The Horror! The Horror! Comic Books the Government Didn't Want You to Read!

A comic review article by: Jason Sacks
Just in time for Halloween comes this fantastic anthology of pre-code horror. With spectacular reproduction, outstanding essays by Jim Trombetta, and excellent choices for the reprinted content, this book is a perfect anthology of horror comics for the spookiest holiday of the year.

Trombetta unearths (see the clever pun there?) an amazing selection of horror comics and covers. He focuses mainly on comics from the 1950s, giving readers a good sense of why Fredric Wertham and the forces of censorship were so full of hatred toward the comics of that era. In fact, the subtitle of this collection is “Comic Books the Government Didn’t Want You to Read.” Though the subtitle contains a bit of hyperbole--the government never actually worked to censor comics--it definitely fits the mood of the times.

Pretty much all the comics presented in this book are dark, mysterious, spooky, and intense. It's obvious from reading these stories that Wertham was reacting to a significant and serious social movement at the time, as there's an awful lot of very dark material on display here. The book is filled with a series of breathtakingly scary pieces, and some of the covers capture an instant in time that feels completely fraught with suspense.

Take the cover to Mister Mystery #11 as an example. Reproduced on a full page in this book, the moment depicted on this cover feels completely intense and full of mystery. Who is this man and how did he come to be buried with only his head staring towards an anthill?

Since this is a horror comic, we can assume the victim is a bad man--unless, of course, the universe is a dark and uncaring place, but there's no way to know from this image. We can only imagine the horror that he will feel when the fire ants crawl all over him and start stinging.

We can tell from the cover to Mysterious Adventures #19 that the bad guy on the cover was a drunk driver who killed a family. Is this appropriate punishment for such an evil act, or is the revenge of the skeletons a bit much? No matter, there’s a wonderfully funky feel to the image--the family that slays together stays together, as they say.

Lee Elias has a whole bunch of covers featured in Trombetta’s book, none more stirring than his cover to Chamber of Chills Magazine #17. With its striking lightning and tumultuous skies, this cover is thoroughly resonant of the terrors that its main figure must be experiencing. It is a great comics image that shows the power of simple cartooning.

The cover to Battle #10, artist unknown, is an especially resonant piece that Trombetta explores in great detail. On the surface, this scene seems to be realistic, but the sexual symbolism of the piece-- the American holding his phallic rifle level with groin as he straddles the prone Korean soldier--is really striking. Notice, too, the long gray holster at the soldier's side, and the very spent look on his face. War has seldom looked as passionate – especially since the soldier seems about to be overrun by another group of Korean soldiers.

Perhaps the scariest cover reproduced in the book is Crime Does Not Pay #46. What parent wouldn't be creeped out by the horror of the moment shown on this cover? The girl looks so innocent and the ice cream man so dapper, that the whole piece just has a really terrifying vibe to it.

Trombetta presents dozens of other covers as well, all of which are smartly chosen and quite fascinating. There also are a bunch of interior stories presented in this book. Some, such as "The Eyes of Death" from an unknown creative team in the Dark Mysteries #7, are daft stories that feature bizarre and unpredictable revenge. The sheer wacky weirdness of this story makes it stupid and compelling fun.

Another story--Steve Ditko's very early tale "Inheritance" from The Thing #14--is redeemed from its crazy premise by some absolutely breathtaking art. It's clear that Ditko already had a brilliant instinct for storytelling even in his early work.

Perhaps my favorite story in this book is Basil Wolverton's "The Brain Bats of Venus" from Mister Mystery #7. Wolverton's art has a way of intensifying any story, and that's certainly on display in this one. In its tale of alien brains taking over an astronaut, Wolverton presents a great meditation on the important idea of human identity.

Taken as a whole, the stories in The Horror! The Horror! present a fascinating view of America in the 1950s. Based on the darkness of the images and tales, and the deep popularity of these types of stories, readers can’t escape the clear sense that the 1950s was a dark and frightening era--a time when there was a huge amount of angst and stress in the air as people looked at the world around them. Trombetta does a great job of setting all this work in context, giving readers a strong sense of the environment that created a need for comics like this.

The book also ships with a bonus DVD that features a vintage TV show, Confidential File, from 1955 that discusses the alleged destructive events of comic books. It's striking how intense in the show the dislike is of comics, but then again when you look at the incredibly lurid and nasty comics shown in this book you can see why there was such opposition to comics in that era. (incidentally, it also makes me pine for the day when comics would actually be read by kids!)

The Horror! The Horror! is a brilliant anthology of horror comics that has been released just in time for Halloween. Much like a character in one of its stories, I was mesmerized by this book.

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