A childhood friend of my father’s moved to sunny Los Angeles after divorcing his wife. It was around 1985, and in preparation for this cross-country jaunt, the guy had to sort through a large collection of comic books. A tremendous collection of comic books, in fact. Three entire floors of a house worth of comic books, all stacked on top of each other, often to the ceiling and blocking out the entrances of several rooms. My brother, my friend and I were all enlisted to deal with this mass of funny books, perhaps for some nominal pay but with the implicit understanding that we would be making off with some printed goodies.
Unfortunately, at this time, my brother, my friend and I knew little to nothing about comic books. My brother liked Judge Dredd, which was printed on much better paper in that funny, oversized trim that the United Kingdom uses for their periodicals. I was a big fan of Gilbert Shelton’s Fabulous Furry Freak Bros., reprints of which I’d pilfered from my father’s nightstand. I don’t recall that my friend liked any comics at the time, but if he did they certainly weren’t his core interest. The three of us beheld a trove that could have stocked its own comic book convention, and none of us had any idea what it was worth or what to do with it. My brother made off with a few issues of Playboy magazine and some of the more salacious-looking Epic line of comics. My friend took a box of Vigilante issue number one, which I assume he is still sitting on in wait of a cushy retirement. And I took home a box full of crappy horror comics from the 1970s.
Horror comics have a long and venerated tradition, taking off just as superheroes were waning in popularity after World War II. The great grandpappy of them all was Bill Gaines of MAD magazine notoriety, who took over his dad’s educational comics publishing business and turned it into something much more profitable. It was his books The Haunt of Fear and The Vault of Horror, along with half a dozen other titles, that were specially targeted as obscene by Frederic Wertham in his book Seduction of the Innocent. Buckling almost immediately to social pressure, Gaines’ Entertaining Comics dropped much of their horror and war comics line to concentrate on humor and romance. These condemned tomes are well-known by fans of comic books and Americana, with their bloody, high-quality artwork and cold, stark writing produced by a Leroy lettering set. Imagined hideous cackles of “Eh…eh…eh…” and almost audible shrieks of “Good Lord! *Choke*” were mainstays of this abolished art form.
Though it wasn’t quite abolished, was it? Because there I was, in 1985, holding comics published ten and twenty years earlier and with no foreknowledge of their tortured history. I guess some writers and artists couldn’t give up the game of fear, for horror comics continued to be produced, by both DC and Marvel, until the early 1980s. These were the comics I held in my hands, not the illustrious EC Comics of the 1950s. What I had were a whole bunch of Tales of the Unexpected, Where Monsters Dwell, and GHOSTS. I grabbed about sixty of these for want of knowing what else to take, and because our gracious benefactor wasn’t exactly willing to part with anything good. I took these comics home and, as is my fashion, proceeded to devour them instantly. I loved every poorly-rendered page and obvious ironic twist that hoisted each story’s antagonist by his own petard. I loved them so much, I read them again. And again. And again.
I’ve noted that I was never much of a comic book collector, but these shitty horror comics I did collect, kept in an empty wine bottle box in a corner of my room for instant and incessant retrieval. I won’t say that some of these comics weren’t rendered to shreds by sneakered feet as they lay on the floor of my bedroom, I won’t say that some choice issues didn’t end up in the garbage after one of my mother’s periodic whirlwind bedroom cleaning sprees that stopped happening around the time I reached puberty. But while I saw practically every other comic book I owned as disposable, these I regarded as precious. In fact, I still own the bulk of them to this day, each one creased and torn and fiscally ruined through repeated handling by my greasy hands. I think they’re still in the same wine box, even. I guess if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
A typical story in these comics went like this: two gentlemen who adore the same woman enter business together. Their business thrives, and both men attempt to woo the object of their collective affections, but ultimately she chooses one man over the other and they marry. The loser in this scenario seems affable and conciliatory, but secretly he harbors a lot of spite and murderous revenge fantasies. The jilted lover kills his business partner in a way that seems accidental, often making it look like a mishap that happened on the job. For instance, if the two men are pearl divers, then the murderer would fix his victim’s scuba gear to malfunction under water. If the men own a circus, then the killer might release one of the big top’s tigers at an appropriate time and place that will result in the victim being mauled. If they were rabbit breeders, then the victim might be thrown into a vat of bunnies and left to suffocate in fluffy softness. That last scenario never happened in any comic I read, but it should have.
The newly-wedded widow mourns this loss, and the bloodthirsty executioner exploits her vulnerability to become her lover. There is a brief period of happiness for the murderous criminal, often lasting four panels or less, but eventually the butcher is killed, very often by the flesh-mottled skeletonized corpse of his business partner. This is usually where the story ends, so we can only assume that this walking zombie goes on to terrorize the public while his beleaguered wife is committed to a mental institution for the rest of her life. Everything wrapped up in a tidy package, justice is served. Mind you, every issue of these stupid comics had a minimum of three individual stories, each one following a similar plot. So once you’re done reading about one terrifying supernatural incident, you’ve got to steel yourself for at least two more. Or, in the way I read them, two dozen more.
I think that my predilection to grab these horror comics over The New Teen Titans or whatever says a lot about my sensibilities and what I like. Horror comics of the 60s and 70s are, like shitty movies: successful in their failures, earnest in their endeavors but falling short of the mark more often than not. They feature shabbily-drawn monsters, wraiths, and demons, each just a little bit better than what you could scratch out yourself with ball-point pen in your loose leaf notebook. But what I believe was really enticing to me, what I think I can still appreciate about these comics, twenty-five years after first receiving them, is that they are all self-contained stories. Crummy, formulaic stories, but stories nonetheless, each one divvied into a satisfying, bite-sized chunk. I think something has been lost from comics since they did away with these kinds of titles so many years ago, titles that exist outside of the retarded canonical continuity that both Marvel and DC attempt to shore up with increasingly futile and overwrought attempts. Comic books don’t have to be about flying muscular people that beat alien starfish to puddles of goo, they can be about ordinary life, love, and shuffling, moss-strewn vengeance from beyond the grave.
Or, as I will show in part two of this essay, they can be about all of those things, and more.