A Brief History of EC Comics

Douglas Forsythe

While not as well known as Marvel or DC, EC Comics has still left its mark on everything from Television to Music or even Horror as a whole. We have all seen its influence; For some, it might have been HBO’s Tales from The Crypt; for others, it might have been Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman or Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing. It might have been the issues of MAD Magazine you read as a teenager or the art of Frank Frazetta or Wally Wood. For kids in the 1950s, it was probably issues of EC Comic’s titles such as The Vault of Horror, Weird Science, Crime Suspenstories, or even Tales from The Crypt. Few companies have left such an imprint on Popular Culture as EC Comics.   


While some titles like the American Comics Group’s Adventures Into The Unknown, which predated EC Comics by several years, horror comics really came to fruition with the latter company. Initially founded by Max Gaines in 1944, originally the founder of All Star Comics, which was behind the creation of characters such as Wonder Woman, The Flash, Green Lantern, and Hawkman. However, his stake in the company was bought out in 1945 by one of the founders of DC Comics. At the time, EC Comics’ focus was entirely on children’s comics. . This included titles such as Picture Stories from Science and Picture Stories from The Bible


Gaines was killed in a boating accident in 1947, leaving the company in the hands of his son William Gaines. Despite going to school to become a chemistry teacher, he soon took his father’s company and turned it into a Pop-Culture icon. Utilizing the advice of cartoonists Al Feldstein and Harvey Kurtzman, William Gaines took what had previously been a brand targeted solely at children and turned it into something completely different. Taking the owner’s childhood love of Pulp Science Fiction and Horror, EC Comics soon began publishing titles such as The Vault of Horror and The Crypt of Terror (the latter soon to be retitled Tales from The Crypt), which targeted older audiences.


It is definitely worth noting how the American comics industry was booming at this time. During World War II, one of the primary audiences for comic books was soldiers serving overseas. The following quote originates from an article for wearethemighty.com Comics were the perfect rucksack stuffer. They were small, easy to fold or roll, and could be fit into anything. You could read it once, share it around, and then enjoy it again when it circled back around. If they got damaged or destroyed, it was fine because it only cost ten cents.” After the war, veterans returning home often sought to return to this cheap form of entertainment. Because of this, horror comics saw an upswing in sales. Others focused on subjects like crime and war. This increase in sales was mainly due to their darker subject matter compared to things like superhero comics. 


Another key to their success was their episodic nature, along with the host characters of each comic. These include “The Crypt-Keeper” from Tales From the Crypt, “The Old Witch” from The Haunt of Fear, and “The Vault-Keeper” from The Vault of Horror. The Crypt Keeper is, in his own way, an icon of his own. Many other companies sought to replicate this success. One of the primary examples of this was DC Comics (known as Detective Comics). DC mainly used characters such as Cain and Abel, Lucian the Librarian, and Destiny. Interestingly, all of the characters listed, and several others, were reused in Neil Gaiman’s groundbreaking masterpiece The Sandman for DC’s Vertigo imprint. 


Interestingly, EC Comics was one of the few companies in the comics industry at the time to give their artists the creative freedom, credit, and money they deserved. They allowed for the name of the artist to be featured on the title page of each story. Also, they gave the same privilege to those who created the covers of each issue. Each issue also featured profiles regarding individual artists or writers. It is also worth noting that the pay artists received at EC Comics at this time were the best in the industry. This was unheard of at the time, and even decades later, people like Jack Kirby have had to fight tooth and nail for the rights to their art, all for little reward. This working environment allowed for different artists with unique styles to flourish. Frank Frazetta and Wally Wood (as mentioned previously), along with Joe Orlando, Jack Davis, and Graham Ingels, all got their start at EC Comics. 


Even well-renowned authors in the Sci-Fi genre saw their stories adapted to the pages of EC, even without their permission. Master Storyteller Ray Bradbury had several of his stories published by EC Comics without his consent. Instead of suing, Bradbury decided to instead simply write a letter asking for payment for the use of his works. Instead of starting an argument over the issue, Gaines instead chose to discuss the matter with Bradbury. Both having a similar love of the classic horror stories of Edgar Allan Poe, H. P. Lovecraft, and Bradbury allowed Gaines to publish adaptations of his stories in titles like Weird Science


Interestingly, while falling into the typical portrayals of certain groups, mainly women, indigenous peoples of the Americas and Africa, EC Comics never shied away from commenting on issues of the time. In a story for Shock Suspenstories #3 titled “The Guilty”. The narrative centers around the brutal murder of a young African American man named “Aubrey Collins” who was suspected of a crime. While it is never made clear whether or not Collins committed the crime, it is made clear the actions of the deputy who killed him were unnecessary and unjustified. beginning emphasized how events like this could have happened to the reader and constantly happened in America. Remember, this was published in 1952. Even still, the issues presented here are very clearly still common occurrences to this day. However, many of EC’s competitors utilized harmful stereotypes such as cannibalistic natives and voodoo curses in their comics. As mentioned previously, EC was definitely responsible for doing this on more than one occasion. While still delving into these common stereotypes of the era, EC Comic’s more often than not didn’t shy away from trying to point out the injustices present in 1950s America.


Sadly, this success wouldn’t last. This was mainly due to Frederic Wertham. While definitely by no means a horrible person, Wertham’s lack of knowledge and misinterpretation of many comics led to quite some controversy. Wertham was actually involved in providing African Americans in Harlem with mental healthcare at his Lafargue Clinic. His findings here helped overturn and challenge segregation in America, most notably in Brown v. Board of Education.


However, Wertham’s focus soon switched to the “threat of comics to the livelihood of American children”. Besides making notorious claims like the alleged gay relationship between Batman and Robin, Wertham vehemently went after horror comic publishers like EC Comics. While he wasn’t without reason, Wertham’s actions led to a Supreme court case; rather than face censorship by the government, the comics industry voluntarily imposed the “Comics Code of Authority.” This ban saw the end of EC Comic’s horror titles. 


While William Gaines couldn’t regain EC’s horror titles due to the restrictions of the Comics Code of Authority, he would still hold the ability to publish MAD Magazine, as it fell outside the Comics Codes’ jurisdiction. The Comics Code would lose much of its power years later, as stories like Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing and Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman would prove that you could ignore the code without much consequence. But that’s a story for another time. While initially one of the most successful comics in America during the 50s, it wasn’t long before EC Comics fell from this high. Yet, its influence remains today, from TV and films to newer comics and the still growing number of fans. There is no doubt that EC Comics have left a significant mark on the world.