Writers: Bill Gaines, Johnny Craig, Al Feldstein, Jerry De Fuccio
Artists: Johnny Craig, Graham Ingels, Joe Orlando, Jack Davis, Jack Kamen, George Evans
Publisher: Dark Horse
Release Date: February 5, 2014
In the early 1950s, with titles like The Vault of Horror and Tales from the Crypt, EC ruled the horror-pulp scene with a rotted zombie death grip. The publisher had similarly conquered the sci-fi, crime and adventure genres. At its peak, however, the company fell victim to a pop-psych hysteria that scandalized comics as a source of juvenile delinquency, leading to senate subcommittees and the Comics Code. With their best titles hobbled by censors, EC plunged from pulp peddling titan to cultural footnote.
Reading these comics now is a lot like watching the Twilight Zone — an uncomplicated, pure look at the roots of an enduring genre. The short stories collected in The Vault of Horror Volume 3 HC are often morality tales, cautioning readers that the greedy and capricious will get what’s coming to them, and it won’t be pretty. A blowhard taxidermist kills his wife’s cat and ends up stuffed and mounted himself. A swindling car salesman is torn apart by the risen corpses of those who died in his death traps. If these plot twists seem cliché, it’s because they are, and this is where many of them were born.
The art is classic in every sense of the word — sopping with prototypical flair and vintage enough for hipster tattoo sleeves. The illustrations, with new remastered colors, may actually be the truest star of the archives, shining through surprisingly wordy panels and bringing life (and death!) to each page. Vivid primary colors pop against jet black shadows, with bold lines accenting it all from wrinkled clothes to horrified scowls. At it’s best, it’s transfixing.
It’s great to poke around the perceived horrors of the day. Voodoo factors in as much as zombies, but the stories that really stand out break away from those common bogeymen. These outliers seize on real-life terrors, for example, like the man whose cancer transformed him into a man-eating tumor monster. One particularly memorable entry challenges our views of grotesquery, with a tale of two actors on a ski vacation, each with a vile secret: he’s a ghoul with cannibalistic intent, and she’s a vampire with similar plans for him. Alas, they’ve fallen in love and each would rather starve than consume the other. But what do they do when they get snowed in? It’s a short, unexpectedly gripping love story, and it didn’t even need sparkly vampires.
While EC was toppled by largely unremarkable politicians and psychologists, its stories have influenced the likes of George Romero, Rick Remender, Joe Hill and Stephen King, among countless others. Reading EC’s comics today is more than an act of rebellion against the Helen Lovejoys of the world (though that would be enough), it’s about roots and evolution and, most of all, fun. These books are a macabre blast.