Know Thy History: Tales From The Crypt
Greetings, boils and ghouls! Imagine you lived in a day with no iPads, no smartphones, and no internet. Chilling, isn’t it? But dig back further. Imagine a day where not everyone had a television… and those who did had only three channels! Positively ghastly! How would a young man or woman like you spend the day? I’d imagine that most days would be … deadly boring.
But for some people, there were comic books. Bright four-color magazines stacked at your local five-and-dime. Surely, this was harmless fun! Perhaps you’d read about a man zooming about the clouds! Or stories of little children getting into troublesome shenanigans! Maybe there was a story about an elderly duck who goes on globe-trotting adventures! There was a lot of fun in comics. Little do you know that your innocence is about to be be murdered.
You find another comic. One whose cover is full of lurid imagery and a bold, drippy title. You open the book. Before you know it, you’re introduced to a dark, demented world of wickedness and gore. Yur mind becomes filled with violent and seductive thoughts. Wicked, murderous thoughts flow through your veins. Oh, and what is that ad for in one of those paiges? Is that an air rifle? It would be a bloody shame if you decided to take things too far….
That’s the line of thought that pervaded the Seduction of the Innocent, Fredric Wertham’s infamous book critiquing the gruesome images in several crime/horror titles, especially those published by EC Comics. Among those titles was one whose reputation would eventually outlast the Comics Code: a titled called Tales From The Crypt.
Entertaining Comics, which was better known as EC Comics (Entertaining Comics Comics?), was founded by Max Gaines in the wake of World War II. As I’ve noted several times on this site, soldiers during the war who were young men that were big into comics. Airplane nose art was festooned with popular characters from Disney, Li’l Abner, and Terry and the Pirates. Special comics illustrated by popular artists were distributed to the troops to keep them entertained while overseas. When the war was over, though, those young men had matured. The painful realities of life had hit them like a tidal wave, and they were ready for something … harder.
Enter Bill Gaines, the son of Max, who, in a sad chapter seemingly taken from a Tales From The Crypt story, had died in a boating accident in 1947. Bill had served four years in the Army Air Corps with plans on becoming a chemistry teacher. After his father died, he took over the family business. Under Bill, EC Comics cultivated a new crop of genre-spanning series: some crime, some horror, some military, and some sci-fi. Among its stable of writers and artists were some stone-cold hall-of-famers (Al Feldstein! Harvey Kurtzman! Basil Wolverton! Wally Wood! Jack Davis! Frank Frazetta! Otto Binder!) To attract the older audiences, EC Comics pumped up the violence and had covers that often featured ax murderers, scantily clad dames in bondage, or both.
Even sci-fi legend Ray Bradbury had a few stories serialized in EC Comics! That was mainly because EC had put out an unauthorized adaptations for one of his stories, and Mr. Bradbury gave the offices a call to talk about about it. (From Wikipedia: “Learning of the story, Bradbury sent a note praising them, while remarking that he had ‘inadvertently’ not yet received his payment for their use.”) This eventually led to EC Comics issuing him a check, and Bradbury negotiating a deal where they could adaption other stories. He was a cool cat, that Bradbury. Two of these adaptations, “There Was an Old Woman” and “The Handler”, appear in Tales From The Crypt.
As you may imagine, Tales From The Crypt stories were heavy on the irony. If you did something wrong, you were going to be punished and punished hard. Maybe the man you murdered comes back from the dead to take you with him. Blogger Steve Stiles notes that they were “O’Henry-like surprise-ending tales of crime and supernatural retribution.” The stories were paid with some of the most evocative art of the era. Editor Al Feldstein encouraged artists to develop their own individual styles. The most prolific of the artists was Jack Davis, who illustrated all the iconic Tales From The Crypt covers starting with issue #29.
Tales From The Crypt featured the pun spewing Crypt-Keeper as the host. He was typically seen in the splash illustration and the ending monologue. He was also joined by two cohorts: the Old Witch (host of The Haunt of Fear) and the Vault-Keeper (host of The Vault of Horror). Collectively, they were known by the tongue-twisting honorific of GhouLunatics. In Tales From The Crypt, Crypt-Keeper would be the host for two stories while the other two got one each. They were welcome breaks from the oppressively dark tone of the stories that they hosted.
How dark? Well, let me give you … a little taste. There is one story from Tales Of The Crypt #23 entitled “Last Respects.” A poor man named Tony tries to hide his marriage to Anna from her insanely possessive uncle. The secret, though, eats at the wife’s conscience. The uncle finds out nevertheless and refuses to let her her out. Anna, though, is deathly ill, and she dies.
The uncle forbids Tony to even attend his dead wife’s funeral. Tony gives in to his rage, and he kills him. Hungering for some closure, Tony visits his dead wife at a mausoleum one last time to pay his last respects… like the title explains. He leaves a stuffed animal that he won for her at the fair on top of her casket. But, when he tries to leave, he finds out that he’s locked himself in! Oh, what cruel irony!
So what happens?
Yes. THAT happened.
Npw as tasteless as some of you may have found that last story, at least he didn’t mistake his wife’s face for a witch mask and try to forcefully rip it off one night. Boy, Tony would’ve lost face over that one!
Oh, wait… the
Old Witch Vault-Keeper already beat me to that pun. Damn you! Ummmm… that’s what you call defacing…..
Nope. Forget it.
The Crypt-Keeper original appeared in EC’s Crime Patrol. Eventually that title would feature more horror than crime, and by issue #17, it would be retitled The Crypt of Terror. Two issues later, it would undergo another name change to the one we all know and love today. It ran for twenty-seven issues until it ran afoul of Congress. The Crypt-Keeper and friends may have murdered the elegant art of puns, but they stood no chance against the Comics Code Authority.
Seduction of the Innocent led to a Senate Inquiry on Juvenile Delinquency, which lead to the establishment of the Comics Code, the standards and practices that, some say, infantilized the entire comic industry. Tales From The Crypt and other horror/crime comics were phased out, and Marvel, DC, and Archie with their sterile, kid-friendly stories ruled the day. This would continue to be the case until horror made a resurgence in the 70’s, The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen became critically acclaimed hits, and Image pushed the envelope on sex and violence in the 90’s.
We here in the future are tempted to guffaw at the blind puritanical folly of our forefathers. However, remember that when you point, there are three fingers pointing back at you. The Comics Code was not without legitimate complaints. These days, we’re worried about plenty of the same things that were brought up sixty years ago: the depictions of scantily clad women in comics, the often excessive violence, and the limitations of freedom of speech (say, the trouble the led to the Mohammad cartoons). Look what happens when someone points out that women in comics seems to bend in a way that emphasizes boobs and butt. The online fall-out tends to be vicious. Do I even need to bring up how Sue Dibny very recently was raped by Dr. Light in the pages of DC Comics? My point: there really is nothing new under the sun, and there are no easy answers to anything.
It’s too bad that the Comics Code is pretty much equivalent to Godwin’s Law among comics enthusiasts.
Yet the Comics Code couldn’t kill the legacy of the comic. Famously, Tales From The Crypt was revived as an HBO. Several of the episodes were based on stories straight out of the comic. The show elevated the Crypt-Keeper into the ultimate horror show host thanks to his love of terrible, terrible puns:
The series also spawned a bunch of motion pictures and a cartoon, where the Crypt-Keeper could seduce innocents on Saturday mornings. There’s even been a comic revival, which caused a little bit of a controversy — admittedly, very, very minor — when one of the covers featured Sarah Palin. I dunno; isn’t being the one thing that the GhouLunatics are afraid of something to be proud of?
One final parting shot: since this an election year, let’s hear some commentary from the Old Witch.
Vote Crypt-Keeper/Old Witch 2012: Change You Can Bereave In.
HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA