By Dennis Drabelle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 30, 2010; 5:09 PM
THE HORROR! THE HORROR!
Comic Books the Government Didn't Want You to Read!
Edited by Jim Trombetta
Abrams. 304 pp. Paperback, $29.95
FOUR COLOR FEAR
Forgotten Horror Comics of the 1950s
Edited by Greg Sadowski
Fantagraphics. 319 pp. Paperback, $29.99
A dozen or so years ago, I had a horrifically delightful experience rummaging through cartons of old comic books at the Library of Congress. In the guise of a journalist, I was reconnecting with the horror comics that had given me bouts of guilty pleasure in the early 1950s. (The guilt came from my own disobedience - these items were contraband in our household, and I'd read them on the sly over at my friends'.)
Renewing my acquaintance with these artifacts of pop - teeming as they did with zombies, vampires, A-bomb mutants and severed heads - was both a treat and perhaps a tragedy in the making: The tales were printed on cheap paper, to which the years had not been kind. As I held the books (under the librarians' watchful eyes), some of their edges crumbled in my hands. It was hard to see what curators might do to save them - short of taking the books apart and laminating them page by page, and you didn't have to be a bean-counter to realize how prohibitively expensive that would be.
Luckily, comics fanatic Jim Trombetta had his own private collection to draw upon in putting together "The Horror! The Horror!," which intersperses color illustrations from hundreds of comics and several full-length stories with essays by Trombetta. Comics used to cost only a dime an issue, but there were enough avid readers to make them, in Trombetta's words, "a huge business in pre-TV times."
As businesses go, however, this one went fast. Alarmed by the gruesomeness, shrinks and politicians put pressure on the publishers, who drew up a code, which watered down horror comics to the point of driving them essentially off the market by 1954. But they're back in this delectable volume, in which talking skulls wail "aaiiee," stabbing victims grunt "arrrgh" and the devil himself shows a cloven foot. The book comes with a DVD of a period TV program that inveighs against the evils of comics.
Trombetta isn't the only horror-comics fanatic to inflict pulp monsters on us this season. "Four Color Fear" is editor Greg Sadowski's commemoration of horror publishers other than dominant Entertaining Comics, the firm that brought out "Tales from the Crypt" and "Vault of Horror" monthlies. Though roughly the same size as "The Horror! The Horror!," this volume contains many more complete tales, giving the reader a sense of how hard it was to meet the genre's three main requirements: sudden fear, ample gore and twist endings, all in the space of six to 10 pages.
In his endnotes, Sadowski singles out a tale called "Puppet Peril" for having "everything a good comic book horror story should have: a mittel-European setting, an old dark house, a dungeon, a hunchback, a witch at a cauldron, hypnotism, a hypodermic needle, a lingerie panel, bondage, the undead, demons, and fire - not to mention sinister puppets." Some of the stories, however, can speak eloquently for themselves. One leads off with this fraught question: "Have you ever heard a strange voice whisper, 'Come with me into the Blackest depths of evil'?" To which I would have answered in the 1950s, "What took you so long to ask?"
Drabelle is the mysteries and thrillers editor for Book World.