By Ryan Fleming
In the present day and for most of their history, comic books have been synonymous with the superhero genre. The genre was what made the medium famous in the first place and it is the source of their most lasting cultural icons. However, there was a brief period in the US comics industry where other genres, perhaps most famously, horror, were overtaking the superhero comics in popularity. This stretched from the late 1940s to the mid-1950s where horror and crime comics came under scrutiny as causing several societal problems that had become controversial during the same period.
As described in a previous article in this series, comics books owe a lot of their original DNA to the earlier pulp magazines. A lot of the earliest comic superhero characters were in fact crossovers from the stories contained within those magazines. On their pages the borders of genre were so ill-defined as to be non-existent, so they touched upon crime, fantasy, science fiction, and horror. Sometimes all within the same publication. Owing a lot to the pulp magazines, it should come as no surprise that for the first few decades of comic books as a distinct medium they covered almost as many genres as their literary forebearers.
Once original comic book superheroes appeared on the scene this did not change immediately. Four months after the debut of the Batman character in Detective Comics #27 (May 1939), the Caped Crusader would face off with one of his earliest supervillains in his first multi-part adventure in a serial called “Batman Versus the Vampire”. Horror wasn’t just confined to fodder for the earliest superheroes. Even before their boom arrived in earnest following the end of World War II, there are numerous examples of horror comics during the early 1940s. Many of these continued the tradition of horror short stories established in the 19th century.
The period from the late 1930s to the mid-1950s is normally described as the Golden Age of Comic Books in the historiography of American comics. These eras are defined based on landmarks in the superhero genre specifically. The Golden Age, for instance, begins with the debut of Superman in Action Comics #1 (June 1938), where as the Silver Age is reckoned to begin with the debut of the reworked version of The Flash in Showcase #4. Both characters and titles from the precursor company to DC Comics. Being solely concerned with the superhero genre, these eras do not give the entire picture of what was going on in the industry, especially when it comes to the Golden Age.
The first comic book to tell a tale entirely within the horror genre was Dick Briefer’s “New Adventures of Frankenstein” in Prize Comics #7 (December 1940). Like theatre and cinema beforehand, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein proves its influence across mediums. The appearance of the Frankenstein monster with its square head and lumbering gait is obviously inspired by Jack Pierce’s makeup for Boris Karloff debuting in James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931). It also goes all in on naming the monster “Frankenstein”, something that the Universal series of films always avoided. Perhaps this comic is the origin of the perennial confusion in pop culture. Further unlike the Universal films, this version of the creature did his part for the War effort fighting Nazis across Europe. Adaptations of the horror tales of Washington Irving, Edgar Allan Poe, and Robert Louis Stevenson would also appear during the Second World War. Eerie #1 (January 1947), from Avon Publications, has been cited as the first wholly original horror comic. The cover image of a Nosferatu-esque figure looming over a bound, voluptuous young woman amidst moonlit ruins betrays its pulp forebearers. Avon also published, and is today better known for, publishing paperback novels which early on included all the pulp stalwarts. Today, they are mainly known as a publisher of romance paperbacks.
When the history of superhero comic books speaks of a Golden Age, in truth they speak of the first peak of superhero popularity during the Second World War. Children read of the costumed heroes battling the Axis powers across multiple companies. Detective Comics had Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, and Robin. Timely Comics had the Human Torch, the Sub-Mariner and Captain America. The most popular of all was Captain Marvel, from Fawcett Comics, now better known as Shazam. Where there were horror elements in these titles they were usually in the employ of the Third Reich or Imperial Japan. Following the War, some of these characters were shifted around as their main titles changed genres. All-American Publications’s All-American Comics, which featured, amongst others, the original Green Lantern, became All-American Western in 1948. Their All-Star Comics, home of the Justice Society of America and the debutant title of Wonder Woman, similarly became All-Star Western in 1951. More than just those examples, diversification was the name of the game as publishers strived to maintain interest. There were crime comics, science fiction comics, and war comics. The three most popular genres were romance comics, western comics, and, most infamously, horror comics.
When discussing horror comic books in general, and their 1940s-50s peak popularity specifically, one company stands out as the most prominent. Entertaining Comics, better known as EC Comics, was founded in 1944 as Educational Comics by Max Gaines. Son William Gaines inherited the company in 1947 following Max’s death, and under his ownership and the editorial oversight of Al Feldstein and Harvey Kurtzman they found their biggest success. A line of new titles emerged 1949-50 across a range of genres including crime fiction, science fiction, thrillers, and war fiction. Their most popular, and later infamous, publications were their trio of horror tiles all debuting in 1950: The Haunt of Fear, Tales from the Crypt, and The Haunt of Fear. These continued the tradition of horror tales from 19th Century short stories and pulp magazines. Each of the titles also included a host like many horror radio anthologies of the time: the Crypt-Keeper, the Old Witch, and the Vault-Keeper. Their puns accompanied the grim yet gleeful ironic fates that awaited many a protagonist of the morality tales told in the pages of these comics. Long after their demise, these stories would be adapted by the UKs Amicus Productions in two films in the 1970s, would inspire the only collaboration of writer Stephen King and director George A. Romero in the form of 1982’s Creepshow, and would a long-running television series on the US premium cable network HBO from 1989 to 1996 as Tales from the Crypt.
EC Comics may be the most famous publisher of horror comics during their peak popularity but as shown they did not emerge from the ether fully formed, nor did they operate in a vacuum. Harvey Comics entered the horror game in 1951, wholesale converting their superhero title Black Cat to the horror themed Black Cat Mystery. This was in addition to three titles that seemed to unashamedly try to imitate EC: Chamber of Chills, Witches Tales, and Tomb of Terror. Atlas Comics, a successor to Timely, published a whole slew including the titles Journey into Mystery and Strange Tales, which would become famous for other reasons later. After horror comics attracted the wrong sort of attention.
Fredric Wertham hated comic books with a passion. Wertham was a German-born American who founded and operated the Lafargue Clinic in Harlem, New York, a low-cost mental health clinic for black teenagers funded by voluntary donations. His psychological research and studies in general were cited by courts in overturning racial segregation of public schools in the United States, up to and including the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education. He remains most well-known however for the witch hunt he led on comic books during the 1950s in a familiar moral panic that had happened before and has been repeated since in other mediums and genres.
In 1954 Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent was published. The tract warned that comic books were negatively influencing the youth of the US to the point of being at the cause in a rise of juvenile delinquency during the 1950s. It had been preceded by a 1953 article in Ladies’ Home Journal “What Parents Don’t Know About Comic Books”. This was the era of the House Un-American Activities Committee and Senator Joseph McCarthy, the hysteria over comic books fit into the national mood of the time. Like McCarthy, Wertham would exaggerate the numbers in his claims to fit his narrative. He exaggerated the sample size of his research into the correlation between comic book reading and childhood struggles. This included solely ascribing the problems faced by children as down to comics ignoring other factors such as abuse or home life, ascribing statements from a single subject to multiple, and only asking those present in mental health clinics if they read comics without finding out how aligned that was with the wider population. It’s also well-remembered that Wertham alleged Batman and Robin were a homosexual couple, and that Wonder Woman’s lasso was representative of a bondage subtext, as well as a lesbian due to her strength and independence. Credit where it’s due: Wonder Woman creator, and another psychologist, William Moulton Marston certainly would have agreed about the bondage part. The reaction from the mainstream, conservative society however was that something had to be done!
A Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency is something! It was chaired by Democratic Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee, former chairman of the committee that had investigated organised crime in the United States at the beginning of the 1950s. Whereas that committee had interviewed figures such as Mickey Cohen, Frank Costello, and Meyer Lansky the most notorious figure called before the Juvenile Delinquency committee was EC Comics publisher William Gaines. His interview became a cause celebre for the New York Times under the headline “No Harm in Horror”, concurrently with several public burnings and local bans for comics. No action was taken directly from the hearings, but in response to the moral panic, several publishers banded together and founded the Comics Magazine Association of America. Its mission: the industry regulation of comic books via the Comics Code Authority, based on an earlier proposed code that in turn was based on the notorious Hollywood Production Code established in 1934. The 41 provisions of the code outlawed any content deemed too sexual, violent, or otherwise not in line with the morals of the CMAA. Naturally, this included poor grammar, so colloquialisms and slang went out the window. It also outlawed titles that contained words like “Terror” or “Horror”. Unsurprisingly, EC Comics originally refused to join when it seemed some provisions targeted their titles directly.
The problem was that the wholesalers that bought comics from the publishers began to refuse to handle any comics without the little badge in the top right corner that read “Approved by the Comics Code Authority”. There were a handful of publishers that could survive without the badge. For example, Dell Comics and Gold Key Comics got by due to submitting to a higher authority than the CMAA, in fact the highest authority on morality and decency in the United States: the Walt Disney Company. Many other companies were either forced to change or went out of the industry entirely. Such was the fate of EC Comics, who at first tried to tone down their output and adhere to the code. Ironically, it would not be a horror title that spelled their ultimate demise but a science fiction one. The company had dealt with political messages in their titles before, mainly in their suspense titles, including antisemitism, drug addiction, lynching, police corruption, rape, and racism.
This included one issue of Shock SuspenStories actually brought up in the Gaines hearing, which saw a bigoted father beat his daughter to death mistakenly believing her to be her Hispanic boyfriend. The February 1956 issue of Incredible Science Fiction (#33) saw a reprint of a story from the April 1953 issue of Weird Fantasy (#18). It was called “Judgment Day”. The story concerned an astronaut from Earth visiting a planet of robots where society is divided into otherwise identical orange and blue castes, one with fewer rights and privileges than the other. The astronaut determines the planet is unsuitable for admission to the Galactic Republic he represents as a result, and in the final panel is revealed to be a Black man, having worn his reflective astronaut helmet throughout the entire story. The administrator of the Code, Charles Murphy, ordered the final panel be removed under the spurious reasoning that it was ridicule of a racial group, one of the few sensible provisions of the Code. This spurred a furore between the publisher and the authority, with Gaines threatening to go public with the objection if it was not rescinded. There is debate if the objection was rescinded, or if Gaines went ahead re-running the tale with the badge anyway. Either way, it was the final straw for EC Comics, Incredible Science Fiction #33 was the last EC comic book published.
All the EC titles were cancelled with a single exception. The humour comic Mad had sold well as their other titles were faltering. To keep his editor Harvey Kurtzman with the company, it moved to a magazine format and thus was removed from the auspices of the Code. Mad magazine was still being sold on newsstands up to 2018, and is still available in comic book stores and subscription. Amongst EC’s competitors, Harvey Comics fell back on their titles aimed at a younger audience such as Casper the Friendly Ghost and Richie Rich. Atlas Comics has been rebranded once more in 1957 and pivoted largely to science fiction titles. There were also some companies that really came out of the debacle with better prospects that they had before it.
Archie Comics and DC Comics were the biggest winners from the introduction of the Comics Code. They had also been the most in favour of its establishment, and as events transpired would be the last two companies to carry the little seal of approval on their titles – in 2011. The Code massively reduced the diversity in storytelling that had percolated since the end of the Second World War, and it would be decades before horror elements would rear their head in comic books again. In that time, the superhero genre had made a massive comeback and would occupy a pedestal amongst comic genres that it retains to this day.
Where as horror elements had been a part of superhero comics from their earliest days, such as the vampiric early adversary to Batman, the Mad Monk, their adventures of the Silver Age could no longer include these. Not for lack of trying, however. In 1962 the successor to Timely/Atlas comics introduced a character that drew influence from both Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The character would debut in the eponymous publication The Incredible Hulk, and the character’s origin was given a science fiction bent in line with their other publications and came under less scrutiny from enforcement of the code. This was similar to how their characters Thor and Nick Fury originally debuted or were updated in former horror anthologies Journey into Mystery and Strange Tales. Even DC would occasionally run into trouble with the Code, such as over crediting one writer whose name was taken as a reference to lycanthropy. The title in question was initially rejected until it was explained that Marv Wolfman was actually the writer’s name and not an indication of lupine metamorphosis. Other companies were able to get around the code such as Classics Illustrated adapting those same works that inspired the Hulk in comic form. Dell Comics and Gold Key Comics also published adaptations of television horror or horror-adjacent shows such as The Addams Family, The Munsters, The Twilight Zone, and Thriller. There was also Warren Publishing who circumvented the Code by publishing their titles in a black-and-white magazine format (such as EC had done with Mad a decade earlier). Their titles Creepy and Eerie were horror anthologies, joined in 1969 by Vampirella, which made the titular horror host the star character of her own stories.
Things began to change in the 1970s, though it had nothing to do with fictional horror. The US Department of Health, Education and Welfare approached the editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics (the successor to Timely/Atlas Comics), Stan Lee, about running a story concerning drug abuse. Lee agreed to run the story in The Amazing Spider-Man, and it would portray drug use as a social ill and dangerous to the individual using it. John L. Goldwater, publisher of Archie Comics and acting administrator of the Code, refused to grant approval because of its portray of drug use. It is important to note that drug use was not explicitly prohibited by the CCA, instead the objection arose from one of the general provisions at any other elements “contrary to the spirit and intent of the code”. In addition, the story was written at the behest of the US government! It was decided to run the story without the rejection from May to July 1971. Association with the US government might have gone some way to influencing the decision, perhaps it should be remarked in addition to only Nixon being able to go to China that only Nixon was able to introduce pill-popping to Spider-Man. A controversial story featuring a popular character was printed without the approval of that little seal of approval on it, and the world didn’t end.
The code was relaxed that same year but was still in force even after Hollywood had given up on their Production Code entirely in 1967. That meant when Marvel tried to introduce vampire and zombie characters in later titles, they had to call them a “living vampire” and “zuvembies” respectively. The latter term was borrowed from Robert E. Howard’s short story “Pigeons from Hell”, bringing us back to pulp magazines and Weird Tales. They had better success with introducing Dracula himself in The Tomb of Dracula, which would later see the debut of the vampire hunter Blade. Werewolf by Night was another character introduced around the same time, and Marvel could not resist assigning the writing of that title to Marv Wolfman. DC shamelessly also started to do horror stories, including the genre mash-up Weird War Tales and Weird Western Tales. Horror comics closed out the 1970s in grand fashion, with a science fiction horror tale becoming the first comic to be listed on the New York Times Bestsellers list in 1979. It was the graphic novel adaptation of the 1979 film Alien, released as Alien: The Illustrated Story. That title did not carry the approval seal on it.
The Code continued lumbering on despite increasing irrelevance and further updates. Marvel stopped carrying the seal in 2001. DC and Archie, of course, were the last holdouts dropping the seal finally in 2011. Despite escaping prohibition, horror comics could never recapture the market share they enjoyed during their heyday. The move from wholesalers towards comic book shops in the 1980s simultaneously allowed for more diversity in comic genres and publishers, as well as adding to the irrelevance of the Code. Later characters that blurred the lines between horror and superheroes include Swamp Thing, updated to be more monstrous by Alan Moore in the 1980s, and its spin-off Hellblazer, featuring occult detective John Constantine. DC carried these titles in their Vertigo imprint, aimed at older readers and featuring more horror themed characters like Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. Later titles aside from those published by the two major companies include Hellboy from Dark Horse, 30 Days of Night from IDW Publishing, and The Walking Dead from Image Comics. Spin-offs of horror film and television franchises also became their own niche within a niche, including Aliens, Army of Darkness, and Friday the 13th. Crossovers between franchises unrelated on film were another part of that trend: Aliens vs. Predator, Army of Darkness vs. Re-Animator, Freddy vs. Jason vs. Ash, Jason vs. Leatherface amongst myriad others. Despite so many examples, horror comics remain a very small part of the total comic book sales in the United States and internationally.
The knee-jerk reaction to the controversy generated by Wertham and the Senate subcommittee was in some ways tailored to hamstring horror comics to the benefit of publishers not putting out titles in that genre. It did create a gap into which the superhero revival emerged, despite horror comics not even being the most popular genre at the time, that was romance comics. However, despite DC being the main name in superhero comics their pushing forward with the Code in the form they did may have created their biggest competition. Marvel Comics started out doing science fiction anthologies after the horror titles of their immediate predecessor company, Atlas, were dropped amidst the controversy.
It was into those science fiction titles that the modern Marvel superheroes began to appear after the publication of The Fantastic Four #1 in November 1961. Ant-Man in Tales to Astonish #27 in January 1962, Spider-Man in Amazing Fantasy #15, Thor in Journey into Mystery #83, both August 1962, and Iron Man in Tales of Suspense #39 in March 1963. Without the need to pivot from horror to science fiction for the bulk of their output, would their have been a Marvel Comics as we know them? Possibly, since superhero comics had not exactly vanished before the introduction of the Code. If the reinventions of the Flash and Green Lantern in Showcase #4 and #22 (October 1956 and 1959, respectively) by DC still happen they that could still lead to the revival of the Justice Society of America as the Justice League in The Brave and the Bold #28 (March 1960). The success of that title was the impetus for Marvel to create their own superhero teams in the shape of the aforementioned Fantastic Four and later The Avengers. Marvel and its predecessors were trend-followers for a long time before they became trend-setters.
What about horror titles such as those passed by EC if the controversy was mitigated someway other than the CCA that was enforced historically? Not all the titles would survive even in the short-term. Far too many had tried to get in on the act, sometimes shamelessly lifting from better publications and upping the gore. For those that did survive, the late 1950s began to see a horror revival on the big and small screens. The 52 pre-1948 horror films of Universal were beginning to appear on syndicated television as part of the Shock! package in 1957. American International Pictures were marketing horror features on the drive-in to a young audience. The late 1950s also saw the arrival of the gothic horror films of the UKs Hammer Film Productions on US shores, but that is a tale for another article. Here, those horror titles that remained might have flourished and kept a larger share of the market that they still might hold to the present day.
Ryan Fleming is the author of Reid in Braid, published by SLP