Rating:The fine folks over at Fantagraphics Books just don’t know when to quit when it comes to their lovingly presented black-and-white reissues of classic EC horror, war and sci-fi comics from the 1950s. Let’s hope they don’t quit anytime soon, either—their outstanding hardcover editions are a gift for comics aficionados, and they look spectacular lined up on a bookshelf. Their latest offering, the impressive compilation of Joe Orlando tales Judgment Day, may be a high point in the series so far.
Orlando was an outstanding draftsman, able to cram an amazing amount of detail into even the smallest of panels. Fond of steep angles and sweeping vistas, his heightened style perfectly suits the melodramatic ferment of the material. Unlike many artists comfortable drawing robots, spaceships and futuristic cityscapes, Orlando is also capable of illustrating human figures and faces, and his characters express as much with a look as with a speech bubble—impressive, considering the verbiage that gets crammed into these panels, usually courtesy of Al Feldstein.
Most of science fiction’s main tropes are present in these 23 stories. “In the Beginning” is a nifty time-travel story, while “Infiltration” puts a twist on the familiar “aliens among us” theme. Robots crop up several times, especially in a trio of “Adam Link” stories adapted from short stories written by author Eando Binder. “Time for a Change” sees astronauts encountering strange creatures on an alien planet, while “Fair Trade” posits an encounter in the distant past between primitive men and representatives from an advanced society. There are diaphanous alien life forms, men from Mars and the end of the world.
The title story might be the best known in the entire EC comics oeuvre. Despite its reputation as a peddler of twisted horror and gruesome, violent revenge stories, EC tales often sported morals reinforcing decency and forward-thinking that were decades ahead of their time. “Judgment Day” is one such story, an O. Henry type of tale about an Earthling astronaut who visits a robot-inhabited planet that is strictly divided along color lines. The blue robots hold a superior societal position, while the lowly orange robots are subservient, second-class citizens, despite the fact that their factory-produced innards are identical. When the twist ending comes, it carries a surprise even today; sadly, this reflects as much on our own time as the era in which the story was produced.
Undeniably, for a story in which color plays such a role, Fantagraphics’ decision to reprint these stories in black and white is a mixed blessing. Doubtless, the clean lines and sharp contrasts of the illustrations serve to throw Orlando’s excellent line work into sharp relief, but a lack of color carries its own drawbacks, especially for such futuristic stories as these.
Despite this quibble, Judgment Day is an outstanding collection and a genuinely thrilling addition to this fine, fine series. Fans of science fiction, or comics, or both, would do well to pick up this volume. In addition to a brief biographical sketch about the artist, there is an introduction to the stories included as well as a quick bio of EC itself. Be warned, though: these compilations are habit-forming. It’s unlikely that just one volume will satisfy.