1950s Horror Comics and the Corruption of America’s Youth

Horror titles published in the 1950s by EC Comics

You don’t have to be a hardboiled P.I. to figure out what influenced my youth. Anyone who found my site through a Web search or reads any of my fiction rightly suspects that I have seen more horror movies and read more pulp fiction than your folks might think is healthy. But is it healthy or did it rot my brain? That question leads us to an often debated subject which leaves some of my favorite art forms unfairly maligned. As America continues along its path of evolution, it seems a segment of every new generation of parents and politicians look everywhere but themselves for the answer to the question, What the hell is wrong with my teenager? Or perhaps, more accurately, What the hell is wrong with the world, and how can I protect my child from its corrupting influence?

HORRIFIC NO. 7 (1953) cover art by Don Heck

Be it the 1950s or the 1980s—the era of ultra-violent splatter films which my friends and I devoured at every opportunity, not to mention the heavy metal albums that played incessantly through our speakers—many such mediums were openly accused of perpetuating the problem of juvenile delinquency and fostering a dangerous culture of violence.  Films of the 1980s slipped unrated into video shops across the nation, but those Banned in 31 Countries! were the most sought-after of them all.  In 1985, the PMRC made their infamous list of the “Filthy Fifteen,” consisting mostly of songs by heavy metal artists such as Venom, Judas Priest, Motley Crue, Mercyful Fate, W.A.S.P. and some other additions such as Prince, Sheena Easton, and Cyndi Lauper. Senate hearings resulted in an agreement to post “Parental Advisory” labels on any artist’s album that failed certain criteria. I’ve not read anything about how this impacted sales for the record industry, but I doubt it hurt them much at all. For that matter, from my perspective, if the record industry wanted to sell records back then, they might as well have printed YOUR MOTHER HATES THIS SHIT! on the front.  The “extreme” warning labels for us became marks of quality, and these days you only have to look around at all of the re-issued, uncut versions of those old horror films, some of them now in high demand, to know that people want whatever you’ve told them they can’t have.

GHOST COMICS NO. 2 (1952) cover art by Maurice Whitman.
GHOST COMICS NO. 2 (1952) cover art by Maurice Whitman.

It seems that folks back in the 1950s were thinking the same way.  About 30 years prior to the PMRC, a United States Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency began to hold public hearings, focused primarily on horror comics that were wildly popular during that era.  A massive number of these books were published every month, with beautifully lurid covers, giving starts, I might add, to artists and writers who went on to do other work now considered classic, among them Steve Ditko and Frank Frazetta.

These days everyone’s heard of Tales from the Crypt.  I admit that I was a teen in the pre-Internet era, so I only knew things existed if I was told by a friend, I saw it on TV, or I saw it in a record, book, or comic store. I first heard of Tales from the Crypt through the cable TV episodes, which I watched at every chance. Not long after HBO launched their amazing adaptation of the classic EC comic Tales from the Crypt, reprinted titles from EC’s vault began to appear as fresh new books on the comic store shelves. Now this was something! Not only could I buy the original stories of Tales from the Crypt, but also Vault of Horror, and Haunt of Fear. This was really great stuff. Creepy stories, gruesome art, and classy (to my mind) presentation in an artful medium that forever etched itself into my memory. Over the next several years, I made it a point to collect all the EC reprints, which I still love and cherish to this day.

THE THING, NO. 9 (1953) and NO. 12 (1954) with covers by Bob Forgione and Steve Ditko. Ditko went on to co-create Spider-Man with Stan Lee.
THE THING, NO. 9 (1953) and NO. 12 (1954) with covers by Bob Forgione and Steve Ditko. Ditko went on to co-create Spider-Man with Stan Lee.

Unknown to me back in the early 1990s, there was a metric fuckton of these kinds of comics being published around the same time EC was doing its thing in 1950-1955.  There were so many titles that I can only imagine the wonderful phantasmagoria a newsstand shelf must have been in those glorious days of the early 1950s.  One resource that really drove home to me the sheer number of books being published at that time is a truly amazing site called the Digital Comic Museum, which archives digital scans of all manner of comics currently in the public domain. Most of these are beautiful creations known as pre-code comics.

Pre-code comics?  Well, if you’re even remotely acquainted with comics, you’re probably aware of the existence of the Comics Code Authority (CCA), a self-regulatory ratings code which reigned over what was suitable for publication in comics for quite a long time.  Remember that subcommittee on juvenile delinquency I mentioned earlier?  Yeah, well, those folks decided that horror comics were rotting the brains of America’s youth with their lurid art and violent stories, making them turn to lives of crime, sex, and degeneracy.  In fact, if you think my summary sounds ludicrous, wait till you read this, taken directly from a transcript of an interim report of the committee on the judiciary to investigate juvenile delinquency in the United States (c. 1955):

THIS MAGAZINE IS HAUNTED NO. 4 (1952) cover art by Sheldon Moldoff

“It has been pointed out that the so-called crime and horror comic books of concern to the subcommittee offer short courses in murder, mayhem, robbery, rape, cannibalism, carnage, necrophilia, sex, sadism, masochism, and virtually every other form of crime, degeneracy, bestiality, and horror. These depraved acts are presented and explained in illustrated detail in an array of comic books being bought and read daily by thousands of children. These books evidence a common penchant for violent death in every form imaginable. Many of the books dwell in detail on various forms of insanity and stress sadistic degeneracy. Others are devoted to cannibalism with monsters in human form feasting on human bodies, usually the bodies of scantily clad women.”

YES! I’ve gotta get my hands on some of those books! Uh, I mean … that’s awful, just terrible. Golly. How could folks read such filth? Ah-hem.

Well, anyway, long story short, the fine folks of this subcommittee eventually pressured the comics industry to enact the CCA, which really put the screws to creators who were pushing boundaries with their work.  It was a choice of self-censorship over censorship by an outside authority, truly the lesser of two evils.  Some comics chose to shut down completely, including the now-seminal EC titles published by William Gaines, who felt he was directly targeted by the crackdown.

WEIRD MYSTERIES NO. 5 (1953) cover art by Bernard Bailey. One of nine comics banned by Congress in the 1950s.
WEIRD MYSTERIES NO. 5 (1953) cover art by Bernard Bailey. One of nine comics banned by Congress in the 1950s.

However, back out of the dark ages and into the digital age, we’re brought wonderful places like the Digital Comic Museum, which I alluded to earlier. While the EC titles are protected by current copyright laws, the museum makes scanned copies of many pre-code horror comics, and all other public domain comics for that matter, available for all to read and enjoy once again.  This is perfect for fans with iPads or, like me, NOOK tablets. Even though NOOK hasn’t made an app that I can use to read comics other than those bought through BN.com (tsk tsk), you can download the .cbz, .cbr, or .rar files, unpack them using software like WinRAR, and then sideload them in their own folders.  I have an SD card I bought to expand the memory of my device, so I can carry an insane amount of comics on it.  Instead of using a Comic Reader app to view them, I use my Gallery application.  After I launch it, I simply navigate to folders containing scans of individual issues and read them that way. It’s great because you can also zoom in and out, swipe through the pages left to right, and viola – golden age comics loaded on your tablet, to enjoy anytime.

Since I’ve only recently discovered this amazing boon, I can’t speak to the quality of all of these titles, but I have had a lot of fun reading through the titles I’ve downloaded from the Digital Comics Museum (which has a link you can use to donate to their cause should you feel so inclined). I sorted out their comics and inventoried the following horror titles:

STARTLING TERROR TALES NO. 9 (1954) cover art by L.B. Cole

Baffling Mysteries, Beware, Beware Terror Tales, The Beyond, Black Magic, Crime Mysteries, Dark Mysteries, Eerie, Ghost, Ghostly Weird Stories, Haunted Thrills, Horrific, Midnight, Nightmare, Strange Fantasy, Strange Terrors, Startling Terror Tales, Strange Suspense Stories, Strange Terrors, Tales of Horror, The Thing, This Magazine is Haunted, Tomb of Terror, Unseen, Voodoo, Web of Evil, Web of Mystery, Weird Horrors, Weird Mysteries, Weird Thrillers, Weird Terror, Witchcraft, and Witches Tales.

In conclusion, not to completely abandon my theme, I’ll just add that as a parent of four children myself, I feel that it is my personal responsibility to decide what is or is not suitable for my child to watch, listen to, or read.  This simple fact makes the question of censoring entertainment “inappropriate for the consumption of minors” utterly moot.

BAFFLING MYSTERIES NO. 5 (1951) cover artist possibly Ken Rice

Do artists have a responsibility to the public at large?  I don’t think so.  An artist’s first loyalty should be to him or herself.  There’s lots of crap out there I’d never watch or read in a million years – but I’m free to make that choice. Certainly, there are some things I have created myself which I would not want my children to read before a certain age, and I trust that people out there are savvy enough to run their homes the same way, without Tipper Gore to waggle her finger for you. So enjoy your crime, cannibalism, monsters, and scantily clad women responsibly. Now, I feel the need to go listen to some Venom. Cheers.

Comments 2

  • Hello:

    I wondered if there are any copyright restrictions on these comic book covers? My husband had a brain tumor and is creating a short documentary of his experiences. I think the weird mysteries would be so exciting to adapt for his poster and DVD cover. He is non-profit, so there would be no money in this. It is a work of “love” so to speak.

    • Sorry, I’m not aware of what the copyright restrictions might be on these works. Some of the titles from this era are in the public domain, but not all of them. I’m afraid I’m not a good resource for that. Good luck with the documentary!

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