If you're a fan of older comic books and comic strips, Fantagraphics is your Santa Claus. The 21st century has proved a golden age for the reproduction of classic comics, with stellar reprint series from Boom! Studios, IDW and others. But Fantagraphics is the king on the cyan, magenta, yellow and black throne. It holds the rights at the moment to the four greatest comics of all time — George Herriman's “Krazy Kat,” Walt Kelly's “Pogo,” Carl Barks' “Uncle Scrooge” and Charles Schulz's “Peanuts” —and is in the midst of reissuing their complete runs in glorious editions that finally do justice to their artwork without subjecting it to the shushing, respectful atmosphere of the museum.
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Now Fantagraphics lets slither the EC Comics Library, reprinting in handsome, single-artist volumes the stuff of Ozzie and Harriet's nightmares. As the publisher of "Two-Fisted Tales," "Tales from the Crypt," "Weird Science," and, of course, MAD (whose rights are currently owned by DC Comics), EC wrapped its alien tentacles around the '50s imaginary: Its comics were devoted to lurid space monsters, reanimated corpses, double-crossing thugs, distressed damsels and the splatter-gore of battlefields and boogeymen. The first two volumes are "Corpse on the Imjin!" by Harvey Kurtzman and "Came the Dawn" by Wallace Wood.
No doubt we overestimate the extent to which these gruesome stories, which seem rather tame by the grisly lights of "Saw" or "Call of Duty," frightened an era we too eagerly adopt a "Mad Men"-style smugness toward. But there are always people ready to posit a direct relationship between representations of violence and actual violence. In EC's case, these people eventually included the U.S. Senate and the FBI, although one suspects their interest was piqued more by the anti-war slant of Kurtzman's combat comics or the anti-racist message of comics illustrated by Wallace Wood than by overhyped fears of juvenile delinquency. America's children were being told, none too subtly, that war was a zero-sum game of mass murder and that persecuting blacks and Jews was, you know, wrong. The U.S. Army worried that EC's "subversive" comics were damaging troop morale in the Korean theater. (No one seems to have noticed that this contradicted the Senate's concerns by positing a direct relationship between representational violence and nonviolence.)
As Gerard Jones relates in his 2004 history of the comic book industry, "Men of Tomorrow," Kurtzman was disgusted by mainstream war comics, which "made war a happy event where American supermen go around beating up bucktooth yellow men." He wanted his comics to tell the truth about war: "You get killed suddenly for no reason." The 24 Kurtzman stories collected in "Corpse on the Imjin!" feature 11 drawn by him and 13 drawn from Kurtzman's layouts by such estimable EC stablemates as Alex Toth, Joe Kubert and Dave Berg. They rely heavily on exclamation points and didactic irony, with titles like: "Kill!" "Air Burst!" "Rubble!" "Thunderjet!" "Bunker!" "F-86 Sabre Jet!" Most of the episodes end with someone hoist on his own petard (sometimes literally: at the end of "Air Burst!" a soldier is blown up by a booby trap he himself had laid). Kurtzman's cover for "Two-Fisted Tales" No. 25 (reproduced here in full color along with 22 more superb examples of Kurtzman's cover art) distills this procedure to its essence: A soldier runs to the frontlines to inform his comrades of an armistice. "Yeah, yeah! Tell Jonesy here about your armistice!" a weeping machine-gunner replies. "He'll be glad!" Beside him, smoke drifts out of a bullet hole in a dead man's helmet.
It's Kurtzman's art that's the big event here, of course. It's never been this lovingly reproduced. If you're of a certain age and disposition, you'll recognize his elongated figures and exaggerated expressions from the covers of MAD magazine, which Kurtzman founded with EC publisher William Gaines in 1952. But while Kurtzman often evinces a grim humor in these war comics, they don't elicit laughs. His beautiful line-work — thick black strokes and quick black curves — captures the grit of battle and its aftermath: Corpses reach up from rubble, cones of fire erupt from gun barrels.
The grace of the cartooning — not the obligatory craks and ba-dooms of artillery — affects you. Kurtzman is rivaled only by Steve Ditko in his mastery of the comic layout — his panels are stories in themselves. A four-panel sequence shows a lieutenant on an observation ladder who has just been shot by a North Korean sniper: In the first panel, he grimaces and clutches his chest; his binoculars, dropped, seem to hang in the air. In the next panel, he clings to the ladder tightly with both hands. As another shot rings out in the third panel, he stiffens and thrusts his open face toward the sky. The final panel shows only his helmet falling past an empty ladder and the lieutenant's hands trailing the rest of his body out of the panel's base, as he falls to the ground. The economy is startling, its cleanness a comment on the faceless efficiency of modern warfare (in another story, a soldier muses, "We can kill pretty good by remote control!" — a line whose resonance today should trouble fans of the current American administration).
Kurtzman's storylines often humanize the "enemy," no doubt contributing to the Army's annoyance (a bespectacled grunt shouts at a G.I. Joe type, "Always using that dumb word, 'gook'! You make it sound like you're a big-shot American superman! You're no superman!"). So does his artwork. A heavily didactic story — for which Kurtzman, famous for his obsessional research, visited the Korean consulate — depicts in minute detail a Korean man's construction of a house, where he and his wife raise a child. Of course the story ends with the house, and the family inside, obliterated by a bomb. But Kurtzman manages to move the reader aesthetically, with a few sweeps of his pen: the snow-covered house is warm and solid on a plain in a blizzard, presaging the harsher blizzard to come.
Or consider the panels from the title story, in which an American soldier drowns a starving enemy soldier in a river. The captions are superfluous. Whatever platitudes Kurtzman offers about the madness of war merely dilute the power of the stark images — the cartoonish figures struggling, the panel's white space made to represent the river, so the drowning man's arms seem thrust upward from a dimensional portal. Kurtzman's influence on comics artistry is inestimable. This book shows why.
The second volume in the EC Comics Library showcases the schlock-horror and seedy-crime art of Wallace ("Wally") Wood. Most of the 26 stories here were scripted by EC editor Al Feldstein, who had a fine sense of the ghastly and zero talent for prose ("tell, don't show" could have been his motto). I recommend skimming the overheated captions and dialogue (although you might miss the occasional accidental hilarity — "Again! Again you killed the wrong girl!"), the better to lose yourself in Wood's intricately rendered shadowscapes.
Feldstein's anti-racism stories, which Gaines called "preachies," make you glad kids were reading them in the '50s. They contain terrific art, but they're predictably heavy-handed (the KKK breaks into the home of a Mexican immigrant, stuffs him into a sheet in the dark, and flogs him to death — only it turns out it was the Klan leader's own daughter, who'd been asleep in the Mexican's bed! They were secretly married!).
It's in the crime and horror comics that Wood's alternately claustrophobic and desolate brushwork lurches into life: spreading puddles and slanting rain, Rock Hudson jawlines and Jane Wyman curves, vertiginous angles, hallucinatory things with too many eyes. Foregrounds are crowded with candles, boars' heads and St. George statuettes, behind which the main action unfolds as if the reader were crouching in the room. Seemingly ordinary tableaux take on sinister airs from tilted points of view, perhaps a spider's on the ceiling.
Wally Wood would go on to make manic splashes in the pages of MAD and Marvel's "Daredevil," but the "Tales from the Crypt" and "Shock SuspenStories" collected in "Came the Dawn" defined a style whose influence informs some of today's best comics (see Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips' impeccable work on Image Comics' "Criminal" and "Fatale"). Here's hoping future entries in Fantagraphics' EC line are as addictive as these first two retrospectives. As the Crypt-Keeper says, "It is time once more for another blood-curdling, spine-tingling yarn."
Michael Robbins is author of "Alien vs. Predator."
"Corpse on the Imjin!"
By Harvey Kurtzman, Fantagraphics, 227 pages, $28.99
"Came the Dawn"
By Wallace Wood, Fantagraphics, 208 pages, $28.99Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times