Writers: William M. Gaines, Al Feldstein, Wallace Wood, Harry Harrison (with scholarly material by Bill Mason, Ted White, and S.C. Ringgenberg)
Artists: Wallace Wood (with Harry Harrison)
$29.99, Fantagraphics Books, 240 pgs.
Settle in, gang. This review starts with a bit of a history lesson.
In the early 1950s, American newsstands sold all kinds of comics: Westerns, superheroes, romance, teen humor, funny cartoon animals, war stories…you name it. But the top-selling comics of the day were the horror, science fiction, and crime comics perfected by EC Comics and imitated by a slew of other publishers.
The EC imitators, however, were just that: Johnny Come-Latelys in a field defined by the EC style. EC boasted a stable of cartoonists whose work was, simply put, the best the medium had to offer at the time. Now-legendary names such as Frank Frazetta, Al Williamson, Jack Davis, Graham Ingels, Jack Kamen, and Johnny Craig all worked under the EC imprint, as did the artist whose work is collected in the volume up for review this week: Wallace “Wally” Wood.
Eventually a wave of anti-comics hysteria all but killed the EC line and restricted American comics to safe, easily-palatable children’s fare,* a stunted quasi-life from which US comics didn’t begin to emerge until the 1980s.** But comics fans remembered the glory days of the EC line; they kept the legend alive and paved the way for subsequent generations of readers to discover the magic of these wild and inventive comics. Previously available only as expensive collectibles and tattered flea market finds, low-quality reprints and expensive small-press collected editions, the EC line has at last returned in high-grade formats worthy of the material. It’s long overdue, but EC’s best output is now accessible by a wide audience, finally giving this valuable part of our cultural and artistic heritage artistic the recognition it deserves.
(The author steps away from the lectern and apologizes to his audience, who might not have gone into this knowing that he has taught college classes on the evolution and creation of comics.)
Modern readers can engage with this material in two different ways. Dark Horse Comics reprints the individual EC titles (Tales from the Crypt, Vault of Horror, Shock SuspenStories, and others) in lavish color editions, presenting the stories in the order they were published in the 1950s. They’re wonderful books, and if you can afford them, they’re worth their hefty cover price of $49.99 per volume. The subject of this review is from a different series: the Fantagraphics EC Artists Library, which collects the material by artist and subject matter, making for a very different reading experience and—because the art is presented in black-and-white—a much cheaper one, too.*** This twelfth volume in the series, SPAWN OF MARS AND OTHER STORIES, collects the science fiction stories drawn for EC by one of its most talented creators, the aforementioned Wallace Wood.
Wally Wood’s name is, among comics scholars, virtually synonymous with the phrase “EC science fiction.” In these stories drawn for EC’s Weird Science and Weird Fantasy titles, Wood crafts a science fiction universe that is at once terrifying and alluring, filled with fascinatingly complex technology, rugged heroes and gorgeous heroines, and weird, menacing aliens. Wood’s artwork, seen here at varying stages of its development, eventually matures into a lavish style that even the most jaded modern reader cannot help but appreciate. The art is the star of the show here.
The writing, in contrast, is almost simple. For example, the stories “Rescued!” and “The Gray Cloud of Death!” are essentially two approaches to the same basic tale! These stories are heavy on pulpy narrative exposition, and most culminate in a trademark EC twist, but that’s not a criticism. Rather, the overwrought heavy-handedness is part of the fun. It pairs quite nicely with Wood’s moody lighting, realistic textures, and penchant for detail upon detail. In total, this is a genuinely special reading experience.
I’ve already written far more than you probably cared to read, so I’ll conclude simply by saying this: if you’ve got serious art-hounds in your patron population, this book will be a hit.
*Yes, that happened…the United States Senate even got involved! SPAWN OF MARS contains an essay touching (briefly) on this topic, but for more on this strange and fascinating sequence of events, see David Hajdu’s terrific book THE 10-CENT PLAGUE: THE GREAT COMIC BOOK SCARE AND HOW IT CHANGED AMERICA (ISBN 978-0312428235).
**Technically, the underground “comix” of the 1960s and ‘70s were the first American comics to challenge the idea that comics were exclusively for children. It wasn’t until the 1980s that mainstream publishers began to push the envelope, though, and really, that’s the watershed moment: the undergrounds may have paved the way creatively and even ideologically, but it was this mainstream paradigm shift that eventually led to the broad, diverse comics marketplace we enjoy now. We’re still decades behind the French, but that’s another article entirely.
***It’s also a lot easier to appreciate the astonishing level of detail ECs artists employed when you see the art in B&W, which is why publisher Russ Cochran’s fabled Complete EC Library reprints were so sought-after by collectors for so long…but again, that’s another article.