EC Comics' publisher William Gaines, with the Crypt Keeper, the Old Witch, and the Vault Keeper.
A short-lived but influential publisher of Anthology Comic
EC Comics, aka "Entertaining Comics" and "Educational Comics", was founded in 1944 by Maxwell Gaines with the aim of producing fact-based comic books aimed at churches and schools. After his death in 1947, his son William Gaines inherited the business, producing comic books in typical genres: western, crime, romance. Starting in 1949, the younger Gaines began introducing the "New Trend" series focusing on horror (Tales From the Crypt
, The Vault of Horror
, The Haunt of Fear
), crime (Crime SuspenStories
), realistically depicted war (Two-Fisted Tales
, Frontline Combat
) and Science Fiction
, Weird Fantasy
). The horror, science fiction and crime stories almost invariably had a Twist Ending
. EC made extensive use of the Karmic Twist Ending
before The Twilight Zone
ever aired. (They stayed clear of the Cruel Twist Ending
A combination of evocative (if sensationalistic and florid) writing and excellent art by some of the top comic book artists of the time, combined with outreach to the fans, quickly caused EC's sales to skyrocket. In addition to a strong theme of often gruesome poetic justice, EC's titles often tackled social issues of the day, especially in their science fiction and suspense books.
At its height its roster included the legendary Harvey Kurtzman, Al Feldstein, Wally Wood, Bernard Krigstein, Bill Elder, Jack Davis and several other legendary talents who revolutionized the history of comics. The style of EC Comics, with its personalized editorials created a sense of give and take between readers and creators that would later be imitated by the Marvel Bullpen. EC was also groundbreaking for featuring profiles of some of its creators in its pages and for its broad range of subject matter which made it perhaps the only major comics publishing imprint with a regular adult audience. They benefited greatly from the post-war climate which saw superheroes displaced in popularity. Put simply, the struggle for Alternative Comics
to justify their existence in a market dominated by superheroes did not exist then. This allowed them to tackle a range of subjects and ideas with a freshness not seen in comics at that time and rarely afterwards.
EC was not shy about "borrowing" ideas from prose stories and were caught at it by Ray Bradbury
, but they were able to negotiate a settlement, and published several fine and very faithful authorized adaptations of his work.
This was also the birthplace of a little comic book called Tales Calculated to Drive You Mad
, a satire and comedy title. Its first issues sold poorly, but it soon found enough of a following to inspire a number of imitators, including one published by EC itself (Panic
But it was too good to last. A groundswell of outrage from the Moral Guardians
of the mid-1950s led to a Congressional investigation of possible ties between comic books and juvenile delinquency. To protect themselves from possible government censorship, the comic book publishers established The Comics Code
in 1954. William Gaines, although he'd initially been in favor of the idea, felt the code adopted was far too restrictive and gave the Code authorities too much opportunity for Executive Meddling
After distributors refused to carry comic books without the Comics Code Authority stamp, Gaines reluctantly signed EC up to the service. This required canceling several series, some of them the company's best sellers, as the magazines' very titles
violated the Code. Despite a valiant attempt at a "New Direction" focusing more on social realism than horror, EC remained blacklisted by many newsdealers, and found itself too frequently clashing with the CCA executives. Gaines tried to carry on the tradition of adult-oriented stories with the Picto-Fiction
magazines, but they didn't sell.
Notoriously, EC was told to change the ethnicity of a character in a reprint of the classic Does This Remind You of Anything?
story "Judgment Day."
This was the last straw, and the story was reprinted unchanged in the final comic book published by the company.
The black-and-white MAD
, which had switched from the color-comic medium for reasons unrelated to the Code, ultimately became the sole surviving EC publication and went on to decades of success. But the influence of EC has continued through multiple reprints, homages by subsequent horror and SF writers, a pair of early-'70s British feature films
, and the television series Tales from the Crypt
Despite this, EC Comics wasn't forgotten by its readership who sustained its influence through a cult like devotion. Many of them, indeed became underground comics artists as well as original talents who later worked on mainstream comics bringing the EC influence with them, among them Robert Crumb, Frank Miller, Neil Gaiman, Art Spiegelman and Alan Moore to name a few. Indeed this cultlike popularity played a role in the development of comics fandom and today EC endures as one of the greatest contribution to the comics industry.
Not to be confused with DC Comics
, although they are both owned by Warner Bros.
Tropes associated with EC Comics include:
- Absurdly Dedicated Worker: In one story a man's Robot Wife keeps protecting him long after he's dead and his flesh has rotted away.
- Actually Not a Vampire — a resolution in one "guess what this person is" story. Since this was a story in EC Comics, it didn't end there.
- All Germans Are Nazis: Desert Fox a kind of biographical story of Erwin Rommel is an ironic portrayal of the famous general, especially deconstructing his Worthy Opponent status among the allies. The panels, contrast his general nobility as a field general with various atrocities committed by the Nazis and ends up noting that Rommel, and other "decent" Nazis couldn't escape the poisonous nature of Nazism.
- Anthology Comic
- Asshole Victim: See Karmic Death.
- Back from the Dead: Many stories in the horror titles have the victim(s) pulling this off in order to ensure that justice will be served.
- The Bad Guy Wins: In "A Kind of Justice", its revealed that the rapist the townsfolk are hunting for was in fact the sheriff who consoles and intimidates his victim that he'll kill her family if she doesn't comply and its implied will continue to act the same way. Extremely dark stuff.
- Blob Monster: The stories "Ooze in the Cellar", "Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes", and "Strictly From Hunger" involve one.
- Brown Note: One story was about aliens so hideous that any human seeing them would be driven insane. It came with an editor's note explaining that the representation of the aliens on the page was deliberately toned down so as not to lose the readership.
- Cats Have Nine Lives: "Dig That Cat, He's Real Gone".
- Circling Vultures: In the story "Carrion Death!" (Shock SuspenStories #9), a fugitive trudges through the desert for four days, handcuffed to the corpse of a state trooper he killed. The fugitive sees the vultures as his only chance to rid himself of the dead weight attached to his right arm, but after they have stripped the corpse clean, he finds out that they do eat live flesh, too.
- Conjoined Twins: Quite a few stories involve them, usually as part of an ending twist.
- Creator Cameo: The collectible "GhouLunatic" autographed photos of the Crypt-Keeper, the Vault-Keeper and the Old Witch◊ were all portrayed by artist Johnny Craig.
- Cruel Twist Ending: Mr. Drink, from "The Reluctant Vampire", is perhaps the only murderous individual who doesn't quite deserve his gruesome end - while he has begun to kill other people again, ostensibly to save his ass and keep him supplied in "liquid assets", he's also donating most of the plasma to the blood bank he works at to boost the inventory and keep it from being shut down. (Ironically, the TV series, usually known for being Darker and Edgier, makes him more sympathetic than his comics counterpart, and even gives him a happy ending.)
- One of the most famous cruel twists is the story Master Race where an old man rides a subway reeling under trauma of his memories of his time at a concentration camp and his sudden recognition of a familiar face at the subway. The twist is that the old man, the protagonist, is a Nazi Commandant of a concentration camp and the person who he recognized and runs from is a Holocaust survivor from the same camp, who on Liberation Day vowed revenge. He suffers a horrific Karmic Death.
- Cruel and Unusual Death: A staple of the horror comics.
- Drugs Are Bad: "The Monkey" (Shock SuspenStories #12).
- Final Solution: The strip, "Master Race" drawn by Bernard Krigstein was one of the few times American popular culture addressed the Holocaust in The Fifties. It was also addressed in the Frontline Combat.
- Found Footage Films: A very early example of the genre in "Television Terror", where a TV host resembling Allen Funt conducts a live tour of a haunted house, has a nervous breakdown, and finally hangs himself on air, all viewed through the lens of his portable camera.
- Henpecked Husband: A number of them, most of who wished to end their marital strife once and for all. (Such plots were known colloquially around the offices as "Buster stories", mainly because the wives either called their spouses that, or looked like they could at any moment.)
- Heterosexual Life-Partners: Subverted for horror in "Operation Friendship." The one friend cut out the interesting part of his friend's brain to keep their friendship alive, while the lesser part of the brain was left to be married to a woman.
- Horror Host: The Crypt Keeper in Tales from the Crypt, the Vault Keeper in Vault of Horror, and the Old Witch in The Haunt of Fear.
- Hurricane of Puns: The Horror Hosts were prone to these, in a tradition stretching back to Raymond, the host of Inner Sanctum.
- Karmic Death: Another staple of the horror comics.
- Karma Houdini: It happened quite often in "Crime Suspense Stories" but the darkest example has to be "A Kind of Justice".
- Licensed Pinball Table: The Tales from the Crypt pinball, released by Data East in 1993 as a tie-in to both the EC Comics' title and the HBO series. Click here for details.
- Mondegreen: The twist of the Shock SuspenStories tale "Raw Deal". The man they rescued from sea? He's not screaming that he hates his wife, he's screaming that he ate his wife.
- Narrator: The three Horror Hosts - the Crypt Keeper of Tales from the Crypt, the Vault Keeper of The Vault of Horror and the Old Witch of The Haunt of Fear, known collectively as "The GhouLunatics" - not only introduced the stories and provided epilogues, but also cracked jokes at the readers' and each other's expense.
- Never Smile at a Crocodile: "That's a 'Croc'".
- Orphanage of Fear: Briarwood Orphanage Asylum, the setting of the story "Halloween". Conditions wouldn't be quite so bad if the director Mr. Critchit wasn't spending only the bare minimum on the facility's upkeep and pocketing the difference, though. Money's so tight that his skull has to be emptied out and carved up just so the orphan kids can have their Jack-o'-Lantern.
- And a Home For The Blind Of Fear in "Blind Alleys."
- The Parody: MAD and Panic.
- Patriotic Fervor: The townspeople in "The Patriots" lean towards the worse side of this, suspecting a man who sneers at the town's military parade and fails to remove his hat in the presence of an American flag to be a "foreigner" and a "Commie". After they beat him to death, it turns out the so-called Commie was, in fact, a blind American war veteran with facial paralysis - he was actually smiling proudly knowing his old regiment was marching there.
- Phlegmings: All three hosts had them, but Vault-Keeper in particular was usually depicted with a mouth full of sticky drool, in keeping with Johnny Craig's influential rendition of the character.
- Prospector: One is the central character of "Gas-tly Prospects!", murdered by a claim jumper, he refuses to stay buried...without coming Back from the Dead!
- Robots Enslaving Robots: "Judgment Day" has robots who are prejudiced based on the color of their casings.
- Self-Made Orphan: "The Orphan".
- Severed Head Sports: In the story "Foul Play", an evil baseball player is murdered by the members of the opposing team. After killing him, they play a game where they use his head for as the ball, his leg as the bat, his intestines to mark the base liner and his organs to mark the bases. They even use his scalp to dust off home plate.note
- Shrunken Head: Haunt of Fear #8 had the story "Diminishing Returns". Greedy New Yorker Vincent Beardsley goes to Ecuador to steal a tribal diamond. When the locals catch on, he sells out his friend, who is made into a shrunken head. Vincent gets his in the end, of course.
- Suddenly Ethnicity: "Judgment Day".
- Take Our Word for It: In Crime SupenStories #5, a mystery writer discovers an airtight way to sneak in a house, commit a murder, and sneak out with all doors and windows shut in a locked room. Naturally, although it drives the ensuing plot, the method is never revealed.
- Time Travelers Are Spies: "...For Us the Living" (Weird Fantasy #20) begins with an atomic scientist being arrested as a spy for a foreign power. The scientist admits his identifying documents are all forged because he came from an alternate time-branch in which Abraham Lincoln escaped assassination and brought peace to the world.
- Twist Ending: Almost all variations, to the point of being the Mandatory Twist Ending. Usually examples of the Karmic Twist Ending.
- Walls of Text: Notoriously, the script was always written first, often directly on the storyboard, so that the art was stuck wherever it could fit.
- This was averted, however, by Harvey Kurtzman who storyboarded his scripts before giving them to other artists. His work employs very different pacing and tone than the other stories.
- What The Hell, Townspeople?: In the Shock SuspenStory "In Gratitude..." an injured white war vet ends up giving his hometown this kind of callout after they choose to recognize him for his valor, but wouldn't allow his orphaned black friend, who had saved his life in the first place, to be buried in the family plot at the town cemetery.
- This trope goes From Bad to Worse in A Kind of Justice where despite the title, lynch mobs are not just at all.
- Who Wants to Live Forever?: "The Precious Years".
- Wouldn't Hurt a Child: The Bad Santa serial killer in "And All Through the House", averting some Fridge Horror regarding the fate of the little girl who unknowingly lets him inside.