RYAN STANDFEST Creating Panic: Al Feldstein’s Humor at E.C. (1950-1955) by ryan standfest
CREATING PANIC: Al Feldstein’s Humor at E.C. (1950-1955)
by ryan standfest

(Published in BLACK EYE: Graphic Transmissions To Cause Ocular Hypertension | 2011)

“I love sick humor, and of course the old E.C. stories were largely sick humor. And that’s what people missed—that almost every one of those horror stories was tongue-in-cheek.”
-William Gaines, Publisher of E.C. Comics (1)

In the early to mid nineteen fifties, the American headspace was filled with lingering memories of war atrocities, the burgeoning threat of the Red Scare, and casualties from a military action not understood by the public—the Korean War. A private unease simmered beneath the gleaming façade of a newly mechanized American prosperity, born of the industrialized war machine that had been set into motion. There was a lingering doubt that despite being the supreme world power, larger unseen forces could launch a sneak attack.

Working as editor, writer and artist on multiple titles for publisher William Gaines’ E.C. Comics, Al Feldstein crafted stories that dissolved a comfortable sense of normalcy in American society. In grotesque, unsentimental, and maliciously ironic tales, Feldstein lacerated notions of family, marriage, and security with plots that frequently translated America’s fear of “the other” into a fear of itself. American horror and humor have long been a means to express doubt and rage. Each can be a vehicle by which the unknown and the abstract can be literalized, given a recognizable body, and therefore neutralized. The narratives penned by Al Feldstein were fixated on the decidedly post-World War II fragmented body— one that burned, decomposed, oozed, melted, metamorphosed and just plain fell apart— as a literalizing of the “loss of self.” An E.C. specialty— the walking dead, or the zombie, best exemplified this. The zombie became a particularly modern monster, symbolizing fears over the destruction of the collective American body, both from within and without. Rather than a supernatural creature conjured from the netherworld, the bogeyman could now be the vengeful zombie of a wronged loved one, a neighbor, a business partner, or even a decaying version of the reader himself.
Steeped within genre conventions and plots borrowed from radio scripts and pulp literature, there was a Feldstein sensibility that developed— namely a streak of cruel humor that amounted to a comedy of fate, in which not only the guilty were punished, but the innocent as well. In the E.C. crime and horror titles, innocence is often sacrificed at the altar of entertainment, as moral order is settled by enjoyably immoral means. At E.C., Feldstein was channeling a sensationalistic pulp and tabloid tradition, that took real subjects experienced in American cities everyday— crime, murder, gruesome accidental deaths— and laced it with an off-handed, morbid sarcasm— the type tossed off in an operating room, at a crime scene, or in the city morgue. This variety of humor appears in the captioned photographs of Weegee, crime comics, pulp novels, sensational and true-crime narratives in exploitation cinema of the 1930’s and 40’s, and in the early days of American tabloid journalism. Gritty realism, moral outrage and titillation were guaranteed to generate revenue for the tabloids that emerged as working class entertainment in the American city. In every case, the use of plebian humor allowed for an ironic presentation— the ability for the reader to wallow in the sordid while remaining at a safe moral distance.
The comic book was a portable, low-cost form of popular entertainment and E.C. found its primary audience in returning servicemen, who certainly may have had their brushes with death, and adolescents for whom death was still an abstraction. Feldstein, born and raised in Brooklyn, would have been no stranger to a sensationalistic urban entertainment. He was savvy enough to know that the horror had to be made palatable in order to sell, to become more psychologically manageable, to entertain. Rather than a pure dose of the horrific, Feldstein married it to humor. He was well aware of the relationship between the two, as he told an interviewer in 1956:

“…I think psychologically (Harvey Kurtzman’s) MAD magazine carried the same reactive impulse, whatever it is that it carries to a reader, as a horror comic does. There’s an identification with authority, and there’s a flaunting with the destruction of that authority. So Harvey does it with a laugh and we do it with blood. It’s the same thing. This is the charge I think that people get when they read these things. It’s kind of cathartic. All entertainment is kind of cathartic.” (2)

To bridge the horrific and the humorous, Feldstein added hosts to introduce and narrate each tale. Lifted in both tone and structural purpose from radio programs such as Inner Sanctum and The Witch’s Tale, Feldstein’s “GhouLunatics,” were the embodiment of a dark comic sensibility. Flip and mordant, the Crypt Keeper, the Vault Keeper and the Old Witch established a comedic distance by using flimsy shtick rife with cheap puns and alliterations as if delivered by a rotting stand-up comic. Often predictable, each story was not necessarily about the punch line, but concerned the means of getting to it— in effect the delivery of what was a very cruel and morbid joke that each narrator was privy to from the start, as evidenced by their incessant cackling. It isn’t the formulaic and tedious moralizing of the narrative that entertains, but the strain of nihilistic humor throughout. The recurring Feldstein “sick joke” is that in the end, everyone gets his or her just desserts. The irreverent tone of the GhouLunatics was mocking and self-effacing in a way that would have appealed to an adolescent readership, as it undermined any sense of authority other than that of fate. The following is an excerpt of Crypt Keeper banter from the ending of “Reflection of Death!” (Tales from the Crypt #23, April-May, 1951) scripted by Feldstein:

“Heh, heh! Well, kiddies! That’s it! Like it? Like being a corpse? Well, you might as well get used to it! It’s bound to happen…eventually. Oh, come, come! Why the grave look? You’ve got time! Heh, heh!”

Note the use of the exclamation point in both title and dialogue. Such punctuation permeates the E.C. material, recalling the early tabloid headlines. With Feldstein’s stories there is an interplay between the use of sensationalistic formal gestures and a melodramatic tone. Having started in romance stories for E.C. (Saddle Romances, A Moon, A Girl…Romance, and Modern Love), Feldstein relied heavily on purple prose, often cramping the compositional space for artists to work with. But such text also provided the perfect amount of melodrama from which dark humor could naturally flow, and which artists matched with visual hyperbole. Feldstein’s own “ossified” style of drawing possessed a kind of cool mechanical detachment from the terrifying proceedings, as if the hard-edged ink lines managed to both contain and freeze anxiety. Rather than hand lettering the text of the E.C. stories, he employed the mechanical Leroy lettering set, in which a template to produce standard uniform characters guides a pen. Used as a time-saving measure, the precise and rigid lettering created a further remove from the gory materiality of the images, with text that is often overly descriptive of what can more effectively be seen.

Self-parody is evident in the numerous in-house advertisements for E.C. titles and in the Feldstein scripts that featured himself, William Gaines and the E.C. stable of artists as characters in their own stories within the horror and fantasy titles. Such tales would depict the group as capable of being absorbed into the worlds of their own making, usually to grim comedic effect. In one notable tale titled “Kamen’s Kalamity” (Tales from the Crypt #31, August-September, 1952), all-around nice guy, suburban father and cartoonist Jack Kamen is convinced by his E.C. peers to get in touch with his inner monster so that he can produce more effective horror tales, resulting in an adverse effect on the family unit. Evidence of a darker and blunter sensibility can be seen in a series of parodic comic book covers Feldstein created in 1950 to adorn the E.C. offices for their annual Christmas party. As reproduced in Grant Geissman’s Foul Play! The Art and Artists of the Notorious 1950’s E.C. Comics!, the drawings exhibit a gleefully nasty tone that look like something produced by the hand of contemporary cartoonist Johnny Ryan in their aggressive cynicism. Teeny Tot (Your First Comic Book) displays an executioner beheading a victim, accompanied by an excess of blood and a pile of limbs. Other titles include A Moon, A Girl… LUST, Blood Comics, Crime Does So Pay!, Doctor Wertham Comics (“Introducing the final trend in comics… no art… no script—no nothin’”), and Sadistic Comics, in which the E.C. logo is a cattle brand heated over a fire and about to pressed into the flesh of a naked, bound blonde woman by what one can assume is a member of the E.C. staff of artists.
When the sales of Kurtzman’s MAD started to show promise, Gaines and Feldstein decided to start-up a companion to MAD, titled Panic. From its inception, it was acknowledged that the Feldstein-edited Panic would closely follow MAD in several ways—from its parody of popular comic strips, television shows and films, to its roster of artists that were also working on MAD- Jack Davis, Bill (Will) Elder, Joe Orlando and Wallace (Wally) Wood— artists who understood the fundamental relationship between graphic representations of the humorous and the horrific, as determined by degrees of distortion. And yet the first issue of Panic, which appeared on newsstands in December 1953, is notable not for its resemblance to MAD, but rather for the relationship of its humor to that of Feldstein’s horror titles with a continuation of the use of sex, violence, and destruction laced with a sick comic sensibility. Kurtzman was dubious about the use of violence in comics, whereas Feldstein liberally employed it to comedic effect in his own parody publication. In fact, there was a noticeable shift in tone in the content of the later horror titles that were produced at E.C., as the stories became more grisly with an equal measure of added humor. There seemed to be a ratio of splatter to laughs, as if the two depended on one another.
The cover of Panic #1, by Feldstein, loudly declares his comic approach with its depiction of a blonde-haired, freckled, malicious imp of a child, who has set a rather large bear-trap for Santa Claus— descending the chimney and about to be caught in the steel teeth of the mechanism— while the boy looks on with gleeful anticipation. Feldstein’s cover for Panic #2 makes use of the same child, who is seen blowing up a miniature of suburbia in the center of a model train set, producing an atomic mushroom cloud. There is also a pencil rough by Feldstein (3), for an unused version of the Panic #3 cover, which again depicts the boy, this time selling copies of Panic at a cemetery while a casket is being lowered into an open grave during a burial service, complete with a priest reading from the Bible and a family with heads bowed. It is unfortunate that this concept was abandoned, for it would have established a continuity of tone unique to Panic. The image of the boy as a recurring cover character would have also suggested an early, ballsier proto-type of Alfred E. Neuman— a more prosaic idiot man-child that Feldstein employed as a permanent mascot for MAD once he took over editorial duties from Kurtzman in 1956.
The first two issues of Panic are the darkest of the series, with the Feldstein-scripted parodies of Mickey Spillane pulp fiction (My Gun is the Jury), the television program This is Your Life (This is Your Strife), early morning radio programs (Breakfast with the Furshlugginers) and of the hit Broadway play A Streetcar Named Desire (Come Back, Little Street Car- A Dismal Play in Three Morose Acts by Tennessyringe Miller), leading the pack in mean-spirited fun, and exhibiting some of Feldstein’s strongest humor writing. My Gun is the Jury (art by Jack Davis) uses abundant sex and violence to delirious comic effect, as an overzealous private dick shoots his way through a number of stock dames, claiming each deserved to be plugged based on the flimsiest of excuses. The story climaxes with a gender switch in which a final female victim turns out to be a transvestite and Mike Hammershlammer, the dick himself, turns out to be a woman, thereby turning the standard misogyny of the pulp genre inside-out.

The entire run of Panic showcased some of Will Elder’s sharpest parodies of comic strip material in which he perfected his ability to mimic the styles of other cartoonists. But in Panic #1 there appeared his notorious send-up of Clement Clarke Moore’s A Visit from St. Nicholas (also known as The Night Before Christmas), for which Elder illustrated the original, unaltered text of the poem with a sequence of visual puns and non-sequiturs—“While visions of sugarplums danced in their heads,” prompts an image of three children and a dog sleeping in beds of nails, dreaming of Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield, a lifetime subscription to E.C., and a tree, respectively. Unfortunately, not everyone was amused. At this time in America, the forces of social conservatism began to amass and capitalize on national paranoia. 1953 was the same year that Arthur Miller’s The Crucible opened on Broadway in January, as a warning against the hysteria that was unfolding, and it was only eleven months prior to the appearance of Panic #1 when senator Joseph McCarthy began his hearings within the Senate Committee on Government Operations. Anyone and everyone who fell under the suspicion of questioning American ideals, as defined by those fueled by religious and nationalistic fervor, were labeled unpatriotic and subjected to various forms of censure. This did not bode well for the gang at E.C., who had been subverting the American “normal” for the past four years. And now they were doing it more explicitly, with humor.
Beginning with Will Elder’s Christmas parody, the dam broke and the censorious floodwaters began to rise. It turned out that in Massachusetts some felt that Elder went too far when he depicted Santa Claus in a light that was not sufficiently Christian— driving a red Cadillac for a sleigh with a sign on its trunk that read “Just Divorced!” Elder’s take resulted in Panic being banned from the entire state of Massachusetts within a week after the issue had appeared. On December 28, 1953, two police officers from the New York City Police Department, conducted what would amount to a low-level “raid” on the offices of E.C. at 225 Lafayette in Manhattan, by purchasing a copy of Panic #1 and then arresting both secretary Shirley Norris, for selling the “offensive material” to them, and Lyle Stuart, then E.C.’s business manager, who volunteered to take the rap for William Gaines (who by some accounts was hiding in the bathroom). When the case appeared in court in January of 1954, the presiding judge threw it out when he learned that the arrest was made on the grounds of too much female leg exposure in the story My Gun is the Jury. The judge wanted to know if the arresting officer had ever seen the lingerie ads that adorned the city’s subway.
Such aggressive prosecution on the part of whom Gaines labeled “do-gooders”(4)— a solid cross-section of parental groups, teachers, Catholics and Protestants, the American Legion, conservatives and progressives, Democrats and Republicans— presaged the events of the next two to three years, when much of the comics industry would be forced to close up shop due to pressure. Such pressure, fuelled by a mixture of genuine moral concern and political opportunism, was also at its heart a question of “high culture” versus “low culture,” involving social class and ethnicity. There was a situation in which the middle class representatives of “white bread” America wished to prevent material labeled as vulgar from adversely affecting their children’s view of “civic normalcy.” It was the heartland versus the big city merchants of sensationalism. In 1954 attacks against Panic and E.C. continued to appear in the press, who knew a good, moneymaking controversy when it saw one. To stoke the flames of outrage against the comics industry meant sales. In that same year, progressive Harlem psychiatrist Frederic Wertham published his book Seduction of the Innocent, which claimed that comic books were the source of juvenile delinquency and sexual deviance, William Gaines testified before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency, and the Comics Magazine Association of America, Inc. created the Comics Code to impose a new sanitized standard on comic book content.
Al Feldstein continued to edit Panic along with several other E.C. titles, until the inevitable end of operations was spelled out. The national backlash against comic books, once they were considered offensive to mainstream American taste, resulted in distributors and merchants refusing the sale of titles, and the subsequent implementation of the Comics Code, which led to the neutering of content. Along with the eventual demise of the E.C. genre titles, Panic ended with issue #12 in December 1955.

In 1956, after Harvey Kurtzman departed E.C. to edit the satirical magazine Trump for Hugh Hefner, Al Feldstein assumed the editorship of MAD, the only surviving E.C. title by virtue of it being a magazine rather than a comic book, and remained with it until 1984. Under Feldstein, MAD continued as a rebuttal to the numbing mainstream values that had swept the nation and had brought the comic book industry to its knees, using the same cathartic, anti-authoritarian “sick” sensibility he had been practicing all along. Unlike Harvey Kurtzman, Al Feldstein did not initially consider himself to be a humorist, but his contribution to the “sick humor” identified with E.C. can be traced from his E.C. genre work right through to the first stirrings of Panic and then finally to MAD, where he further embraced parody and satire. Feldstein, for his part, helped to popularize a new type of transgressive comedy-horror hybrid, which in its way relates to the gross-out humor he nurtured in MAD, as both revolve around the spectacle of the body as an entertaining site of physical and psychological conflict. E.C. and Al Feldstein began with the decomposition of the body, evolving into the dismantling of the body politic.

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