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EC Comics was a gem of a comic book line in the early 1950s that housed some greats like Al Feldstein, Wally Wood, Al Williamson, Reed Crandall, Marie Severin and more. They were an upstart company that was willing to challenge the status quo of DC Comics as the comics industry boss, and bring intelligent, graphic adult storytelling to comics delivering some shock value, but also some of the most sophisticated American comics ever made. Boasting titles like Tales from the Crypt, which had its own hbo TV series in the 1990s,Shock SuspenStories, Wierd Science and more, they werent afraid to pull social punches, and generally delivered great anthology books for people of all ages to read. In honor of EC Comics and its owner Bill Gaines lets go over a short historical overview of this comics line from beginning to end to try to answer the question, What is EC Comics?
EC Comics was founded by Max Gaines who co-owned All-American Comics, and was eventually marginalized out by Jack Liebowitz, when he sold his shares before it merged with National Publications later known as DC Comics. Max Gaines maintained the Picture Stories of the Bible and started Educational Comics in 1944 representing both Biblical and American Histories as well as a book on Science.
Max Gaines company was roughly 100,000$ in debt when he died in a boat crash and his son Bill Gaines, a chemistry student hoping to be a teacher hesitantly took over in 1947.
Bill Gaines changed Educational Comics to Entertaining Comics hoping to catch on the popular genre’s of the time showcasing several comics including Superhero’s with Moon Girl, Crime/Magic with Blackstone the Magician Fights Crime and Western’s with Gunfighter. Moongirl ran for 12 issues going from superhero to crime to romance, then becomes Weird Fantasy with issue 13. Blackstone was based on a real life magician and lasted 3 issues. Gunfighter ran for 9 issues and got retitled to the Haunt of Fear. International Crimes became Crime Patrol and went for 16 total issues until issue 17 when it became Crypt of Terror.
These comics also struggled to find their place in the market, as Bill Gaines admirably took on some risk to find a hit, there were very few buyers. As Gaines was going through this at EC, Al Feldstein was at Victor Fox comics for a couple years penciling and writing teenager comics such as this one, Junior in 1948 which were meant to be Archie knock offs. Covers like this show that Feldstein knew what adolescent teenage boys were probably looking for as he wasnt afraid to get a bit smutty.
Bill Gaines was looking for new talent and hired Al Feldstein later in 1948, and they both rubbed off on each other and decided to take EC Comics into a new Trend when Feldstein became editor in 1950.
Popular taste in Genre changes. As Western / Romance was losing steam at EC Comics, Harry Harrison and Wally Wood pushed Bill Gaines, a fan of sci-fi pulps like Astounding Stories, and editor Al Feldstein to change a couple of low selling books to science fiction in 1950 and hence Western Romances and A Moon, A Girl.. Romance were changed to Weird Science and Weird Fantasy. The Crime Patrol became Crypt of Terror which became Tales from the Crypt in 1950. Since Crime comics could have grotesque endings, it wasnt difficult to transition those morality tales to horror and the gorier it got, the better it sold. For Gaines and Feldstein it was full throttle ahead, and the money from the horror comics paid for the intellectual pursuit of the sci-fi books which hosted stories by sci-fi authors like Ray Bradbury. Tastes in sci fi dwindled and to consolidate talent and genre, the two books combined into Weird Sience Fantasy 23, 1953 which lasted another 5 issues. Frontline Combat and Two-Fisted tales were started by Harvey Kurtzman in 1950 and 51 who wanted to show how War took advantage of its soldiers, which drew some federal scrutiny, and still even today those stories read with a great deal of humanity and inner conflict. Harvey Kurtzman and Bill Gaines also started up MAD Comics in 1952 and with the talents of people like Wally Wood and Jack Davis became a big seller with its satirical humor.
Unfortunately the violence from comic books, notably in the Horror and Crime books brought about attention from Senators and concerned family groups who suddenly found themselves listening to Frederic Wertham who professed that these comics were responsible for Juvenile Delinquency. As we discussed in the Frederic Wertham episode, both Bill Gaines, under the influence of amphetamines and Frederic Wertham testified at these Democrat Senator Estes Kefauver hearings, and all this commotion resulted in the 1954 formation of the Comics Code Authority, a private company organized under executives from both DC Comics and Archie comics who had wholesome comics and administrator Judge Murphy. This would serve as a non-federal, private, self regulatory agency of private comics people who would lay down a set of rules and stick to it, making newsstand distributors less skittish about selling comics to kids.
Unfortunately since the comics code made rules to make comics look and act alot like DC Comics or Archie comics, and take away horror or crime comics, EC Comics dropped their horror and crime comics, and focused on code friendly genres in what Bill Gaines deemed the New Direction.
Bill Gaines from EC initially refused to accept Judge Murphy’s Comics Code Authority and created a New Direction in Comics without the CCA seal in March 1955.
The New Direction comics were more adult real world stories that didn’t sell as well. Due to EC’s public relations disaster of the Senate Comics hearings, distributors/wholesalers/newsstands refused to sell those comics and Gaines eventually accepted the code. Even with a later Comics Code Authority symbol, comic distributors would send packages of unsold books back. Due to ongoing friction between Gaines and Murphy, notably over the Judgement Day panel being reprinted due to it having a sweaty African American male,
he left the code and focused on his magazine line. In 1955, through Harvey Kurtzman’s suggestion, Bill Gaines changed Mad Comics to Mad Magazine with its 24th issue which turned the series wildly successful.
Mad Comics did well in becoming a Magazine to stay above the Comics code limitations, so Gaines tried to convert the Horror, Crime, Romance and Shock comics to Magazines geared toward Adults. This was EC Picto-Fiction 1955-1956 (only 2-3 issues each), which ultimately did not sell well but leaves us with some incredible art to review years later.
When EC had their last ditch effort with Picto Fiction in 1955, they had their stable of artists give it their all with beautiful black and white illustrations. Although it was more of a pulp style narrative, rather than a word balloon comic, at times they still had the standard EC comic morality tale shock ending as shown here in Crime Illustrated 1, 1955 with art by Reed Crandall and story by John Larner.
1956 Shock Illustrated 4 had its plug pulled by EC Comics’ Publisher Bill Gaines due to large numbers of books being returned to him without distributors actually delivering the magazine series to news stands to be sold. This was felt by Gaines and Feldstein to be an incredible disappointment and artists working in mid stream of a story were told there wasnt any point in finishing since the line was cancelled. One unfinished work by Frank Frazetta has segments shown here, and the main hero looks both like him as well as his news strip character, Johnny Comet.
The problem with these, and what differentiates them from the later Jim Warren Creepy and Eerie Comic Magazines from the 1960s, is that the picto-fiction books were not comics, and although they sported awesome EC Bullpen art, the reading style was more similar to pulp fiction of the 1930s, as opposed to Mad magazine which was still in comic format. After this failure, Bill Gaines folded the EC Comics line, and it was kaput, and instead focused on his wildly successful Mad Magazine. Harvey Kurtzman quit Mad to join Hugh Hefner at Trump magazine, which folded after two issues, and Al Feldstein who lost his editor job at EC Comics, and worked at Atlas for a short time, found himself as Editor of Mad magazine which was abandoned by Kurtzman. Reunited again, Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein took Mad Magazine to soaring levels of popularity and success.
Bill Gaines sold MAD to Kinney Parking Company in the early 1960s and that same company bought National Publications aka DC Comics later that same decade, and Gaines became a Kinney board member and could run Mad with no interference. Feldstein retired as editor in 1985, and Bill Gaines managed Mad for decades and died in 1992.
This has been a fun episode of CBH, it was meant to act as an overview of the history of EC Comics through its transformations from Educational Comics, to Entertaining Comics, to its New Trend, then New Direction then to Picto-Fiction, and the cream of Mad rising to the top economically. To know EC Comics, is to familiarize oneself with the incredible artists, and to know the kooky and talented writers like Feldstein and Kurtzman, and the overarching goofball publisher, Bill Gaines who had a great time with some stresses, overseeing it and letting it all happen becoming the success of which his father always dreamed..
Learn more about EC Comics Horror Comics line at our CBH Podcast episode 14.
Learn more about EC Comics Science Fiction line at our CBH Podcast episode 15.
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All EC Comics ©Gaines Estate, MAD ©DC Comics, All Photos ©Their Respective Copyright holders, Came The Dawn ©Frank Frazetta Estate
Use of images are not intended to infringe on copyright, but merely used for academic purpose.