Or – “Greetings, Fright Fans!”
Memorial Day Weekend, the official start of summer! And what better way to celebrate summer than with a little baseball? Of course, when you’re talking EC Comics, there’s a pretty good chance that the rules of the game may get a little bit bent in the process…
HAUNT OF FEAR #19
Scripter: Albert B. Feldstein
Penciler(s): Graham Ingels/George Evans/Jack Kamen/Jack Davis
Inker(s): Graham Ingels/George Evans/Jack Kamen/Jack Davis
Colorist: Marie Severin
Letterer: A. Machine
Publisher: EC Comics
Cover Price: 10 Cents (Current NM Price: $675)
Previously, on Haunt Of Fear: Maxwell Gaines was one of the founding fathers of the comic book industry as the original co-publisher of All-American Comics (home of Green Lantern, The Flash, Hawkman and Wonder Woman before the company was bought out by DC during the Golden Age.) When his share of All-American was bought out, he founded Educational Comics, a company dedicated to expanding the medium of comics beyond what had been seen. After his untimely death, Gaines’ son Bill took over the company, transforming Educational Comics into the legendary EC (Entertaining Comics) stable of titles. Their science-fiction and war comics are well remembered even fifty years on, but the real stars of EC Comics were their horror books, narrated by the ‘GhouLunatics,’ The Old Witch, the Vault-Keeper and the Crypt Keeper. Before there was a Comics Code Authority, EC allowed talented artists to draw whatever horrific things their minds could concieve, leading to memorable stories with real shocks at the end. This issue contains one of the most notorious stories of the EC era, but we’ll get to that in due time, kiddies… We start with the story of Emile, a young man who believes he is about to be killed by a vampire in a story called “Sucker Bait!”
Having returned to his childhood home after earning a degree in physics, Emile is concerned and confused by his family’s insistence that their town is being stalked by a blood-sucking fiend…
The loss of his father is the factor that spurs Emile to find the vampire himself. The young scientist formulates a desperate plan, and confuses his older brother by trying to explain how to use a geiger counter to track radioactivity. Later that night, while his brother Stanley has gone to work, Emile swallows his entire bottle of radioactive isotope and sets out into the streets…
Graham Ingels (known by his nickname “Ghastly”) was one of EC’s most famous artists, and it’s easy to see why here. Even with the limitations of 50’s printing his facial expressions are excellent, the two brothers look like brothers, and he manages to bring an amazing amount of depth and detail to his panels. And as for the vampire itself?
The structure of the tale is fascinating as well, as Al Feldstein (whom I remember best as editor of Mad Magazine) gives us a first-person narrative with several different time-tracks in it. It’s a lovely little scary piece, and even if the twist ending may seem a bit shopworn, it’s not telegraphed by the storytellers. When you talk about EC’s talented ‘murderer’s row’ of artists, George Evans is sometimes forgotten alongside names like Johnny Craig and Wally Wood, but he delivers some startling pencils in the next story called, in the EC tradition, ‘Lover, Come Hack To Me!’ A honeymooning couple finds themselves stranded in the woods, finding shelter at a mysterious abandoned mansion. Before Tim Curry can arrive, though, they go to bed, only for the husband to awaken with a start. The mansion seems brand-new around him, and he believes that he has somehow awakened in the past, only to find a terrifying scene unfolding…
Having earlier heard his new wife telling him about her family, he realizes that he has witnessed her mother murdering her father twenty-five years earlier. Evans’ art is very cultured, reminding me a bit of Dave Gibbons, but still delivers the ‘kick in the gut’ horror when he wants it to, and the ghoulish face on Freda in panel three is probably going to haunt my nightmares tonight. In true Twilight Zone fashion (albeit nearly a decade earlier than the Zone), Charles awakens again…
Charles’ fate is terrible, even if the Vault-Keeper finds it ‘punny,’ but it’s really the narrators that elevate EC’s tales above usual horror fare. Seeing a man murdered will always derive an emotional gut reaction, but having that murder played for laughs by a sewer-welling possible cannibal killer makes it better and worse all at the same time. As you can see from that final panel, the three GhouLunatics would break the fourth wall to speak with us directly, and reference one another in their stories. The Old Witch gives us a terrible spin on Cinderella, only with beheadings, mutilations and some dramatic irony thrown into the match.
There are no cut and dried morals in this comic, something that I have to say I’ve always found attractive about the EC books. Haunt of Fear (and it’s sister titles, Vault of Horror and Tales From The Crypt) is in the business of scaring, disturbing and appealing to your inner thirteen-year-old sociopath. Jack Kamen’s art is as smooth as Evans, but with the gruesome awfulness that Ingels could bring to the page. But the story that people remember when you talk about this issue (and, indeed, when you talk about EC horror books in general) pulls up the final slot in the book, with art by Jack Davis. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because he eventually became known as one of Mad Magazine’s most talented caricaturists, drawing many a movie parody in the 70’s and 80’s. His bigfoot style on those stories kind of gave me a false sense of security when I started reading this story, a tale of the diamond narrated by the famous Crypt-Keeper!
Again, Feldstein’s story wraps itself up in multiple time-frames, starting with the climax and filling in the blanks as we go along. Herbie, a minor-leaguer with precious little talent for the game, takes his chance to steal a base during the play-off game against hated rivals Bayville. The game details provide a sense of accuracy, as Herbie leans into a pitch for a walk, then foolishly tries to steal second. He is easily tagged out, but takes the opportunity to spike Central’s star player, Ty Cobb style, with his sharpened cleats. The player is only scratched, but as the game wears on, it becomes clear that something is very wrong with Bayville second baseman Jerry Deegan…
Deegan falls over during his last at-bat, but rather than striking out, the man is dead! The game ends with Central City winning the pennant while Bayville takes their fallen member back to the locker room, where the team doctor declares that he died from a poison that kills in exactly fifteen minutes! (It’s interesting to me that a sports doc would immediately have that kind of knowledge, but you have to play along with these stories a little bit.) Rushing into Bayville’s locker room, the team finds the evidence they need to convict. Of course, this is an EC Comic, and if you expect that they called the authorities next, you’re looking for another company. Might I suggest clicking away now?
This story has stuck with me for years, ever since I accidentally read it in a reprint comic while looking for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and it’s infamous enough that an exhaustive EC Comics history a few years ago was titled ‘Foul Play’ in it’s honor. Jack Davis does a wonderful job with the gory details here, and I find myself glad that he, rather than Ingels or Johnny Craig, did the art here. The sight of a severed head is softened somewhat by Jack’s more stylized art, and Feldstein’s script nails the ending (although it would have been ever better with a “Good lord! *CHOKE*“.) Even if these stories aren’t your cup of tea, you have to appreciate what EC did for horror comics and comics in general with this issue and dozens of others like it. Just a few months hence, the Comics Code Authority would put the lockdown on Haunt of Fear and the GhouLunatics, and some say that the Code itself was designed to backhandedly destroy EC Comics as a sales powerhouse. Either way, the loss of EC was more than just an end to horror and gore: It was an end to one of the most fertile creative periods in comics, and one of the largest agglomerations of creative imagination in comic history. Haunt of Fear #19 is one of the gems of my collection, a book that I only wish I could afford a first printing of, and earns a well-deserved 5 out of 5 stars overall. (It’s a good thing we only use the meatloaf scale on the podcast, because I would NOT go near any chopped meat that has anythin to do with the Crypt-Keeper.)
Faithful Spoilerite Question Of The Day: Has a comic book every really scared or disquieted you?