The EC Archives: The Vault of Horror Volume 1
Creators include: Al Feldstein, Marie Severin, Johnny Craig, Bill Gaines, Johnny Craig, Harry Harrison, Wally Wood, Harvey Kurtzman, Graham Ingels, and Jack Kamen
Dark Horse Comics
February 14, 2018
Even if you’ve never heard of EC Comics by name, you’ll likely recognise their iconic spooky stories that work as anthology-style issues, each featuring a few separate tales with a twist. Launched in the mid ’40s under the banner of Educational Comics, EC was founded by one of the foremost comics industry pioneers, Max Gaines, who’d been instrumental in the establishment of the popular comic book format and the burgeoning comics industry. After his death in 1947, Gaines’ son took over the company, and by 1950, the company, now known as Entertaining Comics, was one of the hottest publishers around. They were known for their crime, horror and science fiction floppies, selling masses of copies on the newsstand before they felt the impact of psychiatrist Frederick Wertham and his bestselling book Seduction of the Innocent.
Wertham insisted that comics were morally reprehensible and led a charge against horror comics, inspiring U.S. Senate subcommittee hearings and the eventual founding of the Comics Code Authority. The code banned all manner of things and left EC Comics floundering. Luckily for comic fans, the ongoing EC Archives project has been collecting the original works, and this installment is a fantastic reminder of just how varied, inspired, and often scary EC’s stories could be. The one upsetting thing about this collection, however, is that whoever was in charge of these reprints decided to hire the stalwart Big Two digital colouring company Jamison Services, whose heavy-handed digital recolours immediately take away from the core concept of the collection.
After all, are you really archiving something if you drastically change the art? If they were able to put the book together at all, then surely they could just scan the pages in? It’s a shame, as the original work is far more dynamic and timeless than these Technicolor recoloured pages. It’s especially apparent in the moments when the thick black lines and bright colours give the book a look of an over-stylized modern homage of EC rather than the real thing. In most cases when it comes to collections of old comics, I’m a big fan of scans rather than recolours, but industry-wise those are a rarity.
Collecting issues #12-17 of The Vault of Horror (the first 11 issues were published under the title War Against Crime), this volume is a veritable feast for anyone who enjoys twisty tales that lean into classic horror. I’ve read EC books since I was a little kid who ate up anything with the potential to scare me, and yet even after three decades, this collection features some great comics I’d never read before. The first tale is a great entry point to the kind of solid storytelling and scares that EC has to offer. “Portrait in Wax” by Johnny Craig is a classic “be careful what you wish for and, oh, don’t murder anyone” story that sees a jealous young man called Henry kill his best friend in a vat of acid in order to steal his artwork. As you can imagine things don’t end so well for Henry, but he does become a famed artist, and he attempts to rip off the work of a fantastic wax work artist before getting his dastardly comeuppance.
If you get bored easily with repetition, then EC is probably not for you, as most of the comics follow a similar narrative archetype. But what’s never ever boring are the endless twists and turns the creative teams come up with to make their stories stand out. Another great example of this is “The Werewolf Legend” by Wally Wood, Harry Harrison, and Gardner Fox. It begins as what seems to be a standard lycanthrope story, but transforms—just like the legendary monster—into a pulpy crime romp with an ending so ridiculous that I immediately wished I’d written it myself. The consistency of the 32 stories vary some, with a fair few less bothered about the narrative originality or final act twist, instead focused more on the atmosphere. That’s not always a bad thing, mind you. It’s also incredibly fun to see the tropes we all know so well in some of their earlier forms. Al Feldstein’s “The Strange Couple” is a charmingly spooky use of the “it was all a dream” ending many years before cultural touchstones like Carrie or Dallas made it popular to the point of a cliche.
One of the great things about this collection is that it manages to stay away from the often racist art of the comics from this era. It does mean that the book is predominantly white, safely sticking firmly to horrifying tales of debutante gold diggers and nefarious wealthy crooks with hate in their heart. Whether this is good editing/curation or just good luck on this particular selection, it’s a welcome surprise. This means that the book doesn’t fall into the traps that the Yoe Books published editions of similar era comics often do. It’s also pleasant that the forewords avoid the outdated offensive language those Yoe collections are usually introduced with. Thoughtful framing of what could easily be problematic art is the lowest bar, but in the landscape of modern comics, it should at least be mentioned if not celebrated and Dark Horse manages it nicely.
It’s rare that I recommend a book in digital rather than print. But at 220 pages, The EC Archives: The Vault of Horror Volume 1 from Dark Horse is a hefty read, and the recoloured pages of my review copy actually look relatively nice on a screen. Sadly, for now it’s only available as a chunky hardcover for the cover price of $49.99, though judging by previous releases, it should be available as an ebook sooner rather than later.