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It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World

TALES OF TERROR!, By Fred von Bernewitz and Grant Geissman, Fantagraphics: 296 pp., $24.95 paper

June 16, 2002|ADAM BRESNICK | Adam Bresnick writes for several publications, including the (London) Times Literary Supplement.

William Gaines is not a household name in the United States, but as the publisher of the subversively furshlugginer Mad magazine (that's a Mad-ism for something you wouldn't repeat in front of your mother), he arguably did as much as anyone to fashion the tone of post-World War II American popular culture. Collapsing highbrow and lowbrow with reckless glee, Mad's "humor in a jugular vein" left no sacred cow unmilked, no bit of pop-culture flotsam unmocked. Brilliantly irreverent, Mad provided the matrix for the best in American satire, from the National Lampoon to "Saturday Night Live" to Comedy Central's "The Daily Show."

Though Mad famously ruffled the stuffed shirts of the early 1950s, it was Gaines' more sensational magazine series such as Tales From the Crypt, Weird Science and The Vault of Horror that proved so abrasive to good taste that, in April of 1954, the U.S. Senate Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency convened a special hearing to examine the ostensibly deleterious effects of comics on the youth of America.

Gaines' gutsy testimony before the subcommittee is the highlight of "Tales of Terror!", a marvelous scrapbook that provides a comprehensive checklist of the publisher's--EC Comics--titles, as well as a variety of interviews with and insiders' accounts of the principal artists and writers in the EC stable, among them Harvey Kurtzman, Will Elder and Al Feldstein.

The volume contains vivid photographic reproductions of every EC cover from Picture Stories From the Bible (1942-46) to Psychoanalysis (1955). In addition, it offers a highly eccentric grab bag of writings by members of the EC stable, among the most memorable of which is Gaines' "Narrative Illustration," a thumbnail history of the genre beginning with Sumerian pictographs and ending with modern pulps.

During the Senate subcommittee hearing, Sen. Estes Kefauver attacked Gaines like a dutiful bulldog: "Here is your May 22 issue [of Crime SuspenStories]. This seems to be a man with a bloody ax holding a woman's head up which has been severed from her body. Do you think that is in good taste?" Gaines was unflappable: "Yes sir, I do, for the cover of a horror comic. A cover in bad taste, for example, might be defined as [depicting] the head a little higher so that the neck could be seen dripping blood from it and moving the body over a little further so that the neck of the body could be seen to be bloody."

One cannot but applaud the cheeky Gaines for his public commitment to the necessary pleasures of representation, both satirical and cathartic, in a culture that even 50 years later continues to harbor deep puritanical ambivalences about the libidinal excitements of the work of art.

Sadly, the subcommittee's campaign against EC and concomitant articles in Time and Newsweek resulted in the promulgation of the notorious Comics Code, causing so many financial pains for Gaines that he soon had to shut down most of his titles. This is, of course, the real tale of terror, and one that is told with sadness and brio in this volume, which celebrates the staggering invention of Gaines' remarkable comics enterprise.

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