Qiana Whitted’s new book for Rutgers University Press, EC Comics: Race, Shock, and Social Protest, perfectly demonstrates why I love the ’50s publisher of titles like Tales from the Crypt, Shock SuspenStories, and Weird Science. In the course of her analysis, Whitted — a professor of English and African American studies at the University of South Carolina — breaks down a series of stories from the course of the company’s history, demonstrating that the “Entertaining Comics” could be more than just lurid and violent twist endings.
Specifically, Whitted looks at the preachies, “socially conscious stories that boldly challenged the conservatism and conformity of Eisenhower-era America.” The most famous of these, “Judgment Day,” by writer Al Feldstein and artist Joe Orlando, was published in Weird Fantasy #18 in April of 1953, and the final shot of a black astronaut (“and the instrument lights made the beads of perspiration on his dark skin twinkle like distant stars…”) is an iconic piece of comics history.
What’s notable about EC Comics: Race, Shock, and Social Protest is that Whitted doesn’t just dig into the stories themselves, but the responses to them from both fans and the social commentators of the time. By digging into the letters columns published in response to certain stories, as well as publisher William Gaines’ repudiation of the claims of the US Senate Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency, the author is able to offer up substantial evidence to contradict the claim that the stories were demonstrably dangerous to their young readers.
To the contrary, Whitted makes the point that the readers knew full well to expect a story with a moral center. It’s a point made more emphatically when you consider that she’s not willing to give a pass to the publisher simply because of the fact that these preaches tackled race, religion, and bigotry in such unflinching ways. While praising the depiction of Aubrey Collins in “Guilty!” as being “drawn as realistically as white characters,” attention is still drawn to EC’s depictions of black characters in other books. Anyone familiar with any EC tale that dealt with voodoo is sure to know exactly what’s being pointed out here.
Additionally, the fact that many of the people of color are simply there as nearly-mute victims to the hatred and violence of the evil white characters which are the focus of the preachies is also singled out. Rarely does a reader get to know what the people being victimized are thinking or experiencing, with much of their response having to be sussed out from context.
Through a series of excellent color reproductions of key scenes, and first-rate analysis of both text and subtext, Qiana Whitted’s EC Comics: Race, Shock, and Social Protest makes the point again and again that modern complaints of comics being “ruined” by presenting perspectives which don’t skew to a white, cis-male, heteronormative audience are unfounded. Comics have been fighting for equality since far earlier than you might’ve thought. As Whitted concludes, EC Comics’ preachies leave a “profound legacy of diversity — of genre, of ideology, and of audience — that refutes the persistent misconception that stories about race, gender, and social justice in the American comic book industry are rare or unwelcome.”
Qiana Whitted’s EC Comics: Race, Shock, and Social Protest is available now from Rutgers University Press.