Rating: 4.5/5This anthology is not for the faint of heart. In the early 1950s, EC—or Entertaining Comics—blazed a gory trail of innovative, often shocking, sometimes disgusting entertainment for the youth of America. Such titles as Weird Science, Shock SuspenStories and The Haunt of Fear peddled a subversive mix of social commentary and cheap shock in the form of six or eight page stories with (usually) twist endings. The publisher’s flagship horror title was Tales from the Crypt, an anthology series in which stories were introduced by such demented “hosts” as the Crypt Keeper, the Vault-Keeper and the Old Witch.
EC was eventually the target of a US Senate campaign to bring comics publishers to heel, with the result being the self-imposed industry censorship embodied in the Comics Code Authority—a body which continued to oversee comics content as late as January 2011, when DC and Archie Comics finally withdrew from its oversight. The other major result of the hysteria was the closure of several publishers, including EC, whose publisher Bill Gaines went on to found Mad magazine.
Before all that, though, EC was a reliable supplier of gross thrills and science fiction wonder at 10 cents a pop. Now Fantagraphics is releasing a series of handsome, hardbound anthology volumes from the era, with each volume focusing on a particular artist. ’Tain’t the Meat… It’s the Humanity! collects two dozen stories from the exquisite pen and brush of Jack Davis, whose specialty was Tales from the Crypt and its twisted tales of ambulatory corpses, supernatural phenomena and bizarre revenge.
Davis was a phenomenal draftsman whose dynamic line work could imbue even static scenes with restless energy, and whose clean but detailed layouts could bring to life queasiness-inducing tableaux of rotting corpses and piled intestines. More often than that, though, Davis knew when to hold back, utilizing heavy blacks and thick shadows and allowing the reader’s own imagination to fill in the grisly details. As mentioned above—not for the faint of heart.
In some ways, the stories are a varied bunch. “The Trophy!” tells the tale of a heartless big-game hunter and his grisly comeuppance, while “Bargain in Death!” follows two medical students trying to procure a corpse for their studies. “Gas-tly Prospects!” is a Wild West tale of greed and its consequences, while “Survival… or Death!” takes the reader onto the high seas for a story of shipwreck and desperation. A surprising number of stories take place in historical contexts—the old West, the Victorian era—which allows for a certain visual variety. As Davis’s confidence grew, his talent blossomed and his illustrations became ever more detailed, varied and effective.
Then again, there is a certain sameness in terms of the stories’ dominant themes, which tend to involve death, disfigurement, greed, death, revenge, cruelty, death, selfishness, the occult and supernatural, death and profoundly bad judgment and its attendant consequences delivered to a wide array of pompous, short-sighted numbskulls. The stories can get a little wearying if read one after another, but as individual nuggets of entertaining depravity, they are delightful.
Surprisingly perhaps, these stories are not as unremittingly grim as these summaries may make them sound—another element, no doubt, in their popularity. A strain of grim black humor runs throughout them, courtesy of the writers. Al Feldstein and Carl Wessler wrote the lion’s share of these tales and had a knack for mixing cruel irony and creeping dread. It’s still an effective combination even today, and no doubt was powerful stuff back in the ’50s, long before the era of hyper-violent video games and wisecracking cinema action heroes had inured teenagers to such things.
Anyone wishing for an introduction to the much-loved and equally-loathed world of EC will find this a useful starting point. EC published a wide array of books but it remains known for its horror titles, and Jack Davis was one of their premier illustrators. For fans, this book is crucial, as it chronicles one of the genre’s most-respected artists working with the writers who made the form what it is—and who helped bring down self-righteous wrath upon the whole industry. EC has been gone for decades now, but volumes like this help ensure that its influence won’t be forgotten.