Horror comics play an important part in the history of the American comic book, not the least because they are directly associated with an event which scared and haunted the comic book industry in a very real way - the April 1954 hearings of the US Senate's subcommittee to investigate Juvenile Delinquency. But even at that point in time the concept of what exactly defines a "horror" comic book was very much unclear, and the distinction between gothic horror and pulp terror was more often than not completely obscured.


The hearings of the US Senate's subcommittee to investigate Juvenile Delinquency are often associated with Fredric Wertham, who truly fired up the anti-comics movement in the US during the second half of the 1940s. However, even though the psychiatrist from New York City did give testimony as a publicly known "expert" on the subject matter, the real driving force behind the hearings was Senator Estes Kefauver from Tennessee.

A Democrat with outspoken liberal views (Gorman, 1971), he introduced a resolution calling for an investigation of organized crime in the US in January 1950. As a result, the so-called Kefauver Committee began its hearings in May 1950. The question of juvenile delinquency and possible influences by media such as television and comic books was not a subject of inquiry until added by the Senate in 1953. Never considered to be at the heart of the investigations, the televised hearings nevertheless reached a large audience and did appeal to Kefauver's somewhat stiff views on contents fit for general publication (Gorman, 1971).

However, even though the anti-comics movement - spearheaded by Wertham (Vassallo, 2011) - was not formally in charge of the hearings, it had nevertheless paved the way for much of what was going to be said through its clamouring to banish "horror and crime comics".


Senator Hendrickson pointing to the display prepared for the April 1954 hearings, showing several "representative" comic book covers (TIME Magazine)
[click for larger image]
  Thus, when Republican Senator for New Jersey Robert C. Hendrickson opened the hearings on 21 April 1954, he did so with the following words:

"Today and tomorrow the United States Senate Subcommittee Investigating Juvenile Delinquency, of which I am the chairman, is going into the problem of horror and crime comic books. By comic books, we mean pamphlets illustrating stories depicting crimes or dealing with horror and sadism. We shall not be talking about the comic strips that appear daily in most of our newspapers. And we shall be limiting our investigation to those comic books dealing with crime and horror." (1954 Senate Subcommittee Hearings into Juvenile Delinquency, Transcript of the morning session, 21 April 1954)

From this statement, it is unclear whether Hendrickson was thinking of comics which feature both "horror and sadism" (which would at the time clearly have pointed to the pulp fiction genre only and would have equalled horror to terror for all practical purposes) or whether he actually had two categories of comics in mind which featured only one or the other.

A question of some importance, the lack of clarity and distinction with regard both to terminology and subject matter displayed in the opening remarks were in fact nothing else than a sign of things to come. However, Senator Hendrickson may even be excused to some degree, as he was relying heavily on preliminary work for the hearing which can at best be described as having been of extremely poor quality.

This preparation work for the hearings had been compiled by Richard Clendenen, chief of the juvenile delinquency branch of the United States Children’s Bureau (Nyberg, 1998), but in all of his preparations Clendenen had not only overlooked the need to provide clear and concise definitions, but was actually confusing the panel himself only minutes into the opening session with terms such as "horror crime comics" (Transcript I, 1954), whilst a specially prepared display featuring various example covers ran the heading "Representative Comic Book Covers / Crime Horror & Weird Variety".

When Chief Counsel Herbert Wilton Beaser insisted ("When you say crime and horror comics could you be more specific in describing what you are talking about?", Transcript I, 1954), Clendenen sought refuge in a definition based on a specific example.

But even as he was describing one specific comic book (Black Magic #29 by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, published by Prize Comics in early 1954) he didn't make it out of the woods - initially calling it a "crime comic" he concluded only a minute later that this was "an example of a comic of the horror variety" (Transcript I, 1954).

Thus lacking even a working definition, the afternoon session of the first day at least seemed to be able to pinpoint the origin of "horror comics" to one person when William C. Gaines, publisher of EC Comics, made his testimonial.

"I publish horror comics. I was the first publisher in these United States to publish horror comics. I am responsible, I started them." (1954 Senate Subcommittee Hearings into Juvenile Delinquency, Transcript of the afternoon session, 21 April 1954)

Unfortunately, this claim did not correspond to the facts either and only added to the muddled collection of anecdotal and hearsay input the hearings produced - whilst Gaines was the undisputed number one publisher of horror comics at the time, he was not the first to introduce the genre to the medium.


Black Magic #29 (March 1954)

Whereas EC Comics began to publish its line of horror titles (Weird Fantasy, Weird Science, The Haunt of Fear, Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror) as of 1950, other publishers had done so since 1947. Whether or not Gaines knew about these earlier horror comics (and viewed them as such) is unclear (Jacobs, 1972), but his voluntary appearance before the subcommittee was, in any case, a brazenly misjudged publicity attempt which completely backfired. Immediately following Wertham's testimony, Gaines stood no chance and came out of the hearings portrayed by the media as America's most shameful publisher of comic books. Within a year, EC Comics would be driven out of business.

Ultimately, the famous Senate hearings on comic books were thus conducted without a valid general definition of their subject and instead relied entirely on individual case data and ad hoc terminology for their entire duration. Given the results (creation of a watchdog body in the form of the Comics Code Authority) and the aftermath felt by the industry (with many publishers partially or wholly closing down shop and staff as well a sfreelancers looking for new jobs), this may seem a rather astonishing and inadequate form of procedure for a government body. However, it needs to remembered that although still an industry selling a mass-market product (Wertham himself was lamenting in 1948 that the number was 60 million copies a month, comic books and the individuals who created, produced and distributed them were not part of the general public's awareness nor concern, let alone appreciation. This fact of life for the comic book industry had been underscored a few years earlier as the Supreme Court delivered its ruling in the case of Winters v. People of the State of New York (333 U.S. 507, 1948) on 29 March 1948, when it overturned a New York state law prohibiting the publication or distribution of "true crime" magazines and comic books.

"Though we can see nothing of any possible value to society in these magazines, they are as much entitled to the protection of free speech as the best of literature." (US Supreme Court, 333 U.S. 507, 1948)

Furthermore, the 1954 Senate hearings were to no small extent the result of years of continued and systematic pressuring by anti-comics groups and its leading figures such as Fredric Wertham. Discrediting the medium and the industry wherever and whenever the occasion would arise, Wertham and his brothers in arms had long since dictated the language and the approach used to discuss comic books as much as the agenda itself; for them, the 1954 hearings were nothing short of the nationwide tribunal they had sought for so long.

One of the minor resulting outcomes of this setup was that the history of the horror genre in US comic books would be muddled for decades to come.

Horror fiction has a long tradition and a multitude of very diverse roots, and it has become a part of popular lore and culture to such an extent that even a vast majority of those people who are not the least interested in the genre will have at least a basic notion of its core themes and imagery - in short, of "classic horror", which will include characters such as Vampires, Werewolves and the Frankenstein Monster along with other ghosts and ghouls.

Most if not all of this "classic horror" has its roots in the gothic fiction of the 18th century and works such as Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto (1764) or M. G. Lewis' The Monk (1796), which in turn were followed by the works of E. T. A. Hoffman, Mary Shelley (Frankenstein, 1818) and Edgar Allan Poe. It was this period which shaped the notion of gothic horror even into Victorian times, with R.L. Stevenson's Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) and Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897) as later additions to the genre.

At that point, horror fiction was defined to include a general air of mystery and supernatural terror in a setting featuring haunted houses, castles, ruins, darkness, secrets, death and general decay. In these forbidding locations ghosts, vampires, werewolves, monsters, skeletons and maniacs were found to be plentiful.

However, genres are open categories and subject to constant addition and change as each new element of a specific genre reinforces or broadens its basic concepts. One of the consequences of this is the fact that a specific sample (e.g. a novel or a movie) can belong to different groupings of genres, and that the process by which genres are established always involves the human need for distinction and interrelation (Cohen, 1986). With the rise of popular culture, the importance of genres as an ordering and labelling system has grown significantly. At the same time, the enormous increase in output has resulted in a growing interrelatedness of genres.

This amount of blurring - especially at the "edges" of a genre - became more and more apparent as movies became a highly influential element in the perception of genres within popular culture of the 20th century. By the early 1930s, just when the comic book market started to truly emerge in the United States, the horror genre began to broaden. Even though Universal Studios as the major producer in the field were predominantly adhering to gothic horror with films such as Dracula (1930) and Frankenstein (1931) and in many ways reinforcing this classic notion of the genre, other movies of the 1930s explored the interaction of horror with other genres, such as MGM with its 1932 production The Mask of Fu Manchu.

Interestingly, The Mask of Fu Manchu was considered to be a horror movie due to the fact that Boris Karloff - Universal's star horror movie actor - starred as Fu Manchu, even though the original novels by Sax Rohmer are quintessentially crime and detective stories. Whilst the air of oriental mystery and ruthlessness surrounding Fu Manchu (who seeks world domination) is a source of terror to the protagonists, there really is nothing to fall into the category of gothic horror in spite of some minor references to the occult.

Many attempts at distinguishing horror from terror in works of fiction have been made, and a number of definitions suggest that a standard literary and psychological concept exists which can be applied. Based on these concepts, it is no coincidence that the genre of gothic fiction is called e.g. horror movies rather than terror movies, and the underlying principal reason for this has probably best been summarized by Dennis Yates Wheatley (1897-1977), who himself was a prolific writer of thrillers and occult novels:

"Terror is a response to physical danger only, horror is fear of the supernatural." (Melani, 2008)


The ruins of Whitby Abbey in England - an archetypal gothic fiction setting taken up by Universal Studios in the 1930s stage sets for their horror movies, such as the grand entrance hall and stairs from Dracula (1930)

Boris Karloff as Fu Manchu in The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932)

The Mask of Fu Manchu is clearly concerned with worldly terror rather than supernatural horror - Fu Manchu poses no danger in terms of losing one's soul or being torn into an existence between life and death. However, he does represent an overwhelmingly powerful threat to the physical and psychological integrity of his opponents who, if captured, must surely face excruciating methods of torture and painfully slow deaths.
In terms of popular culture genres, this distinction between horror and terror equates to the distinction between gothic horror and pulp fiction. It is important to highlight this distinction because, looking at the history of the American horror comic book, it is quite evident that many elements of pulp fiction crossed over into the horror titles, and that it was precisely this aspect which was predominantly responsible for the public outcry and ultimately crusade against horror comics and, to some extent, even comic books in general, as seen in conjunction with the 1954 Senate hearings mentioned above.

Defining horror comic books and setting them apart from pulp fiction (i.e. distinguishing horror from terror) is primarily made difficult by the fact that the emerging American comic book industry of the early 1930s was not just connected with the pulp magazine market but actually grew out of it. Several publishers of comic books were in fact publishers of pulp fiction who had diversified into the new medium, including the two big names dominating today's comic book market. Both have a pedigree of direct descendancy from the pulp magazine industry through Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson (who launched Detective Comics, or DC for short) and Martin Goodman (who founded Marvel's forerunner Timely Comics).

Pulp magazines were widely published in the US from 1896 through to the 1950s, their name being a reference to the cheap "wood pulp" paper used in their production. Within their 100+ pages they mostly featured lurid and exploitative stories which were often accompanied by similarly sensational cover art. The combination of cheap printing on cheap paper featuring stories written by cheap authors provided affordable entertainment to the readers and became a successful business for the publishers - the most successful pulps could sell up to one million copies per issue in the 1920s and 1930s (Haining, 2000). But even though this success resulted in the pulps branching out into virtually all conceivable genres, "weird menace" titles always remained a mainstay for pulp magazines of the 1930s and 1940s. Also known as "shudder pulps" they featured stories in which the hero was pitted against evil and almost invariably sadistic villains, and the plot typeset was filled with graphic descriptions of torture and brutal murder (Jones, 1975).


All Detective Magazine
(October 1933)

  However, due to the themes and the strong presence of death, pulp fiction terror soon found itself borrowing more and more props from gothic fiction horror for its settings: Evildoers are most menacing in the dark or in secluded locations, and human skulls and scattered bones are the telltale signs of previous atrocities.

Eventually, the pulp magazines' covers were copiously garnished with such elements from gothic horror, even though the "horrors" depicted in the stories hardly ever failed to be unravelled in the end with rational explanations, most often having the evildoers only pose as "supernatural" threats.

This was just as true for those pulp magazines which even tunnelled into gothic fiction for their titles, such as Horror Stories (which had a more truthfully titled companion Terror Tales), launched in 1935.


Horror Stories
(June 1937)

Nevertheless, even though the contents were clearly and virtually always terror fiction (Jones, 1975), the pulps were soon featuring covers which mixed classic horror visuals with the gore and sadistic terror of the pulp fiction genre.

Slowly but surely, pulp themes also started to creep onto comic book covers as the publishers brought with them a background in the pulp magazine industry. A first step was made when Detective Comics Inc. launched Detective Comics #1 in March 1937 and featured a Vincent Sullivan cover depicting Sen Yoi, a Fu-Manchuesque villain whose facial features and empty eyes forebode nothing but menacing evil and doom. The 13-page story which went with the cover was titled "The Claws of the Red Dragon". It pitted a Caucasian hero against the evil-doings of one Sen Yoi in San Francisco's Chinatown district, and was written by Wheeler-Nicholson, who was not only the owner and editor-in-chief of Detective Comics Inc. but also an experienced pulp fiction author.


Detective Comics #1
(March 1937)

Marvel Mystery Comics #3
(January 1940)

  Detective Comics was a roaring success, and the transition displayed on the covers of Detective Comics (which really were the on-the-spot selling advertisement) was quick and to the point as they became more explicit and menacing by the month - until Detective Comics #30 (August 1939) showed a robber cutting down an individual by using his welding torch as a weapon. By that time, the classic pulp fiction charcater Fu Manchu had already made his first comic book appearance - in the pages of Detective Comics #17.

Even with the coming of the superheroes some degree of pulp fiction aura persisted. When Detective Comics #27 featured The Batman in May 1939, readers were introduced to a dark figure who deliberately chose his batlike appearance to strike terror and fear into the hearts of the criminals he had vowed to hunt down after witnessing the double murder of his parents. In many ways, the Batman thus seemed to trace his roots to classic pulp fiction plot settings, but even the colourful superheroes which followed in the wake of Superman sometimes displayed striking similarities to pulp fiction covers.

Marvel Mystery Comics #3 for instance, shows the caped hero named Angel fighting an obscurely faced and axe-wielding foe amidst skulls and a female in distress, and Fantastic Comics #8 from publisher Fox depicts its hero Samson amongst similarly gruesome menaces; especially notworthy is the monstruous figure grabbing the female in distress by her hair as she is about to have an iron mask fitted to her face. And a couple of skulls once again set the mood by indicating that there must have been plenty of bloodshed previously.


Detective Comics #30
(August 1939)

Fantastic Comics #8
(July 1940)

By the mid-1940s, elements of pulp fiction permeated virtually all existing comic book genres outside the classic "funnies", and elements which would be singled out during the 1954 Senate hearings as defining elements of "horror comics" were, in fact, present all across the board. This in turn resulted in the Senate sub-committee (and all individuals present at the hearings) primarily discussing stories and plot devices which were, to all effect, elements of pulp fiction - without a single reference to that genre. This is in stark contrast to the fact that whilst the label "horror" was used frequently during the discussions, virtually no actual elements of the horror genre actually formed the basis of those discussions. As a result, the differences between horror and terror became completely obliterated - in spite of the fact that there had been several true horror genre comic books published by 1954.
The first episodic appearance of true horror motifs in an American comic book took place in Crestwood Publication's anthology title Prize Comics #7 (cover date December 1940) and was spearheaded by one of the genre's classic and iconic figures, the Frankenstein Monster. Appearing in 8-page adventures alongside mostly superhero characters (such as Black Owl, Dr Frost, Green Lama, Captain Gallant or the Great Voodini), writer-artist Dick Briefer (using the pen name Frank N. Stein as penciller) did start out with a modernised and Americanised account of the Monster's origin, thus adding another popular culture variation on Mary Shelley's story. For several issues, Prize Comics featured a rampaging and rather brute Monster, running wild and causing havoc in contemporary New York City.

However, this horror feature remained highly episodic as the Frankenstein stories were virtually submerged in the otherwise almost exclusively superhero themed content which featured on the remaining 56 out of 64 pages of each issue of Prize Comics. Before too long the wartime success of the superhero genre would even make substantial inways into Briefer's Frankenstein version, and by October 1942 (Prize Comics #24) the Monster had been introduced to the ranks of caped protectors and even found himself battling Nazis in Europe (Goulart, 2001).

After the end of the war, the character underwent yet another change and even became a humour feature from 1945 until 1952, starting out in Crestwood's Frankenstein #1. This versatile accessibility of gothic horror to both the superhero and the humour genre - as demonstrated by Prize Comics - was discovered very quickly by publishers and would become a significant trait of the genre in the 1950s and 1960s. In their early days, horror motifs thus did occasionally surface in individual comic books, but this took place almost behind the scenes and was well hidden by covers which contained no clue of spookyness at all.


Prize Comics #7
(December 1940)

Classic Comics #26

Spook Comics #1

  "The Case of the Limping Mummy" from Fawcett's Bulletman #2 (1941), for example, features numerous horror motifs despite being more of a detective/superhero rather than a horror story in the strict sense of the word. Writers and artists were now experimenting and using other genres as vehicules to transport certain horror imageries, whilst the usual pulp fiction themes masquerading as horror appeared regularly, such as in Continental / Holyoke's Suspense Comics #1 (December 1943). Sometimes referred to as a comic book featuring "variations on gothic fright" (Hajdu, 2008), the contents of this title were in fact all concerned exclusively with superheroes and the classic pulp themes of torture and bondage.

In 1941 the Gilberton Company began publication of Classic Comics, a title concept which featured adaptations of novels, plays, and other literary works in comic book format. It was in this context that the first American comic book featuring only horror genre content was published when Classic Comics #13 (cover date August 1943) featured an adaptation of R. L. Stevenson's Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. This was followed by another classic tale of gothic horror, namely Frankenstein, in Classic Comics #26 in 1945. Although these two comic books were exclusively dedicated to horror genre context, they did not feature original content material produced especially for the medium, which is why they can only be seen as precursors to the first horror comic book.

For still some time to come, Classic Comics #13 was a firm exception to the otherwise generally anecdotal handling of horror motifs in the US comic book industry of the early 1940s. However, when Charlton Comics entered the market in September 1944, their first title - Yellowjacket Comics - ran a regular backup feature to complement its main superhero content. Called "Famous Tales of Terror", the feature also included adaptations of short stories by E. A. Poe and was noteworthy for its plot device of having regular introductions to the stories by an old witch acting as narrator - an idea possibly borrowed from the radio show The Witch's Tales (Watt-Evans, 1997) and, of course, used extensively throughout the 1950s and late 1960s. The same technique of framing a story with "bookends" - which was hugely popular with radio shows of the period and would later be taken up by early TV productions - was used by publisher Harvey Comics in 1945 for the single issues of Front Page and Strange Story (1946), which both featured "the Man in Black" as narrator who introduced readers to the generally spooky but nevertheless non-horror stories and commented on the contents at the end (Watt-Evans, 1997).


Bulletman #2
(Fall 1941)

Front Page #1

Spooky Mysteries #1

Two other single-issue titles (publishers liberally threw titles onto the market in the mid-1940s which never made it to a second issue, sometimes simply because no follow up was planned) illustrate the wide range the genre was very quickly set in: Spook Comics #1 (Baily Publishing, 1947) did feature "Mister Lucifer" as per its cover, but the remaining three stories were humorous pranks, albeit involving ghosts, zombies and a haunted house.

Spooky Mysteries #1 (Gleason, 1947), on the other hand, featured nothing but spooks entirely moderated by comic relief - or, as the cover puts it, "thrills, chills, laughs, rib-tickling horror". It almost seemed as though creators and publishers were looking for the right place in comic booksfor the horror genre.

January 1947 finally the saw the release of the first stand-alone horror-only comic book featuring original content material - Eerie Comics #1. Published by Avon Comics, an imprint of Avon Publications, this small business was located at 115 West 57th Street in Midtown Manhattan and was basically run by sisters Jospeh and Edna Myers since 1941, when the American News Corporation bought their pulp magazine publishing company and renamed it Avon Publications. The basic business idea was to get a foothold in the paperback publication market, but the company also began to branch out into comics in 1945 (Canja, 2002).

Myers built on his previous pulp fiction publishing experience and pursued a policy which aimed at having a distinctly "popular appeal" rather than striving for any literary merits. As a consequence, Avon predominantly published ghost stories, sexually-suggestive love stories, fantasy novels and science fiction in its early paperbacks. Myers and his sister knew their trade, and a number of acknowledged authors such as Raymond Chandler, Robert E. Howard and James M. Cain had stories published in Avon's titles such as Murder Mystery Monthly, Modern Short Story Monthly or Avon Fantasy Readers (Canja, 2002).


Looking for new market segments to touch upon, the Myers found the by now well established medium of comic books beckoning, and Avon tested the waters in 1945 with Captain Silver's Log of the Sea Hound #1.

As with many Avon titles still to come, many would never see a second issue, but after a short hiatus the Myers were back for more and, in January 1947, launched Eerie Comics, a horror-only comic book, and Cow Puncher Comics, a Western title. These were followed later on that same year by The Saint, Penny (a Romance title) and Peter Rabbit Comics.

  Whilst the imagery on the cover of Eerie Comics #1 - a red-eyed and dagger-toting ghoul threatening a rope-bound and scantily clad young woman - rather seems to suggest terror in torture chambers in the tradition of the pulp fiction magazines, the anthology title actually was actually looking more to the traditional haunts of horror of Gothic fiction and offered six stories in its 52 full-colour pages which effectively were fairly tame in their visuals and contained only horror content rather than pulp fiction motifs.

A detailed synopsis and analysis of Eerie Comics #1 (see THOUGHT BALLOON #21) shows that the stories set up plot patterns which would become virtual stereotypes for later horror comics, such as having a villainous trapping eventually backfire and work against the person who has set it up in order to gain advantage over somebody else. Already used to great effect in Shakespeare's Hamlet, this type of story twist would be used frequently in horror comic books from the 1950s right up to the 1970s simply because it offers many possibilities to introduce mysterious supernatural elements, often leaving the reader wondering if something paranormal did indeed take place or not.

The comic features no editorial content, and whilst none of the writers is known, the artwork for three stories comes from Joe Kubert, George Roussos and Fred Kida (Goulart, 2001), who later on would all become household names in the industry.

From an overall perspective, Eerie Comics #1 not only was the first all-horror genre comic book, but it featured several plot archetypes which would become moulds for future horror comic books. It is therefore not only import for the history of comic books as such, but it also has great relevance for both the content and imagery of what would become the genre of horror comics only a few years later, and the influence can still be seen right up to this day. Not all "firsts" in comic book history have aged as well as Eerie Comics #1.

Following publication of its first issue in January 1947, Eerie Comics disappeared from newsstands shelves. Although this happened with a lot of comic book titles from Avon - most of them probably never conceived to be more than just mere one-shots - it does serve as an indication that the first horror-only horror comic on the American market did not create such a demand as to have Avon hurrying to their printers to get out a second issue in order to cash in. Eerie Comics #1 was thus the first of its kind, but it didn't establish the genre as such.

This, however, is hardly surprising as sales on the American comic book market of the late 1940s were shifting towards a completely different line of contents.Whilst crime as well as Western comics remained popular (with the interest in superheroes dropping sharply), the industry found a new and promising sales potential in the newly emerging genre of romance comics.


Detective Comics #135
(May 1948)

Marvel Tales #93
(August 1949)

  By the end of the 1940s some publishers (such as Timely) were directing two thirds of their titles at a female readership (Robbins 1999).

However, Eerie Comics #1 lead the way for others to follow long before Avon returned to the genre. In the autumn of 1948, B&I Publishing (American Comics Group) published Adventures Into the Unknown, which would become the first regularly published horror comic book.

Content was often restrained and based on traditional material, and Adventures Into the Unknown #1 featured an adaptation of Horace Walpole's classic gothic novel The Castle of Otranto. The title turned out to be a lasting success and eventually clocked up a run of nearly twenty years (Watt-Evans, 1997).

DC Comics weren't looking to the horror genre at all at this point in time, and features such as the Frankenstein Monster appearing in a Batman story called "The true story of Frankenstein" in Detective Comics #135 in May 1948 were purely incidental. DC's future big rival, however, Atlas Comics (the forerunner of Marvel) had regularly made use of horror elements throughout the war years with vampires and zombies - who were always seen to be serving the axis powers. However, publisher Martin Goodman knew a trend when he saw one, and he steered Atlas into the horror genre full speed ahead in 1949 by dropping the range of costumed superheroes in favour of chills and thrills.

Marvel Mystery became Marvel Tales and two issues of Captain America (#74 and #75) became Captain America's Weird Tales in an attempto to appeal to readers through its title whilst still featuring the costumed superhero from World War Two and his standard rogues such as the Red Skull.


Adventures into the Unknown #1
(Fall 1948)

Captain America's Weird Tales #74
(October 1949)

The same month that Adventures Into the Unknown #1 appeared on the newsstand in 1948, a small publisher called EC Comics published its first short horror story ("Zombie Terror") in Moon Girl #5, a superhero themed comic book (Watt-Evans, 1997). It was a first and minor attempt by that publisher which would grow into a dedicated and coordinated stab at the genre by April 1950.

That month, the American comic book market witnessed the first sign of a significant change with regard to the horror genre, although few could probably sense the importance of two specific comic book titles which had started out in the Spring of 1947 and 1948 respectively as International Comics #1 and War against Crime # 1 and which were now reworked, renamed and relaunched as Crypt of Terror #17 and Vault of Horror #12 by a smallish publisher called EC Comics.

Only three years previously, in 1947, William Gaines had inherited Educational Comics (EC) from his father Maxwell Gaines, who had steered the company - true to its name - towards publishing comic books which generally attempted to provide what today might be called clean infotainment in titles such as Animal Fables, Dandy Comics, Picture Stories from American History or Picture Stories from the Bible. His son, however, quickly changed course and opted for a distinctly commercial orientation.


Crypt of Terror #17
(April 1950)

  This was mirrored in changing the meaning of the acronym EC to Entertaining Comics and setting up the company's output to feature titles such Crime Patrol, Saddle Justice, and Modern Love.

However, finding the comics market fairly saturated for most genres and noticing the move by Atlas towards Horror, Gaines together with his artist-writer-editor Al Feldstein decided to latch on to a genre which was still very much open to newcomers.

EC tested the waters with a 7-page story feature entitled "Crypt of Terror" in issues #15 (December 1949) and #16 (February 1950) of Crime Patrol, which had previously been published as International Comics (#1-5) and International Crime Patrol (#6).


Vault of Horror #12
(April 1950)

Coining the famous catchphrase "SuspenStories", EC was satisfied with the sales and virtually plunged into the horror genre. Right from the start Gaines had set up what would quickly become an EC trademark, as the famous host introducing the short stories had already featured in those two issues of Crime Patrol in the form of "the Crypt Keeper".

Only one month after the publication of Crypt of Terror #17 and Vault of Horror #12, EC reworked yet another of its titles into the horror anthology format: Haunt of Fear #15, which was issued in May 1950, had started out in life in Summer 1947 as a funny title called Fat and Slat for four issues before being turned into a Western comic book called Gunfighter in Summer 1948.

The policy of transforming existing titles into horror genre titles rather than simply expanding the line of production by putting out new additional titles was not only motivated by the general move towards a niche which looked commercially promising.


Crime Patrol #16
(February 1950)

Haunt of Fear #15
(May 1950)

  It was just as much dictated by the fact that EC was by comparison a small enterprise: Whilst Gaines was running the business side, Feldman oversaw the content side, doing most of the early writing himself and handing it to a core group of only four artists - Jack Kamen, Graham "Ghastly" Ingels, Wallace "Wally" Wood, and Johnny Craig.

"We never had more than five books a month. That was the absolute top. Almost all our books were bi-monthlies (...) so it was relatively easy to do what we did. It was depressing when we came out with three successful horror books to see Marvel come out with 30 (...) but we had to live with it (...) Where the hell were we going to get stories and artists for 30 horror books? So we stuck to three." (William Gaines in Groth, 1983)

This description by Gaines highlights two things: the limited production capabilities which EC always had in spite of its success, and his personal tendency to exaggerate things out of all proportions if they suit the story. By 1954, Atlas/Marvel was issuing 13 titles which could generously be described to fit the genre mould one way or the other (Watt-Evans, 1997) - a far cry from the number given by Gaines.

Right off the bat the tone and visuals of EC's horror stories were markedly more intense than the comparatively tame contents which had been featured in horror comics since Eerie Comic #1 - and the intensity just kept growing. The adjective "creepy" - in the sense of producing a sensation of uneasiness and describing something annoyingly unpleasant or repulsive - soon fitted the contents like a glove fits a hand.


International Comics #1
(Spring 1948)

Tales from the Crypt #20
(October 1950)

Gaines and Feldstein mixed pulp and horror motives with free abandon and turned out short stories which typically had twist endings and were built on the motive of poetic justice being delivered - often taking the plot to absurd extremes.

One example often quoted in order to illustrate this authoring and editorial framework set up by EC is the story "Collection Completed" from Vault of Horror #25 (June 1952): Jonah's hobby is collecting stuffed animals, which increasingly annoys his wife who only cares for live animals and adores her cat. When she finds that her husband has killed and stuffed her beloved pet, she kills Jonah and in turn stuffs and mounts his dead body. Illustrated by Graham Ingels, this story exemplifies EC's take on the narrative motive of poetic justice - where "an eye for an eye" really meant an eye for an eye. The good were good and the bad were always irredeemably bad, and whilst the first often suffered the latter were always punished and made to suffer even more.

Whilst some stories contained critical authoring and a good sense of black humour, others left even some of the EC staff offended with the questionable taste displayed in the tale (Jacobs, 1972). But overall Gaines and his creative team connected to an adolescent readership, partly also because of the way EC addressed its readers. On one hand, they were greeted in each issue by a trio of ugly hosts (the Old Witch, the Crypt Keeper and the Vault Keeper) who acted as sardonic commentators and mocked and teased readers ("Greetings, boils and ghouls...") with their twisted sense of humor. On the other, Gaines successfully pioneered a house style which formed a relationship with its readers through its letters pages and its fan organization, the "National EC Fan-Addict Club".

"We were just bopping along trying to make a buck and trying to keep alive." (William Gaines in Groth, 1983)

Gaines was also ahead of his time in the way he looked upon and treated his illustrators. Contrary to the established common practice of the industry at the time, EC allowed the artists to sign their art, encouraged them to develop idiosyncratic styles and even promoted their names by publishing one-page biographies.

"Every story was custom-made for the artist. Al and I would sit down and the first thing I would say - because I kept the schedule - would be, "today we're writing an eight-page lead for Ingels for Haunt of Fear number so-and-so". As soon as I'd say that, both our minds are in a certain frame of reference for Ingels. It's not going to be a Jack Kamen story, which is a whole different can of worms. Kamen, you're looking for something light, humorous, pretty women, a little sex, a little double entendre. With Ingels, you know what we're looking for: Yuchh! Rotting corpses, moors, like this. So we knew exactly who we were writing for." (William Gaines in Groth, 1983)

Al Feldstein was joined by Harvey Kurtzmann as editor, and EC quickly attracted more prominent and highly accomplished freelance artists, including Frank Frazetta, Bernard Krigstein, Joe Orlando, John Severin, and Al Williamson, as well as additional writers including Carl Wessler, Jack Oleck and Otto Binder (Goulart, 2001).

Sales figures proved EC had hit the jackpot (Watt-Evans, 1997). Crypt of Terror changed its title to Tales from the Crypt with issue #20 in October 1950 and Haunt of Fear, which had continued the numbering of its original title Gunfighter, was renumbered and went back to issue #1 in November 1950.


Crime SuspenStories #1
(October 1950)

  Apart from these minor adjustments, EC's initial three horror titles remained unchanged for the next four years, supplemented each by a Tales of Terror Annual from 1951 to 1953.

Indeed, the house style of mixing elements from Gothic horror (such as graveyards, corpses, the undead, etc.) with pulp fiction content (with generous helpings of sadistic terror and all kinds of gory ways of killing and dying) proved so popular that gaines launched an additional title in October 1950 entitled Crime SuspenStories - the first to kick off with a true #1 issue. Integrating the element of crime into the title was a clever way of grabbing at the still booming market segment of "true crime" comics and books, whilst the covers clearly indicated to potential buyers that the EC style present in the horror titles could also be expected in this new book. Taking up the catchphrase coined with the very first tryout short stories and encorporating it into its title, Crime SuspenStories in a way epitomized everything which made EC so successful. It is therefore perhaps not surprising that the title, as virtually everyone with just a dash of comic book history knowledge knows, was also instrumental in bringing down EC in the midst of the turmoil created by the comic book hearings of 1954.

Success breeds imitators, and in the case of EC they seemed to pop up everywhere. Some were markedly less screamy than EC's titles (Atlas/Marvel's Strange Tales, Harvey's Witches Tales, or DC's House of Mystery), but others (such as Quality's Web of Evil, Comic Media's Horrific or Ajax/Farrell's Fantastic Fears) copied EC's house style - albeit with fairly crude scripts and artwork - to the extent of being little more than EC swipes and ripoffs, and their contents were truly ghastly.

"Horror comics began to show more gore, more violence, ever more explicitly. It became a matter of topping what had come before: if one issue showed a man killing his wife, the next would top that by having him hack his wife to pieces, and the next would top that by having him eat her corpse." (Watt-Evans, 1997)


Adventures into Terror #43
(November 1950)

Strange Tales #1
(June 1951)

  First out of the starting box in pursuit of EC was Atlas (later to become Marvel), not the least because publisher Martin Goodman's house style consisted precisely of this kind of working on the opposite end of innovation. He would follow what he considered to be proven trends - or as Stan Lee put it:

"[Martin Goodman] would notice what was selling, and we'd put out a lot of books of that type" (Daniels, 1991)

With this content managment setup, Atlas (or Timely Comics, as the company was still called up until November 1951) was able to jump onto the new trend very quickly and - even following EC's practice of reworking the title of an existing book - put out Adventures into Terror  #43 in November 1950, thus turning a funny book called Joker into a new trend horror title.

It proved highly successful, and thus Adventures into Terror saw a new issue #3 in January 1951. That very same month yet another publisher eyeing EC's success appeared on the scene in the form of Harvey Comics and their launch of Witches Tales #1. Just like Atlas before, Harvey found that the market was by now in high demand for horror content, leading them to turn Blondie Comics into Chamber of Chills as of issue #21 in June 1951 before finally settling on Chamber of Chills Magazine (although it was still a comic book) after four issues.

Still in June 1951 Atlas issued Strange Tales #1, following EC's gory take on morality even closer than Adventures into Terror. Finally, in December 1951, DC also joined the horror genre bandwaggon by launching House of Mystery #1 - a title which would eventually become one of the longest running horror comic books.


Witches Tales #1
(January 1951)

House of Mystery #1
(December 1951)

Through all of these developments EC Comics had remained the leadind publisher in the genre, but the market had grown to such an extent that there was more than enough room for copycats without hurting EC's sales figures.

Shock SuspenStories #1
(February 1952)

  In February 1952, however, Gaines did add another title to his range of "SuspenStories" comic books: Shock SuspenStories #1.

Atlas followed suit a month later (March 1952) with Mystery Tales #1, and Harvey also expanded its horror line with Tomb of Terror #1 in June 1952. It was the high tide of the horror comic book market as Atlas released another two titles (Uncanny Tales #1 and Journey into Mystery #1) only to be joined by small publishers Toby with Tales of Horror #1 and St John with Weird Horrors #1 - all in that very same month of June 1952.

Everything was going along smoothly. Those publishers and titles already established in the genre flourished, and there was still room for more.

Quality Comics launched Web Of Evil #1 in November 1952, and Avon - the publishers of that very first horror comic, Eerie #1, back in 1947 - returned for a single issue stint with Diary of Horror in December 1952. Atlas launched Menace #1in March 1953, Star published The Horrors in January 1953, Ajax/Farrell followed with Fanstastic Fears #1 in May 1953, and Avon came back for more in late 1953 with a single issue of Secret Diary of Eerie.


Uncanny Tales #1
(June 1952)


Tales of Horror #1
(June 1952)


Weird Horrors #1
(June 1952)


Horrific #1
(September 1952)


Web of Evil #1
(November 1952)


Diary of Horror #1
(December 1952)


Fantastic Fears #1
(May 1953)


Secret Diary of Eerie Adventures #1

Until mid-1952 EC Comics had clearly been the dominating creative lead to follow for success in the field of horrorc comic books, but in August 1952 DC Comics made an attempt to position itself up front at innovating the genre. Even though EC's narrator characters (as well as the copycat clones featured in other publishers' titles) gave a common thread to each issue and to a certain degree interlinked the short stories, all of these titles were nevertheless still anthologies.
From this point, DC went one step further by introducing a lead character who not only narrated the short stories in one single comic book issue but who actually featured as the main protagonist. The result was the Phantom Stranger who received his own bi-monthly title in August 1952 with The Phantom Stranger #1. Written by John Broome, pencilled by Carmine Infantino and inked by Seymour Barry, the development of the Phantom Stranger - a character of unspecified paranormal origins who battled occult and mysterious forces - was a pioneering move, but clearly ahead of its time: The title lasted for six issues until cancellation came in June 1953, and the Phantom Stranger would not be seen again until 1969 (when he appeared in Showcase #80). Possibly the most striking aspect of the character is that his name, his true nature, and his origins have never been revealed. Whilst he would face real supernatural events in his later appearances, the Phantom Stranger proved them to be hoaxes in his 1952/53 series.

As such, the character was operating on that fringe of gothic horror fiction which E. A. Poe had been a master of exploring, but as a horror comic comic book concept Phantom Stranger was the first attempt to establish a recurring plot framework centred on a main character which ultimately would see its biggest success in Marvel's 1970s Tomb of Dracula.


Phantom Stranger #1
(August 1952)

By mid-1953, horror comics in general thus followed the EC Comics mould, and most if not all were a huge success - and in such demand that they began to show up more and more wherever comic books were on display. Their success had moved them more and more into the spotlight of public awareness, but not everybody liked what they saw.
By 1954, horror comics were taking in a substantial slice of the American comic book market. In its issue of 3 May 1954, Time Magazine attributed a 25% monthly market share (equalling 20 million copies sold) to horror comics (Time, 1954b), whilst the March 1955 interim report on the Hearings by the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency (Kefauver, 1955) gave an estimate of a 20% overall market share with a total of 30 million copies sold each month.

On this path to success, the American horror comic book had virtually set aside completely the genre interpretation set up by its very first representative Eerie Comics #1, which had mixed mostly gothic horror fiction elements with only mild infusions from pulp fiction. Instead, publishers had opted to follow the mould cast by EC Comics, incorporating a heavy leaning towards the gory themes and traits of pulp fiction - where gothic fiction elements more often than not only served to set the stage and the appearances of the protagonists. Arguably, opting for the "EC formula" rather than the "Avon approach" of 1947 was a key trigger for the success the genre enjoyed by 1954, but at the same time the elements which worked so well for the horroc comic book on the market would ultimately also cause its downfall.

The basic dilemma was that with great market presence comes great public visibility, and the general public's growing awareness of horror comics came at a time when American society - even though enjoying material comfort and leisure time for the first time after two difficult and tumultuous decades (Oakley, 1986) - was very much in a state of restlessness.

"Americans spent the years moving and searching. They moved physically, from the Northeast to the South and West (...), from rural areas to cities, and from cities to suburbs (...) Many people were content, but many others felt ill at ease because of the speed at which the world was changing. Searching for new ways of coping, they embraced religion and visited psychiatrists in unprecedented numbers." (Dunar, 2006)

It was a search for identity and values, and it also touched upon age issues. The term teenager was rarely used before the 1950s, but now young people began to view themselves as being a distinct group, and their attempts to forge an identity worried their parents who couldn't understand the shift (Patterson, 1996).

"Much to the delight of young people, adults wrung their hands over their children's strange and worrying behaviors (...) Psychologist Robert Linder claimed in 1954 [that] "the youth of the world today is touched with madness, literally sick with an aberrant condition of mind." (Oakley, 1986)

Individuals offering up explanations for what they saw as a deplorable condition of contemporary youth were legion, and amongst them was Fredric Wertham - who blamed it all on comic books and had initiated a series of public and media appearances in 1948 and 1949 through which he quickly became the household leading name of the anti-comics crusade as he explained his "psychopathology of comic books" to growing numbers of increasingly worried parents, teachers and politicians.

"Think of the many violent crimes committed recently by young boys and girls (...) The common denominator is comic books." (Wertham, 1948)

Towards the end of the 1940s, however, Wertham's influence began to fade. He faced a series of sharp rebukes from several reviewers and commentators from his own profession, and his public and media appearances decreased markedly - until America's growing preoccupation with juvenile delinquency gave the 55-year old psychiatrist a new lease of life as figurehead of the anti-comics movement.


Fredric Wertham MD
(1895 - 1981)

For Wertham and his followers, the decision of the US Senate in September 1953 to set up a "Subcommittee To Investigate Juvenile Delinquency" with the aim of providing a “full and complete study of juvenile delinquency in the United States” and “its causes and contributing factors” (Kefauver, 1955) was a godsend. It was not, however, a coincidence.

"Over a period of several months the subcommittee has received a vast amount of mail from parents expressing concern regarding the possible deleterious effect upon their children of certain of the media of mass communication (...) These include “crime and horror” comic books and other types of printed matter; the radio, television, and motion pictures." (Kefauver, 1955)

Although the subcommitte kept repeating over and over again that freedom of speech and freedom of press should not be abrogated and that there was no hidden agenda for censorship, the reality was such that pressure groups in many states were trying hard to ban publications which did not conform to their views of life, even though they rarely found the necessary majorities.

"Last week the American Book Publishers Council reported (...) "The censors have won a few skirmishes but lost most of the important battles." (...) In Louisville, "the March grand jury recommended establishment of a committee to censor all magazines, comic books and other publications. The Courier-Journal blasted the idea in an editorial asking: 'Who should tell an American what he can read? Congress? The churches? Our own grand jury? None of them, if you ask us.' The committee was not formed." (Time, 1954a)

Wertham himself had de facto even condoned the burning of comic books in the late 1940s and publicly supported a law proposal in 1950 which envisaged banning both sale and display of all crime comic books to children under the age of 15 in the state of New York.

From Ladies' Home Journal
(November 1953)

  Now was the time for him to reclaim the public spotlight, and in November 1953 he launched his first attack in years in an article entitled "What Parents Don't Know" in Ladies' Home Journal.

Wertham reiterated his general theory that most (if not all) comic books bring out the worst in youngsters and rebuked the criticism he had met in 1949. The only really new element was his highly obscure - if not downright absurd - claim that certain comic book artwork was intentionally conceived to display pornographic illustrations when certain parts of the images were covered up (wertham, 1953). All of this was still elaborated on with reference to what Wertham called "crime comics", although one large illustration used by Ladies' Home Journal is the first evidence to show that horror comics - and most prominently EC Comics - were now becoming a target for the anti-comics movement.

Incidentally, the picture showing a young girl with a copy of Haunt of Fear #19 (May 1953) in her lap was evidently reworked, as the field of depth of the comic book cover in contrast to the remaining photograph clearly shows.

Originally a social reformer genuinely concerned with the well-being of underpriviledged children, Wertham had long since become a populist demagogue. He also possessed a keen and acute instinct for seizing opportunities when they arose and knew very well how to get himself into the spotlight when it really mattered and paid off. And such a moment was now.

The article published in November 1953 in Ladies' Home Journal was a preliminary launch of a larger volume of work Wertham had been compiling from his numerous files, and the finalised text was published in book format on 19 April 1954 as Seduction of the Innocent.

It would be too much to fully attribute to Wertham the optimal timing of the publication - only two days ahead of the first hearing of the Senate subcommittee - but it stands to reason, given Wertham's track record as a lobbyist for his cause, that this proximity is not entirely coincidental either.

In any case, there is clear evidence that Wertham supplied the subcommittee with pre-publication copies of his book and had long before been in touch on the subject matter with Senator Kefauver.


"I have read a number of your writings. I have read your Seduction of the Innocent. You remember a number of years ago I had several visits with you and you told me about the pressure [the comic book industry] tried to apply on you in connection with this." (Senator Kefauver, during Testimony of Fredric Wertham, Senate Hearings, 21 April 1954)

Naturally, Seduction of the Innocent - Wertham's most important work on comic books - more than merits closer inspection and analysis on its own, but in a nutshell it can be summarized as displaying the same characteristics as his earlier work by being an aggressively written pamphlet pretending to be a work of scientific research. Containing 400 pages plus 16 pages of illustrations (although pages 399-400 featuring a bibliography were soon removed by the publisher for fear of lawsuits for libel), the book features an abundance of anecdotal and construed argumentation paired with an almost complete lack of actual facts from scientifically sound empirical studies, be it juvenile delinquency or, as a matter of fact, comic books.

As a result, the most substantial element Wertham brought to this publication was, quite simply, his personal opinion.

Embracing the aforementioned uneasiness of parts of American society in the early 1950s, Fredric Wertham got away with this modus operandi largely - if not fully - thanks to his personal standing; after all, he was a professional specialising in children's psychology. Few doubted Wertham's methodological integrity, and those who did were increasingly shouted down by the doctor himself, who in Seduction of the Innocent even blamed comic books to contain Nazi ideology. It may also be taken as a sign of the times that such a statement was not felt to be outrageous - directed, as it were, at comic book creators who were themselves mostly Jewish, and coming from someone who had not raised his voice even once against the burning of comic books which had taken place since 1948. Instead, Wertham gained the ear of Kefauver and made certain he was invited as the foremost authority on comic books to present his views before the subcommittee (Wallace et al., 2010).

Following the aforementioned opening of the hearings, the afternoon session of the first day opened with Wertham giving a 20 minute prepared statement and answering questions from the panel.

As always, he set out by establishing his credentials and claiming the soundness of his research and the conclusions and results he would be presenting.

"My opinion is based on clinical investigations which I started in the winter of 1945 and 1946 (...) our study is the first and only individual large-scale study on the subject of comic books in general. The methods that we have used are the ordinary methods used in psychiatry: clinical interviews, group interviews, intelligence tests, reading tests, projective tests, drawings, the study of dreams, and so on." (Testimony of Fredric Wertham, Senate Hearings, 21 April 1954)

This claim to scientifically sound methodology contrasts sharply with a statement Wertham made towards the end of his testimony.


1954 Comic Book Hearings - Sen Kefauver holding up Crime SuspenStories #22 in evidence
(Television Broadcast)

When asked to elaborate on how he knew that publishers, printers and distributors of comic books were forcing the vendors to sell comics, Wertham replied:

"I know that from many sources. You see, I read comic books and I buy them and I go to candy stores." (Testimony of Fredric Wertham, Senate Hearings, 21 April 1954)

Elaborating further on that point, Wertham mentioned a discussion he had with a small vendor wo claimed to be have been bullied into selling comics. Again, the fact that such statements were taken seriously by at least parts of the subcommittee can only be explained by Wertham's professional standing and his claim to being the well-meaning underdog fighting a vicious industry mafia.

"There are some people who think I have some influence in this matter. I have very little." (Testimony of Fredric Wertham, Senate Hearings, 21 April 1954)

Wertham seized the opportunity to plug his Seduction of the Innocent and once again lashed out at comic books and the industry.

"It is my opinion, without any reasonable doubt, and without any reservation, that comic books are an important contributing factor in many cases of juvenile delinquency." (Testimony of Fredric Wertham, Senate Hearings, 21 April 1954)

"We have found all comic books have a very bad effect on teaching the youngest children the proper reading technique, to learn to read from left to right. This balloon print pattern prevents that. So many children, we say they read comic books, they don't read comic books at all. They look at pictures (...) Now, it is a known fact, although it is not sufficiently emphasized, that many delinquents have reading disorders, they can't read well." (Testimony of Fredric Wertham, Senate Hearings, 21 April 1954)

"Mr. Chairman, as long as the crime comic books industry exists in its present forms there are no secure homes." (Testimony of Fredric Wertham, Senate Hearings, 21 April 1954)

"Well, I hate to say that, Senator, but I think Hitler was a beginner compared to the comic-book industry. They get the children much younger. They teach them race hatred at the age of 4 before they can read." (Testimony of Fredric Wertham, Senate Hearings, 21 April 1954)

"That is why I gave you one example of [Seduction of the Innocent] because I think that could nail it down once and for all, what these people do deliberately." (Testimony of Fredric Wertham, Senate Hearings, 21 April 1954)

"The question I would like to put to you is this: Will this book [Seduction of the Innocent] be distributed or will the sinister hand of these corrupters of children, of this comic book industry, will they prevent distribution?" (Testimony of Fredric Wertham, Senate Hearings, 21 April 1954)

Wertham's fear of being strapped down and silenced by the comic book industry was seemingly unfounded. Not only was the book distributed (albeit without the bibliography), it also received some amount of coverage in the news whilst Wertham himself was given a number of subsequent platforms, such as the May 1954 Reader's Digest where his article carried the ominous title "Blueprint to Delinquency".

Although the hearings took place over a period of three days, the first day was decisive. However, it was not Wertham's appearance alone which nailed the lid on the coffin for horror comics (even though Wertham insisted on calling them "crime comics"). In order for that to happen, the anti-comics movement needed something slightly more sensational - and they got just what they needed from the most unlikely source: William Gaines.


William Gaines at the 1954 Comic Book Hearings
(Television Broadcast)

Crime SuspenStories #22
(April 1954)

  Knowing a minefield when they saw one, the comic book industry at large cautiously tried to keep a low profile at the televised hearings (such as DC sending their consultant Dr Laura Bender, herself a psychiatrist), but Gaines misjudged the potential - and indeed very likely - pitfalls completely, possibly also because he was not really well connected within the industry.

"I was always kind of an isolationist (...) I never knew anybody else in the industry. I didn't know 'em at DC either, because we were pretty low-class stuff to DC in those days and they didn't want to know us." (William Gaines in Groth, 1983)

Giving testimony immediately following Wertham made things even worse, and Gaines quickly got himself tangled up and cornered.

Although prepared and building up an argument that e.g. newspapers did not incite juvenile delinquency simply by running news items on acts of murder and violence, Gaines was quickly led into contradictions, and the famous sinking moment for the publisher of EC Comics took place when he was being grilled for the cover of CrimeSuspenStories #22. His statement backfired completely, and it featured prominently throughout the press, such as Time Magazine.

"Of the 80 million comic books sold in the U.S. and Canada every month, about a quarter are what the trade calls "horror comics." They deserve the title. Last week, in Manhattan, the comic-book publishing center of the U.S., a three-man Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency began an investigation to find out "the impact upon adolescents" of horror comic books. (...) Publisher (Entertaining Comics Group) William Gaines opposed any censorship, on the ground that the publishers themselves are best qualified to decide what is "good taste." Tennessee's Democratic Senator Estes Kefauver drily asked whether Publisher Gaines considered "good taste" a comic-book cover showing an ax-wielding man holding aloft the severed head of a blonde. Answered Gaines: "Yes, I do - for the cover of a horror comic. I think it would be in bad taste if the head were held a little higher so the neck would show with the blood dripping out." Said Senator Kefauver: "You've got blood dripping from the mouth." (Time Magazine, 1954b)

It was a highly selective report which highlighted the more obscure elements of the testimony given by William Gaines, and as such it was precisely what Wertham most certainly had wished for - and what he had in many ways set up through his own testimony immediately preceding Gaines. Other points raised by the publisher of EC Comics were not taken up by the print media.

"Our American children are for the most part normal children. They are bright children, but those who want to prohibit comic magazines seem to see dirty, sneaky, perverted monsters who use the comics as a blueprint for action. Perverted little monsters are few and far between. They don't read comics. (...) What are we afraid of? Are we afraid of our own children? Do we forget that they are citizens, too, and entitled to select what to read or do? We think our children are so evil, simple minded, that it takes a story of murder to set them to murder, a story of robbery to set them to robbery?" (Testimony of William Gaines, Senate Hearings, 21 April 1954)

Gaines fought back passionately, but he may have sensed there and then that it would all be in vain, and in a brief moment of bitterness he lashed out at Wertham.

"Some may not like [horror comics]. That is a matter of personal taste. It would be just as difficult to explain the harmless thrill of a horror story to a Dr. Wertham as it would be to explain the sublimity of love to a frigid old maid." (Testimony of William Gaines, Senate Hearings, 21 April 1954)

The moment that stuck with the public, however, was Senator Kefauver holding up the cover of Crime SuspenStories #22 and the reaction from Gaines. The next day the New York Times ran a front page story under the title "No Harm in Horror, Comics Issuer Says", and the New York Post ironically described Gaines as "the high point of the day". His appearance in front of the subcommittee was reduced by the media (including Time and Newsweek) to the "good taste" incident.

"The hearings on comic books and juvenile delinquency, like the earlier sessions on organized crime, came across as judicial proceedings rather than legislative inquiries." (Hajdu, 2008)

However, the question of "good taste" was closer to the heart of the matter than it may have seemed. Essentially, Gaines had claimed a prerogative to decide on his own terms what was right for one publication or one reader, and that this might be wrong for another of a different orientation or of a different age (Hajdu, 2008).


Horror from the Tomb #1
(September 1954)

  On those terms, Gaines kept fighting back and published a satirical ad on the inside front cover of Tales from the Crypt #43 (September 1954) entitled “Are You a Red Dupe?” in which he mocked Wertham once more and told readers that "it isn't that they don't like comics for them! They don't like them for you!". EC Comics also ran a full page editorial urging readers to write to the subcommittee in favour of comic books.

In reality, the fight was over in a flash. The subcommittee hearings and the publication of The Seduction of the Innocent - both sparking a firestorm of controversy and bonding parents, teachers and others in a campaign for censorship (Goulart, 2001) - stigmatized horror comics, and even though the subcommittee did not actually blame comics for juvenile delinquency, it recommended that the comic book industry tone down its content. Not wanting to be seen as promoting censorship, the subcommittee emphasized "voluntary content control" by the industry itself, but the public backlash was such that publishers simply had no choice - and no time to lose. Publication schedules were hastily reworked and content was checked and double-checked, but in many cases the cancellation of titles seemed the only quick way out of the fire.

In some cases, this meant that newly launched titles which had been designed to cash in on the now toxic EC formula would not see a second issue, such as Premier Magazines' Horror from the Tomb #1 (September 1954).

The comic book industry was acutely aware of the need to regain a positive profile in the media and, ultmately, public opinion, and that simply ceasing to publish certain content - most prominently concenring horror comic books - would not be sufficient.

Proactive measures were required urgently if the amount of damage inflicted on the comic book publishers was to be contained, and so the Comics Magazine Association of America (CMAA) was formed in September 1954 together with the Comics Code Authority (CCA). Quickly, the CMAA appointed New York magistrate Charles F. Murphy as head of the CCA, which presented a Comic Book Code to the public in October 1954.
As hoped for, the media reported widely on this act of self-policing.

"The Comics Magazine Association of America, created to combat public criticism of horror comics, last week announced its Comic Book Code, which will be enforced by Censor Charles F. Murphy, former New York City magistrate. Among the provisions: The words “horror” and “terror” are not permitted as comic-book titles, and no “scenes of horror, excessive bloodshed, gory or gruesome crimes, depravity, lust, sadism or masochism” are allowed.  Sympathy for criminals, “unique details” of a crime, or any treatment that tends to “create disrespect for established authority” are banned. “Profanity, obscenity, smut, vulgarity, ridicule of racial or religious groups” are not allowed, and "all characters shall be depicted in dress reasonably acceptable to society, [with] females drawn realistically without exaggeration of any physical qualities.”" (Time, 1954c)


Charles F. Murphy

With the industry out to save its collective hind, William Gaines was left pinned to the wall by the clauses in the code forbidding the words "crime", "horror" and "terror" in comic book titles - clearly, this meant not short of the end for EC's best-selling titles Crime SuspenStories, Vault of Horror and Crypt of Terror. These restrictions, together with those banning vampires, werewolves and zombies, were a de facto publication ban for EC Comics. Not surprisingly, Gaines refused to join the association, convinced that the comic book code had been set up entirely and exclusively to target EC (Jacobs, 1972).

Comic book content approved by the CCA featured a stamp design on the cover, and although the CCA had no official control over publishers, most distributors refused to carry comics that did not carry this seal of approval (Nyberg, 1998). The CCA's effect on the comic book industry was thus substantial, and whilst some publishers were able to thrive under these restrictions, others were forced to adapt by moving out of certain genres and focus on Code-approved content.

Other publishers simply went bust, and many artists left the business temporarily or for good.

"Marvel and all the other companies ran into a lot of trouble (...) there was a big trend of these companies just folding up, and along with it went all the jobs, me included. I was out of work for comics for about five, six years." (Gene Colan in Siuntres, 2005)

It was clear that the EC mould for success in the horror genre was broken completely, and Gaines soon gave up and published an editorial in the form of an obituary. Production of his horror titles ended between September and November 1954, resulting in the last issue of Haunt of Fear (#28) appearing in November 1954, whilst Vault of Horror ended its run with issue #40 in December 1954. Tales from the Crypt and Crime SuspenStories were both cancelled for February 1955, but others had felt the pressure to pull an emergency stop even sooner than EC.

"In Memoriam" (from Haunt Of Fear #28)

  Atlas/Marvel by cancelling Adventures into Terror immediately, i.e. in May 1954.

Harvey Comics tried to go with the previously proven "name game" and turned Chamber of Chills into Chamber of Clues in February 1955, but this time things were different and the CCA was not to be trifled with. After only two issues, Harvey called it a day and cancelled the Chamber in April 1955.

With all EC-style titles wiped from the market by February 1955, the sanitization of the comic book industry was more or less an established fact, and whilst it did not spell the end for the horror genre as such, it was certainly the end for any pulp fiction influence. The remaining horror titles - such as ACG's Adventures Into the Unknown or DC's House of Mystery - had already been rather tame in comparison to EC's house style, and they were being toned down even further, often by featuring more and more science fiction elements as monsters from outer space were the least problematic form of monsters in dealing with the CCA.
There were even some new titles on the market, such as DC's House of Secrets which was launched in November 1956. But it was precisely comic book titles such as this one which illustrated the fact that the days of being a big market success were over for horror comics - running for a total of 80 issues, House of Secrets started out as a toned-down horror anthology title before featuring the adventures of modern-dress sorcerer Mark Merlin as of August 1959 (House of Secrets #23). This was the first sign that the few remaining horror titles were about to hand over their pages to a growing trend of moving towards superhero content.

Whilst parts of the industry could not escape a substantial amount of blame for bringing about a censorship body through their often all too gory publications, the true horror may indeed be seen in the fact of just how easy it was for Wertham to impose his views - even though this seemed to provide him with no substantial satisfaction once the battle was won. He immediately considered the CCA inadequate to protect youth, and in early 1955 Wertham was already testifying before a New York State Legislature committee hearing that the comic books were no better under the Code than previously (Decker, 1987).


House Of Secrets #1
(November 1956)

Gradually, even neutral observers began to question Wertham's goals, such as Albert Deutsch in reviewing Wertham's 1956 book The Circle of Guilt in the Saturday Review of Literature.

"When he gets off his comic-book kick, Dr Wertham makes some trenchant remarks on racial segregation and other social problems, yet even these points are vitiated by the author's perplexing bent for truculence and bellicosity." (Deutsch, 1956)

Hearings by congressional subcommittees on violence in mass media were almost a run of the mill phenomenon in the early 1950s, but they mostly reached rather gingerly formulated conclusions, such as the 1952 hearings on television violence as well the hearings run in parallel by the Kefauver subcommitte in 1954 (Hoerrner, 1999). The comic book hearings, however, had far reaching and damaging consequences for the industry and the medium.

By mid-1954, the heyday of horror comics was over, and in 1955 sales in comic books all across the board dropped by 70% (Carter, 2010), leaving the medium hanging virtually by a thread.

Possibly the most frightening aspect of this sharp turning point in 20th century American culture is the fact that it was to a large extent brought about by the lobbying of a New York psychiatrist hell bent on imposing his own moralist and cultural elitist views on the general public (and who insisted on calling horror comics "crime comics"), and a US Senate subcommittee which held a hearing without ever clearly defining the actual object of its investigations.

"Where ignorance is bliss, 'tis folly to be wise." (Thomas Gray, Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College, 1742)


Anyone interested in 1950s horror comic books will find a nice selection of tidbits - not the least entire stories (now in the public domain) scanned and presented for reading - served up by Tillmann Courth on his website Fifties HORROR! There's a mass of insight to be found in the German text, but even if you don't understand that language the original stories are, obviosuly, in English, and the site's graphics are so well done they merit a peek by themselves. (Wer Deutsch spricht bzw. versteht, sollte Tillmann Courth's website sowieso nicht verpassen). Courth also runs two additional websites in English, Ace Horror (spotlighting ACE publications of the 1950s) and Fiction House & Standard Horror which portrays two publishers of 1950s horror comics in detail. These are clearly go to websites for anybody interested in the topic - and they are fun reading, too.

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COHEN Ralph (1986) "History and Genre", in New Literary History 17, 203-218

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DECKER Dwight (1987) "Fredric Wertham - Anti-Comics Crusader who turned Advocate", originally published in Amazing Heroes, available online and accessed 12 July 2007 at www.art-bin.com/art/awertham.html

DEUTSCH Albert (1956) "What Makes a Boy Bad?", in Saturday Review of Literature, 20 October 1956, 25.

DUNAR Andrew J. (2006) America In The Fifties, Syracuse University Press

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TIME Magazine (1954a) "Education: It didn't happen here", Vol. LXIII No. 2, 18 January 1954

TIME Magazine (1954b) "The Press: Horror Comics", Vol. LXIII No. 18, 3 May 1954

TIME Magazine (1954c) "The Press: Code for Comics", Vol. LXIV No. 19, 8 November 1954

TRANSCRIPT I (1954) 1954 Senate Subcommittee Hearings into Juvenile Delinquency, Transcript of the morning session, 21 April 1954

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WERTHAM Fredric (1948) "The Comics - Very funny!", in Reader's Digest (August issue), 15-18

WERTHAM Fredric (1953) "What Parents Don't Know", in Ladies' Home Journal, November 1953, 50ff

WILSON John Albert (1956) The Culture of Ancient Egypt, University of Chicago Press


first posted on the web 19 September 2011
updated 19 November 2012
reposted 10 April 2014

Text is (c) 2011-2014 Adrian Wymann