More Weird Tales from the Vault of Fear: The EC Legacy
This is an expanded and up-dated version of a paper originally presented at Watching the Media, a symposium on censorship and culture held at Edge Hill University in 2011.
Before Elvis there were EC comics. In the history of horror and censorship, EC comics are a legend: cool, cult objects from the shady, esoteric side of post-war American popular culture, before the King broke through on Milton Berle and Ed Sullivan, like the fetish photographs of Bettie Page, the Ed Gein murders, wild rockabilly, and the Mad Daddy on WHKK. EC comics are the ghostly Other and the evil twin of Disney and Golden Age superheroes; subversive, sexy, adult, and darkly humorous. The company name has become a critical synonym for a specific style of American Gothic in film, fiction, and graphic art, and, in genre orthodoxy, EC is a major symbol of the struggle between artist and censor, with innovative writer/publisher William M. Gaines frequently cast as the hero against the McCarthy-era fundamentalism of the psychiatrist Dr. Frederic Wertham, author of The Seduction of the Innocent: The Influence of Comic Books on Today’s Youth. But what exactly is the ‘EC style’ to which genre critics still casually elude? Where did EC comics come from? Where did they go?
After the Second World War, the marriage of Romantic literature, Victorian theatre, and Expressionist art that had defined Hollywood Gothic and the horror genre for a generation effectively ended when Abbot and Costello met Frankenstein in 1948. (They also met Boris Karloff the following year, the Invisible Man in 1951, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1953.) Post-war horror films moved away from nineteenth century literary archetypes – such as Universal Pictures’ Frankenstein and Dracula cycles – and towards pulp fiction and popular culture. The target audience, meanwhile, became more juvenile, as corporate America invented the teenage consumer.
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