Category Archives: comics review

Forgotten Fear in Four Colors

Four Color Fear: Forgotten Horror Comics of the 1950s , edited by Greg Sadowski
Fantagraphics Books
320 pages. softcover

Drake here again. First up in the horror review queue is this wonderful collection of vintage horror comics, an unrefined ore of grisly graphics presented in glorious, restored color, looking better than they did almost 60 years ago. Beautifully designed, the book is a bloody treasure.

Four Color Fear reprints 40 entire stories from the goriest of the forbidden comics of the late 1940s and early 1950s, as well as a selection of mind-blowing covers from legendary titles like Mister Mystery, Web of Evil, and Weird Thrillers. The choice and presentation of covers and stories is superb, a real aficionado’s smorgasbord of utterly depraved entertainment.

By design, this is not a comprehensive collection. There are literally thousands of horror stories from the era and Four Color Fear avoids the comics published by EC, Marvel, DC, and other well-known houses in favor of obscure imprints that are not likely ever to be reprinted in any other format. The original material is extensively annotated with regard to artist, writer (where the writer is known – writing credits were evasive in this era), and publisher. The historical material will be of interest to hardcore fans of these comics but may not catch the attention of a casual reader. Little attempt is made to frame these stories in the social or larger historical context of their times, or to analyze them beyond the mechanical details of art and production. They stand garishly on their own.

I was certainly struck by how really awful much of the writing in these old comics is, by any objective modern standard, but I was also impressed by how effective some of the stories are in their imagery and imaginative, nightmarish power, in spite of the quality of the prose. The plotting often feels like a child’s narration of a more complex story, one perhaps not clearly understood by the narrator. Character motivations are bizarre and frequently silly, and the effect is almost expressionistic, as though the characters are there to act as emblems of sensations and demonstrate the outcome of morality plays rather than as portrayals of real people in horrendous situations.

But one doesn’t read these comics for their stories, really, but rather for an insight into what entertained the youth of the time, while outraging authority. They are, in every sense of the word, dark and subversive of conventional values, something that must have been intolerable to the enforcers of crushing conformity in postwar America.

And then there is the art, crazy exercises in style and mastery by artists like Basil Wolverton, Jack Cole, and Howard Nostrand, comic art from a time when styles were far more varied than in today’s comics, with traditions of illustration and Sunday comics that brought diversity and vitality to the form. The art will probably strike readers who only know modern comics as grotesque and cartoonish, but there is no denying its power.

Roots of later horrors are evident all through these comics, a topic I will get into more in the review of another book, but the conventions of modern spook stories like True Blood and The Walking Dead crawl through these old tales like veins in the arm of a resurrected corpse.

For someone newly interested in pre-Comics Code horror, I would recommend one of the EC volumes over this book – the writing is much more accessible and the art overall better – but, as an introduction to the genre, and as a glimpse into a lost world of terrors, Four Color Fear is a superb second step and, for a fan, the collection is like a breath of ghastly air issuing from the recesses of a time-rotted tomb.

Existential Graphic Science Fiction

The Acme Novelty Library
Number 19
ISBN: 9781897299562

$15.95 US / $15.95 CDN

Published by and available from

Drawn and Quarterly

Angela and I both like comics.

From super-heroes to Carl Barks’ ducks, I have a keen appreciation of classic comic art in all its forms. While I don’t read a lot of current titles, there are a few that I especially look forward to – anything by Neil Gaiman or Alan Moore, Ed Brubaker’s innovative storytelling, and Jason Lutes’ amazing Berlin. But one comic is a true treasure when it shows up – never more than once or twice a year.

There really isn’t anything comparable to the Acme Novelty Library.

Chris Ware has been gracing us with the Library for over 15 years now and the 19th “issue” was released just a couple of weeks ago, a trim little hardcover volume that is one of the best in years. One never knows what a number of the library will look like – some issues have been comic book sized while others have been smaller or gigantic, near tabloid size. The production and packaging is always meticulously detailed and artistic.

Judged merely as design pieces, the Library is impressive, but Ware’s art and writing are equally masterful. His drawings are often tiny but beautifully rendered in the style of early 20th Century cartoonists, with a modern touch, and his stories are elaborate, dark internal landscapes of pathos and little triumphs of the human spirit, tinged with just enough surrealism to keep them from being mundane.

Issue 19 tells the latest chapter in the life of middle aged schoolteacher Rusty Brown, a character who has appeared in a gradually shifting state in Ware’s universe for many years. Originally introduced in a series of strips that poked loving (if brutal) fun at grown-up toy collectors, Brown has evolved into a fully  realized person, continually trying to come to grips with the indifference of the world and his continuing sense of wonder that usually fails to provide any protection against the slings and arrows of life.

The first half of 19 is a science fiction story, told in a kind of retro, vaguely Braburyian style. In the story of a tragic attempt to colonize Mars, we follow the narrator through his training and into the dangerous tedium of space, one of four humans and three dogs sent to the Red Planet in a polite terraforming scheme that goes terribly awry, with episodes of unspeakable violence and horror and, ultimately a metaphor for loneliness that may define the human condition.

The art of Ware’s tale is in the telling, the detail that captures and satirizes the culture of late 50s America, much as a sensitive piece of sci-fi from the era might have, but skewed.

Mdway through the book, we learn that the comic we have been reading, “The Seeing Eye Dogs of Mars,” is actually Rusty Brown’s imagining of an award winning science fiction story by his father, a failed journalist and unsuccessful author who has left behind a body of work for his son’s appraisal. Through Rusty’s eyes, we see his father’s life, love, and hope unfold as a projection from the story, sad and wistful through the filter of a son who shares the same fatal belief that life should be better than it is.

Darkly funny, heartrending in places, and astonishing in its layers of feeling and meaning, Ware’s narrative is visual poetry.

In a world that was as good as it should be, he would win the National Book Award.