Friday, June 22, 2012
The Weird World of Eerie Publications Book Review: Reviving the Horror Comic Book Through Recycling
Of all the media formats that have distributed the horror genre to the masses, few have had it more difficult than the comic book. Congressional hearings that were held during the mid-50s based on nothing more than a fleeting fit of public hysteria caused horror comic books to suddenly vanish from newsstands everywhere and dealt a crippling blow to the comic book industry in general. The horror comic eventually came back during the 60s and 70s, with DC, Marvel and Warren Publishing contributing titles that would help this format recover. The most notorious contributor to the horror comic revival was Eerie Publications, which is the central topic of Mike Howlett's engaging and informative book, The Weird World of Eerie Publications: Comic Gore That Warped Millions of Young Minds.
Howlett's approach to the history of Eerie Publications and its contributions to the horror comic format is exhaustive, almost to a fault. Howlett obviously loves the work of Eerie Publications and you'll finish the book with the conviction that he could tell you anything and everything about that company at a moments' notice. Yet even if you only have a passing familiarity with horror comics and the titles produced by Eerie Publications, Howlett's book is worth purchasing for a snapshot of what pulp horror publishing was like during the 60s and 70s. Curiously, Weird World also indirectly highlights the conspicuous similarities between low-budget horror comic publishing and low-budget exploitation horror filmmaking. Read on for my complete review.
The ideal companion text for Howlett's book is Jim Trombetta's The Horror! The Horror!: Comic Books the Government Didn't Want You to Read!. (Read my review of that book here.) Trombetta's book covers the rise and fall of the horror comic during the early 50s, and Howlett covers the revival of the horror comic during the 60s and 70s (albeit from the perspective of Eerie Publications). Reading these books together will give horror fans a more complete picture of horror comic history and how the horror comic format was forced to change due to cultural and political events and changes in public media consumption and in the publishing industry. Where the books differ is in terms of approach: While Trombetta's book largely explores the recurring themes and imagery in horror comics from the 50s, Howlett devotes his book to the history of Eerie Publications and its artwork, artists, publication staff and newsstand competitors.
The story told about Eerie Publication's horror comics as told in Weird World largely revolves around two individuals: publisher Myron Fass and editor Carl Burgos. Fass specialized in the publication of low-budget pulp magazines, and Howlett's book reviews the full range of trashy and unscrupulous magazines that Fass produced in addition to Eerie Publications' horror comics. In following his preference for material that's cheap and quick to produce, Fass published multiple horror comic titles (Horror Tales, Terror Tales, Tales from the Tomb, etc.) by re-publishing horror comic stories from the original golden age of horror comics during the early 50s. Burgos, a veteran comic book artist, oversaw the production of the Eerie Publications' titles. Before working for Fass, Burgos' most noteworthy accomplishment was his creation of the Human Torch character during the 1940s. When Marvel Comics revived the character for its Fantastic Four series in 1961, Burgos received no compensation from Marvel for his creation; his falling out with Marvel estranged him from the mainstream comic book industry, which led to his editor role at Eerie.
Howlett details how Fass and Burgos could get away with publishing multiple horror comic titles by mostly recycling horror comic stories that were already published back in the 50s. Eerie Publications would release some completely new material from time to time, but rehashing old material was Fass and Burgos' dominant method of publication. However, instead of just republishing the original stories, Fass and Burgos would hand the stories over to artists who would re-draw and re-script the stories with varying degrees of faithfulness to the source material. Some revisions were similar to the original stories, while others would take the stories in completely new directions. Either way, the new versions of the stories were always much gorier and more sexualized than the originals. Some stories would be republished up to three or four times; all Fass and Burgos did was hand an old story to a new artist and provide a new title, and thus the story could be regarded as "new". Even the cover art was recycled over and over again with minor variations. (Click here to see a gallery of Eerie comic cover comparisons that I assembled in a previous post.)
While I was reading Howlett's book, two things came to mind:
* Eerie's method of repeatedly recycling creative content and adding lots of gore and sex to each reiteration is almost symmetrical to how low-budget horror films were made during the 50s, 60s and 70s. Cheap horror films frequently recycled plots, props and footage from other movies, in addition to using stock footage and background music to pad thin production budgets. During the 60s and 70s, the grindhouse conventions of sexual titillation and increasingly detailed gore effects were used by low-budget filmmakers to promote their otherwise obscure horror films.
* If anything, the revival of the horror comic book proved exactly how hollow the 50s Congressional hearings and the subsequent Comics Code Authority (CCA) really were. In the case of Eerie Publications, it not only republished the very same stories that Congress set out to ban, but it also made them gorier and sexier than their original versions. Furthermore, Eerie couldn't be restricted by the CCA because it called its publications "magazines" and not "comics" and thus was not subject to CCA oversight.
The only problem I had with Weird World is its occasional excess of minutiae. I understand how Howlett wanted to ensure that everyone who was involved in Eerie Publications got their due, but there were times in the book when I was struggling to keep up with who's who outside of Fass and Burgos. Yet this complaint is minor, because the book offers so much information and artwork that horror fans are sure to enjoy. I highly recommend The Weird World of Eerie Publications for both horror and comic book fans who are interested in learning more about the horror genre and its relationship with the comic book industry during the 60s and 70s.