Heh, heh, well, that was fun! Seriously though, as I've mentioned in my recent series on Jack Kirby, the comics field in the mid-1950s suffered an almost fatal blow as a result of the witch hunt reaction against horror comics. It's undeniable that much of the lurid material being published in that period consisted of poorly written and drawn trash that bordered on sadism.
Although horror comics consisted of less than a sixth of the 500 comics titles on the newsstands, the repercussions from negative media attention would bring the comics field to its knees, resulting in the cancellation of many memorable titles. Including, of course, the biggest offender in the adult public's eyes, Tales from the Crypt.
E.C.'s most famous/infamous horror title began its, heh, heh, "life" as The Crypt of Terror (April-May 1950) and originated from a still earlier E.C. title, War Against Crime (Spring 1948-May 1949). When new publisher Bill Gaines took over Educational Comics in 1947, soon after his father's fatal boating accident, the company had specialized in such staid titles like Tiny Tot Comics, Picture Stories From The Bible, and Animal Fables.
According to Frank Jacobs' biography, The Mad World of William M. Gaines, Bill at first had little confidence in his future as a comics publisher and had originally planned to prepare for a career as a chemistry teacher. For his first year or so at his father's company most of his activity consisted of signing paychecks. A turning point was reached, however, when Gaines hired a former "good girl" artist from Victor Fox Features, editor/writer/artist Al Feldstein.
The two men hit it off, creating a chemistry that changed Bill's attitude towards comics. Within a year the old titles had been replaced by romance books (Modern Love, Saddle Romance), westerns (Gunfighter, Saddle Justice) and crime books (Crime Patrol, War Against Crime). Gaines may have begun to take comics publishing more seriously, but he was still far from enthused by it. As he once commented in The Comics Journal #81, "We were putting out what we thought was selling. We were like the smallest, crummiest outfit in the field at that point, with definitely the worst distributor, Leader News. It was just a way of keeping the business going. We just imitated. Whatever we heard was selling, that's what we did."
Since Gaines harbored a marked disinterest in crime, westerns, and romance comics, he was all too ready to accept Feldstein's suggestion for a new trend at E.C.. Both men shared an interest in horror and suspense pulps, and had enjoyed radio and tv shows like The Witch's Tales and Inner Sanctum. Feldstein suggested that they try horror and, as a trial balloon, two new features debuted, The Vault of Horror (in War Against Crime) and The Crypt of Terror (in CrimePatrol #15).
Compared to what would come later, the new attempt at horror now seems rather pallid, but the stories did introduce the first two of E.C.'s famous trio of GhouLunatics, The Vault Keeper and The Crypt Keeper (later joined by The Old Witch). The new innovation also gave sales a slight boost, moving Gaines to decide to launch the horror titles that would become E.C.'s most profitable assets.
Gaines has claimed that he was the first to publish horror comics, a claim that can easily be refuted by the fact that at least three other companies were publishing horror before Gaines entered the arena. What is indisputable is the simple fact that E.C. (now Entertaining Comics) would go on to publish the best illustrated and written horror comics, bar none.
That isn't too evident from the first year or so of Tales from the Crypt since some of the company's earliest artists, like "Ghastly" Graham Ingels and Johnny Craig, were still developing and had yet to reach their peaks. Al Feldstein, as an artist, had a certain primitive charm, but his main strength rested in his considerable writing and editing abilities. One artist in E.C.'s early years who consistently stood out was future Mad editor Harvey Kurtzman, whose simple yet sophisticated style displayed personality and had a bold, graphic look that got better with every story he tackled.
Gradually what had been almost tentative horror stories developed style and polish. Most were O'Henry-like surprise-ending tales of crime and supernatural retribution, using a formula Gaines once described as "You sharpen the pencil, the pencil sharpens you." Although the Crypt's stories certainly were gory, with tales of dismemberment, cannibalism, and the ever-popular revenge-from-the-grave, most were written in a relatively sophisticated style laced with ironic humor.
As important as the scripts were (some based in later years on stories by Ray Bradbury, or written by Carl Wessler), they took a back seat, in the eyes of many fans, to the impressive art. Feldstein was unusual in the field by encouraging his artists to develop their own individual styles, and that policy paid off in spades. By late 1952 most of E.C.'s artists were hitting their strides, and some gifted newer artists like George Evans, Bernie Krigstein, and Reed Crandall were to join the company in later years. But the unquestionable art star of Tales from the Crypt was Jack Davis, who created the definitive look for The Crypt Keeper.
Davis, born in Georgia in 1926, had come to New York seeking work as a freelancer in 1950. It wasn't smooth going and Davis was on the point of hurling his brushes into the East River when he landed his first assignment for E.C., drawing The Beast of the Full Moon for Vault of Horror #17 (Feb.-Mar. 1951). Within a few short years he was to become E.C.'s most prolific artist, making his first cover debut on Tales from the Crypt #29. Davis would do the covers and lead stories for the title until its end with issue #46, all done in a powerful style of lush, skilled brushwork. In later years Davis would go on to a highly successful career as an illustrator for movie posters, advertising campaigns, books, magazines, and record albums, and is the last of the old E.C. alumni still contributing to Mad.
Good writing and art didn't save Tales from the Crypt and the rest of the E.C. line. By the fall of 1954, with retailers and wholesalers intimidated by the media attack on horror, Gaines was forced to throw in the towel. There would be other memorable E.C. titles published, the "New Direction" books like Aces High, Valor, and Impact, but the Golden Age at E.C. was over.
Tales from the Crypt may have disappeared from the newsstands, but it still remains a sought after and high-priced collector's item. It also enjoys life as a series of reprint comics and hardcover volumes still available from Russ Cochran's Gemstone Publishing, as well as Fantagraphics' 296 page Tales of Terror!, edited by Grant Geissman and Fred Von Bernewitz.
The series has also been made a comeback
from the grave in the HBO long-running series launched in 1988. The popular
show has inspired a wide variety of collectible merchandise based on The
Crypt Keeper and has also helped spawn three pictures on the "Silver Scream,"
from the Crypt (1972)
Tales from the Crypt Presents Demon Knight
(1995) and Tales from the Crypt, Bordello of Blood (1996). For those
interested in holiday terror-tunes, there's even a Tales from the Crypt
CD, Have Yourself A Scary Little Christmas (Capital, 1994). With
songs like "We Wish You Would Bury The Missus," and "Deck The Halls With
Parts Of Charlie," even a hardened old fright-freak
like The Crypt Keeper would get all choked up.
Heh, heh, heh!