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Robot Reviews | The EC Library

Corpse on the Imjin

Corpse on the Imjin! and Other Stories
By Harvey Kurtzman et al.; edited by Gary Groth

Fantagraphics Books, 240 pages, $28.99

Came the Dawn and Other Stories
By Wallace Wood, et al.; edited by Gary Groth

Fantagraphics Books, 208 pages, $28.99

In an essay that ran in issue #250 of The Comics Journal – and was recently republished on the Hooded Utilitarian website –  the critic Ng Suat Tong took to task one of the comics’ most sacred cows, EC. In the essay, entitled EC Comics and the Chimera of Memory, Suat argues that nostalgia has blinded critics and readers to EC’s many faults; that while the house that Bill Gaines built might have influenced many and laid the groundwork for the underground era, the stories themselves rarely deserve the lofty reputation they have attained.

While I don’t agree with everything Suat says in his essay — I think he’s far too harsh on poor Bernie Krigstein for example — I do agree with several of his points. My main takeaway from his essay is that we need to be more careful and much more selective when discussing EC’s aesthetic value. Rather than saying “Mad was great,” we should be saying which stories in Mad were great because, as anyone whose read the first three issues knows, Kurtzman and company weren’t always firing on all cylinders. In fact, a good deal of the EC material could be less than stellar to put it mildly, and many stories that were initially regarded as exemplary haven’t held up well over time.

Nothing convinces me of that more than two new releases from Fantagraphics — the first in their ongoing EC Library project. Corpse on the Imjin collects all of the war and related comics Harvey Kurtzman did for Frontline Combat and Two-Fisted Tales, while Came the Dawn collects early horror tales and some ShockSuspenStores drawn by Wally Wood. Rather than try to collect every single EC comic every published in chronological order, editor Gary Groth and company are instead releasing volumes that collect the best or most interesting work by individual artists and writers — future books will focus on Jack Davis and Al Williamson for example.

Corpse on the Imjin seems like an ideal place to begin this republishing journey. Kurtzman was arguably the most talented and influential member of the EC gang, and his war stories are widely revered by fans. Opening up Imjin, however, you see that that reputation is built on some shaky ground.

Certainly  the most well-known stories still hold up. The title tale remains one of the best things Kurtzman ever did and Air Raid!, Kill! and Big If! all hold up rather well, despite being invested with more than a bit of overwrought melodrama. But for every Imjin there are stories like Contact!, a simplistic, jingoistic “us versus them” tale that naively suggests America will win the Korean War solely because “we believe in good.”

Least you think that’s an exception, consider “Prisoner of War” where a yellow-bellied P.O.W. decides to capitulate with the enemy only to be mowed down with a machine gun (of course the prisoners that have the guts to make a break for freedom end up safe and sound). These stories severely undercut the pacifist reputation that Kurtzman war comics have earned (to be fair Kurtzman himself dismisses Contact! in a posthumous interview at the end of the book). But even stories that appear to emphasize Kurtzman’s anti-war leanings, like Rubble! or Dying City! (done with Alex Toth) paint Communist side in such simplistic, negative terms (leaving the Americans to always come off as they sympathetic guys who fight because they have to, gosh darn it, not cause they want to) that it’s hard to feel as thought there isn’t more than a little flag-waving going on in the background.

I should note that only the first third of the book consists stories Kurtzman wrote and drew himself. The rest of the volume is stories done with artists not usually known for their work with EC, like Toth, Dave Berg (of “Lighter Side of” fame), Russ Heath and even Joe Kubert (not his best work by far). Toth is the one that comes out as the real star here, particularly on F-86 Sabre-Jet, a mesmerizing tale of derring-do aeronautics that verges on abstraction at times as Toth reduces the planes and clouds to very basic black and white shapes. Apparently the two feuded badly over this story, but it remains the most visually captivating thing in the book.

If there are any pleasant surprises in Imjin, it’s in the first few stories taken from Two Fisted Tales, where, committed to doing pure action pulp, Kurtzman invests the work with a frenzy and panache that many of the Al Feldstein-edited titles didn’t have. Pirate Gold, for example, is a fun, jet-propelled story of an amnesiac sea captain out for revenge that achieves a delicious chill in the near final sequence as said captain hacks away at one of his transgressors, screaming “Thank ye” all the while. It’s a great bit of showmanship that underscores Kurtzman’s talents as a cartoonist. Overall, Imjin both reveals Kurtzman greatness and underlines his weaknesses as an author.

Came the Dawn

Came the Dawn, meanwhile, collects the Shock SuspenStories “preachies” with a few early (and really not very good) horror stories thrown in for good measure (and perhaps to see how far Wood came along in such a short span of time). It seems an odd choice to highlight Wood’s work given that he’s best known for the sci-fi material he did with EC. It’s a choice made even odder given how banal and overwrought the Shock material is.

The “preachies” were little morality tales dealing with race, corruption, police brutality, drug abuse and other social issues, usually given the O.Henry type of twist ending so beloved by Feldstein and Gaines. These reveals would usually be of the stupefying kind one could see coming a mile away that added little to the story . To wit: the anti-Semite accidentally discovers that he was adopted and his biological parents were Jewish! The bigot turns his back on a neighbor of mixed race … only to discover that an African-American had given him a life-saving blood transfusion as a child!

While Feldstein, Wood and company certainly deserve credit for being willing to openly discuss these issues at a time just about every other cartoonist and comic book publisher was quietly sweeping their Sambo caricatures under the rug and whistling out of the side of their mouths, it doesn’t change the fact that these stories are horribly overwritten, didactic in the extreme and often self-righteous (one story about a young man gone bad shows his self-absorbed parents tearing up his horror comics in disgust), with the few ethnic characters taking on silent, saintly, martyr-like roles (the flip side of Sambo to be sure).

There’s also a sexism and misogyny that runs through Dawn that’s more than a little creepy. The title story deals with a man who stumbles into at first what seems to be a Penthouse Forum fantasy only to become convinced his dream girl is not to be trusted, with — ho hum — deadly consequences. The Assault is even more disconcerting, as it features mob violence (a favorite reoccurring motif for Feldstein) in the service of a seemingly abused teen girl who (of course) turns out to be a conniving slut and seductress. That’s not even mentioning the scenes of women being tied up and whipped by Klu Klux Klan figures not once but twice in Under Cover! and The Whipping. Clearly, these guys have some issues they needed to work out.

Of course, the central draw of this volume is Wally Wood. And yes, Wood’s art, particularly in the later “preachy” stories, is exemplary. His rich, intensely detailed scenes, exemplary use of shadow and contrast and curvaceous women are all on ample display here. But you know what? I’m really tired of reading comics where, well, the art is good but the story’s lackluster. Or vice versa. Or having to graciously overlook some rather large defects in order to best appreciate a particular artist’s work. I’ve had it with mitigating my enjoyment of this medium.

There was a time in my life (my adolescence to be exact) that I agreed with the general consensus and regarded EC, as Groth put it, ”a significant benchmark in quality comics.” Re-reading them now, however, I wonder what exactly it was that captivated me so. A few stellar moments in Imjin aside, it’s certainly hard to regard this — particularly the material in Came the Dawn – as worth of the praise that’s been lavished upon it.

EC is an important historical publisher. You can draw a straight line from their work to the work of underground cartoonists like Robert Crumb, Spain Rodriguez, Art Spiegelman. For that reason alone these comics should be studied and discussed and I’m grateful to Fantagraphics for getting these works out into the general public. But the sort of hagiography that has existed up till now regarding EC needs to be suffocated once and for all. If we are going to include EC in the comics canon at all, then we need to do so with a more critical and careful eye. We need a scalpel when selecting EC’s best, where up until now we’ve been content to use a steam shovel.

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16 Comments

Chris, That was a well thought out column, and I think it’s great that your critical eye has grown to where you can see some of the flaws in EC’s stories. But your column doesn’t really supply anything new to those of us that already had our eyes open.

Besides the criticisms you mention, I’ve always been turned off by the mechanical-looking lettering in all of Feldstein’s books, so distracting it makes it impossible for me to “stay in the story.” And those great artists EC had were all suffocated by that era’s panel-size and page limitations (it would have been great to see any of EC’s great artists given the freedom to let loose). Another flaw that makes much of EC unreadable for me is Feldstein’s verbosity in those horror books. Too many words and not enough room for art! Gosh, you’d think he was getting paid by the word.

To fully enjoy EC, I have to read them in historical context. They were the first company that made any attempt at creating quality comic books for older readers. They were the first to attempt to tell serious stories that reflected society’s faults. In the fifties, EC stood miles above the rest. Beginning in the liberated sixties, companies like Warren (who used EC as a starting point, using many EC artists) and later, DC and Marvel, published some quality material but it was never as consistent as the entire EC line. I don’t believe there has ever been a comics publisher who “gave a shit” about their publications as much as William Gaines. Even today, I can’t imagine that Dan Didio, or whoever the current publisher of Marvel is, actually reads and enjoys their own publications. Like Bill Gaines did.

Chris, you raise some interesting points in this well-thought review. There’s one detail I’d like to address: you mention the “pacifist reputation” of Kurtzman’s war comics and “Kurtzman’s anti-war leanings”, but I don’t believe this is an accurate representation of the comics nor of Kurtzman’s ideology.

Kurtzman didn’t claim to be anti-war, his intention with the war comics instead was to present a more accurate and realistic depiction of war, an antidote to the other war comics being published at the time, with their casual racism, explicit jingoism, or their depiction of war as just a fun place where you could fight with your buddies and chase girls in your spare time (as an example of the latter, I’m thinking of stuff like Ziff-Davis’s G.I. JOE comics). It’s similar to what he tried to do with MAD: to show the truth behind the lies that mass entertainment was feeding to children and adults alike.

Getting to the final part of your review, what Jake says in the previous comment: “EC stood miles above the rest” is a perfect summation (at least for the genres which EC published). EC didn’t encourage a house style, artists were allowed to develop their own individual styles and sign their own work, and the stories were of a type which a bright 12 year-old probably couldn’t find in other types of popular entertainment at the time. EC Comics stood out at the time, and with good reason. These comics impressed a generation of fans-turned-scholars that may have tended to over-emphasize their qualities, but one could very well argue that for at least two or three decades these comics were among the best that the American comic book industry had produced.

“These comics impressed a generation of fans-turned-scholars that may have tended to over-emphasize their qualities, but one could very well argue that for at least two or three decades these comics were among the best that the American comic book industry had produced.”

I dunno if I agree with that. Aside from a small cache of Kurtzman stories (some of which were discussed above) most EC comics seem a notch or two below the cartoonists who were doing the best work in commercial comics: John Stanley (in Lulu and elsewhere), Carl Barks (in the duck comics), Simon and Kirby (in their romance work and elsewhere) or even Fletcher Hanks.

Jeet, I most definitely agree with you about Barks and maybe some of the others (and we could also add Walt Kelly to that list), but I don’t really see someone like Fletcher Hanks being a notch above the work of cartoonists like Bernard Krigstein or Johnny Craig.

But anyhow, quibbles like that aside, I still believe the main point stands: even taking into account Barks et al’s undisputed superiority these EC comics for a long time were among the best commercial comics produced. (This is even more so if you exclude funny animals and narrow the competition down to the genres EC is best known for.)

Jake — The lettering in EC never really bothered me that much. Not sure why. Agreed on Feldstein’s need to constantly overwrite though. I thought about mentioning it in the review (I ended up skipping a lot of the caption boxes in Dawn just get through the book) but decided it was getting too long already. Jog talks about it a bit on a recent episode of the Comic Books are Burning in Hell podcast.

Rodrigo — I definitely think EC had a house style. The feldstein books have a unique manner and look to them that’s instantly recognizable. Same with Kurtzman. It’s just a more inclusive style than what was going on at other places.

Certainly EC has long been REGARDED as being one of the best — if not the best — commercial comics ever produced, and I think they deserve credit for refusing to talk down to their audience and for caring about art in a way that few publishers did, but I think the recent spate of pre-code reprints coming out show how many other talented people were working in the field. And I think John Stanley’s work holds up much better over time than the bulk of the EC material.

Oh, and that’s a good point re: Kurtzman’s pacifism. I was referring more to the general impression readers and fans had regarding the material than Kurtzman’s own feelings on the matter, but I could have done a better job pointing that out.

Yes, EC Comics are old. We get it.

I remember atending a comic con back in March of 1975, and there were two dealers, about my age,selling off a complete 1961 to 1974 marvel collection, mostly in near mint.I asked them, why they were doing so. The answer was, “We are going after the ec books”Now,It would be interesting to compare the near mint prices, on a 1961 to 74 marvel collection today, compared to the 1950 to 54 ec books in the same shape. Offhand, I’d say they made a HUGE mistake.Marvel keeps having new films come out of their characters, and look to be around for a long time to come.

Between this and Sean Rogers’ article on Grant Morrison, this has been quite a season for challenging previously beloved icons. Is anyone going to take a shot at Los Bros Hernandez? No? *dodges thrown tomatoes*

I enjoyed reading these reviews. And I have heard before, in recent years, opinions similar to those expressed here. However, as valid as it may be to temper the misplaced hagiography of the company that Gaines built, it occurs to me that the target of the criticism might actually be more properly directed. While, I agree, as others have pointed out, that Gaines made a concerted effort to have his comics stand out, by virtue of offering both superlative art and subject matter, mostly avoided by the other publishers of the period, I am not sure if he actually supposed it was his mission to endow his scrappy medium with the aura of legend and unassailable merit ; ie, the reputation you are seeking to correct.

At the time and for sometime thereafter comic got no respect; they were disposable ephemera, not not much worth the effort of more. If Gaines deserves the credit for thinking comics could be bettered I am not sure he, and EC comics, also deserves the burden of 60 years worth of that saintly status subsequent generations of fans and scholars have afforded it.

in short your excellent review might best be directed at the more myopic critics than the more benighted comics themselves.

I can’t believe my “ears”. I dunno, I think this is just some more of that Nitpicking Revisionist B.S. which some times rears its ugly head: in other words, someone shows up who tries to make a name for himself or
herself by taking cheapshots at a “sacred cow”!

For me it all comes down to this: “Do I enjoy the product?”

As much as I love the work of Carl Barks or Simon and Kirby (especially their Romance comics) and yes, I will be eternally grateful to Fantagraphics for introducing me to the team of Dana Dutch and Matt Baker; as the Sun sets over the yardarm, it ultimately comes down to this: I think EC Comics TOWERS head and shoulders above the majority of Western comic books published in the 1950s, as well as some of the then-popular newspaper strips! Also, I vehemently disagree with the notion that the work doesn’t “hold up” today!

Did the EC crew hit it out of the park every-time? NO, only God is perfect! Sure, some “talking heads” have resorted to overpraising EC– trying to lionize them with guilded pages and poetic fancies, but generally, the stories and artwork were indeed beautiful and quite worthy of some of the more luxurious formats in which they are often reprinted.

And wot’s this? Little LULU–better than EC COMICS?!

Gimme a break! I’ve NEVER even liked the DESIGN of that little scamp and certainly not the artwork! Next thing you know some bozo will write an essay trying to convince us that Jackie Collins was a better writer than Charles Dickens!!! Once again, the mind boggles…

Scott Mortensen

October 22, 2012 at 1:28 am

My favorite EC comic story has yet to be republished in any of the Archives, I believe. It’s from Weird Science-Fantasy #25, drawn by the incomparable Joe Orlando. It’s called ‘Harvest’, and you should definately seek it out if you can.

@Scott Mortensen, Harvest is reprinted in the Complete EC Library edition collecting all the WSF/ISF comics.

My favorite group of comics from EC were the ShockSuspense Stories (the best EC library edition by Russ Cochrane). Yes, sometimes overly simplistic and dependent on an “Oh Henry”/”Shamalayn twist” ending, but almost always a good read. Also, as “progressive” as they might have been in their day, they are still a product of their time. Their early success spawned many, much inferior copycats (both horror and SF) that helped make them seem even better by comparison. While the tragic overreaction of horrified adults led by Wertham neutered the publisher so badly that the demise of the comic publishing arm became a tragic result may have led to an over-deification of EC books, a lot of them were pretty damn good. (Mind you I wasn’t a big fan of the Gunslinger series).

I remember reading an interview with Feldstein (maybe from a TCJ issue?) where he explained the mechanics of how he cranked out so many stories. He basically wrote the script on the art pages! that’s why there’s so much text in those Feldstein written stories compared to the Kurtzman written stories. Kurtzman did thumbnails and sent those to the artists (probably why he and Toth fought so badly – nobody tells Toth how to lay out a page). But Feldstein had the text on the page, and the artists had the space left in the already ruled out panels to draw the images.

I remember after I read this interview going back to EC reprints and sure enough, you could read the images, or you could read the text only and still get the vast majority of the story. So much for comics being words AND pictures working together! For most of the Feldstein EC stories, it was really words and images telling the same story in parallel to each other.

Comics was a mass produced product through most of the 20th Century. you ignore the actual production methodology at your own peril.

So now the current generation begins to trash and take apart EC Comics. It’s really interesting how people today try their best to take down things from the past simply because ‘they are old’ Being older material doesn’t make it bad.

The bulk of what EC put out is still better than the bulk of what we get from Marvel and DC today.

Skott — Please. Anyone who’s read anything I’ve written for this site or elsewhere knows that I have no interest in taking something apart simply because “it’s old.” Most of my favorite creators — E.C. Segar, Roy Crane, Chester Gould, Hal Foster, Frank King — were making comics decades before EC came around.

I’ve just finished a response-essay to Chris Mautner’s review here:

http://arche-arc.blogspot.com/2013/01/ec-pc-part-3.html

I know that this is a fairly old review but I felt I had to examine Chris’ piece in order to take a fair shot at the more recent essay it spawned on the Journal site.

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