Four Color Fear: Forgotten Horror Comics of the 1950s , edited by Greg Sadowski
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.
Drake here. In retro publishing, this fall has turned out to be the season of the horror comic, with a veritable dark and stormy flood of books reprinting classics from the great era of horror comics in the early 1950s. Since I have a deep affection for this material, and since Angela is wonderfully indulgent of my vices, she is allowing me to occupy a few inches of her blog to review some of these books. This topic is timely too, because a modern horror comic has just become the basis for hit TV series The Walking Dead.
Arguably the most important book ever written about comic books was the one that almost put an end to them. In 1954, psychiatrist Fredric Wertham published Seduction of the Innocent: the Influence of Comic Books on Today’s Youth. The book was the culmination of years of effort by the well-meaning doctor, who had spent years counseling severely troubled inner city youngsters and who had been, perhaps, driven into a kind of narrowly focused fanaticism by his work. Dr. Wertham blamed horror and crime comics for everything from juvenile crime to sexual fetishes.
In 1955, American comic book publishers were pretty much compelled to submit to a production code – similar to the Hay’s Code that cleaned up movies in the 30s. Among other things, the Comics Code Authority forbade the use of words like “horror” and “terror” in comic titles, banned vampires and werewolves, and ensured that good always triumphed over evil. For the next 15 years, comic would be paragons of innocence and goodness until cracks in the structure began to form around 1970. The Code still exists, but I doubt Dr. Wertham would be amused by some of the material published today with its approval.
Before 1955, there were dozens of companies producing horror and crime comics. The best known of the bunch was the Entertaining Comics company (EC), which imploded after the mid-50s to the single, massively popular Mad magazine. EC’s comics have been acclaimed for the literary ambitions of their writers and the quality of their art and are regarded as some of the best comic books anyone ever published. Widely reprinted in a variety of cheap and expensive formats (although the most recent attempt to archive them in classy hardcover editions ran into the churning blades of economic reality and seems to have ended), EC editions are easy to find for anyone willing to spend a little time on eBay.
But ECs were only the tip of a big, bloody iceberg and several book publishers this fall have begun to mine the vast, all but unknown, trove of scary comics produced before the advent of the Code, the very books that drove Dr. W to his crusade. Besides reprinting rare material, these retrospectives raise some interesting points about the nature of horror comics, their place in the times that produced them, and the importance of forbidden texts in an open society.
Next: Four Color Fear