The dead hand of EC

Back in the mid-nineties, when Gemstone comics had the licence to reprint EC comics, they printed annuals of the various titles by bundling five-six issues together as a new collection. These must have been incredibly overprinted, as the local remaindered bookstore still have dozens and dozens of them for sale. I bought a couple of them on Saturday while waiting for my parents to finish clothes shopping and while reading them over the weekend, I realised something.

These comics are crap.

Not the art of course, which for the most part is of a very high standard indeed, but the stories. The best of them barely rise above tedious O. Henry stuff and it’s no wonder the ovrrated sentimentality of Ray Bradbury made such an impression when first adapted here, compared to what it appeared next to. It’s just not very good at all, certainly not that much better than what was being published at other companies, yet EC has become a symbol of the best of American comics, so why is that?

Well, comics fans have always been more interested in art than story and good art will always win out over bad storytelling, but not the other way around, and it has been fans who’ve been writing the history books until recently. Through uncritical repetition EC’s reputation has become reified fact. This is helped by the simple fact that for decades EC comics were almost the only comics from that era that were in print. Worse, when the first fan histories were written, even they were out of print and hard to get if hadn’t bought them from the newsstands when new. Which means both that newer generations of EC readers (like me) miss the context in which they were published, it also meant that quite often we’d come to them through the fan histories and slick artbooks which of course told us how great these comics were before we had a chance to judge them for ourselves.

All of which wouldn’t be that bad, if not for the bad example EC has set for the American comic field. If those are the best comics the US comics industry has produced, with excellent art but mediocre stories, is it any wonder that so many later comics projects have followed the same route, with glitzy arts but no content, that so many underground and “alternative” comics ultimately dissappoint once you get past the visuals?

Or would that have been the case without EC too?

(Post inspired by this: “Sure, EC was important to 1960s-70s underground comics as a liberating influence, but was equally a weight to get out from under”. I think we’re still struggling to get out from under the EC comics legacy, from the idea that comics are good enough if the visuals are great and story doesn’t matter.)

2 thoughts on “The dead hand of EC

  1. You’re judging an entire line of comics by reading a random sampling of them? I’ll allow that the writing in most of the horror and SF stories was rote hackwork, but Kurtzman’s Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat, as well as Krigstein’s “Master Race” are without question among the best comics ever created, words and pictures both.

  2. To be fair, I was slightly trolling when I wrote that and I grant you your exceptions, to which I would also add the early Mad stories.

    But even “Master Race” is at heart an O. Henry story, where the punch of the plot is in the twist ending. Again, it’s the art, the way Krigstein told the story that makes it great, not the story itself.

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