We can learn a lot of lessons from old horror comics.
These lessons weren't evident until recently. As most comics fans know, horror comics -- and comics in general -- were nearly wiped out when public hysteria panicked comics publishers into adopting the draconian Comics Code of 1954. Which was nearly the end of comics in America.
Now, comics are back. And so are horror comics. Further, old horror comics have been rehabilitated, and are getting high-end reprint treatment.
A UK firm, PS Artbooks, has hired comics legend Roy Thomas as a consultant and taken it upon themselves to collect in hardcover a vast array of U.S. horror titles from long-defunct publishers, like ACG, Charlton, Fiction House and Harvey. Dark Horse and Dynamite are reprinting the classic Warren books "Creepy," "Eerie" and "Vampirella." Then there's comics historian Craig Yoe's "The Chilling Archives of Horror Comics" line from IDW, which collects stories by creator or genre.
There's plenty more, including large amounts of material from titans Marvel and DC, but you get the drift: America's horror comics -- or "suspense" titles, as they were called after 1954 -- are finally available in a fairly broad sample.
That means we can now start learning those aforementioned lessons:
1. Stop Listening to People Who Blame Pop Culture
In addition to exhaustive academic studies that show no link between sex and violence in entertainment and criminal behavior, comics provide an object lesson.
In 1954, hysterical preachers, politicians and parents screeched that crime and horror comics were causing juvenile delinquency. That link was even investigated by a U.S. Senate subcommittee! The Kefauver Commission absolved comics, but nobody remembers that now because the Comics Code codified the prejudice that comics were terrible, awful junk only fit for children, and brain-damaged children at that.
Now we know different. The graphic novel "Maus" won a Pulitzer Prize. Comics material, which requires thought and craft, dominates the movies. Libraries stock graphic novels and host seminars on them. And this newspaper you're reading prints a comics columnist. Comics run the gamut from big business to educational supplements.
That "juvenile delinquency" thing didn't really work out, even back in '54. Nor will it for the other convenient targets of today.
So tomorrow, when you hear another cable-news talking head blame some awful event on comics -- or movies, video games, TV, rap music, "Dungeons & Dragons" or any other scapegoat -- don't believe him or her. Pop culture isn't the engine of our value system, it's a reflection of it.
In other words, we get the entertainment we deserve.
2. Not All Horror Comics Are the Same
When people discuss early-'50s horror comics, they're usually thinking of EC Comics, the gold standard for both quality storytelling and gross-out gore. But as these new collections demonstrate, each line had its unique qualities.
Over at ACG, plucky everymen and their even pluckier girlfriends routinely humbled the forces of darkness with wit and courage -- before, inevitably, the happy ending where the couple begin planning their wedding. Harvey's books mixed all kinds of lunacy in a torrent of nonsensical, barely coherent chaos, like a teenager's id threw up all over the page. Books like Hillman's "The Heap" offered cautionary tales, or sad reveries on the human condition.
The mostly unknown writers of the '50s demonstrated time and again that genre -- and crummy pay -- was no constraint to creativity.
3. The Times, They Are Always A-Changing
Read '50s horror comics, and you see a lot of tough-guy detectives, two-fisted newspaper reporters, vampiric European noblemen and other reflections of the era. Read "Creepy" and "Eerie" stories from the '70s, and be prepared for day-glo bell-bottoms, people saying "right on" without irony, strings-free sex, campus unrest, Vietnam-war cynicism, tons of facial hair, VW vans and Afros so big they can be seen from space.
If you read enough comics, you become an expert on American sociology. And often it's unintentionally hilarious.
4. Never Make a Deal with the Devil
One thing that never changes, in stories from any era or any medium, is that trying to outsmart Satan never works. Also, wishing on a monkey's paw is a bad idea. As is buying anything from a strange curio shop that wasn't there a minute ago. Or exploring that area of the jungle that the natives say is cursed, or climbing that mountain where every previous expedition has disappeared, or going in that creepy old house you inherited that everyone says is haunted.
I mean, seriously! Are these people just stupid? Like the idiot teens in slasher movies who split up in the dark to explore closets, the protagonists in many comic-book horror stories hit such familiar "Twilight Zone" turf and bungle it so badly that you begin to root for them to die.
Just to tidy up the gene pool!
Some people just never learn. That's a bad thing for them. But it's a good thing for those of us who like a good chiller. Even if it's a bit silly!