EC COMICSPrimary Product: Comic Books
Producing Since: 1946
Noted For: The Vault of Horror, Weird Science Fantasy, Mad magazine and more
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EC Comics wasn't the first publisher peddling crime or horror comics to American youth — not by a longshot! Nor were theirs the most lurid, sensational, offensive, corrupting, fill in
tho there, the margin was much smaller. But when we think of the lurid, sensational, etc. crime and horror comics of the 1950s, they're the ones we recall most fondly — possibly because they were the best.
They didn't start out lurid and sensational. In fact, one of the company's early titles was Tiny Tot Comics.
Max Gaines, EC's founder, had a truly remarkable career in comics. It started in 1935, when he packaged the very first modern-style American comic book, and continued with helping to launch Dell, one of the most successful of the early publishers, a year later. In 1945, he sold most of his comics properties (including The Flash, Green Lantern and The Justice Society of America) to DC Comics, retaining only two — Picture Stories from The Bible and Picture Stories from World History. In '46, instead of retiring with the ample proceeds of the sale, he used those titles as the foundation of a new publishing venture, Educational Comics — EC for short.
Before long, the initials had come to mean "Entertaining Comics", instead; and the roster of titles included Animal Fables, Dandy Comics, Fat & Slat and a few others. Tho it wasn't setting the world on fire, the company did get by, and it might have limped along like that forever, if not for sudden tragedy — Gaines was killed in a boating accident on August 20, 1947. The company was inherited by his 25-year-old son son, William M. Gaines, who promptly changed its entire direction.
Within a few years, the funny animals and the educational stuff had been completely phased out, and the lineup included such titles as Saddle Justice, Crime Patrol and Moon Girl (the company's only standard superhero title). But the real breakthrough came in 1950, when Gaines fils and editor Al Feldstein opted for the lurid and sensational. That was the year they introduced The Vault of Horror and Tales from the Crypt.
These series were done in a photo-realistic art style, seldom seen in comic books up to that time tho a few newspaper strips, such as Mary Worth and Rip Kirby, were experimenting with it. The dialog was reasonably literate and quite up-tp-date. And they pulled no punches in their attempt to seduce and thrill the reader. Gaines and Feldstein called the style the "New Trend" in comics. Other New Trend titles were added — Weird Science, Crime SuspenStories, Frontline Combat by the end of 1951, the New Trend had taken over the entire EC line. It was during the New Trend era that EC made stars of artists such as Wallace Wood, Jack Davis, Al Wiliamson and several others.
While this was happening, a young genius named Harvey Kurtzman was working his way up the company ranks. He started drawing a story here and there in the back pages, and before long was on his own, editing and writing such comics as Two Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat. It was he who, in 1952, convinced Gaines to publish Mad, EC's longest lasting and best known contribution to American culture.
This wasn't a good time to be publishing lurid, sensational comic books. For years, publishers like Fiction House Lev Gleason and (especially) Fox Feature Syndicate had been pushing the bounds of good taste in every direction, a fact which had not gone unnoticed by politicians, self-styled experts on child behavior and others whose careers could benefit from inflammatory causes. Comics were increasingly coming under fire — and EC, whose grisly horror and crime comics led the pack (Fox having gone out of business), was a prime target.
In 1955, the Comics Code Authority went into effect. Most U.S. distributors, responding to a climate of fear induced by government investigations and a morally outraged public, refused to carry most comics without the Code seal, so EC made an attempt to comply with the Code. The horror and crime titles disappeared, replaced by adventure stories about pirates, knights in armor, two-fisted newsmen and the like. But the new line lasted less than a year. Code administrators seemed to bear a particular animus toward Gaines and EC, making it nearly impossible for the publisher to get anything approved. When the Code ordered changes in an anti-racism story because it showed a black man perspiring, Gaines decided there was no point in even trying to publish comic books anymore. By the beginning of 1956, EC had completely vacated the comics racks.
The publisher then experimented with comics and heavily illustrated fiction (called "Picto-fiction"), packaged as regular-size adult magazines instead of traditional comic books. Most died within a couple of issues, but Mad, which had already made the transition with its July, 1955 issue, went on to become America's best selling and most famous humor magazine — in fact, by the end of the 1950s, it had spawned a dozen imitators, with titles like Sick, Zany, Frantic, etc. One of them, Cracked, lasted decades.
Gaines continued to publish Mad until 1961, when he sold it to Premier Industries. In 1968, it was acquired by Warner Communications, one of the companies that eventually wheeled and dealed to become AOL Time Warner. That media mega-conglomerate owns it today, along with DC Comics, the Warner, MGM and Hanna-Barbera cartoons, and other major toon properties. Through all the mergers and acquisitions, however, Gaines managed to remain in charge of the magazine's operations until his death in 1992.
When he sold Mad, however, Gaines retained ownership of the rest of EC. When the kids who had read his early '50s comics grew up and got nostalgic for them, he licensed them out for one reprint after another. Over the years, they've been reprinted by Ballantine Books, Russ Cochran Publications, Gladstone Comics and other publishers.
The old EC stories are now owned by Gemstone Publishing, a division of Diamond Comics Distributors, which currently maintains a virtual monopoly in the comic book Direct Market — and which still brings them out in new editions from time to time.
EC Comics articles in Don Markstein's Toonopedia: