Pete Crowther: Pre-code Horror Comics Rock Your BoatA comics interview article by: Jason Sacks
Pete Crowther is publisher at PS Publishing, a great boutique science fiction publishing house in England. Pete recently branched out his line to publish some really wonderful archival comics. I raved about two of the books recently on Comics Bulletin and was intrigued to interview Pete about them. I shouldn't have been surprised that Pete is totally passionate about comics, but who knew that he'd be such a great interview?
Jason Sacks for Comics Bulletin: Well, this whole reprint thing has really taken off for you. Have you been surprised by how popular these books have become?
Pete Crowther: I guess so. I hoped, of course, but I just didn't expect there to be so many folks out there who loved the old stuff as much as I do. I've bought all the reprint volumes as soon as they've appeared -- Marvel/Atlas, DC, Archie, Gold Key, the Barks Library, and all the stuff Craig Yoe is putting through IDW -- but I worried (needlessly, as it turned out) that the pre-code horror comics wouldn't rock anyone's boat. Thank goodness I was wrong.
CB: What attracted you to reprinting lost horror and science fiction series like Chamber of Chills and Adventures into the Unknown?
Crowther: I've enjoyed the Harvey horror mags when I came across them at conventions and fairs. There's some beautiful artwork in there. Some clunky stories but, hey, that artwork. Just take a look at "Colorama" and you'll see what I mean. So, when it became clear that nobody was going to do them, I checked for their availability through the Library of Congress and… the rest is pretty much becoming history.
With regard to the ACG's [American Comics Group], I absolutely adore their stuff from around the mid-1950s onwards… after the Comics Code came in, I guess. There's so much heart in those stories by Richard Hughes, and I suppose my own writing kind of emulates them. Those were tales of hope and redemption and love, completely unlike EC's and Harvey's schlock horror/gore. But, heck, I didn't want to start the titles off in the middle of their runs, so we're kicking off right at the beginning. And, boy, there's some wild stuff there, too. In fact, to be honest, there's one page in Adventures Into The Unknown #1 (the story is called "The Living Ghost") that I would rate as good as anything I've ever seen, reminiscent of the covers Lee Brown Coye did for Weird Tales back in the 1940s and 50s.
So, yeah, lots of wonderful material out there. But me, I'm just waiting for when we get another 12 or 15 volumes into the Unknown run so I can re-read all the tales I grew up with in the British black and white editions.
CB: Were you surprised by how well-remembered these books seem to be?
Crowther: Well, like I say, yes and no. You kind of feel that the good stuff is wasted on the younger readers of today, but I think that's doing them a great disservice. The folks from my era, well, they just love 'em 'cause they grew up with 'em. But the youngsters get off on 'em, too. It's like they say: cream always rises to the top of the milk, and readers young and old will always buy good stuff.
CB: Is there a common vision or thread through these old comics that you especially enjoy reading?
Crowther: Richard Hughes's ACG writing is the best for me. There's one tale -- one whole issue, in fact -- that I always loved. It appeared in #13 of the British edition of Adventures Into The Unknown, and I only recently managed to get a hold of the original color US edition in a sufficiently high grade. It's #100, and the lead story is "The Head Man." Superb. It still sends a shiver down my spine. Alas, it'll be a few years before we get around to making it available again. But, yeah, certainly that would be one of my 10 desert island comic books -- stuff I could read and read and read until it fell apart in my hands. Strange Adventures #110 is another. "The Hand From Beyond" -- man oh man, that story rocks.
CB: So much of the horror material from the '50s has been forgotten for years because of the long shadow of EC Comics. Why do you feel that is?
Crowther: I just think that people have forgotten how much interesting stuff there was available that wasn't from EC. Simple as that. Because, make no mistake, while a lot of the Harvey and the Prize and the Fox material might not be up to the same cerebral level of the EC titles -- and, to be fair, it isn't -- there's still a lot of fun and entertainment to be had. And not just from the stories and the books themselves but also from the letter columns, the single-page text stories, and even the ads! All of which is why we're including everything that appeared in the original book.
CB: What do you feel is especially compelling about the Harvey and ACG comics of the '50s?
Crowther: Storytelling. A sense of wonder. The almost casual acceptance that corpses can dig their way out of the graveyard whenever they want to and that strange bloated monsters can drop from the sky to terrorize one small town after another. Hell, this stuff is what we all grew up on. It's what powered Forry Ackerman's Famous Monsters of Filmland and Steve King's The Tommyknockers and Salem's Lot and Pet Semetery, George Romero's Dead movies and even my own By Wizard Oak and "Ghosts with Teeth." We like to suspend reason and think that there really is something curled up beneath the bed just waiting to grab our ankles when we go for a pee.
CB: There have been a number of anthology books reprinting cross sections of '50s horror. Why did you go the other direction and choose to release multiple-volume complete collections of these books?
Crowther: I'm a collector and a completist. It really annoys me when people don't let me decide for myself. If I were to put together a book of, say, the best stories from Forbidden Worlds, they'd only be my best stories. Another guy along the line would be cursing my name and asking why I hadn't included such-and-such a story. Everything is totally subjective. We're aiming to make 'em all available. Just be patient.
CB: Are there certain stories or creators in these books that you especially love?
Crowther: Well, let's not get mired in just these books or even these publishers. We're keen to make available everything that isn't available right now. So Bob Powell, Howard Nostrand, Richard Hughes, the late Julie Schwartz, Murphy Anderson, all the guys at EC, people like Carmine Infantino -- the Guv'nor as far as I'm concerned -- and Stan Lee, whom I met at the recent Comic Con in London. He's every bit as delightful and courteous as I'd hoped.
CB: Your books have forewords by people like Ramsey Campbell and Joe Hill; who do you have lined up for future volumes?
Crowther: Christopher Fowler, Sid Jacobson, Carmine Infantino, Roy Thomas… lots more. You'll just have to be patient and wait and see.
CB: Speaking of Roy, you recently announced that he will be joining your staff as a consultant. What will he be doing with you? Could this mean a volume on obscure superheroes or something else near and dear to Roy's heart?
Crowther: He's already here. In fact, we're discussing all manner of exciting projects with Roy and, yes, there'll be some less well-known characters springing up every now and again, notably with a first volume of The Heap, due out later this year.
CB: PS Publishing is best known as a boutique house publishing great science fiction and horror material. What made you decide to branch out into comics?
Crowther: It's something I have always wanted to do. Simple as that. And I've always wanted -- very badly indeed -- to read or re-read a lot of this stuff without having to worry about dropping an individual comic book and wiping several hundred dollars off its value.
CB: Were there any problems getting the rights to these stories, or are they all in the public domain?
Crowther: Everything we've done so far is public domain, though we're not ruling out negotiating rights with other houses to make available stuff they're not going to bother doing themselves. Like, we'd love to do volumes of DC material, such as, say, Space Cabby, Detective Chimp, Roy Raymond, TV Detective, Congorilla, Tommy Tomorrow and lots more. I'd even be interested in Sgt. Bilko's Pvt. Doberman, Jerry Lewis, Dean Martin, The Fox and the Crow… Gosh, there're so many great comics out there. So, if anyone from DC is reading this (and if they're truly as savvy as we think they are, then they are), drop me a line and let's talk.
CB: What made you decide to take on the ACG books as well as the Harvey books? Isn't one line enough?
Crowther: Yes, it is one line -- PS Artbooks. We're aiming to represent many publishers within that line. Why many publishers? Because we like them. And let's not lose sight of the fact that this stuff is art. It's a cultural heritage. Were Action #1 or Detective #27 well drawn? Nope. Well plotted? Get outta here! But were they absolutely fundamental stepping stones to the creation of an art form that is singularly American (and yes, I know, those fantastic bandes dessinées in France and Belgium are tremendously important but they did come later)? You bet your sweet bippy they were. And they should all be available. Thus, together with IDW, Dark Horse, Titan and various others, we'll do our best to help move that along.
CB: And you have more new lines coming too. Do I even see some rare Jack Kirby books coming in the future?
Crowther: We're doing the complete Black Magic, featuring some of Simon and Kirby's best work, but the project is going to be a little delayed from the date advertised in our new catalogue.
I got a call from Titan Books to say they were already well into producing a new volume (their third in the series) of Simon and Kirby material, this time concentrating on the duo's horror material, much of which originated in Black Magic. And, while it is public domain, Titan is paying royalties to the creators' estates. The PS complete Black Magic series starting up at the same time (or even before) the Titan collection could have adversely affected the Titan book and income levels to the estates. So, we offered to push our series back to 2014 to give Titan a clear field. Yeah, it's a business, but one can mix a bit of common decency in there as well. So do go buy the Titan edition when it comes out -- for sure we will be -- and then watch out for our bumper six-volume set in a couple of years.
CB: There's been a lot of talk over the years about how the horror comics of the '50s reflected the soft underbelly of society in that era and became popular as reflections of the angst and frustration that people felt. What's your theory about why they were so popular in their time?
Crowther: Crikey, you're asking me for a theory? Before I've had my first cup of coffee? Sheesh! Here goes:
Art forms always reflect the society in which they exist and comics are no exception. But while many horror and SF movies and comic books mirrored the "red under the bed" philosophy of the 1950s and early 1960s, many more were serving as an escape from those concerns by showing remarkable stories of Grand Guignol, gore, excesses of all kinds, mayhem and skullduggery aplenty. Paradoxically, when the Comics Code came in and pretty much emasculated those books' and movies' ability to fulfill their primary aim (i.e. scare the bejabers out of youse!), it could be argued that an escape tunnel from reality had been discovered and filled in resulting in the build-up of a considerable head of steam.
CB: But the stories in Chamber of Chills, Witches Tales and the rest are pretty horrific. So was Frederic Wertham right on some level about the quality of the comics that children were consuming?
Crowther: Hell, no. Anyone who advocates -- or either intentionally or unintentionally causes -- the burning of books should be locked up. If anything, Wertham did a disservice. And, you know, I say that as a big softie, so make no mistake. I hate movies like Saw and Hostel, get distressed by The Walking Dead TV show and have been known to scare myself with my own writing to such a degree that I slide upstairs to bed with my back against the wall so that I can see in all directions. But I would never support any form of censorship aimed at outlawing those books and movies. It's like when somebody gets caught having decapitated somebody and in his defense he says that such-and-such a comic book made him do it, well, you know, that guy is a fruitcake. He is now, was last week and probably has been all of his life. He was a bomb that was already triggered and we've just been waiting for him to explode. I don't think (though I accept that I have no proof) that a rock 'n' roll song or a movie or a comic or a book ever persuaded someone who was not already a fruitcake to do a fruitcakish thing. Okay. I'll sit back down now.
CB: Do you think you have a different perspective on these comics as a Briton?
Crowther: I don't think so.
CB: How broadly distributed were these comics in England in that era?
Crowther: American comics didn't come to England until the early spring of 1960. The books were dated November 1959. I was approaching 11 years old, and when I first saw them -- an entire four-face spinning metal rack filled to bursting with comics we had, for the most part, never seen before -- well, I almost dropped dead right there and then. The frustrating thing was that certain comics were hard to find, so it necessitated going around every sweetshop and newsagent in town to make sure you'd managed to get the lot. They came every other Thursday, so it was pretty much a full-time job! But a wonderful and hugely exciting job nonetheless.
CB: Okay, Beatles or Stones?
Crowther: Beatles to listen to, Stones to dance to.
CB: Steve or Jack?
Crowther: Crumbs, that's a tough one. I love Steve's work on the old Mysterious Traveler book, but, of course, I'm equally enamored with the King's short stories for the likes of DC (and I'm thinking here of that wonderful House of Mystery issue with the Easter Island statues). As you can see, I've deliberately avoided Marvel on this one. Anyway, I guess your question is kind of like asking me if I prefer sex on a Monday or on a Thursday. So I'm afraid I'll have to duck out because I just can't give you a definitive answer. Each time I think to myself, "OK, it's Steve," I think, "Yeah, but what about Jack's stories for Harvey's Alarming Tales (most notably "The Fourth Dimension Is A Many Splattered Thing")?" And then when I say, "No, it's Jack," I think, "Yeah, but what about Steve's old Charlton tale about a boy with a slingshot out in his backyard?" Sheesh, I think I need to go lie down.
CB: Fine aged scotch or good brandy?
Crowther: Neither. It's Guinness and Irish for me.
CB: Best band you ever saw live?
Crowther: I've seen hundreds of bands and many, many fine performances. If we were to change the question from "best band" to "most memorable ten bands," then let's go with this little list:
- The Mothers of Invention
- Pink Floyd
- King Crimson
- Green on Red
- Giant Sand
- The Beach Boys
- The Moody Blues
- Van Morrison
- Steely Dan
Of course, it'll be a different ten tomorrow…
CB: Best thing about getting older?
Crowther: Not dying.
CB: Is there anything else you'd like readers of Comics Bulletin to know about you or your company?
Crowther: Can't think of anything offhand. If there's anything that occurs to your readers, then have them drop me a note at email@example.com.