Rating:Zero Hour is the latest in Fantagraphics Books’ outstanding series of EC comics hardcover reissues. Each volume focuses on a particular artist, and previous volumes in the series have seen attention given to the like of Al Feldstein, Jack Davis and Wally Wood. With sharply reprinted stories in crisp black and white, the artwork has the chance to dazzle the modern eye with its clean lines and sophisticated detail. The only thing that could improve the series would be the inclusion of color, a choice that would presumably have rendered these collections prohibitively expensive.
No matter—the artwork here is impressive nonetheless. Jack Kamen is the focus of this latest collection, and if his name isn’t quite as familiar as some of the others who lent EC its air of majesty (Wood, Frank Frazetta, Al Williamson), he is nonetheless an outstanding craftsman. Kamen excelled at drawing “ordinary,” domestic scenes, and this ability was effectively juxtaposed in a number of creepy stories here, including a trio of Ray Bradbury adaptations. (Bradbury was an enthusiastic supporter of EC’s comic-book renderings of his work, as long as he received credit for the stories, along with a check).
The story “Zero Hour” is probably the finest example of this dichotomy; Bradbury’s story places the scene of an incipient alien invasion in small-town America, where the children play a game with their imaginary friends that turns out to be considerably more sinister than the adults imagine. “A Lesson in Anatomy!!” uses the same kind of small-town setting in its story of a boy whose natural curiosity leads him to unwittingly commit acts with far-reaching consequences. (Yes, that’s vague. Trying to avoid spoilers here.) “Round Trip” focuses on an elderly dishwasher who dreams of the stars.
It’s unfair to characterize all the stories in this way, however. There are plenty of spaceships and futuristic cities and androids here as well, and with 22 stories collected, any number of surprises. What sets EC’s comic stories apart from their rivals is that, even today, they retain the power to startle or even shock. “Shrinking From Abuse!” shows us a cruel scientist get his just desserts when he inadvertently shrinks himself to microscopic size, only to be swallowed in a glass of water by his shrinking-violet wife. Gruesomeness ensues. Meanwhile, “Saving for the Future!” and “The Trip!” both showcase the hubris of men who think they’ve worked out the perfect plan, only to have catastrophe strike at the last moment.
There is much more here besides, of course, including a couple of less serious, tongue-in-cheek stories, and a few which veer uncomfortably close to misogyny. For that matter, many of these stories, written by Feldstein, feature shrewish women and/or men who are deeply suspicious or scornful of them. It doesn’t always make for comfortable reading, but at least the men are generally the recipients of a kind of rough justice, for what it’s worth.
As with the other volumes in this series, there is a brief introduction that goes over the stories included in the book, and another brief afterward focusing on the artist’s life and work. The focus, though, is on the stories themselves, and that is as it should be. Once again Fantagraphics has released a quality collection from an outstanding talent. It is to be hoped that these compilations just keep coming.