Monday, July 9, 2012

Pulp Fantasy Library: Horror Comics of the 1950's

Over the last few years, the phrase "Appendix N" has come to be widely used and understood within the hobby, in the process raising awareness of and appreciation for the pulp fantasy tales that inspired Gary Gygax in the creation of Dungeons & Dragons. What I find intriguing, though, is how rarely anyone takes note of what Gygax says in the first paragraph of Appendix N, before the justly famed "Inspirational Reading" list. In that paragraph, Gygax notes that in addition to "tales of cloaked old men who could grant wishes, of magic rings and enchanted swords, or wicked sorcerers and dauntless swordsmen," he was also inspired by "countless hundreds of comic books." He singles out "the long-gone EC ones" and further notes that they "certainly had their effect."

By "EC ones," Gygax was, of course, referring to those published by Entertaining Comics by William Gaines. Between 1950 and 1955, when EC published three noteworthy titles: Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror, and The Haunt of Fear. All of these titles focused on horror stories, as one might expect, but most were presented with a grim sense of humor that made them more memorable than similar comics produced by other publishers. In addition, the artwork of EC's comics was ghoulishly vibrant, thanks to a variety of in-house and freelance talent. Frank Frazetta and Al Williamson are but two of the illustrators EC employed who would later go on to great acclaim within their profession.

EC Comics ceased publishing its horror titles as a result of mounting public criticism of the subject matter of many comic books, culminating in the formation of the Comics Code Authority, whose code made it increasingly difficult to publish the kinds of darkly humorous stories for which EC was known. By 1955, Gaines gave up on Tales from the Crypt and its siblings to focus instead on Mad. Consequently, EC Comics weren't easy to come by during the late 50s and throughout the 1960s. In time, though, there was a growing nostalgia for them, leading to reprints, the first of which, Horror Comics of the 1950's, was published in 1971.  Others would follow.

The local public library I regularly visited had a copy of Horror Comics of the 1950's -- in its children's book section, no less! -- and I vividly remember seeing it on the shelf. I was both horrified and entranced by its depiction of a man trapped in a mausoleum as a corpse opens up its coffin and rises from it. That was my typical response to things horrific as a child: I was frightened but I still wanted to look. I don't know how many times I looked at the cover of this book before I dared to open it, let alone check it out and take it home -- probably years. Eventually, though, I plucked up enough courage to do so and was instantly entranced. Sure, there was still plenty of stuff in it that unnerved me, even giving me weird dreams and nightmares, but I loved it nonetheless. As I got older, I made an effort to seek out more EC Comics and read them, too, an occupation that became a lot easier as the years wore on and more of these classic comics were reprinted.

Others more knowledgeable than I might be able to point which stories Gygax most remembered reading from his childhood and how they might have influenced his conception of fantasy. For me, EC Comics ushered in a lifelong fascination with the undead, with justly ironic punishments, and with black humor, all of which play prominent roles in the games I run. To say they were influential on me is an understatement. If you've never read any for yourself, go ahead and try to find a few. They're readily available nowadays and I think, even if they don't appeal to you, you'll find them a fascinating window on both the early days of comics and the hobby.


  1. I remember growing up feeling vindicated when I was younger seeing the E.C. comics listed in Appendix N. I spent most of my time reading D.C.'s 70s "House of Mystery"* as a kid in the 80s then the E.C. reprints in the 90s.

    Now I have the hardcover collections of Tales From the Crypt and the Vault of Horror. I sorely wish I got the ones for Weird Science & Weird Fantasy!

    *(I remember constantly going to one comic store as a kid because they had back issues for a quarter, so I'd stock up. One day the guy working the counter that day said that I was wasting my time getting those comics would be better off buying some X-Men title. I don't think he understood comics.)

  2. Great stuff! As a kid, they were terrifying. Now... just a little creepy. I know Stephen King attributes a lot of his childhood time to reading these EC. I noticed that Barnes & Noble is re-releasing a lot of these for the Nook lately. Pretty cheap, too.

  3. The copyrights have supposedly lapsed on a bunch of these titles, which is why they are available online. The site below (Furycomics) has a bunch of horror titles you can read online, as well as a bunch of other genres (Military, Adventure, Western, SciFi):

  4. Claude Von RippinheimerJuly 9, 2012 at 11:54 PM

    Awesome...thank you.

  5. As mentioned, DC had their House of Mystery comic in the 70s, which I read, and Charlton Comics (long dead) had a bunch of horror ones.

    One story from the latter I remember had a fantasy hero storming a wizard's tower, fighting various beasties and getting betrayed by a companion, only to discover, at the top, that the damsel he wanted to save was a wax figure that the wizard made as a hobby.

  6. Check out the book "The Horror, The Horror" at your local library or It is a survey of horror comics from the late 40's and through to the Comics code.

    The text is garbage-- bad pseudo-Freudian ramblings-- but the images are striking, and often shocking. Fredric Wertham is often cast as the big bad heavy in comics history, but this book makes clear, to me at least, that there was at some real basis for his fear mongering. There are some very gruesome and disturbing images in this book!

  7. The Slayer's Guide to the Undead is worth tracking down if you want some late Gygax writing on all the classic AD&D undead. The framing narrative has a distinctly EC feel.

  8. One thing I can say that Gygax did well was to incorporate horror into his adventures. I sure wish there was more horror in fantasy adventures. Ravenloft was not really horrific because the entire world was based on old horror novels like Dracula so the players already knew what to expect. But Gygax changed the pace of adventures like the Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun which in the end turned horrific and creepy even though the ending was sort of incomplete. So for me, horror is the most important part of a fantasy adventure although very few writers incorporate it into their adventures unless they was to make an over the top amount of horror.

  9. Oh, yeah. The more horror the better. Just reading some Zothique stories recently has reinforced that for me.

    Also to hell with the Comics Code. I hope it's gone forever.

  10. Matthew James StanhamJuly 12, 2012 at 1:18 AM

    I often wonder if Gygax or any of the other fellows involved in OD&D had read or were reading the Savage Sword of Conan. It is right on the cusp of the genesis of the game, so it is hard to figure which is influencing which!