Fantagraphics’ ’50 Girls 50′ pays tribute to EC Comics sci-fi legacy

April 27, 2013 | 11:00 a.m.

REVIEW

Golden-age publisher EC Comics’ rise and fall was tied to its horror titles “Tales From the Crypt” and “The Vault of Horror,” which were so sharply written and beautifully drawn that they quickly became fan-favorites in the early ’50s — while also freaking out some authority figures, who were bothered that these stories were so gory, so irreverent, so effective.

When comics fans sum up the EC saga, the focus is usually on how the company excelled at twisty tales of murder, then had to tone that down in the wake of congressional investigations into the link between comics and juvenile delinquency. Eventually, EC survived the furor by turning to humor, becoming a success again thanks to Mad magazine.

Yet EC in its heyday was about more than just violent criminals and the shambling undead. The company was also responsible for some of the most realistic war comics ever drawn, and for intense melodramas with a social conscience. And EC took science fiction a lot more seriously than most of its pulp contemporaries, even adapting stories by such top sci-fi writers as Ray Bradbury and Harlan Ellison.

“50 Girls 50 and Other Stories” — available now from Fantagraphics — collects nearly 200 pages of some of the best examples of EC’s science-fiction titles “Weird Science” and “Weird Fantasy,” drawn by Al Williamson, who was barely 21 when he became one of the big names at a publisher known for hiring only the most talented.

Williamson was inspired as a boy by Alex Raymond’s “Flash Gordon” comic strip, and as a teenager he studied under cartoonist Burne Hogarth, who spent much of his career teaching people the techniques of dynamic realism. By the time Williamson joined the EC stable, he was already an accomplished pro, capable of rendering alien landscapes so vividly that readers felt like they could step right into them.

“50 Girls 50” sprinkles in a few non-sci-fi stories that Williamson drew for EC, but his feel for horror and true-crime was never as strong as his feel for fantasy. The book also includes some stories drawn mostly by some of Williamson’s friends and collaborators, including Frank Frazetta, whose own near-photo-realistic illustrations of spacemen and ancient warriors would later make him the king of paperback covers and movie posters.

“50 Girls 50 and Other Stories" (Fantagraphics)

“50 Girls 50 and Other Stories” (Fantagraphics)

The writing in the “50 Girls 50” comics is hit-and-miss. Editor Al Feldstein, working closely with publisher Bill Gaines, reportedly cranked out a script a day, helping to fill up all the EC titles, and he sometimes repeated himself, or settled for the most obvious sucker punches. The Feldstein-penned sci-fi stories that Williamson drew are often on the level of the corniest 1950s B-movie fare, from the era when Cold War paranoia had writers imagining future conflict with Martians or Venusians.

But Feldstein could be inspired too, as on “50 Girls 50’s” title story, about a rogue who decides to make an interplanetary colonization scheme work to his advantage, by fixing it so that he can slip out of suspended animation early and help himself to any frozen woman he likes. And “50 Girls 50” includes Feldstein’s excellent adaptations of some classic Bradbury stories, including “A Sound of Thunder” (in which time-traveling dinosaur-hunters find out how much havoc killing one butterfly can wreak), and “I, Rocket” (told from the perspective of a warship that falls on hard times once peace is declared).

These pieces are classic EC: punchy, knowing and ironic in the best sense of the word, in that they force readers to examine their own expectations. The best stories in “50 Girls 50” have readers rooting for heels, or celebrating war, all while framing the situation in such a way that readers question their responses.

Williamson had a lot to do with that. He had a way of making even the most handsome hero (or gorgeous gal) seem faintly devilish, and he drew monsters such that they had dignity, and personality. It’s what sets his sci-fi apart from the bland heroes and rubber monsters of B-movies — and even from the best of the sci-fi pulp magazines, where writers often had to over-describe to get the effects that Williamson could get with a single drawing.

EC’s back catalog has been repackaged multiple times over the years, but Fantagraphics’ EC Comics Library has taken a novel approach to the presentation: reprinting the stories in clean black-and-white (which gets the frequently muddy coloring of the old comics out of the way of the art), and arranging them by artist, to emphasize what each individual brought to the EC brand.

Fantagraphics is also releasing “ ‘Taint the Meat… It’s the Humanity! & Other Stories,” which collects all of the wonderfully gruesome “Tales From the Crypt” stories drawn by Jack Davis, who’s better-known now for his Mad satires and wacky movie posters. Last year, the company issued “Corpse on the Imjin! And Other Stories,” collecting Harvey Kurtzman’s groundbreaking war comics, and “Came the Dawn and Other Stories,” bringing together Wallace Wood’s work on some of Feldstein’s most hard-hitting, often politically charged crime stories.

All of these books are essential purchases for comics fans, but for those on a budget who are looking to prioritize, “Corpse on The Imjin!” is the first must-buy, and “50 Girls 50” is the second. These are the books that best show off how EC took genre stories seriously, striving to create comics that didn’t treat readers as naive or ignorant.

Even when EC’s roster of masters was touring the galaxy in the “50 Girls 50” comics, their attitude remained worldly.

– Noel Murray

Noel Murray is an Eisner-nominated critic who writes about comics, television, music and film for The A.V. Club. He also covers home video for the Los Angeles Times.

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Comments


2 Responses to Fantagraphics’ ’50 Girls 50′ pays tribute to EC Comics sci-fi legacy

  1. Lee Roberts says:

    Harlan Ellison's science -fiction writing came a
    Decade later. I don't think he had anything to do with EC, other than reading them…

  2. Noel Murray says:

    From Ellison's bibliography:

    Weird Science Fantasy
    "Upheaval"
    Issue 24, 1954, EC
    adaption, unknown; art, Al Williamson
    [Ellison's first comic work, an adaption of the story "Mealtime"]

    Here's more about it: http://www.sequentialellison.com/bibliography/?p=

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