the horror of it all

Art Chantry on pre-code horror comics…inside the turgid psyche of the American heart…

Art Chantry (

Anybody who knows me or has read many of these essays I write here know that I collect crap. Lotsa crap. I just have that ‘clutterfucked’ gene that makes me a potential horder. My sister has it, my dad had it, my mom has it. My brother lives if dreadful fear of it and goes the opposite route – throwing everything away. Ain’t biology grand?

However, there’s one thing I don’t collect. Way too expensive now. but, if I were the richest dude in the world, I would ONLY collect this stuff. I would happily give away all my crap – toss it out, even. Burn it – if i were allowed into this collecting territory. It’s the very coolest, best, cheeziest pinnacle of American pop culture. “pre-code” horror comics!

When we think of old horror comics, we tend to consider the EC company (originally it stood for ‘educational comics, of all things). Those old titles like ‘tales from the crypt’ and ‘the vault of horror’ (and later, their ‘fall back’ humor publication, ‘MAD’) are so famous and emulated and copy-catted now, that they are essential American trash culture icons right up there with Marilyn and Elvis and James Dean.

AC:there is a really nice book that's just come out called "the horror... the horror... (comic books the government didn't want you to read)" by jim trombetta published by abrams. i highly recommend this volume as an intro to the genre. it'll clue you in to the real story. but, then you need to start tracing where this stuff all went from there. click image for more

But, William Gaines and the EC comics line weren’t by any means the ONLY company producing these comics. There were dozens of manufacturers cranking out this stuff by the truckloads. The artists and writers tended to jump around to wherever there was money. They’d link up and crank this stuff out for the masses. Make a buck. Then move on to the next freelance project

Just the titles alone are worth listing here. Here’s a very incomplete list of comic book titles to just give you a taste of what this turf was like:

the beyond, dark mysteries, the unseen, marvel tales, astonishing, uncanny tales, tomb of terror, chamber of chills, spook, stories to hold you spellbound, blue bolt, horrific, space western, strange terrors, manhunt, chilling tales, crime and punishment, crime does not pay, crime mysteries, law breakers suspensor, penalty, thrilling crime, the perfect crime, underworld crime, mister mystery, weird terror, the vault of horror, startling terror, crypt of terror, menace, the thing, out of the shadows, beware, witches tales, ghostly weird, shocking mystery, planet comics, black cat mystery, the clutching hand, haunted, journey into fear, strange mysteries, haunted thrills, adventures into darkness, weird tales of the future, mysterious adventure, voodoo, strange fantasy, the skeleton hand, terror tales, venus, amazing adventures, witchcraft, eerie, tormented, baffling mysteries, adventuras macabras, the dead that walk, diary of horror, mystic, web of mystery, city of the living dead, space action, weird horrors, out of the night, journey into unknown worlds, web of evil, weird fantasy, suspense, terror of the jungle, contact, and my personal favorite cheezy title of the whole lot – this magazine is haunted!

Horror comics of the 1940s and early 1950s are often called 'pre-Code' horror in reference to the Comics Code Authority, a censoring board that was created in response to Dr. Fredric Wertham's book Seduction of the Innocent and the subsequent public outcry against crime and horror comics. Since violent, gory and lurid content were what made pre-Code horror comics great, the stifling effect of censorship resulted in bland comics that didn'

ll. The horror comic market was dead, killed by the Code. click image for more...

With a (partial and incomplete) list like that, I think you start to get an inkling of what this stuff might have been like. Sensationalistic gory cheezeball tripe comes to mind. But, for a kid raised on h.p. lovecraft, universal horror films, the 1950′s a.i. giant bug movies, famous monsters of filmland and creepy comics – this stuff is the mother load.

The artists working this turf back then were virtually all war vets (it seems) with varying sorts of emotional damage (let’s be honest). The writers were virtually unknown haggard hacks and a few really fucked up madmen tossed in to the stew. Combine that with a forgotten generation of comic book professional hacks and an entire new generation of adult men who entered WW2 and the Korean war as children (and had to grow up way too fast) and you begin to see a crazy new market emerging. The truth was that these horror comics weren’t really made for “kids” at all. They were made for new postwar damaged adults taking over the new modern world.

“Badly drawn, badly written, and badly printed – a strain on the young eyes and young nervous systems – the effects of these pulp-paper nightmares is that of a violent stimulant. Their crude blacks and reds spoils a child’s natural sense of colour; their hypodermic injection of sex and murder make the child impatient with better, though quieter, stories. Unless we want a coming generation even more ferocious than the present one, parents and teachers throughout America must band together to break the `comic’ magazine.” ( Sterling North )


---here's a weird one, originally presented in the January 1952 issue of Star Spangled Comics #124, art by Leonard Starr.... click image for more

So, when the senator Kefauver committee in congress went after the comic industry – and horror comics in particular (and singling out william gaines and his EC comics line in particular), the comics were actually creating a giant embarrassment for the American public. Most of the adult men were the purchasers of this lurid crap (along with their girlie mags). So, defense of this material was virtually mute. A dirty little secret that could NOT be disclosed publicly.

The result was the new “comics code”. That icky little ‘stamp of approval’ you see on all comic books printed since 1954 – that’s the direct result of that notorious committee and their Xtian censorship. From that time on, you couldn’t get ‘racked’ in a store without that stamp. And that stamp meant passing a censorship board. They would cross-out EVERYTHING. Sales plummeted.

—when you look at this stuff, you realize where so much of that Von Dutch, Ed Roth, rat fink, skate board monster world originated. And they always pegging the concept of the ‘living dead’ with Richard Matheson’s great novel “i am legend”, and George Romero. but, when you see this stuff, you realize that the modern zombie story cycle begins with these comics. No argument. This pr-code horror comics turf is the fertilizer for SO MUCH of American cheezy pop culture artwork and ideas….the history of drunkeness, drug abuse, mental illness, religious madness and radical philosophy permeates the history of the perpetrators of these comics. This stuff seemed to actually reflect (or maybe CAUSE) enormous amounts of damage if you got into it. Kefauver was RIGHT!!!…superheroes were a stop gap fix to counterbalance the loss felt when the horror comic market collapsed. It set back the development of the graphic novel by over three decades. ( Art Chantry )

So, when you say “pre-code” horror, it means just that. The comics from these older publishers are extraordinary and lurid and surreal and utterly brilliant. After the imposition of the code, it became “safe and sane” pablum. No gore, no sex, no werwolves or vampires or zombies. Nothing disturbing at all. no nuttin’.

---Over the last year, I have really gotten into ACE PreCode horror and the reason is because of the artist that drew this amazing cover right here. Lou Cameron has a real fresh approach to these stories. They are not usually over-the-top shock stories filled with gore. Cameron’s style is creative and executed with some solid traditional drawing skills. There is a nice 1950’s style to these. They sometimes feel like illustrations from a storybook. When I first saw this cover, I was totally blown away by that witch face. My favorite part of the cover?…..the way the hair is drawn. That right there is an artist having fun!--- click image for more...

The horror comic vanished and had to wait ten or more years for the Warren Company and their b&w MAGAZINES (as opposed to comic book format) to re-introduce quality horror stories and art and writing to the comic book world again. By that time, the audience had dwindled (through shame and embarrassment and ‘good taste’) into a tiny fraction of what it was before the code.

The bottom line, these pre-code horror comics are a pinnacle of American pop genius. An entire industry built around exploitation and greed and frustration and madness. They’re well worth reading about and looking for reprints. Lord knows the originals are so rare and expensive that they’ve become untouchable.

The entire genre is a peak of the American darkside, the turgid psyche that lurks inside every American heart. It’s also the primordial ooze from which virtually all postwar American pop styles have grown out of.

Read More:


The ‘arrival’ of Dr. Fredric Werthham was the scariest thing to ever happen to comic books. He was a highly distinguished psychologist who thought comic books were bad for kids, and his efforts to have them censored had a horrible and lasting impact that still affect comic books to this day…

…Five years later, Dr. Wertham set up a clinic for underprivileged people. After opening it he soon got interested in the “effects” that comic books had on children. In 1948, Dr. Wertham came out against comic books publicly in an interview in Collier’s Magazine titled “Horror in the Nursery.” This interview would be the start of Dr. Wertham’s seven-year study of comic books’ effects on children. In this interview, Dr. Wertham would state that:

“The number of `good’ comics is not worth discussing, but the great number that masquerade as `good’ certainly deserve close scrutiny.” …

---Dr. Wertham claimed in private correspondence years later that comic-book publishers did everything they could to squelch him and his book, from hiring private detectives to tail him in the hope of getting something on him to exerting muscle to kill an important book-club deal for Seduction . One thing that is definitely known is that after the book was published, the publisher had second thoughts about the two-page bibliography of comic-book publishers at the end, apparently fearing lawsuits, and ordered it razor-bladed out of the printed copies. A few intact copies slipped through, however, and fans who have seen the biblography say its omissions and mistakes just prove that Wertham had little understanding as to who actually published what in the '50s comic-book industry.--- click image for more

…A few weeks later Dr. Wertham attended a symposium in New York City called “The Psychopathology of Comic Books”. The reaction to Dr. Wertham’s views was immediate. One month later, in the April issue of Time magazine, a story appeared about Detroit Police Commissioner Harry S. Toy, who examined all the comic books available in his community, and then stated they were; “Loaded with communist teachings, sex, and racial discrimination.” In May of 1948 he also presented his views in an article for the Saturday Review of Literature.

Henry E. Shultz talked about the conditions in the December, 1949 issue of the Journal of Educational Society:

In towns, villages, and municipalities throughout the country.. law makers were goaded and prodded into action, and many did their best to please and appease the angry torment which had been unleashed. Laws and ordinances, committees on legislation, censors, indeed every device to bedevil and confuse dealers, wholesalers, and publishers of comics, were created and enacted – books were banned, and finally, to cap the climax, mass burnings of comic books were publicly held in several communities.”

The mass burning of comic books did happen. On December 20th, in 1948, Time magazine reported and printed pictures of Binghamton, New York residents, after a house to house collection of comic books, having a mass public comic book burning (with a bunch of kids in the background watching). Read More:

Art Chantry: also worth noting is that the intentional death of the pre-code horror comic left a huge sales hole in the industry. so, that’s when they began to drag all those ignored and almost forgotten “super heroes” out of mothballs and reintroducing them to ‘the kids”. it was the comics code that forced the superhero down our throats as a comic industry survival strategy. we can’t forget that peculiar twist in history….another really great book to pick up on a variant of this subject is “the weied world of eerie publications” by mike howlett, published by feral house. it covers the history of “EERIE” publications from the 1960′s – when the comics code began to be ignored through a sneak attack, warren pubs (with creepy and eerie (no relation) and vampirella) began to publish b&w horror in the old school style, using all the old grand masters. the results were so popular and so dang GOOD, that a large number of copycat imitators emerged. ‘eerie’ pubs were the sleaziest cheeziest worst most disgusting comics of that period and new crop of exploitive companies. this book documents a scene that was virtually undocumentable. great stuff…. the stamp was ‘volunteered’ by the wimpy publishers, but to say it was strictly voluntary is equally wrong. there was way too much money going down the tubes for these publishes to jump on any bandwagons. besides, they were sleazy businessmen. losing money was akin to suicide in their minds. you try to make it sound like a vast conspiracy from all positions above did in the horror comics. it was strictly the xtian moralists who did it in. kefauver and that wertham dude – they pounded that stake, not the publishers….

…gaines is a pretty mixed bag in the history of comics. all the artists who got screwed to the floor by him when he sold MAD to warner bros. was as horrifying as his comics. don martin not only lost his rights to his entire career output, he even lost the right to draw under his own name! gaines always had the “work for hire” clause printed on the paychecks, so when the artists cashed their checks, they agreed to the contract, thus losing all authorship, copyright, style, and precedent. gaines was not exactly a nice fella. but, keep in mind that gaines was willingly singled out and became famous – he graciously, arrogantly and stupidly stepped into that roll. there were literally hundreds of others making these amazing comics, too. they got nailed alongside him. where were they in the fight? protecting their artists?

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