At this point, Fantagraphics has been releasing its line of high-quality black-and-white reprints of classic EC comics for close to three years now, with regular installments coming out every few months. The latest is a compilation of four previous volumes: Zero Hour, featuring the dynamic layouts and line work of Jack Kamen; Child of Tomorrow, which features the overwrought writing and blunt graphics of EC mastermind Al Feldstein; Fall Guy for Murder, with the shadowy artwork of Johnny Craig illustrating a bevy of noir-esque thrillers; and Sucker Bait, wherein the grotesque pencils and shadowy inks of horror maestro Graham Ingels elevate the stories into truly memorable creations (for better or worse).

Fantagraphics’ decision to render these stories in black and white, with an emphasis on strong line work, blacker-than-blank inks and heavy paper stock, means that some of the impact of the original stories is diluted. (If you don’t believe this, go round up one of the many color reproductions of these comics—or even just of a cover—and compare for yourself.) That said, though, these black-and-white reprints do a fine job of emphasizing the outstanding draftsmanship that went into these books, perhaps even more so than the originals did.

Each volume here has its own unique focus. Jack Kamen excelled at drawing “ordinary,” domestic scenes, and this ability was effectively juxtaposed in a number of creepy stories in Zero Hour, including a trio of Ray Bradbury adaptations. 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.

Al Feldstein’s stories in Child of Tomorrow read like a laundry list of 1950s anxieties: nuclear war, McCarthy-esque witch hunts, domestic dissatisfaction, technology gone wild and more nuclear war. There are mutated children in “Child of Tomorrow!” ruined cities in “Destruction of the Earth!” and “The Last City” and treacherous aliens in “Martian Infiltration!” among many other tales involving bad judgment, bad luck and human error aplenty. Feldstein illustrated most of the work in this volume himself, utilizing a clean, no-nonsense style that eschewed clutter while not sacrificing detail. His human faces were remarkably expressive, and he was as adept at illustrating dinosaurs and prehistoric swamps in “The Origin of Species!” as he was in presenting the glittering towers of tomorrow in “Made of the Future!” Although his page layouts were hardly innovative, generally three rows of either two or three panels, eight pages per story, he made the format work and crammed a surprising amount of story into such a constricted space. Feldstein believed in the twist ending, and virtually every tale here hinges on a surprise revelation in the last panel or two. It’s inarguably formulaic, but also entertaining as hell.

The stories in Fall Guy for Murder could hardly be more different from these first two books: Johnny Craig’s illustrative forte was in the brooding shadows and desperate faces of his film noir-ish characters (it’s hard to refer to them as “heroes” or “heroines”). This volume is perhaps the biggest surprise of the bunch, with a set of stories that manages to find, over and over again, new and innovative ways to suggest that crime does not pay. Not for lack of trying though. “Out of the Frying Pan” shows the comeuppance of a murderer who places too much trust in a benevolent old man, while “A Stitch in Time” sees a factory boss get his at the hands of the sweatshop workers he’s been exploiting. There are some elements of the fantastic in this collection—werewolves, vampires and reanimated corpses all make appearances—but for the most part, the horror in this book comes from familiar elements like greed, lust and envy.

For more traditional horror tropes—the rotting corpses, shuffling mummies, walking dead and so forth—look no further than Sucker Bait, the final volume here and perhaps the most contemporary in its grotesquerie. Illustrator Graham Ingels had a gift for portraying the disgusting, and it’s here that the black-and-white reproductions of this set are most effective. Stories like “A Grim Fairy Tale” and “We Ain’t Got No Body” seem right at home in the colorless world of black and white, feeling as they do like classic films set to paper, while gore-fests like “Horror We? How’s Bayou?” would arguably be more revolting, but less effective, with the addition of color. Throughout, the stories are served by Ingels’ inventive layouts, with close-ups and extreme angles reminiscent of German expressionist films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. His oddly tactile line work lends that much gooier, more slippery substance to his stories as well.

Each volume here contains a brief biographical sketch of the artist, and a general essay about EC Comics’ role in the genre’s history. The four books come in a slipcase (which was not offered with this review copy, so I can’t comment on its sturdiness) and are slightly cheaper as a set than buying them individually. This is a handsome collection that would make a terrific gift (hmm, Father’s Day is coming up) or bit of self-indulgence. Meanwhile, the publisher has announced at least two more books for the summer and fall of this year. Let the rejoicing commence.

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