A 1954 cover. Artist: Jack Davis.


Original medium: Comic Books
Published by: EC Comics
First Appeared: 1950
Creators: Bill Gaines (Publisher) and Al Feldstein (editor)
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Until 1947, when he unexpectedly inherited EC Comics, Bill Gaines wasn't very enthusiastic about comic books, despite …

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… the fact that his father had just about invented the format. Even after taking over the company, in fact, all he did was drop by the office once a week to sign checks. He began to take an interest a few months later, when cartoonist Al Feldstein joined the staff. Feldstein and Gaines hit it off immediately, and before long were jointly editing Saddle Justice, Moon Girl and other titles.

Among the comics they collaborated on were Crime Patrol and War on Crime, (no relation) both followers of the crime comics trend pioneered by Lev Gleason's Crime Does Not Pay. The December-January 1949-50 issues of those titles introduced new features: "The Crypt of Terror" in the former, and "The Vault of Horror" in the latter.

These features were done in the style of radio horror shows like Inner Sanctum and Lights Out, with creepy narrators (in this case, The Crypt Keeper and The Vault Keeper) dishing up grisly tales of rotting corpses and supernatural menaces. Gaines and Feldstein enjoyed them so much, two issues later — long before sales figures or reader response could possibly have come in — they dropped the crime stories and changed the titles of the magazines. With their April-May, 1950 issues, Crime Patrol became The Crypt of Terror and War on Crime became The Vault of Horror. (Crypt assumed its final and best-known title, Tales from the Crypt, six months later.) For good measure, they dropped Gunfighter in favor of The Haunt of Fear, and introduced The Old Witch as its narrator.

The company's old hands thought this such a sound move, business manager Sol Cohen resigned, taking a position with Avon Periodicals (Peter Rabbit, Space Mouse, no relation). But that was the move by which EC stopped following trends, and started setting them

EC's horror comics were neither the first nor the most disgusting, but they definitely stood out from the crowd. Partly, this was due to their narrated format — the three horror hosts offered entertaining commentary on the stories, replete with gross-out humor. The art style also had something to do with it — the photo-realistic rendering that became the norm at EC was already being used in several newspaper strips, such as Rip Kirby and Rex Morgan, M.D., but it was new to comic books.

Mostly, tho, it was quality. Gaines and Feldstein provided the majority of the stories (with an occasional outside yarn from the likes of Ray Bradbury), and the art was done by such outstanding talents as Johnny Craig, Jack Davis, Graham Ingels, Jack Kamen and George Evans. And unlike most comic book companies of its time, EC encouraged its artists to excel in their own individual styles.

The public responded by making best-sellers of EC's horror titles. In fact, until Mad, which started as an EC comic, took off, the horror books pretty much supported the entire line, which also included science fiction, adventure and suspense comics.

But that wasn't the public's only response. Since the mid-1940s, there had been growing criticism of sex and violence in comic books. With the success of its horror line, EC became a major focus of the outcry. It reached such a fever pitch that in 1954, Gaines was called to testify before the U.S. Senate's Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency. There, he was put in the uncomfortable position of having to defend a cover in which a man stood over his wife's corpse, a bloody axe in one hand and her severed head hanging by its hair from the other.

Later that year, the Comics Code Authority was formed, and it became nearly impossible to get a non-Code comic distributed — which effectively put an end to horror as a comic book genre. In fact, the word "horror" was forbidden to be used on a comic book cover, as were "terror" and "weird". But by the time the Code went into effect, Gaines had already decided to fold his horror titles. The final issue of The Haunt of Fear to reach the stands was #28 (Nov-Dec 1954); the final Vault of Horror was #40 (Dec-Jan 1954-55); and the final Tales from the Crypt was #46 (Feb-Mar 1955).

But the EC horror comics have refused to stay in the grave. Since the 1960s, they've been brought back as reprints, over and over, in a wide variety of formats. In 1972, the title and format of Tales from the Crypt were adapted into a feature-length movie, which was followed a year later by The Vault of Horror (subtitled Further Tales from the Crypt). In 1989, Tales from the Crypt became a TV series on HBO. The Crypt Keeper returned in another feature, titled Demon Knight, in 1995, and yet another, Bordello of Blood, in 1996.

In fact, the title Tales from the Crypt seems to have become a permanent part of American culture, like Keeping Up with the Joneses, Hairbreadth Harry and any number of comics titles that still resonate with the public despite the fact that the comics themselves are long gone. Even today, newspaper stories, essays and the like are sometimes titled "Tales from the Crypt" — as was a very short-lived and very unrelated magazine-format comic book that came out in 1968.

And that's a victory of sorts. After all, who today has ever heard of the U.S. Senate's Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency?


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Text ©2001-08 Donald D. Markstein. Art © EC Comics.