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‘Tales From the Crypt’ Volume 1 The early days of the horror icon crawl back from the grave

‘Tales From the Crypt’ Volume 1 The early days of the horror icon crawl back from the grave

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Few comics sit at the intersection of “fan beloved,” “industry defining,” and “absolutely impossible to acquire” the way the EC Comics library does. For a while they almost felt like Comics’ very own Holy Grail. On one hand, you’ve got the Tales From The Crypt brand itself, which has left an indelible mark on pop culture with films, cable TV series, Saturday morning cartoons, and a line of revival graphic novels from Papercutz — a proud legacy, to be sure. But on the other hand, you enter into the more nebulous region of pop cultural osmosis, and it’s there that the legend of Bill Gaines’ little comic line that could grows to gargantuan levels. The baby boomers that ate his ghoulish “mags” up in the early ‘50s eventually grew into the genre fiction movers and shakers of the ‘70s and ‘80s — from cult directors like George Romero and Joe Dante, to lit legends like Stephen King, to blockbuster cinema wunderkinds like Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and John Carpenter (Carpenter actually provides a disappointingly brief intro to this volume). You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone whose imagination hasn’t been touched either directly or indirectly by the macabre yarns from the Crypt-Keeper, the Vault-Keeper, and the Old Witch. With all that and their notorious place at the forefront of the Seduction of the Innocent controversy that practically sent the comics industry into the Dark Ages, you’d think the existence of a prestige line of EC Comics trade collections would seem like a given, right?

No, unfortunately. The continued proliferation of EC Comics has long been in the hands of publisher Russ Cochran, who successfully released a complete hardcover library of black-and-white reprints starting in the ‘70s (which, lacking Marie Severin’s vibrant colors, took away much of the electric appeal the stories had on dime-store racks in the ‘50s). An attempt to release a line of full-color collections starting in 2006 was plagued with financial difficulties, and sunk the availability of the EC library into a state of uncertainty, with both established fans and curious newcomers left with few options other than third-party sellers on Amazon and eBay, where a pre-owned copy of any given EC collection could be yours for a mere $200 — at least. Fortunately, Dark Horse came to the rescue and brought the new full-color volumes back to shelves starting in 2013.

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When Dark Horse took over, they picked up right where former publisher Gemstone left off, so this Tales From The Crypt Volume 1 is actually the third volume of Tales put out by DH, and the tenth volume of EC work overall, including volumes of the Tales sister series The Vault of Horror and The Haunt of Fear. Cochran’s latest line of EC reprints has received heavy criticism over the decision to digitally recolor the whole library. The palette has been expanded beyond the original four colors available to Marie Severin, and  the new colorists have liberally added modern flourishes like gradients in a way that not only distracts from the legendary artwork, but also removes the comics from their proper pre-digital context. While Dark Horse was a godsend for getting this material back into the hands of comics and horror devotees, their presence only managed to intensify some of the very worst aspects that came with the digital recoloring. Thankfully, this latest edition appears to have taken those criticisms to heart and found a new color team. Either that, or they’re just reprinting the much better work that had been originally done at Gemstone. Either way, the colors here are a long way off from the ones found in The Vault of Horror: Volume 3. They haven’t brought back the dots, mind you, but gradients are much more subdued, the palette is a little less broad, and the overall package does a better job of transporting the reader back to the 1950s, when these comics caused a nation-wide moral panic, but were in many ways exactly the thing we were asking for.

Screenshot (20)When Tales from The Crypt debuted in 1950, horror in mainstream entertainment was somewhat passé. The Hollywood Horror high of the 1930s that had given the world innumerable nightmares cast in moving shades of silver and black had returned to the same tomb from which had slithered the Great Depression. As World War II raged on, world-class productions gave way to cheap B-pictures — tired sequels and pulpy horror mashups like Frankenstein Meet The Wolf Man. There were some gems to be sure, but these were diamonds in the rough. Producer Val Lewton’s run of horror pictures from RKO in the early ‘40s was subtle, endlessly brilliant, and endlessly effective, but were given the kind of second-rate treatment worthy of titles like The Leopard Man, Curse of the Cat People, and I Walked With A Zombie. IMDb categorizes only one American cinema release under the horror genre for the year EC horror stepped into the limelight: Outrage, Ida Lupino’s attempt to arouse society’s collective responsibility concerning sexual assault against women. And while the subject matter there certainly is horrific, it’s not really in the same category as a Mark of the Vampire.

In 1950, America was still in a transitional period after the war, trying to celebrate  victory and return to family values while having to come to grips with the conflicts that traded millions of lives in return for the atom bomb. Our boys had come home with the horrors of the Pacific and European Theaters forever imprinted on their minds, but we were not yet ready to face our new anxieties head-on. The post-war paranois about Mutually Assured Destruction and those insidious Reds were not to come blazing to life on the silver screen in the form of gargantuan insects terrorizing the cities or extraterrestrials hiding among us for another few years. Instead, EC Comics entered the scene and revitalized the genre by giving the country exactly the kind of horror it wanted. They did not try to present anything new or challenging, choosing instead to shamelessly ape the most popular horror tales and tropes with heaping helpings of vampires, werewolves, and living corpses. And (in the majority of the stories and certainly the best) they were deeply moralistic, molding these classic horror figures around the idea that poetic justice and irony reigned supreme. We often followed transgressors — killers and monsters, but occasionally just your run-of-the-mill thief or adulterer — whose just desserts at the end of every tale fit their crimes almost too perfectly. In a world wracked with moral uncertainty over the justness of what we had done to end the war, EC Comics were there to assure us that we were not the bad guys by virtue of the fact that we were the ones left standing. The enemy had received their just desserts, not us.

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Of course, the moral arbiters of the day did not understand this as they lined their children up to literally throw comics onto the burning piles. All they saw was the over-the-top and frankly cartoonish violence that they feared was poisoning their youth, and the rest was history. After things went so far as a Congressional hearing, Bill Gaines pulled all his horror, sci-fi, and crime titles from the shelves, putting a stop to an era that was regularly cranking out artwork still virtually unrivaled in the industry.

Screenshot (15)And make no mistake, it is the artwork that is the star of most EC Comics, their horror titles especially. This isn’t meant to disparage the work of the writers at EC, some of whom pulled double-duty as artists, and some of whom were Gardner Fox, aka the creator of The Flash and DC’s Multiverse. Given what a new and unexplored medium comics still was at the time, a lot of what they accomplished with the use of the gutter, pacing, set-up and payoff of the final, gruesome “punchline” was outstanding. And for a time when most comics narratives still relied on narration captions, there is some very interesting experimentation with telling stories mostly through visuals and dialogue — and sometimes using panels without words entirely. But the stories themselves? Let it not be said that they aren’t fun, at least. They know the horror tropes that work and steal them shamelessly, and anyone who adores classic horror is bound to have a good time. But their hugely derivative nature means that it fell to at-the-time unsung superstars like Johnny Craig, Al Feldstein, and Graham Ingels to use their pencils to turn these books into the icons they are. Feldstein delivers some of the most expressive and iconic illustrations to ever come out of the ’50s. Craig is very daring and suggestive, particularly with how he makes the panels burn with his character’s sexual desires (in spite of the hokey, overwritten dialogue), and also with the way he renders the female form (his “Impending Doom” in this volume is particularly transgressive in that way). And the work of Graham Ingels is high-style grotesquerie — his figures emerge entirely out of textures and shadows — very reminiscent of what Stephen Bissette and John Totleben would be doing 30 years later alongside Alan Moore on another industry-defining horror title, Swamp Thing.

These editions from Russ Cochran are meticulous in how they preserve the entire Tales From The Crypt package. Ads touting its approval by the Comics Code Authority or selling back issues of Max Gaines’ Picture Stories from the Bible series are included, as well as the letters columns where many of the puns in the rivalry between the Crypt-Keeper, the Vault-Keeper, and the Old Witch get tossed out, and all the two-page prose stories (which always appeal to the EC formula — crime does not pay, horrible death, ironic twist, etc. — though are never as interesting as their graphic counterparts).

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However, this Volume I is probably not the place for a newcomer to EC horror to start. Tales From The Crypt took over numbering from EC’s former crime book Crime Patrol, and went by the title The Crypt of Terror (meant to “rhyme,” you could say, with The Vault of Horror and The Haunt of Fear) for three issues, and they still haven’t entirely lost their crime fiction DNA. Most of the stories from The Crypt of Terror period are outright crime tales, with little or no horror elements at all. The stories that do venture into the world of horror usually find natural means to explain the seemingly supernatural. You do see progress being made toward the EC comics of legend as the “rivalries” between horror hosts and the inclusion of the Old Witch and the Vault Keeper as guest hosts begin, and there are some truly magnificent little tales that fit the formula to a T — Al Felstein’s “The Thing From The Grave” is a classic EC archetype about a corpse out for revenge, lovingly homaged multiple times in Stephen King’s and George Romero’s EC-tribute film Creepshow. Graham Ingels manages to bring some wonderful body horror to the page with his decaying monster in “Rx… Death!” And the creeps lurking around the pages of “The Thing From The Sea,” “A Shocking Way To Die,” and “The Hungry Grave” are all worth checking out. The ingredients to the comics perfection that was EC are all there in this volume, but it’s clear they needed a couple more issues before they got the mixture just right. For readers who are already die-hard fans, this volume definitely belongs on your shelves, but for those who are new to the EC experience, it’s probably best to save your money and start with Volume 3 or Volume 4 of any of the horror titles for the stories where the killer creative team was really at the top of their game.