINE: Has anyone ever heard this song and NOT liked it. I was a pushover for the marketing blitz when the YS movie came out and it became the first movie I ever saw without my parents, age 9. Went with my pal, Terry, and we had to stand in line that stretched down the block to Woolworth! Convinced my mom to go with me to see it again a week later! Bought the comic book, too!
7)   COME TOGETHER: I didn’t know what it meant (still don’t) but I particularly liked John’s multi-tracked vocal on the title words and I invested a lot of dimes (Three plays for a quarter) in the fall of 1969 playing this on the jukebox at Liberty Chili. 
8)   HEY, JUDE: It was early 1970 when I somewhere, somehow discovered this one and it became an absolute favorite. Not long after I bought my first Beatles single in April of 1970, my first Beatles LP was THE BEATLES AGAIN aka HEY JUDE, a then-new collection of singles and B sides that had never been on an album before.

Sunday, August 02, 2020

Help! I'm NOT Terry Gilliam

The other day I was digging through a box upstairs and ran across my actual physical copy of the issue of Harvey Kurtzman's HELP! seen here. It was one of the final issues, from when the young cartoonist Terry Gilliam had replaced Gloria Steinem as Assistant Editor. This issue is of particular interest as it contains a photo comic (fumetti) that stars a young British comic actor named John Cleese. Cleese was in the US on tour with other comedians from Cambridge and was asked to appear. Famously, this was when he first met Gilliam, which formed one of the seed that would eventually grow into Monty Python. And so call that Cleese was in the only issue that featured Terry Gilliam himself on the cover!

Only that's NOT Terry Gilliam.

I always thought it was Terry Gilliam. Looks like Terry Gilliam. The consensus on the Internet is that it's Terry Gilliam. But it's not. When someone posted a signed (by Terry Gilliam) copy in a Facebook group recently, it was pointed out that many people often mistakenly believe that Terry Gilliam is on the cover but that there's actually a photo inside of Terry with the cover model.

Having just found my own copy, I went and checked. Whaddaya know? There is! But, hey, you can't really see "Terry's" face in the photo and his name is listed first, as though he's on the left, where the cover guy is. Plus isn't the guy in the wet suit much thinner there than on the cover? Could Gilliam have replaced him as the model?

But then I found this post from a while back on Facebook, from the son of model John Massey, Sr.

As much as it seems like that should be Terry Gilliam on that cover, that's John Massey, Sr.
                                                       Not Terry Gilliam.