“MIND THE HEADLIGHTS!” – A COLUMN ABOUT EC COMICS, PART 12

There’s a strange thing that will happen when a person dies. Quite naturally, in most cases, we want to recall what was good about this man or this woman, how the recently deceased influenced other lives in a positive manner. We talk about those occasions we like to remember, those special moments when he or she did something extraordinary for others. This is the time when we want to share some of those anecdotes, the quirky ticks and special character traits that drove us crazy while this person was around, but which now seem so endearing. We choose and pick some shiny examples from a life spent and hold them up to the light for everyone to see. This is who this person was, we seem to say. The nice memories we want to preserve. The bad stuff, the fights, the traded insults, the moments of meanness, these are all safely tucked away under the bed where the monsters live and where a ten-year-old boy might keep his comic books, or, once he has reached puberty, a copy of Vampirella or Playboy. Let all the bad things lie in the past, no need to drench up those old stories, those that were not so nice. These have no place in the sunlight next to our more cherished memories, lest the bad things bleed into this clean, positive portrait we have set aside on the mantelpiece in our mind where we store the happy moments we want to associate with a beloved friend or relative who’s no longer with us, both in body or spirit. Sometimes this is done on purpose, because this is how we want to remember a person who’s been taken from us, or it just happens, since humans have a tendency to forget bad experiences, or at least we romanticize certain aspects rather quickly. And sometimes, we just don’t know it any better. We don’t care or don’t want to look more closely, or we are made unaware of certain things in the past because the deceased did such a good job with hiding the kind of person, he or she was a lifetime ago. As it turns out, we did not really know him or her after all. This newly created or invented persona is the image that takes hold and this image will eventually sink into the collective consciousness of those close to the departed, even with the public at large if he or she was a person of public interest. To all intents and purposes, publisher Bill Gaines was such a person who had re-invented himself completely. Not only did he willfully omit a significant part of his decades long career in publishing whenever a discussion centered around his work or comic books. Effectively stashing his history with comics out of sight and away from his family, Gaines managed to project an idea of who he was and what he did to the public which completely superseded all of his prior achievements. This magic trick Bill pulled off was made easier for the simple fact that this was his second family, and because his appearance had changed to fit with his new role and to hide the past. It became difficult to align a newer photography of the publisher you might come across with one taken only some years prior. Was this even the same person, you had to wonder, was this the same Bill Gaines who had once put out trashy horror comics that had brought about the Comics Code Authority? A shy, bespectacled young man whose crew cut made him look like any other guy who’d just left military services after the war, except for the additional pounds he’d packed on since he was a little boy, Gaines wanted to be a science teacher. Comic books were the furthest thing from his mind since they were the domain of his controlling father M.C. Gaines, who’d been one of the inventors of the medium itself and who’d co-founded All-American Comics, the home of popular crime-fighting superheroes like The Flash, Hawkman, Green Lantern, and their crown jewel, the immensely well-liked Wonder Woman. After M.C., or Max how the elder Gaines was referred to by his few friends and his wife Jessy, was made to sell his fifty percent stake in All-American Comics by the man he’d once struck a deal with, powerful publishing tycoon Harry Donenfeld, Max founded Educational Comics. He put out a line of titles that were intended to well, educate the kids of America about history and the Bible. When he and his officer manager found out that these books were not selling, they were left with little choice but to establish a second line of books under an imprint with a much more commercially viable name, Entertaining Comics. Now there were Van Manhattan, American Supersleuth and photographer Madelon, beautiful French Lady-of-the-Lens who knew how to handle her camera equipment and the high-kicks, and similar characters in the pages of the hastily created International Comics, which bore a seal on its cover that read Entertaining Comics. Gaines even had a new superheroine made up by the name of Moon Girl, who was reminiscent of his crowning achievement at All-American, Wonder Woman. However, around the time International Comics’ third issue hit the newsstands and months before Moon Girl and the Prince came out, Maxwell Gaines and his friend Sam Irwin tragically died in a motorboat accident on Lake Placid. His widow soon convinced her reluctant son to take over the family business such as it was. The young Gaines was not the trusting kind, and especially not where his mother was concerned, and for good reason. While Max was still around and he’d used his loud voice and his leather belt to drill into his obese son the idea that he wouldn’t amount to anything in life, Jessy had simply stood by and had done nothing. But she’d had an active hand where his love life was concerned, at least nominally. Jessy had arranged the marriage of her son to his second cousin Hazel Grieb, a union that didn’t last that long, in fact the Gaines had just announced their plans to divorce around the same time Bill’s father died. Now, here he was, at twenty-five, asked to take on the responsibility for a business that wasn’t doing so great while his own life was in a huge upheaval and all he wanted to do was to finish his college education. One thing was for certain, though, Picture Stories from the Bible, one of the publications Max Gaines had been working on even before he’d founded EC Comics, would come to an end. At the age of twelve, his son had decided that he was an atheist. Where the boy was concerned, there was no God to be found in a house in which a father beat his son. With the death of the older Gaines, God was cancelled at Educational Comics and the “Life of Christ” remained a one-shot, though an earlier EC edition had presented it as a two-parter.

 

When William Gaines took up the reins at EC Comics in the Summer of 1947, he brought a lot of baggage and many scars. For the first couple of months he’d only come into the office when documents needed to be signed. Otherwise he left the daily dealings to Sol Cohen. Bill wasn’t a happy man and it showed. Still battling weight issues and feeling ashamed about both, his weight problems and his continued need to fight them, Gaines began taking Dexedrine which killed his appetite but kept him awake at night, and at night, this was where the nightmares lived. Eventually, he began to take an interest in the company, which by now was putting out western and romance comic books because that was the thing to do. The crime comics, which had already been started under his father for the simple fact that those sold fairly well whereas his loftier educational books didn’t, also continued. Right around that time, a young artist named Al Feldstein joined the company. Though the first project he developed for EC got canned before it saw publication, a move which also necessitated going back on the lucrative contract he and Feldstein had already agreed on, the young publisher and the artist discovered that they had similar ideas. Other than with most other artists already working at EC, with the exception of Johnny Craig, who had worked for Gaines senior before there was even an EC Comics, Feldstein began to write his own material early on. Now he and Bill created a working method by which the publisher would come up with an idea for a story and Feldstein would develop it into a full plot for an 6 to 8 pages long story, and not only for the tales he penciled and inked himself, but for the other artists as well. Interestingly, their way of working was directly linked to their own personal circumstances. As Al Feldstein later recalled: “Bill had gotten really excited about starting to plot stories when he realized I could write them. He wanted to get into the plotting end of it. He had trouble sleeping because he was constantly dieting and taking Dexedrine and Dexedrine would keep him awake at night… so he’d read.” Bill Gaines would then make notes about the stories he’d read, basic ideas for variations on those stories or other bits and pieces of inspiration. Armed with these “springboards” as he called them, he and Feldstein would have story conferences, at first, rather loose discussions about what to do with a certain idea, until a plot emerged, which was the point from which Feldstein took over: “…eventually we started to plot. I started to write four stories a week – well, eventually it was seven titles that I was writing for. On the fifth day we would edit.” Gaines and Feldstein then would go out for lunch and after lunch Feldstein would work alone. He was a married man and he had two little daughters, so working from home like many other artists did, was not really an option. At first, Feldstein worked in the EC offices, but since this had proven too noisy, Gaines rented an additional office upstairs which they then converted into a studio for Feldstein, “… so I’d have privacy and not be disturbed. I write a story directly onto the illustration board… I’d start the balloons two lines below the border of the panel, after I’d rule it up and lay it out.” With Feldstein working on most of the books and with Harvey Kurtzman now also writing and editing his own group of books, war comics and soon MAD which also started as a comic book, Gaines still had an active hand in the creation of most of the books. Much to the chagrin of his two editors, which would be three eventually, once Johnny Craig was given free rein over The Vault of Horror, apart from his plotting sessions with Feldstein, Bill talked directly to the other artists. Since he liked to maintain a family-like atmosphere around the office, with himself installed as a father-figure albeit with Gaines at around the same age if not a few years younger than most of the artists, creators like Wally Wood and especially Bernie Krigstein understood this direct line of communication as an invitation to complain about the restrictive way in which the three editors expected them to do their job. With every page already lettered, laid out and overlays provided, as was the case with Harvey Kurtzman who often created detailed breakdowns for the artist who did work on the titles he was responsible for, creativity was stifled, or at least this was the sentiment among artists who were used to a much looser manner of working. Whereas Al Feldstein freely admitted that he was very controlling in regard to how he wanted his stories told, Bill Gaines decided on a case by case basis. There were complaints on a frequent basis, since Feldstein was very wordy in his captions and dialogue, and while Al Feldstein was talented, he was no innovator. Asked why he chose to have the same splash page structure for nearly every story he laid out, his answer was simple: “Well, I think that that structure was already adopted in the early books that M.C. Gaines was publishing. And, I don’t know, I thought it was a tradition that you had a splash – either full page or at least the first panel – included.” He was proud of his writing and his method was the way it had to be done. In fact, he left little doubt who was running the show: “I couldn’t figure out any other way of writing it. And if I just wrote something – let the artist take the writing and break it into the story – which, I guess I was too much of a control freak to allow that to happen.” Gaines was there as a father figure and as a mediator. And when comics came under attack, Gaines took it upon himself to defend what he and EC Comics and the entire comic book industry was doing when he volunteered to offer his testimony as expert witness in front of the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency in 1954. Though he poorly misread the room and his influence, he was well aware that certain interest groups had put comic books into their crosshairs. Unfortunately, for EC Comics and him personally, he became the poster boy for what was wrong with comic books as far as the media and the public was concerned since no other publisher had come to Capitol Hill to stick his neck out for the industry, he was working in. Bill Gaines kept up the good fight even after the Comics Code Authority was established which served as self-regulatory body for the whole industry. And when the time came to recruit a new business manager, Frank Lee had replaced Sol Cohen and he was retiring in 1954, Gaines hired a powerful ally in his fight for freedom of speech, newspaper man Lyle Stuart. He and Stuart took on regulators left and right and this only made matters worse. At one point in time, the New York City Police even raided the offices of EC Comics over a satirical poem they’d put in their other humor comic, Panic which was under the purview of Al Feldstein. Eventually, Gaines closed shop as far as his comic publications were concerned. He let all his freelancers and his staff go, including Feldstein, everybody who was not involved with MAD, which Kurtzman had turned into magazine shortly before the Comics Code got off the ground. As a magazine, MAD was displayed on the magazine racks in stores and not on spinner racks. It was intended for older audiences and thus beyond the control of the Code. Bill and Kurtzman got into a heated argument over ownership of the magazine, which the artist-writer-editor had created. Gaines fired Kurtzman. Then Bill hired Feldstein to run MAD for him. With Feldstein back on board, after his dismissal only a few months earlier, something strange happened altogether.

 

When you look at pictures of William Gaines taken at the end of the 1960s, you see a happy man, and a man who appears completely changed. Still wearing horn-rimmed specs and still a bit overweight, he nevertheless seems much healthier. His awkward, sometimes uncomfortable stare has given way to a friendly, mischievous attitude. At the end of his forties, he wears his graying hair at shoulder-length, as it was the fashion of that time with college students. He sports an overgrown, gray beard which makes us think of a department store Santa Claus, and still the atheist, according to satirical writer Frank Jacobs who at one point in time was a prolific author for MAD as well, Gaines once told a reporter that his was probably the only home in America in which children were raised to believe in Santa Claus, but not in God. Things had certainly changed for Gaines, and in turn, they’d changed him. In the midst of his own little company almost falling apart around him and well-nigh the whole comic book industry with it, the Code had done its part and now comic books had to compete with the medium of choice television, Bill had married his girlfriend Nancy Siegel. The couple had three children together, two daughters, Cathy and Wendy, and one son, Christopher, born in 1961. Seeing Gaines with his children you wouldn’t think of him as their father necessarily. Not for the age difference, which seems much smaller than the years might indicate for the youthfulness and enthusiasm Gaines exudes, but for the fact that this guy in these pictures seems too cool to be a Dad who’s on some excursion with his children. Not that Gaines comes across as a swinging bachelor, far from it. Instead he looks like a hip uncle who is up for all kinds of fun. Meanwhile, MAD had evolved. EC’s sole publication sold unprecedented numbers. Its circulation would eventually reach 2.8 million units per month in the States alone, but by then, the satirical magazine was a global sensation as well. MAD had become part of the zeitgeist. So had Bill, who was relaxed enough to play the role of a good-natured patriarch. Attending early fan conventions regularly, Bill stayed visible to the fans who’d grown up with reading the horror, crime and science fiction comics, but to the public at large Bill Gaines was known as the guy who created MAD or at least as the guy responsible for MAD, the irony being of course, that he had little to do with the magazine. The success of the magazine had come as a totally shock to him, an accomplishment that was mainly due to Al Feldstein’s editorial vision. When Gaines and Kurtzman parted ways, Kurtzman took the art team with him, except for Wally Wood. This gave Feldstein, who had had much success with editing Panic, and who’d made many suggestions for MAD, a clean slate. Now at the helm, Feldstein felt that the magazine needed a mascot which would make it instantly recognizable. Hugh Hefner had achieved this with the bunny icon he chose for Playboy, and this was something Hefner had learned from his former place of employment, Esquire, which used a unique mascot as well. Feldstein had something different in mind, though, and he sketched out some of his ideas. Then he hired artist and illustrator Norman Mingo to finalize what he’d come up with. Once he saw the finished character portrait, Feldstein knew they were on to something. All that was missing was a name. MAD’s new editor decided to give their new mascot the name he’d sometimes used when writing for one of the Picto-Fiction books, EC Comics’ short-lived foray into the magazine market, Alfred E. Neuman. With this, MAD had a face now and a highly identifiable character. MAD’s success brought about its own unique set of problems for Bill once Feldstein had doubled the circulation by the late 50s. To avoid a huge tax bill on the surplus, Bill Gaines sold the magazine to a textile machinery manufacturer while sheltering profits and still retaining full control as publisher. According to Al Feldstein though, he was a publisher in name only. Not for any lack of power over the magazine, Gaines had made sure that he was the boss as far as his contractual rights were concerned, but for a lack of interest. Quite easily he slipped back into same the stance he’d taken after his father had died and he’d taken over EC Comics. Again, Gaines was just there to sign the checks. As Feldstein put it in an interview with M.C. Ringgenberg for The Comics Journal: “I don’t think Bill ever really understood MAD. I mean he understood the horror and the science fiction [comic books]. He participated completely on the crime stuff. He was part of the creative effort and he felt part of it. But MAD was something he had no feeling for. He enjoyed it as a fan, but I had full rein. When the magazine went to press, he would get the dummy, the mechanicals, and he would read it for the first time. He had no idea what was going to be in it or anything like that.” Still, to the public, Gaines was Mr. MAD, and the persona he’d created for himself, supported the claim. This wouldn’t have been possible had he not shed the defensive, nervous, sweaty image that he offered only few days after he’d turned thirty-two to the Senate Subcommittee, the media and the public while he tried to defend comic books during the televised hearings on Juvenile Delinquency. Despite that by the late 60s he’d perfectly cultivated his act as a cool dude who ran a humoristic comic book magazine and who took his young children on exciting trips, people were unaware that there was yet another Bill Gaines behind the scenes as he also kept things on the QT about his private life he didn’t want broadcast like his flailing attempt at saving the freedom of speech in comic books once was. Without any fanfare, he and his second wife Nancy divorced in 1971. Bill remained single for many years, before he married again in 1987 at the age of sixty-five. As far as his magazine was concerned, as fate would have it, it did change hands a few times until it was acquired by what at first seemed like another unlikely suitor. The 60s were the times of huge conglomerates, erstwhile medium-sized ventures that through mergers and acquisitions, quickly grew in size and scope; the idea being that you needed a finger in every pot. Steve Ross, the maverick tycoon behind the Kinney National Company had started on this track originally. He had begun his career as a funeral director for his father-in-law who owned the largest funeral company in the United States. Ross moved Riverside Memorial Chapel quickly into the car rental business and he was successful in his bid to install himself as the head of the newly formed business. He then merged it with the Kinney Parking Company which in turn merged with a major cleaning company for office space, the National Cleaning Contractors, Inc. After another acquisition, he took his expanded company public. And then he completely changed his strategy. Instead of any further horizontal expansion, he began to favor what today is called “vertical integration”. In short order Ross bought a talent agency and National Periodical Publications, the company under which Harry Donenfeld had consolidated his many holdings. Donenfeld, who once had served as Max Gaines’ backer in All-American Comics, died two years earlier in ‘65. The financial interests of the Donenfeld family were handled by Jack Liebowitz, the man who, on Donenfeld’s insistence, had become Max’s business partner when he’d provided the funds to found All-American. Until Harry had bought Max out. On its surface, by buying National, Ross not only gained the rights to the Superman character (and to all the other highly valuable and very marketable superheroes in the pantheon of fictional characters that one day would be known as the DC Universe) but he gained a huge distribution network, since via its holdings National Periodicals Publications owned Independent News, one of the largest distributor of print publications in the U.S at that time. To add a proven money-maker like MAD and its parent company EC Comics to the portfolio not only made strategic sense, but with Independent News’ distribution muscle and Al Feldstein’s ingenuity, this was when MAD Magazine really took off. Through it all and most surprisingly if you look at the photos of this relaxed guy with the long hair and the gray Santa Claus beard, Gaines stayed on top and in control, perhaps his greatest trick.

 

After he’d been branded as the boogeyman of the entire comic book industry or more precisely, all that was wrong with comic books according to the media and certain interest groups, due to Ross’ aggressive acquisition strategy, Gaines now found himself on the board of directors of Kinney National. Though he had no controlling stake in EC or MAD any longer, Bill was still in control of the magazine, no small feat if one considers how hands-on Ross’ management style was, and especially in light of what came next. In short order, Ross had Kinney buy Warner Bros.-Seven Arts, the once powerful movie studio known as Warner Brothers that since had long lost most of its former luster, but which still had bought Atlantic Records prior to the corporate take-over. Not to be outdone, Ross also made sure that Kinney acquired Elektra Records and Nonesuch Records. Via Kinney National Steve Ross now controlled a growing media empire and he re-named the new company as Warner Communications Inc. And by sheer coincidence, precipitated by Ross’ hunger for vertical growth, both Jack Liebowitz, the head of National/DC Comics and the former business partner of Max Gaines, and Bill Gaines now sat on the board of what one day soon would become one of the biggest media conglomerates in the United States and around the world. Liebowitz, born as Yacov Lebovitz to dirt-poor Ukrainian parents and Bill Gaines, the son of the guy who had invented comic books but who beat his son mercilessly, and who was known for ruining the comic book industry, at least according to some editors at DC Comics, had certainly come a long way. Yet there was more, still. According to Feldstein, surprisingly, Ross and his executives left Gaines and by extension MAD Magazine well alone: “Nobody came near us, not even the Warner Communications Group. There was a mystique that Bill had built up around him and his

Editor Al Feldstein works on page layouts in his office at Mad magazine’s New York headquarters, Jan. 5, 1972. That’s Mad mascot Alfred E. Neuman portrayed on the wall. (AP Photo/Jerry Mosey)

staff that we don’t get touched.” And through it all, Bill managed to maintain the image of an affable, humorous fellow around the public and his own family. According to New York Times writer James Barron “He was not a pinstripes-and-suspenders type but a shaggy, rumpled man in baggy trousers and stringy hair” which was “styled by the force of gravity” as Frank Jacobs put, the man who wrote a biography about Gaines. However, that was exactly the kind of corporate uniform Bill used to wear in his mid-twenties while he was running EC Comics and he put out ghastly horror titles. Back then, his hair was cropped short and his suits were immaculately pressed. But that was then. Unsurprisingly, Barron makes scant mention of Gaines’ past where it doesn’t directly relate to MAD in the obituary he penned for The New York Times when Gaines died on June 3, 1992 at the age of seventy. Other than a rather brief mention about his earlier success with horror comics and the subsequent hearings in front of the Senate Subcommittee, which Barron interestingly and perhaps falsely or at least with an over-simplified view, links to McCarthyism, Gaines tenure as comic publishers falls between the cracks of history as far as the obituary is concerned, and the same happened in other papers that took the occasion to honor William Gaines as the man who published MAD Magazine. What emerges is the portrait of a fellow who was funny and fun to be around and who, according to himself, created “the atmosphere”, albeit an incomplete picture. Chances are that Bill would have been pleased that this was how he was remembered in the media and then via the media in the public consciousness. So completely was he in control of his image as a 240-pound buffoon with greasy hair who at one time treated his entire staff to a trip to Haiti, where MAD had exactly one subscriber, that only after his death his youngest daughter Wendy learned about his dark past. Clearly, it was something Bill Gaines wasn’t discussing with his second family or any of his families. He and his first wife Hazel had divorced before he really took hold of EC Comics and at the time his oldest daughter Cathy was born, his first child and his first child from his second wife Nancy, he was in the midst of selling his company and the magazine with it. When Wendy found out that her father had published lurid horror and science fiction comics in the early 1950s, this must have felt akin to a sibling learning about the illegitimate child of one of his or her parents, a child that is never mentioned and widely ignored by those who know about it. Only then did Wendy arrive at a full portrait of the man who was her father. Yet strangely or maybe not so strange after all, when Al Feldstein died on April 29, 2014 at the age of eighty-eight, The New York Times, again, in their obituary, dedicated most of the article to his time as editor of MAD. The fact that Feldstein did shape the fortunes of EC Comics very early on in many creative ways, is glossed over quickly by bundling his actual contributions and his achievements by naming him the creator of titles such as Weird Science, Weird Fantasy and “and several other horror and suspense titles.” It’s very likely that this wouldn’t have pleased the late Mr. Feldstein who always felt he wasn’t given enough credit, especially for his writing: “The interesting thing is that in all these stories I wrote I never got actual credit for writing, although little by little fans have discovered that [I wrote] all of those early stories.” It is worth mentioning that Feldstein immediately began writing his own material when he joined EC Comics in ‘48, and from 1950 through 1953, he edited and wrote stories for seven bi-monthly EC titles. He also drew thirty-one stories during the late 1940s and early 1950s and he did at least forty-seven covers for EC. Even when EC began to take on other freelance writers again, something they hadn’t since the late 40s, writers like Jack Olek, Carl Wessler and the great Otto Binder, a long-time veteran of the pulp era, Feldstein claimed that his fingerprints were all over these stories as well, as he told S.C. Ringgenberg: “Still, they were completely rewritten.” While his tenure as editor of MAD lasted from 1956 until ‘84, his work on the earlier stories for the EC comics line was groundbreaking in many ways, yet clearly, not only in the eyes of the public via publications like The New York Times, Feldstein is best known for the cultural impact he made with MAD. And in all fairness, it was MAD that made him independently wealthy. Not too pleased that Gaines hadn’t given him a share of the magazine before he sold the company in the late 50s, Bill came through, nevertheless. The publisher gave his star editor a contract that guaranteed Feldstein a fixed percentage of MAD’s monthly gross sales, a contract that was never changed even when MAD changed hands. This made Feldstein one of the highest-paid editors in America with only a few exceptions like Hugh Hefner.

 

When Gaines took over for his dominant, abusive father at the request of his mother Jessy, apart from office manager Sol Cohen, he had a motley crew of artists and writers. Some veterans and young talents who’d been with the company for a while like Sheldon Moldoff, Johnny Craig, and pulp magazine legend Gardner Fox, and some journeymen like Sid Check or George Roussos. He’d be soon joined by men like Graham Ingels and the team of Wally Wood and Harry Harrison (the latter would eventually be replaced by Joe Orlando). But the pieces were not in place, yet. Bill Gaines was still following not so much trends as he was following other comic book publishers who were following trends. Nearly two years before he’d hire Wally Wood (who was freelancing for publisher Avon at that time, doing science fiction books), Gaines sent word to a promising artist who used the moniker Bill Brown for one series he was working on and Jed Duncan for another. The artist was only twenty-two years old, three years younger than Bill, when he approached him with the help of Jim Wroten, a letterer who was also working for EC Comics. Wroten let it slip that the scuttlebutt on the publisher the artist was currently freelancing for, was such that he was strapped for cash and that he might not be able to pay his freelancers, which was true. The self-proclaimed “King of Comics”, Victor Fox had always operated a fly by night outfit, called Fox Feature Syndicate, but not only was he a penny-pincher, the publisher also relied on increasing sales to pay his artists retroactively, artists who more often than not rendered the work months ahead of time. Comic books were a returnable item, though, and it wasn’t unusual for retailers to return half of the units they had ordered in any given months. They needn’t be careful with their numbers when ordering since they wouldn’t be stuck with the unsold inventory. With around six hundred different comic books to choose from, the market was already oversaturated with a glut of product. This was owed mostly to the huge boom comic books had seen during the war period when comics began to feature patriotic heroes and heroines, clad in colorful costumes, or brave reporters and fearless district attorneys who paid a closer watch to the home front for any enemy spies, and even G.I.s got into reading those four-colored books which cost next to nothing but offered many exciting thrills and pure escapism. Thus, comic books had quickly supplanted pulp magazines in popularity. And it was not a fair fight to begin with. After being a thing that other than a few die-hard sci-fi nerds would ever touch with a pole in the 1920s, the 30s saw the pulp magazines’ rise to popularity among the general audience, especially young men. For one, the covers became much more lurid and often showed scantily attired young women in situations in which they were bound or tortured or both and the stories themselves were pushing the content towards the pornographic. These were also the days of the depression during which cheap thrills offered the right kind of escapism. This era saw the dawn of the vigilante heroes (often proto-anti-heroes) like The Spider or The Shadow (who had originated as a narrator of a radio program) who meted out their special brand of justice as they saw fit. And for those readers who wanted their crimefighters and adventurers a bit cleaner and in the All-American mold, there was always Doc Savage. This mixture of sex, violence and flying bullets proved intoxicating and too good to pass up even when your funds ran low. However, this caused certain interest groups to start campaigns against the highly sexualized pulp magazines and the companies that peddled this kind of smut. Local Politicians, sensing this was a platform they could seize for their campaigns, passed legislation that imposed restrictive moral guidelines on these cheap thrills. Pulp publishers countered with a wide variety of cleaner sci-fi pulps, but meanwhile many of them had established separate lines for comic titles. These were more often than not also science fiction themed, but this was also the time when comic books and especially superhero comic titles became increasingly popular. Comic books weren’t yet regulated since nobody paid attention to these four-color pamphlets which were market to children. With America entering into the war, violence, racism and sexism, and a combination of all three, were being served up in these funnies. It didn’t take long before older readers began to pay attention, those that had made up most of the pulps’ audience. And when comics became available via the PXs at the army bases, enlisted men began to read comics as well. But not only weren’t comics widely unregulated whereas the pulps had turned into a more bland affair, comics books came with pictures, and to meet the appetites of their mostly male readers, these were very often realistically drawn images of young women albeit with special attention given to a highly stylized, hyper-sexualized fetishization of the female anatomy. Unsurprisingly, comic books quickly started to outsell any old pulp magazine that required you to use your imagination apart from the cover and a few crude, hand-drawn interior illustrations. Artists who understood the female form, or who at least could draw very attractive girls, were clearly in high demand. This explains why, at the relatively young age of fifteen, Al Feldstein was hired by Jerry Iger who ran a studio which packaged complete comic books for publishers. This was in fact Iger’s second venture, the S.M. Iger Studio, founded after he and his business partner Will Eisner had ended their cooperation. Little could Iger know that in many years his grand-nephew Robert would become the long-time CEO of a much-changed Disney Company, nor could he foresee the tremendous impact his latest recruit would have on the entire comic book industry and comic magazine publishing. To Iger, Feldstein was just another set of hands around the office, except for the fact that the teen, who was still attending the High School of Music and Arts, had a special talent for drawing gorgeous women with highly accentuated figures, amply endowed chests and extremely long, shapely legs. And since Iger told him “You’ll learn from what passes in front of your face”, and Feldstein was still in high school, he drew teenage girls and he drew them especially well. After doing some art clean-up first, Feldstein soon began to assist artist Robert Hayward Webb at the studio. Webb was working on the Sheena, Queen of the Jungle series at the time. The blonde, long-legged Sheena was immensely popular since she’d made her debut in the pages of the first issue of Jumbo Comics in 1938. After initially handled by Will Eisner and Mort Meskin, meanwhile artist Bob Powell was doing the artwork to great acclaim. With Powell at the helm, Sheena had the look of a cool, reserved classic movie beauty and his very clean, appealing art was easy to follow for young readers. With issue No. 28 (1941) Robert Webb took over for what would be a long run. Webb immediately made sweeping changes. The blonde jungle queen soon began to look like a pin-up girl, the variation young Air Force pilots would soon paint on their fighter jets. With Webb responsible for the artwork, Sheena soon switched from a mini-skirted leopard fur outfit to a leotard that was more in line with superhero costumes and offered a much better look at her nice, athletic legs. With America in the throes of the war, ropes, whips, knifes and other types of instruments of bondage and torture were featured much more heavily in the series as was rampant racism. The splash by Webb for issue No. 44 (1942) showed Sheena’s companion impaling an African man from behind with his knife which penetrated even the front of the poor man’s torso. The native was wearing earrings, a long bone through his nose and a tiny loincloth to fulfill the racial stereotypes, and of course, he was in the midst of torturing the blonde jungle heroine who was tied upside down over a bucket of water. An assortment of naked skulls was neatly stacked around the incapacitated woman. Webb gave the strip a movie serial quality and his art was more exciting than it needed to be which also meant that Bob needed a capable assistant. With Sheena’s popularity at an all-time high, Fiction House, Jerry Iger’s customer for the strip, ordered a second title that would display her even more prominently. Naturally, the studio boss tapped his star artist Webb. When Sheena No. 1 hit spinner racks in the Spring of 1942, readers not only found out that this new series was solely about the blonde jungle queen who looked like a mix between movie stars Lana Turner and Rita Hayworth (Jumbo Comics was an anthology title that featured many different strips) but that except for one page, the art for the sixty-four page issue was handled by the same artist, Webb. Through it all, there was Al Feldstein in the mix: “I started to do palm trees and vegetation, and then he let me do the leopard spots on Sheena’s breasts and crotch, on her costume, which was added after the fact. Webb drew her stark naked.” While also advancing his art skills, his work for Wedd made a huge impression on the young aspiring artist as comic historian Bill Mason points out: “Webb’s gritty, textural style and slightly blocky figures rubbed off on Feldstein, as did some of his characteristic poses and facial expressions and his treatment of the voluptuous, full-figured Sheena.” The teenager learned early on what was selling. But his apprenticeship under Webb provided him with many further insights.

 

When Feldstein worked for other artists in Iger’s shop, he quickly brought what he’d learned from Webb to the table, which fit nicely with what he liked as well: drawing beautiful women. When he later worked with John Forte on the Glory Forbes strip which appeared in Rangers Comics, he incorporated what he had learned from Webb. Case in point, issue No. 39 (1948) in which the busty heroine finds herself at a wealthy ski resort, only to learn that even at this posh place there were some criminal elements around. Still, Feldstein and Forte didn’t let the moment go by without finding an opportunity for the heroine to rid herself of her bulky ski outfit by page two and to prance around in her luxurious French underwear and high heels with peep toes. While Glory put on her shoes, with the way Feldstein drew her long legs, he needed to rule the panel with a steep angle to fit them in, further testament to how well Feldstein understood his audience. Ranger Comics was another production for Fiction House, which had originally started as a publisher for pulp magazines. By the early 1940s, Fiction House and other pulp publishers, like the corporate entities that one day soon would become Marvel Comics and DC Comics, knew that the writing was on wall. Pulps were losing market share fast. Comic books were the hot new thing. Thus, publishers of pulp magazines jumped with both feet into this new market and they either hired in-house staff to produce comic books or they had shops like Iger’s create content for them. In this boom market artists were in high demand and they were paid really well, like twenty dollars per page just for pencils. This was a huge amount of money, especially for work Feldstein enjoyed doing and especially when one considers that he came from humble surroundings: “My folks could hardly afford to give me the money for the subway fare, no less money for dates, so I had to seek ways of earning money.” When Feldstein graduated from high school, he was granted a scholarship to the Art Students League. He had made up his mind as far as his future career was concerned. While attending evening classes at the Art Students League, he enrolled at Brooklyn College to become an art teacher. This was the time during which many men’s plans for the future got interrupted by the war. Feldstein, who’d married his girlfriend and long-time high school sweetheart Clair Szep, and who’d soon become the father of two girls, enlisted in the Air Force. Upon receiving his discharge, he intended to go back to college, but he also needed to support his family. With time left before the start of the new semester, he went back to Jerry Iger’s shop, where a guy with his talent was in huge demand. Iger quickly moved him to doing pencils. While Feldstein now was handed the opportunity to make a name for himself, he also began to freelance which meant more money. Meanwhile, the world around him had changed. As he had already seen when working for Iger on the Sheena strip, gender roles could change quickly. Whereas Sheena had been seen in bondage and in need of rescue by her male companion in Jumbo Comics No. 44, the cover for the next issue showed the two of them in reversed roles. Now it was the blonde jungle goddess who burst onto the cover with a long knife in one of her raised hands while her companion, black-haired Bob Reynolds, who looked as pretty as a matinee idol, was at her bare feet and in bondage. And this wouldn’t be the exception. Soon, Bob would be in all kinds of trouble and in need of rescue by the scantily clad, statuesque blonde who under Webb’s pencils and inks oozed strength, athleticism and a raw sex appeal which was only partially concealed by a veneer of 1940s movie star glamour. Webb wasn’t alone. The cover for Jumbo Comics No. 54 was penciled and inked by a fellow artist at Iger’s studio, Rafael Astarita. This talented artist was good friends with a penciler who would cross Feldstein’s path a few years later, though they never met during their stints at the shop. Astarita’s friend was Graham Ingels who had taken over a strip Astarita had vacated to do more cover work for the Fiction House titles. On the cover, Sheena is slinking across the rough hide of a huge, gray elephant with one arm and hand almost casually resting on the animal’s head while she holds a long spear in her other hand with a metal spearhead that guides the eyes of the readers along her long legs and her naked feet. Bob has been captured by natives. Only one of the dark-skinned men is needed to force Sheena’s beau into a submissive position. The muscular Reynolds didn’t fare any better in the tale itself. With Sheena fighting some wild beasts and indigenous slavers, Bob did a lot of stumbling around. When Sheena leads a tribe to freedom on the last panel, which Robert Webb presented in astonishing wide-screen fashion, she stands tall and points to the vast, lush vista that lies beyond the mountains, bathed in the sunlight of a new day. It is not Reynolds who is allowed to stroke her bare legs, but her pet chimpanzee Chim has this exclusive right, all the while Reynolds is busy with cowering at her feet. This jungle was Sheena’s land and her beau just lived there. Jumbo Comics No. 54 is also interesting for the house-ads it featured. On the backside of the front cover you got an ad for yet another Fiction House anthology title, Fight Comics. While the book featured Rip Carson, Chute Trooper and Hooks Devlin, Devil-Dog Detective, the full-page advertisement made abundantly sure that readers knew who the breakout star of this series was. Naturally the ad highlighted the most popular character in the Iger produced anthology series with a full-body, head-to-toe drawing. She was Señorita Rio, “The world’s most devastating secret agent. Nightmare of Axis operators…” And indeed, the gorgeous raven-haired lady spy used her wit as well as her body to get what she wanted, while the artists, chief among them the incredibly talented Lily Renée, a stunning beauty herself and a refugee from war-torn Austria, knew how to get the latter aspect across in the most sensationalistic manner. A second house-ad which came near the end of the issue and which showed you every book on sale for the month by the publisher negated the idea that the ladies were on top. Except for the cover for Jumbo Comics No. 54, all women featured on the other covers were in some form of bondage or in the midst of getting snatched by some foreign looking men while their tiny dresses were in violent disarray. Yet you only needed to look to the titles offered two months hence to see how fluid the theme of gender roles had become. The cover of Jungle Comics, Jumbo Comic’s companion series which featured a male jungle hero, presented Kaänga about to rescue his black-haired girlfriend Ann Mason who was clad in the tiniest fur bikini imaginable, while the cover artist, Rafael Astarita again, made her appear like a dead ringer for actress Ava Gardner. It wouldn’t be the only cover for the month that depicted a damsel in distress. But next to Sheena, once again on a rescue mission of her own, this time to save a dark-skinned indigenous beauty from a gigantic boar with blood dripping from her knife, there was space heroine Gale Allen who fearlessly fired a ray-gun at an alien beast which had abducted a green-skinned girl. With the men off to fight a war overseas, things had begun to change on the home front. Comics began to reflect a gradual shift in the American society. Now comic books were teaching their girl readers that they could be the hero, too. And what twelve-year-old teen girl who checked herself in a full-length mirror did not like the idea that she could be beautiful and a heroine like Sheena or Gale Allen who threw their spears or fired their ray-guns and saved the guys instead of needing rescue? It was indeed an intoxicating power fantasy brought to you by Fiction House and other publishers of these four-colored dreams. But what seemed outlandish and exotic, and only seemed to exist in these cheaply printed pamphlets, became so much more real, even tangible, when you were a bit older and you went to the movies. Male film stars began to change, too.

 

Like Sheena’s beau had become weaker by comparison, so had the men it seemed, those who were not fit to serve and also those who came home from the war. And at the movies you saw this most clearly with films that were ostensibly marketed as crime thrillers, but which featured alluring, highly seductive women, and thus were very much geared at the young soldiers who’d just left military service and were in the midst of re-adjusting to civilian life and their careers. Suddenly, like Sheena’s lover Bob Reynolds on the cover for Jumbo Comics No. 54, men were no longer supremely confident or in control. Instead these emotionally wounded men had become playthings for a new type of manipulative women. These women were married to the wrong guy for the wrong reasons, or they wanted more from life now that they’d had a real taste of it with their boyfriends and husbands gone. It seemed like they’d walked right in from the stores, the offices and the apartment buildings of the big city, but soon you would also find them in the new suburbs with the prim and proper front yards and their picket fences. And they walked onto the movie screen from the novels of journalist turned writer James M. Cain. There was Cora, from “The Postman Always Rings Twice”, portrayed by a young Lana Turner. And Jane Greer, the blonde who ruined Robert Mitchum in “Out of the Past”, and many more. But ultimately, there were two roles and two distinctly different actresses who would arguably define this new woman on the silver screen, and each of them represented polar opposites of the women who’d soon be called “femme fatales”. In Billy Wilder’s adaptation of Cain’s “Double Indemnity” you encountered Barbara Stanwyck’s Phyllis who has been around the block a few times. She knows what she wants and how to get it, from any gullible man. When Stanwyck struts through a supermarket with its stacked shelves, clad in a clingy sweater and an even tighter pencil skirt, wearing sunglasses and high heels and red lipstick on her lips, she took a flame-thrower of hardly contained sexual energy to the comfortable consumerism of post-war America and to the male ego alike. Insurance salesman Walter Neff, with whom Phyllis strikes up an affair but who’s ultimately her tool to rid herself of her wealthy husband, is not naïve, either. He too has been hardened by life. But such is the power of the alluring web she spins, that even while he figures out how cruel she is, he cannot escape her, more so, this only makes her more appealing and irresistible to him. Through it all, Phyllis plays it straight as she deceives Walter at the same time. “We’re both rotten”, she says to him and his reply left little doubt that Neff knew who was in control: “Only you’re a little more rotten.” Stanwyck’s Phyllis was indeed rotten to the core, and shockingly so, she liked it this way. Poor Walter never stood a chance. Whereas Phyllis was the modern, assertive, post-war woman every man needed to fear and so desperately wanted at the same time, out of lust and some unspecified guilt at the back of his head, there was Rita Hayworth’s Gilda, the ultimate good girl gone bad, lust personified. Whereas Phyliss hated her life and her husband and she took the first chance she saw to break out from her cage, albeit by stepping over Walter Neff’s back, as it turned out, the titular protagonist of the movie “Gilda” (1946) knew how to play this game a bit better. In fact, both protagonists did. There was Gilda and then there was her former beau, hustler Johnny Farrell, played by ruggedly handsome Glenn Ford. Here you had two incredibly attractive people who couldn’t be with each other since they were both too intense and strong-willed, but as it turned out, they were not able to let the other go either. This wasn’t a movie shot against the backdrop of post-war political dealings in Buenos Aires, but a nature documentary film about nocturnal creatures caught up in an existential struggle of lust and raw hate. And once these two got married, it only got worse. Shot by Charles Vidor, Columbia Pictures’ lead director at that time, this was a dark version of Casablanca, and it also culminated in a musical number. When Hayworth performs “Put the Blame on Mame” to a captivated, mostly male audience at the casino her husband Johnny has taken over from Gilda’s late husband after his apparent suicide in a plane explosion, and the red-haired actress has Gilda seductively removes her satin opera gloves during the iconic dance scene, Hayworth’s larger than life image up on the silver screen was surely burned into the minds of a generation of young men, including Feldstein’s. This type of movies, much later dubbed film noir by a bunch of young French film critics, were only about crime on the surface. These were relationship dramas about how men and women related to each other during the immediate post-war days. In “Double Indemnity” you had the bad girl who wanted to be on top and who used her sex appeal to make sure that this was where she’d end up. In “Gilda” you had the good girl who behaved badly because being in love didn’t mean that any guy could control and own her. She wouldn’t be tamed. Feldstein took it all in and filed it in his memory.

 

This hotbed of men, made deeply insecure by their war experiences and the changed world they found themselves in once they returned home, and of women who were in control of their economic mobility, for they’ve had a taste of what financial independence meant, and thus were now very much in control of their sexuality, had to make an impression on an artist who earned his living with drawing ladies who looked like beauty queens. And with the easy money he quickly earned, he put off going back to college for the time being. Ironically, Feldstein was like a college football player who got tempted by the bright lure of fast money that some agent in a flashy car dangled right in front of him. Though Iger meanwhile paid him quite nicely, a chance meeting with a former writer for Jerry Iger, back when he and Will Eisner were still operating a comic production shop together, set him on a path to a future in which his name and EC Comics would be irrevocably linked with each other. The guy in question was Robert Farrell who was born as Izzy Katz to the same humble beginnings as Feldstein himself. The difference being, that in the meantime Farrell had set up his own fledgling comic book enterprise called Farrell Publications, and he drove a convertible Cadillac, which mightily impressed Feldstein who was just twenty-one years old at the time. Obviously, it had not escaped Bob Farrell’s attention where Feldstein’s talent lay, and while he could have offered the young, somewhat naïve artist some assignments at his own company, he had a different plan in mind. Farrell had a buddy who also ran a comic book company and he could introduce the artist to this man and he’d make sure that Feldstein got a steady stream of work at a better rate, if only Feldstein would cut him in on a percentage of any future payments he made based off of Farrell’s initial introduction. Feldstein, who now had his own little family to support, readily agreed and soon he began to work for Victor Fox. Little did Al suspect that Farrell was an opportunist and that in a few years he would jump at the chance to wretch control over the only viable character Victor Fox ended up with from under his nose and for a song, namely the Phantom Lady who by then had been forced by the new guideline i.e. the recently established Comics Code, to cover up her most impressive cleavage, this after Fox had his artist draw the statuesque, raven-haired heroine in a manner that it was surprising that she was not falling out of her tiny, low-cut top altogether. Fox, who counted artists like Matt Baker and Jack Kamen among his talent bench, the latter would later re-join Feldstein once they both landed at EC, put Feldstein immediately to work. What he had in mind was a teen romance comic that also made readers’ older brothers want to buy that particular book. Thus, Feldstein created Sunny, America’s Sweetheart, which he also wrote. In fact, while performing art and scripting duties for Fox, Feldstein quickly began to use different pseudonyms. For one, to conceal the fact that the artist of these stories was putting in a double shift as writer, something that was frowned upon and something he would do again once he’d write most of the stories that appeared in EC’s Picto-Fiction magazines, but also for the simple fact that the books Fox asked him to do were a bit on the sleazy side. While artists usually weren’t credited back then, they could always sign their work, though, the name of the scripter appeared on the splash page. Case in point with the first story in Sunny No. 1 (1947), Feldstein used the name Jed Duncan. While the interior art was very much cartoony and light-hearted and very much in line with other teen books you would find on newsstand at the end of the 1940s, Feldstein, at Fox’s behest, pushed the envelope a bit more on the covers. On the cover to this issue we find the titular blonde teen girl while she’s ice skating on a frozen lake. Sunny is clad in a short-skirted red skating outfit, and though she’s turned towards the prying eyes of every reader, her back is turned to a young boy who is definitely enjoying the scenery a bit too much. The teen girl stands on one leg only, and while she has her other naked leg lifted high up into the air with the back of her foot almost touching her head, her underage admirer hits puberty right at that very moment. Feldstein pulled off the near impossible: he managed to give Sunny a wholesome, innocent look while he imbued the girl with the first signs of a burgeoning sexuality. And this was as far as the young artist was willing to take matters with Sunny, an artist who’d barely left his own teen years behind, years spent with helping Bob Webb to draw a near-naked, blonde jungle queen. But then there was Junior, the series Feldstein created for Fox Feature Syndicate right out of the gate, a company that basically was one office with a desk and a telephone as the artist discovered once he began to freelance for the cigar smoking, chubby-faced, balding publisher. With Junior, the title character was a young guy. Feldstein obviously used the popular Archie character as his model for Junior. Archie Andrews and his friends had been around since the start of the decade and its publisher, MLJ Comics, would eventually even re-brand itself as Archie Comics, a testament to the popularity of its most valuable property. While the mischievous, red-headed high schooler had not one but two teenage girls who vied for his affection, neither he nor MLJ Comics had a Feldstein, and neither did they have a girlfriend like the one the artist gave to the somewhat hapless Junior Hancock. Working under the moniker Bill Brown, Feldstein set out to pull out all the stops to impress his new boss, and that he did and then some. Though this was a teen title, Feldstein gave Deena, Junior’s black-haired girlfriend, a distinctive adult look. The girl he presented to readers on six of the eight covers the artist-writer did for the series, had little in common with teens who attended high school, but instead she was made to look like one of those glamorous pin-up models whose pictures soldiers traded among each other or you were well-advised to hide under your bed and well away from your parents when you were a boy. Gorgeous Deena wore the tiniest of skirts that had no way of hiding her mile-long legs or she would find herself in situations in which her skirt blew up and she revealed the tops of her nylon stockings. And of course, she’d be wearing high heels and the tightest sweaters available. In fact, Feldstein paid so much attention to her breasts, which by the time the series had run its course had grown to a size that rivaled the size of her head, that soon there would be a term to describe the bosom of girl who was amply endowed. Clearly, no comic character was able to compete with Fox’s own Phantom Lady in that respect, at least not in the way Matt Baker drew her, but Feldstein surely took note and he was definitely swinging for the fences. And the blonde teenage girl he depicted on the other two covers he did for Junior was no chopped liver either. Other than with the Sunny series, which felt a bit more cartoony by comparison, Feldstein filled many panels of the interior art with girls in sweaters that looked like they were a size too small. It was exactly what Fox liked. But this was then.

 

By early 1948, the comic book market was in the midst of a change-over. Readers, not only young G.I.s who only had taken up the hobby while they had little else to do during their downtime at the barracks than to play cards, write their girlfriends and read comic books, began to outgrow comics fast. It would take an additional two to three years before a new generation of readers would show interest in these cheap thrills, albeit a much larger audience than ever before due to the baby boom after the war. With so many books still being published each month, clearly publishers had not adapted to this new reality. With an ever increasing number of books sent back to them as unsold (retailers only needed the return the covers themselves to claim full credit), once publishers learned that a specific genre was no longer in demand, they asked their artists or the shops that provided their content, to switch to the genre that was selling better. Superheroes, except for but a handful who showed some endurance, had long fallen by the wayside. Everybody was scrambling to hit on the type of book that fit readers changing appetites. When a popular creative team like Joe Simon and Jack Kirby would come up with an entirely new genre, something that hadn’t been done in comics, like romance comics, the entire market moved with them. Then there were the crime comics, chief among them Crime Does Not Pay, published by Lev Gleason, a title that still sold one million units per issue. Though there were some other genres which were at one time or another perceived as a new trend, like western comics, nothing touched those books that pitted criminals against upstanding police officers with the crooks losing as demanded by the morals of those days. That was until Simon and Kirby’s idea for a romance comic took hold. While these stories about young lovers who found each other despite some harmless misunderstanding along the way, might not have been that appealing to ten-year-old boys, here was a genre that spoke to young girls who saw that their older sisters were going out on dates with, gosh, boys. This also put teen romance books, the kind Feldstein was working on, on an upward trajectory. But much to his chagrin, a percentage of his pay as artist and writer still went to Bob Farrell per the contact he had brokered and based on the contract Al had so foolishly signed. Early in 1948, he heard from letterer Jim Wroten that due to his shady dealings and the increasing volatility of the entire comic book market, Victor Fox was in dire straits. Though the artist couldn’t know that Wroten de facto acted as an agent of Bill Gaines who had taken over EC Comics a few months earlier, he knew that working for Fox had become an uncertain proposition and one which tied him to a contract he’d soon regretted ever signing. Consequently, Al Feldstein made the trip to 255 Lafayette Street and to the offices that had once housed All-American Comics and which Gaines’ father Max had retained even after he’d sold his stake in the company. After he hadn’t showed much interest in the company, he’d taken over only because his mother had asked him to, meanwhile he’d developed a taste for working with the guys who freelanced for him. And the drawings of teen girls with long legs and a large breast size that Feldstein presented to him during their first meeting were indeed something he could sell and clearly, based on the work Feldstein was doing for Fox, the artist had the chops to put together a whole book on his own. Convinced that there was a market for teen comics that were a bit on the risqué side, and sure of Feldstein’s talent, he immediately drew up a contract the likes Feldstein hadn’t seen, and in fact, most creators wouldn’t see for decades to come if ever. Since Gaines couldn’t match the page rate Fox paid, theoretically at least, and not aware of the kick-back owed to Farrell, he hired Feldstein to package a new teen romance book for EC, and Feldstein would be in on a percentage of any gross sales. Very happy with this arrangement that was unheard of for any freelance artist, albeit an artist who could write his own material, Al Feldstein got down to brass tacks right away. The title he had in mind was Going Steady With Peggy, but the cover he penciled suggested anything but. The scene was the beach, a locale that offered the opportunity to have the title character in a tiny, strapless bikini. Of course, Peggy would be one of those buxom young women he by now had a lot of practice drawing, girls whose large breasts were nicknamed “headlights” by now. And like with Deena, Feldstein gave her legs that seemed a bit too long but were guaranteed to draw in the eyes of any reader. To keep things balanced, he drew four guys in swim trunks who goofed around in the background as they desperately tried to impress the pretty teen who was the center piece of the cover. Like Sunny and her sole admirer, Peggy and her four would-be suitors were awash in a sea of hormonal rage. And if there ever was some doubt that Peggy was still a teen, in the first story he drew, the writer-artist specified her age as fifteen. As with Sunny, he managed to give his heroine a sweet innocence. But then there was something else. In “Lashes for Lashes” readers would see Peggy and her girlfriend admire the beauty products that were on display in the window of a cosmetics store. Since Peggy wants to impress a boy, perhaps she wants to get some of that stuff, her friend suggests. Though Peggy acts a bit coy, the teen is quickly enamored with the false eyelashes she spies in the shop window. With the other girl spurring her on, Peggy and her almost as equally beautiful friend walk into the store to inquire about the lashes. The shop assistant, a much older guy, however is a condescending jerk: “Are you… going to masquerade? You look kind of young for this sort of thing!” This immediately drives Peggy mad who flips the money across the counter while she tells him: “Young! Why I’m almost sixt.. er… nineteen! The very idea!” The idea, indeed. Peggy was one headstrong girl you daren’t cross or say no to, and in a few years, a much more cynical Feldstein would write a tale that was a dark mirror image to Peggy’s encounter with an older man who questioned her. As for Peggy and her adventures, Feldstein’s hard work proved in vain, at least were the series and his new lucrative contract was concerned. Upon learning that teen romance titles weren’t doing so hot anymore, Gaines pulled the plug on the whole project, not the only time he would act like that. Still he offered to pay Feldstein for the work already done, but Feldstein sensing an opportunity and hitting it off with Gaines right away, tore up the contract, much to the publisher’s relief. For the first time in his career, Feldstein was in a winning position since he knew he’d deeply impressed Gaines, with his writing and his art and with the way he’d handled the situation with Peggy book. Like he’d hoped he would, Bill Gaines offered him the opportunity to work on other EC books, and perhaps Feldstein could write these stories as well. Once again, Feldstein got to work, and he also took stock of what EC was offering at that time. There were the crime books, War Against Crime! and Crime Patrol, modeled after the Gleason hit book. Then there were a few western and romance books, and an outlier, the superheroine title Gaines’ father had started with Sheldon Moldoff, Moon Girl and the Prince, which now was simply called Moon Girl. While Feldstein worked on most of these books, several things happened nearly at the same time. Sheldon Moldoff, a highly talented artist who had already worked for Gaines’ father Max during the All-American Comics days, suggested to Bill that perhaps they should try to do a horror comic. Gaines liked the idea and gave Moldoff a budget to package a first issue for him. But with crime and romance books still going strong, Bill once again cancelled another project midway. This was another drop in the bucket for Moldoff who already had an inkling that the best days of working for a Gaines were well in the past. Shortly thereafter, he left for National Comics. Soon, Moldoff would be working on a Batman series. EC did put out a horror story, though, their very first. “Zombie Terror”, written by Richard Kraus and drawn by Johnny Craig, appeared in Moon Girl No. 5, the penultimate issue before the title, which by now was an anthology book for all sorts of genre fare, changed its name. And one of EC’s competitors, American Comics Group, began to publish an entire series dedicated to horror and supernatural tales, Adventures Into the Unknown. And nobody took notice. Instead, Moon Girl was re-formatted into Moon Girl Fights Crime, a name change that lasted for two issues but yielded two of Moldoff’s best covers, his final work for EC and his calling card for better things to come while EC kept on following every trend in the market.

 

By the Fall of 1948, Al Feldstein was working as an editor for Bill Gaines and EC Comics as well. And this time, taking stock once more, he had the clout to make changes. While Bill Gaines had hired some highly talented artists in the meantime, he had let most of his freelance writers go. With Feldstein writing his own material, he now had two artist-writers, Feldstein and Johnny Craig. But Craig, who endlessly and often painstakingly labored over every detail, was an excruciating slow artist. Al recommended to Craig that they share art duties, which annoyed the ambitious artist who was a year older than Feldstein who now was his de facto boss, even though like Moldoff, Craig had already worked for Max Gaines before there even was an EC Comics. Not to confuse readers with this haphazard mix of two different art styles blended into one, the team chose the name F.C. Aljon as they set out to tell stories about rookie officers and their fight against crime. Needless to say, their artistic partnership didn’t last long. When working together one thing became apparent, though. They both were fans of hardboiled crime novels, and the works of James M. Cain and Jim Thompson in particular and they were both influenced by film noir. But even though they both identified the new type of female character, the “femme fatale” as a motif they both liked, Craig preferred the grittiness of the urban landscape whereas Feldstein approached stories like these from a much more melodramatic angle. In other words, Craig’s female characters owed much to Barbara Stanwyck’s Phyllis in Wilder’s “Double Indemnity”, whereas Feldstein, who worshipped the female form much more, something he had fetishized under Webb and in his teen romance books, liked his women with the kind of love-hate allure of Rita Hayworth’s Gilda. Consequently, Johnny Craig made his mark on the crime books while his artwork was improving by leaps and bounds, and Feldstein, who wasn’t obsessing over every detail, experimented with the romance books, which he infused with some of the cynical outlook towards relationships that soon would become a hallmark of his work as a writer. Whereas he drew every woman on the covers for A Moon, A Girl… Romance (the Moon Girl title by yet another name) as glamorous pin-up models who all looked like Sunny or Peggy but who clearly had lots of experience with false eyelashes, there was a sordidness that was immediately apparent but with one exception, the final issue. On the cover for issue No. 12 (cover dated March-April 1950), we encounter a young couple who upon closer inspection doesn’t look that young at all. They are on a park bench at night and in a loving embrace, but while the blonde Jerry has only eyes for Florence, the pretty brunette has her head turned away, though she is also not facing the reader. As Jerry professes his love to her in so many words, we are privy to Florence’s thoughts, and her thoughts are not with Jerry, but with the man she is married to, Harry who is in prison and who is set to be released the very next day. Florence was not an ingenue like Al Feldstein’s teen girls and she was not a sexpot like he made Deena out to be. The look on Florence’s face and her thoughts hinted at a reality that was much darker than stories about romance usually offered. Jerry and Florence were not star-crossed lovers who would find one another after a series of unfortunate, but rather minor misunderstandings. And if there was a naïve person on this cover, it was Jerry and not the girl Florence, who was a woman hardened by life. Whereas Florence looks rather mundane on this cover, especially in contrast to the blonde women we see on two of the other covers, young, statuesque women who are stretched out on a bed and a sofa to allow readers a very tantalizing view of their alluring, long-limbed bodies, Feldstein presents a different side of her once he opens the story with an almost unbroken full-page splash page. We see a full figure shot of Florence not unlike in the house-ad for Fight Comics and with Señorita Rio, though in this shot, she is an equally attractive woman in her stylish trench coat and her ankle boots and with movie star hair that is almost jet-black in Feldstein’s original pencil and ink drawing. This woman is not “The world’s most devastating secret agent” nor is she the “Nightmare of Axis operators.” She is an ordinary woman and her life is but a nightmare. While she has some that of glamour Feldstein clearly remembered from seeing Hayworth’s Gilda high up on the silver screen, as she holds up her little umbrella against the downpour which thus cannot touch her perfectly styled hair, her eyes are wet. We immediately know why. We know it from the title for the story, spelled out in letters made to look like heavy bricks, “Prison Widow”, and we get this from the stark, foreboding brick walls of the prison we see on the right side of the panel. The locked, arched gate to this prison seems like a hungry mouth, ready to devour any wretched soul who is on the wrong path, and the high guard towers with their blinking lights seem like eyes that are watching us. It is a place of lost men and lost love. Then there’s the tiny insert panel that shows us Florence while she’s at home, writing letters of longing to her incarcerated husband. Like what you got in so many of these romance books, it was all a big misunderstanding. It had to be. Harry was a decent, upstanding guy. She remembered her husband’s arrest and the trial, during which the owner of a gas station claimed that it was Harry, her Harry, who had held up the place. This feeble, old guy had no business operating a pump at night, let alone bear witness on the stand. His eyes simply couldn’t be that sharp. Even though Harry had told her and the law that he was innocent, they took him away. Then came the years, the long years of waiting. The pain was excruciating, this ache of loneliness and of physical separation. Florence wrote hundreds of letters to her husband who life and fate had cruelly taken away from her. At night she cried herself into sleep. Florence kept her social life to a minimum. Then one day, after so many years, Betty, her colleague at the department store she worked at, suggested that they go out and catch a movie. It would be ok to go out once, to take her mind off Harry and his situation, Florence told herself. But after the movie was over, right on cue there was Betty’s beau, ready to pick her up. But he wasn’t alone. He had brought a friend, a young, wide-eyed fellow named Jerry Saunders. Soon, Betty and her boyfriend excused themselves and she and Jerry were alone. Jerry insisted on walking her home, and he told her about himself. He’d just moved into the city and didn’t know many people. He was as alone as she was. Of course, Jerry tells her that he’d love to see her again, but she can only reject him. She is married, but this is something she cannot tell anyone lest there be questions. What about your husband, what about Harry? Jerry does phone her the next day, and to her own surprise, she agrees to meet him. She is ready to come clean, to tell him why they cannot be together, why there is no future for them, but Jerry does not want to hear her dark confession. Instead they kiss. In her mind she has begun to compare the two men, her husband and Jerry, Harry “had been more basic… cruder… but then Harry was crude”, and the gentle Jerry, with his blonde hair and a good-natured attitude. Florence realizes another thing, a dark secret that she’d hidden from herself for all this time: maybe she’d been attracted to Harry because he was rough and basic. Then again, maybe she’d never known what real love is like, what love is supposed to be like. Now it’s Florence who wants to see Jerry again, but we’re at the mid-point of this eight-pager and suddenly things begin to fall apart. When she gets home, Harry is on the phone. He’s made parole.

 

With her husband due in a just a few hours, there isn’t enough time to see Jerry again, to explain herself. But what is there to explain other than that she’s strung a perfectly decent guy along? With tears in her eyes she phones the nice young man to break off their affair, and no, there wouldn’t be an explanation. And then Harry is back, and he is in a chipper mood, not only because he’s out of the slammer, but he’s met some interesting fellas during the years of his incarceration. At night, Harry steals away instead of sharing the bed with her. They run into arguments quickly. This is when Florence finds out, that he was guilty of robbing the gas station, this is when she discovers the gun in Harry’s coat, and this is when her husband slaps her right across the face, so hard that Florence loses her balance and she falls to the floor in the bedroom they share. This was when she lost the balance of her life. Still, she doesn’t leave Harry. But her thoughts are with a different man: “It was horrible! I found myself thinking of Jerry, wondering whether he was thinking of me! Harry’s return had shattered any love I had for him! He was different… changed! He was hard and cruel… and I was caught!” Then, one night, all of this changes. Harry enters their apartment in a hurry. He’s killed somebody and they must scram, because the cops will be looking for him soon. He needs to get some cash from his associates first, he says, and he tells Florence to meet him at the airport in an hour. With Florence fearing that Harry might take her out of the country, this is her last chance to make things right with Jerry. Florence calls Jerry to tell him that she’s coming over to his place. She tells Jerry everything and of course he is there to console her and to tell her that she must leave Harry, her husband who is now a murderer. But Florence cannot leave Harry, she’s still tied to the past they’d shared, and she is still his wife. Once again, she says her good-byes to Jerry who reluctantly lets her go. But when she gets to the airport with her suitcase in hand, ready to leave the city and Jerry with it behind for good, there is an ambulance and she learns that a man has been shot. And then, for the last time she comes face to face with her husband Harry. He lies on his back on a stretcher. Harry is dead. The cops have shot him. This is when a friendly airline pilot tells Florence that she’d better hurry or she’ll miss her flight. But Florence, with her back turned towards him and tears flowing from her eyes has only a terse reply for him: “Oh… I… I’m not taking a plane! I… I just came here to… say good-bye to someone!” And then, clad in her long trench coat, only accompanied by the clicking sound of her heels, Florence slowly began to walk away from the eyes of the readers in what is a reversed shot of the splash page with which Feldstein started his tale. Florence has her back to us and the large building that is now to her left, a building with high towers with blinking lights, is the terminal of the airport. Florence is not going away and she isn’t going to visit her husband in jail. Her husband was dead. Her love was waiting for her in this city: “I turned and walked into the night, back to Jerry and my new life!” Happy end? With “Prison Widow”, Feldstein deftly blends a romance story with a film noir atmosphere thereby making a story about a woman who first meets the wrong guy and then the right one much more interesting than it needs to be to fulfill the required tropes of the genre. Shadows and negative space and Dutch angles were imported by Feldstein from expressionism which deeply informed the film noir movie genre which was all about the battles of the sexes dressed up as moody crime thrillers with nihilistic bent. And here we see the beginnings of what later would become his trademark style as a writer of crime stories. You had the crime angle, though the cops or Harry’s shady associates figure into the story only on a narrative level, not a visual one, but you are also presented with a broken relationship between ordinary people. You get a hint of the toxicity that pervades the marriage of Harry and Florence, something that is much more overt between Gilda and Johnny Farrell (the characters last name presenting an odd coincidence to the assumed name of Feldstein’s erstwhile “agent” Izzy Katz), but like with Johnny in “Gilda”, Harry (and by extension Bob Farrell), is as crooked as they come. But there is something else that the writer-artist would return to many times during his tenure at EC Comics: while it seems that Florence is in a submissive role, which is also supported by the shocking panel in which we see her on the floor, reeling from the slap she’s just received from Harry, and she sees herself as trapped, the scale of power is very much tipped in her favor. While Harry is in prison, Florence is free to strike up a relationship with a new guy she’s just met. When Harry is running for his life and he is out to secure the funds for their escape, Florence is meeting this other guy. But Feldstein makes certain that we understand that relationships are more complex than that while he’s fulfilling the tropes of common romance fiction. Throughout the tale we see Florence in tears many times, but like a virtuoso knows when play a certain high note at the right moment, these scenes do not appear indiscriminately, but serve to highlight specific moments in the script, almost like a musical sting that tells you that something is happening or about to happen and you better pay close attention. Florence is in tears twice on the first page, on the splash page when we see her standing in the rain outside the prison walls, and in the insert panel while she is writing one of her many letters to her husband. She’s again crying in the first three panels that make up the upper tier of the next page, a flashback sequence we see through her eyes in which she relives the ordeal of seeing her husband getting taken away from her by the law. In the next panel we find her sobbing again, only this time she’s alone in her bed, mentally and physically aching from loneliness. There’s just one more panel in this tier. Now we have Florence at her place of work, but Betty is also there. This is when Betty suggests that they go to the movies. The two chains of events are diametrically opposed to one another. In the arrest and trial scene, Florence is reacting to what is happening to her husband and she is helpless to do anything about it. All that remains for her is to believe in Harry’s innocence. When we see crying in her bed, this expression of despair quickly breaks away when she opens up to socializing with one of her colleagues from work which in turn leads to her meeting Jerry. It almost seems that her tears have willed this new option in her life into existence. In both instances, her tears accompany change. But she slowly begins to gain control over her life. Whereas she has no say in Harry’s arrest or his prison term, it is Florence who can yes or no to Jerry’s proposition, and she does, both and in reversed sequence. At first she tells him no when he asks, if he can see her again, but still she casts one longing glance out of her window with the thought “If I wasn’t married”, then she agrees to meet him again when he phones her up the next day, this despite her marital status. It is she who tells Jerry that it is alright if he kissed her. We see her again in tears when Harry phones her up to inform her that he’s coming home. Florence is once again not in control of what is happening around her. These aren’t tears of joy, but tears for her ruined plans with Jerry. While she cannot control the exterior situation, she can certainly control what is going on inside her, and these tears aren’t the same tears she shed when Harry was taken away from her, not only literally, but also figuratively. She weeps because her husband’s unscheduled release from prison spells the end of her own freedom, and she knows it. In a way, she is like many of the young girls who married before the war and then had to say good-bye to their husbands and who had begun to set up their own lives away from their parents and their new husbands as the months turned into years. It is a relationship she no longer wants, but she cannot leave behind either, because the reason still exists inside her. Whereas Jerry is a nice enough bloke who pays her many compliments, it’s Harry’s crudeness that had made her fall in love with him. When she learns that he did indeed commit the crime he was sent to prison for, she doesn’t cry a single tear, but instead takes this news in stride: “Then… go straight now! You’ve paid your penalty!”, she suggests. She isn’t leaving him but pleads with him. This is when Florence finds the gun in his coat. But even when he violently slaps her full force and she ends up at his feet and on the floor and she is crying again, she makes no move to leave nor does she tell us that she intends doing this. Florence still stays with Harry while she keeps thinking about Jerry. She isn’t so much concerned how he took the news of their sudden, unexplained break-up, but instead Florence wonders if “he was thinking of me!” Though she concludes that Harry “was different, changed! He was hard and cruel…”, we are not so certain. Was this not how Harry was all along? After all, this was not an innocent man who had ended up in jail because the old man had made a mistake when he’d identified Harry as the man who had held him up at his gas station at gun point. Even when he confesses to his wife that he’s just killed a man in what we assume was a heist gone wrong, Florence knows she will go with him no matter what. The tears we see her with this time are not for Harry or the poor fellow who got killed. Florence cries because she must say good-bye to Jerry for real, which is something Harry cannot know. She is still in tears when she phones up wide-eyed Jerry who welcomes her back with open arms while Florence is sopping some more. And Jerry buys the tale she’s telling him that Harry was now a changed man. This explains why nice guy Jerry can’t figure out why Florence is willing to go back to her husband, that she’s even willing to leave the country together with Harry, a man of whom Jerry now knows that he’s not just a stick-up artist but a cold-blooded murderer. Florence doesn’t hesitate. She calls herself a cab which drives her through the rain to the airport where Harry and she had agreed to meet. This is when she finds out that her husband has been shot to death. Now she’s in tears once more, though we have a hard time to know who she is crying for. But whereas the exterior circumstances have changed once more beyond her control, Florence is completely in control of the next steps she will make in her life. Though Jerry hadn’t figured out that Florence had been dishonest with him in more ways than one.

 

Most certainly, EC Comics could have gone on to publish books within the crime, romance and western genres like everybody else was doing during the end of the 40s. Yet as Feldstein’s complex, astonishingly mature approach to storytelling showed, as evidenced by stories like “Prison Widow”, at this point, the writer-artist had grown beyond following trends others set for him. Like Moldoff before him, Feldstein approached Gaines with the idea of doing something new: “Look Bill, why are we following these idiots and, when the trend dies, getting caught? Why don’t we innovate and why don’t we have people follow us?” Like Moldoff before him, Feldstein suggested that perhaps horror would be a good genre they may want to give a try. Apart from Avon’s one-shot Eerie and ACG’s Adventures Into the Unknown this was actually nothing new, but clearly something Feldstein had filed in his memory when he was working at Jerry Iger’s shop nearly a decade earlier. In fact, one of the strips that ran in Jumbo Comics was a horror-themed series called “The Ghost Gallery”. Though this was ostensibly a detective-mystery series when it premiered in issue No. 42 (1942), the scares came right out of the horror films that were very popular at that time, before the real terrors of the war made them pale in comparison and fall by the wayside. Yet back in the early 40s, “The Ghost Gallery” featured zombies, werewolves and evil ghosts galore, and as was to be expected from an Iger production for Fiction House, there needed to be the sexy and the required misogyny to entice young male readers. Case in point issue No. 44 (1942) which opened with a splash page of a pretty blonde waitress getting choked by the ghost of some old man in such a violent, brutal manner that her skirt hiked up and the poor woman involuntarily revealed the tops of her nylon stockings in her struggle to survive the vicious attack on her life. Originally started with Bob Hebberd as regular artist, the strip ran till March 1953, the month Jumbo Comics ended with issue No. 167. During its long run, “The Ghost Gallery” saw horror peak in the early 40s, go away and then boom in the early till mid-1950s. Amazingly, not only did this series take over the covers as well, once jungle girls became less popular than horror, Robert Webb, Feldstein’s old mentor, and Jack Kamen did interior art during this extremely long run as well. In any case, this was something Feldstein had in mind. By now Feldstein and Gaines had become good friends who also hung out together socially. Clearly, the publisher trusted the instincts of his editor much more than when artist Sheldon Moldoff had made a similar pitch, and perhaps Feldstein’s timing was also better, since Bill simply said: “Ok, let’s try it. Let’s put one of your horror stories into Crime Patrol.” And Al Feldstein did just that: “So I invented what I called ‘The Crypt of Terror,’ or ‘The Crypt Keeper.’ I wrote a story and drew it and then suggested that we try one in War Against Crime. So in War Against Crime we did ‘The Vault of Horror.’ Suddenly the magazine started to show a little sign of increased sales.” Bill Gaines was ecstatic and soon he and Feldstein decided to re-brand some of their existing titles. EC had done this before, case in point Moon Girl which meanwhile had gone through three name changes, as had those funny animal books Max and his business manager Sol Cohen had started, which Bill Gaines had re-titled as western books such as Gunfighter and Saddle Justice. There was a reason for not starting with a brand-new number one as it would be common today as Al Feldstein explained: “You had to maintain Second Class Entry, which was the specific way to ship magazines through the U.S. mail. There was a fee to start the status. To avoid a new title and having to pay a new fee, all you’d do is change an old title and hold the same Second Class Entry, so War Against Crime became The Vault of Horror, and Crime Patrol became The Crypt of Terror, for a few issues, and the it became Tales from the Crypt.” As if this wasn’t confusing enough, there were some snafus along the way. In such a rush to capitalize on this new trend in comics, one EC had brought about for a change, the publisher converted yet another book into a new horror title, and thus with issue No. 15 Gunfighter, already the second name under this numbering, changed to The Haunt of Fear. But once Gaines got the sales numbers, he almost did a double take. This third horror book didn’t move the needle at all. Instead of cancelling the series and the continued numbering, he offered the slot to a new member on his team, a third artist who was also writing his own material and his second editor, Harvey Kurtzman. Thus, The Haunt of Fear, one of his new offerings, became Two-Fisted Tales which started with No. 18 (1950). But the sales numbers had been reported erroneously, as Bill soon found out. Immediately, Gaines put The Haunt of Fear back on the schedule, indeed it sold much better than a western title like Gunfighter ever had. With No. 18 taken and the title re-named as Two-Twisted Tales (the first of two war titles Kurtzman would write and edit and do art for), Gaines published it with no number at all. For the next month he put No. 5 on the cover to indicate that this was an already established title, which actually it very much was by now. The new horror offerings from EC caused such a sensation among readers, that soon other publishers followed this trend. Western and romance books and the last remaining superhero books in circulation were soon converted into horror titles, like Harvey’s The Black Cat, which became The Black Cat Mystery and then a horror title altogether. At Atlas Comics, which was Timely Comics by yet another name, editor Stan Lee opened the floodgates and saturated the market with an ever-increasing number of quickly produced horror and suspense books. Under Lee’s stewardship, even the Joe Simon and Jack Kirby created top patriot Captain America got in on the act. The Sentinel of Liberty had survived the big war and so had his trusted sidekick Bucky (something Stan Lee would later re-con during the revival of the superheroes in the early 1960s), but the youthful teen had been replaced by a long-legged, masked blonde in a tight-fitting, short short-skirted costume called Golden Girl. But Captain America needed to be a horror title as well and even the name of the series was changed from Captain America Comics to Captain America’s Weird Tales, and soon the main hero was phased out as well. Not content with letting the competition steal their thunder, Feldstein worked double hard on those magazines that were under his purview, with Craig being the only other artists on a horror title who wrote his own material. Al and Bill were also busy with expanding the line. How about science fiction? “That was the next thing because Bill was a science-fiction fan.” Not only this, but Gaines now had three top artists on his bench who had worked in this genre before and who were extremely good at this sort of stories: Wally Wood and Joe Orlando, who had worked at Avon on short-lived sci-fi books that were shot-lived because once the duo tired of them and left other artists had a hard time to fill their shoes. And then there was Al Williamson who brought romanticism to spaceships and space travel that fit the type of stories Gaines was reading for inspiration, old pulp magazines by Otto Binder and newer stories by Ray Bradbury which envisioned a trip to the stars as something beautiful to behold and frightening at the same time. The only problem: Feldstein was neither a fan nor was he well read in this genre. Gaines quickly brought him up to speed.

 

With his editorial duties, and writing almost all stories in seven bi-monthly titles (which included a crime title and two science fiction books and soon what started as an anthology book like Jumbo Comics, but which quickly morphed into a platform for the most adult and thought-provoking tales EC were to put out, Shock SuspenStories), he found less and less time to do any interior artwork anymore. Afraid that this would mess up his monthly fee, Gaines made sure that his pay as editor left him well compensated. However, going back to the beginnings of the horror books and the science fiction books, the important role Feldstein’s interior art and covers played when he set these titles up and he turned them into hits cannot be overstated. For one, he defined the tone of the books with the three horror hosts he created, and his covers for the horror titles oozed with dread and decay, whereas on the covers for the science fiction books readers saw the most glamorous and gorgeous ladies in the most impractical space outfits on display. In fact, no other artist in the 50s, at least where the cover art is concerned, other than Wally Wood perhaps, made space travel look this sexy. Yet also the interior art Feldstein created stands many levels above the cut. Case in point the story he wrote and drew for the first issue of The Vault of Horror, No. 12, cover dated April-May 1950. Feldstein sets a dark, deathly mood right away when we find not any person hovering over a train which is speeding through the night, but death himself. Appropriately titled “Terror Train”, this yarn introduces us to a young blonde woman named Gloria and right from the opening caption, which is told in the first person, we learn why she’s in such a hurry to get to the nearest train station: “It all started the day I decided to run away from Ralph! He was going to kill me! I had to get away!” We are immediately reminded of the toxic relationship between Florence and Harry we saw in Feldstein’s “Prison Widow”, and this is a poisoned marriage quite literally. Gloria’s suspicion that her husband is up to no good starts when one day out of the blue Harry purchases a bottle with poison. It’s also the day she becomes vigilant, to the actions of her spouse, and to this bottle particularly. Once she notices that some of its content is missing, this is when she decides to stop eating. She enters the station and buys a ticket to New York which is far away. While she waits for her train, her mind travels back to that time when he stood over her bed with a long knife in his hand. But then, once Gloria has boarded the train, there is a man who jumps onto the train as it’s about to leave the station, a man who looks a lot like Ralph. Maybe a drink will sooth her nerves. But there, in the mirrored back wall of the club car, there’s a man who looks exactly like Ralph. She runs from the club car but in the wrong direction which brings her to the coach section which might be for the best since Ralph won’t be looking for her in this compartment. As she sinks into her seat, she remembers the day when he told her about the insurance policies that he’d taken out, life insurances. Her spouse stands to gain a nice bundle of cash should she find a premature demise. As the night begins to fall and with the scotch and soda, she’s had in the club car slowly showing its effect, she decides to retire in the berth she’s reserved in the pullman coach. She finds it easy to fall asleep with the way the train rumbles on and on and through the night. Around her everything is quiet, but suddenly there’s a loud scream that wakes her up. But was it? Was it a scream or was it the whistle of the train? Gloria decides to investigate, and she goes to the berth of the porter. But when she pulls the curtains apart, to her shock and horror she finds the man murdered. And there is a lot of blood everywhere. Naturally, she tries to get help from the other passengers, but a fast search reveals that they’re all dead. Ralph must be on the train and he’s after her. When the train slows down as it passes an incline, here is her chance to get off. She jumps into the dark. Soon she comes upon one lonely farmhouse. When she sees a freshly dug grave, Gloria’s heart sinks again. Maybe there is a good explanation for this. Maybe the farmer is working on a water through. But once she’s entered the little farmhouse, right there, in the first room, there’s a wooden coffin. It’s sitting on the floor like it is waiting for her. Then there is Ralph with a crazy look in his eyes who emerges from the shadows. Ralph who is clearly mad, and who forces her into the long box made of wood. Once inside, there is nothing she can do any longer but hear how he drives nail after nail into the lid of the coffin which he then pulls outside and to the open grave as she can well imagine. And she can hear his final words which are spoken with rage and bitterness: “Good-bye, Gloria! Sleep peacefully!” The next thing she hears is more frightening still: “He was filling the grave!… The soft earth thudded on the coffin lid. Then… all was quiet! I guess I broke down at that point.” This is when she begins to scream, and she pounds with her fists against the wooden walls of the makeshift coffin: “I was crazed with fear! I was going to suffocate… buried alive by a madman… my husband… Ralph!… I could feel the flesh of my fists tear as I pounded! I lost control! I screamed and beat the sides of the coffin.” Then there’s a bright, blinding light. With her skin moist and sticky with perspiration, Gloria feels the fresh air washing over her face in a cool wave. But then there’s her husband. Ralph has a concerned look and she sees the pity in his eyes. Gloria is in her berth on the train, but now she’s taken away: “They put me in a nice house with nice people… a house that has bars on all the windows so Ralph can’t get in and kill me! And now I’m safe from him!” As Gloria stands in her small room under the light of a single lamp, her head lowered, the windows behind her barred, we cannot see her eyes, but we can see that she is looking at us when she asks: “Perhaps you’d like to come and… visit me sometime again?” And if readers thought this was a broken relationship and one or two steps further than what had happened between Florence and Harry, Feldstein just had the right tale for you in the next issue of The Vault of Horror. The lead-in story (again with words and art by Al Feldstein), that opens issue No. 13 (cover dated June-July 1950), starts in medias res and it was a story of the James M. Cain variation. In “The Dead Will Return!” we meet another woman called Florence. This Florence is callous and cold, and she and her secret lover Bert have just murdered her much older husband whom they’re about to drop into the cold, dark water of the ocean from the little rowboat. An accident. Then they’re heading back to the lighthouse. Florence’s late husband was a lighthouse keeper, you see. When his body will be washed ashore in a few weeks, naturally people would assume that he simply drowned. It was the perfect crime, except there was one thing still missing. Her husband had money, lots of it, at least comparatively speaking, Florence knows this. She knows it’s hidden somewhere on the property. Soon, when this is all over, she and Bert will be married, and they’ll be rolling in the old fool’s cash. Now they only needed to find it. They begin to search the lighthouse top to bottom. No luck so far. Now they have spent two weeks with searching for the money, and still to no success. It’s Bert who suggests that perhaps Florence should take a look outside. Maybe the money is hidden under the long wooden stairs that lead up to the entrance of the old lighthouse. Then he hears her screams. He rushes outside to see what’s going on. There’s the rotten, bloated corpse of the man they killed. His body has already been washed up against the coastline, much sooner than expected. Even with somebody as cold and distant as Florence, this puts some strain in her nerves: “Oh, Bert! It… it’s horrible!” It only takes a few seconds for her to catch herself. Very practically she asks: “What will we do, Bert? We can’t report that his body washed ashore here! It… it’s too much of a coincidence!” They decide to carry the corpse to Bert’s car and to drop it off at some spot further down the coastline. Not unlike a person putting out their trash, he and Florence dispose of what is left of her husband without any remorse or feeling other than that Florence feels a bit sick. Now they do wait for the body to turn up, which will set them free to officially be together. But nothing. Not one word of a body found anywhere on the shore on the radio. Now it’s Bert who’s getting sick, sick with impatience. And still they haven’t found the money. Florence suggests that he’d better get some fresh air and go on a little fishing trip. He agrees, cheering himself up, but as he makes the way down the wooden stairs, there’s her late husband again and at the most inconvenient spot on the beach, right on Florence’s doorstep, one foul smelling, rotting reminder of their cruel deed.

 

With a corpse that had been this long in the water of the ocean, Feldstein is smart enough to show us only one hand, which he places in the foreground. Much smaller and in the background, we see Florence and Bert. We get the couple’s reaction to the body of the late lighthouse keeper. Florence: “It’s ghastly! He… he’s all rotten!” And then Bert’s needlessly detailed confirmation: “Don’t look at him, Flo! The fish and crabs have made him horrible!” Everything else as far as the state of Florence’s murdered spouse is left to our imagination. But there’s more. While Florence’s husband is falling to pieces, quite literally, Feldstein made her appear more and more ravishing, and he decked her out in a tight pencil skirt which was reminder of women like Stanwyck’s Phyllis who also didn’t hesitate to use the help of another man to rid themselves of their unwanted husbands. But when he pushes close on Florence’s face in the very next panel, we also see that her attractive features have hardened. She’s more than a little sick by now, whereas Bert almost seems relaxed, like this was some cruel joke nature played on them. Then Feldstein moves his camera high up, so high that the two of them almost seem like tiny specks of dust on the vast beach and we are watching a nature documentary once again. This time, Bert decides to drop the body right on the beach, but far away. There he’d be found quickly and still people would believe that he had perished in a fishing accident. And this is what he does as soon as night falls. But strangely enough, they still hear no word about a body having been found. And now their objectives are at odds. Florence has begun to wonder why the body only washes up right at the lighthouse and it isn’t discovered anywhere else, while Bert want to re-start the search for the man’s money, though it quickly becomes apparent who’s calling the shots in their relationship. Florence so much as demands that he drives all the way to the spot on the coast where he dropped the body the other night to see if in fact it’s still on the beach. Reluctantly he complies, but he lets her know that he’ll be gone for several hours. Now Florence is alone and we’re alone with her for the very first time. This is when Feldstein reveals the backstory and this is when Florence’s husband gets a name, Hank. Florence and Hank had been married for two years and it got to the point when her loneliness was nearly driving her crazy. But then Bert showed up to work for her husband. And all of a sudden, we’re reminded of the other Florence and her fateful relationship to two men at the same time. But there is no time for reflection since this is when Florence spies a large pool of water that is seeping in through the gap under the front door. She figures this must be the man she and Bert killed. He’s back and out to get her. Desperately she climbs up the winding staircase inside the tower of the lighthouse, all the way up to the top. Maybe if she switched off the light, he wouldn’t be able to see her, to find her. This is when Feldstein cuts to the outside and all we hear are her screams. When Bert returns, he notices that the light is off. He knows that Florence will be angry with him when he tells her that the body is no longer at the spot where he’d placed it. In his mind he can already hear the argument she will be making, that it was all his fault, that he’d dropped the body on the beach with the tide low and now it had gotten washed into the ocean again. But he’s also noticed the trail of sea water that is leading up the high staircase. Again, Feldstein offers an exterior shot, again there is a loud scream. The next day brings two federal inspectors to the lighthouse who want to investigate why there is no longer any light being emitted from the high tower. Up in the tower they find the dead bodies of Florence and Bert. There’s not scratch on them, but they are partially cover in what looks like seaweed. And down on the beach at the end of the wooden stairs they discover a badly decomposed body. Hank. With the anxiety of nuclear holocaust looming large in the 1950s, Feldstein foray into horror made him an ideal candidate for science fiction tales that dealt with the fear of total destruction and other terrors spawned by the invisible power of deadly radiation. In one of his most shocking science fiction stories, the writer-artist who wasn’t a fan of this genre at all, at least not in the beginning, taught readers that sometimes fear itself was your own worst enemy. A timely message that fit right in with duck and cover drills that achieved little but made many elementary students sleep a bit less well. In “The Last City” we encounter old Professor Farley who is one of those scientists who are full of good intentions. This story, once again written and illustrated by Feldstein, appeared in Weird Fantasy No. 16 (1950), though here we have another snafu in the re-numbering and re-branding game. Originally, the series continued the numbering from A Moon, A Girl… Romance (the series which had featured “Prison Widow” in its final issue and which once had started as Moon Girl and the Prince under Max Gaines). Thus, Weird Fantasy No. 13 was the first issue of this new series which started in the same month as EC’s more well-known Weird Science. After five issues though, the U.S. postal service noticed that this particular title had been re-named several times over and they demanded Gaines to use the correct numbering from the point the new series had started, hence what would have been Weird Fantasy No. 18, became No. 6, though like with The Haunt of Fear No. 18, Gaines left the number off the cover. This iteration of Weird Fantasy ran up to number 22 when EC decided to merge the two sci-fi books. What this means is that there are two different sets of Weird Fantasy books numbered 13 to 17. With Feldstein’s increasingly tight work schedule, needless to say that his interior art only appears in the first set of those books which appeared from the middle of 1950 to early 1951. Had Feldstein just contributed the script and the art for this one story in Weird Fantasy during his tenure as interior artist, “The Last City” would have secured his legacy well enough. As it stands, it is of course not his only science fiction story as writer-artist for EC, but still one of his most memorable ones. With the all-to-real possibility of nuclear warfare between the super-powers, Professor Farley has come up with a fool-proof idea (usually the worst kind of solution in any type of fiction). He has invented a machine that can create a protective dome large enough to shield a major metropolis like New York City from nuclear explosions and radioactive fall-out. After some tests on a smaller scale by the military, government officials are more than ready to have a full-scale test on New York itself. And lo, like Farley had predicted, his machine creates an impenetrable force field with the power to withstand any type of conventional weapon the military uses against it. Though this being a test, only dummy bombs are used. With this dry run completed, it is time to switch off the device to retract the invisible dome which it has set up around the entire city. But clearly Professor Farley hadn’t taken into account that such a machine would be able to create a force field around itself. Being unable to touch the controls or to smash his invention altogether, the dire consequences become immediately apparent. New York City, all the buildings and its entire population are locked under an invisible dome, and there is simply no way to destroy the globe which also extends into the ground, or to bring supplies to its citizens. Resources become scarce. First the power goes out, then there’s no food left. Feldstein’s careful to keep the most gory details out, but we get the idea: “Zoo animals were slaughtered for food! Soon, all stray dogs and cats were set upon…” But in their need for sustenance, some desperate people just don’t stop there: “The food supply was completely gone! Inside, those with strong stomachs were able to survive a while longer…” That is, they began to devour the dead. But then: “The oxygen supply in that huge shell was diminishing…” And in the final act, there is not one soul alive. But this is not where the story ended. Earth plunged into a nuclear war soon. After ten years of nuclear and biological warfare across the entire planet, not one trace of human civilization was left. Except for that one dead city. This one last city stands as a monument to what humans once were able to create. When a small group of aliens visits the ravaged planet Earth centuries later, without a soul around or a word uttered, they get what this last city symbolizes: “That city in its transparent shell will always remind us of what earthmen once had… and destroyed!” And with this one story, Feldstein told readers: don’t be afraid, but be kind!

 

Created by a guy who wasn’t a fan of science fiction, “The Last City” has proved surprisingly seminal. Its premise has been copied many times over and found its way into an episode of The Simpsons and even a novel by Stephen King. Likewise, some of his other ideas and concepts made such a huge impression on readers that once they became creatives in their own right, they either copied them or they thought they’d come up with them, since by then they’d long forgotten that they saw it all in an EC Comic first. For “Seeds of Jupiter!” from Weird Science No. 8 (July-August 1951), Feldstein came up with a premise that closely resembles the plot of the movie “Alien” (1979), right down to the creepy atmosphere, with Feldstein’s story taking place on an U.S. aircraft carrier instead of an cargo space ship, and the scene in which a small alien creatures burst from the broken rib cage of an emaciated crewman during a medical procedure like it happens with John Hurt’s character in the Ridley Scott film. You find his ideas in more recent Hollywood productions as well, like in the movie “Passengers” (which is very similar to Feldstein and Wood’s classic tale “50 Girls 50”) or even Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar”, which borrows a scene from Feldstein’s “It was the Monster from the Fourth Dimension” when Nolan has one character explain the underlying concept of inter-dimensional space travel. The fear of atomic radiation was so prevalent and ever present, that Feldstein often tapped into the concept of a dystopian future and the state we’d be in after a nuclear war. Of course, he wasn’t the only creator of popular fiction to do this, this was on the mind of many creatives, but still, he managed to make this abstract fear feel very personal. Case in point his story “Child of Tomorrow!” which was first published in Weird Fantasy No. 17 (1951). We are introduced to ruggedly handsome Jerry Gordon, a mining engineer who is so ambitious about his work that even on a national holiday he finds himself underground in a lead mine. He is minding his business when suddenly he is startled by a series of explosions above ground that are so severe that the entrance to the lead mine is sealed off by an avalanche of debris. Since the story is told from Jerry’s perspective, he and we have the benefit of hindsight. We learn right on the first page what had caused these massive explosions: “The first wave of bombers hit at 0900, July 4th 1971! The amazing thing about it was that no one dreamed they had so many bombs! I was 750 feet underground when the attack started!” Now trapped in the mine and with his power drill out of order, the young engineer needs four days to make it out of the shaft. What he finds above ground, and what those very unfortunate souls he meets on his way home tell him, makes his hair stand on end and his skin crawl. America got attacked by its enemy. Whole cities got wiped out and millions of lives were lost. And there is radiation everywhere. But all is not lost. The military response was swift and decisive, and the enemy is utterly destroyed. And perhaps more importantly, the authorities have begun to spray the area for radiation. Most importantly, though, Jerry’s fiancée Linda is alive and save. She still wants to get married. They, and society as a whole, will rebuild. And this is what they do. After a year, things are back to normal. Whole cities have been created and Jerry and Linda are happily married, with Linda expecting their first child. And to top it all off, Jerry receives a job offer that will leave him and his family financially independent. But the job is in faraway South America. He’ll be gone for several years. Since the engineer is the breadwinner, this is his decision to make even if it means that he will miss the birth of their first child. Everything goes well in the jungles of the Amazon where he and a crew of men search for uranium, while the world is still re-building itself, and Linda will soon have their child. After a few years, little by little, the other men get sick. Jerry is the only one who seems immune. Obviously, everybody underestimated the long-term effects of the fallout from the nuclear attack a few years back, but with Jerry being underground in a lead mine, he is doing fine. But with the supply plane not doing is scheduled runs anymore, he is certain that the whole world is affected, including Linda and his child. All by himself now, Jerry makes it to the airstrip, and since he knows how to fly a plane, he is back on his way home after these many years. But as soon as he arrives home, he is greeted by a walking horror. The creature is able to communicate with him, but it is weird looking and clearly malformed. He is what the pre-atomics called a mutant, pre-atomics like his parents who are dead like all the pre-atomics in the meantime. According to this weirdly misshapen boy, Jerry is indeed the sole survivor from the generations that came before. And there’re more like this boy. They all look like walking horrors, but they seem normal as far as their mental capacity is concerned. There’re others though, they warn Jerry: “Most two-headed mutants are insane! You know… split personalities!” No, Jerry doesn’t know, but he’s learning fast. Finally, he makes it back to his old home. But he isn’t the only one who’s around. One of those two-headed creatures walks out of the shadows and towards him. He quickly draws his pistol since he well remembers the warning from the other mutants. Seconds later, the monster lies dead at his feet. Then, in their former bedroom he finds a picture of his wife and child. Linda must be long dead. But this is when Jerry Gordon learns that the creature, he shot was their child.

 

But not all was doom and gloom in the future as depicted by Feldstein, at least not on the surface. But what if the future was so much brighter? Would this not make our present so much less desirable? Like many great science fiction writers, Feldstein used the genre to shine a light on societal issues that were in the here and now of the 1950s, and with “Made of the Future!”, originally published in Weird Science No. 5 (1951) he did this in the slightly satirical manner that can be found in many of Robert A. Heinlein’s novels, but then again, this being a Feldstein production, he cranked the glam factor up to eleven while tackling one of his favorite themes, the theme he’d learned from working on Sheena and from all those film noir movies he’d seen, namely how men and women related to each other. In the tale, which is set in present day, we are introduced to Alvin. He is an ordinary guy in his late twenties who looks like most guys in the 50s, though he’s a bit of a milquetoast. Naturally, in Feldstein’s world, when Alvin’s fiancée Marge tells him that they’ll need to talk, this is when she gives him back his ring. The engagement is off. She’s going to marry Bob, the other guy she kept seeing while they were together. Stunned by this new development, Alvin needs to go for a walk. Not only has Marge broken off with him, but she had been two-timing him the whole time with Bob, who is actually Alvin’s best friend. At the Rockefeller Center, Alvin stumbles into a party from a guided tour. But something is off with this group and the guide. With time on his hands, Alvin decides to follow the others. They climb down the many stairs to the basement where he sees the strangest vehicle. Once they’ve made their trip, the guide chirpily informs the group: “All out! We’re back in 2150! You’ll find your clothes in the lockers!” Indeed, it was a travel group that had travelled two hundred years back in time to learn about the past, which was his present. Once he’s in the dressing room, Alvin finds a set of clothes that fit him. Surely, he wants to use the opportunity to see what the future holds. As he walks the futuristic cityscape, he comes across an advertisement which is displayed at the entrance to one of the office buildings he sees all around him. The ad on the billboard asks the right kind of question: “Lonely?”, which he is, and it also seems to offer a solution: “A Construct-A-Wife kit will end your problem. Satisfaction guaranteed!” This is definitely something Alvin must find out more about. A bit anxiously, not unlike Peggy and her girlfriend in “Lashes for Lashes”, Alvin enters the store of the company that makes such a bold claim. Immediately he’s greeted by the most gorgeous woman he’s ever seen. This was indeed Peggy’s twin sister, but four or five years older. He tells her he wants to purchase one of those kits. There are two versions, the lovely shop assistant informs him: “Do you want the regular kit or the de luxe kit?” Now, what might be the difference between the two kits? The beautiful blonde shop assistant has the answer: “Well, the regular kit contains a normal wife, while the de luxe kit provides you with a de luxe wife! Never nags, never argues, doesn’t object to your staying out late with the boys… always smiles… cooks divinely, sews, adores you completely… obeys your every command! In other words, the perfect wife!” It is quite obvious what kit Alvin wants, but first, he needs to be measured for the right size. This falls under purview of Miss Gale who needs no tools for her job, other than her body. The statuesque brunette embraces Alvin who looks a bit ashamed and breaks into a sweat, while she happily chirps: “He’s about a five, Miss Dawn!” With this, she cheeringly hands poor Alvin another insult, he is a small guy after all, and Feldstein creates one of his most iconic images. Still, Miss Dawn clearly knows how to pick the right kit for Alvin: his de luxe wife will be a blonde and she’ll be five-foot-five inches tall, which means, she’ll be taller than Alvin, especially in high heel shoes, which is something Feldstein had been doing for a while now, going all the way back to his earliest work and which was probably something he’d picked up from his mentor Robert Webb. While he freelanced and he did some art for a publisher called McCombs in 1946, in issue No. 7 of Crown Comics, he had Mickey Magic, a young stage magician turned hobby detective, meet a gorgeous red-haired nurse who looked a lot like Rita Hayworth in Gilda. Not only does this striking redhead stand several inches taller than the baby-faced boy detective, the buxom, long-legged body Feldstein gave her, makes the young man look like a little boy next to her, not just in years but in aptitude and experience. The issue is also noteworthy since Feldstein and legendary good-girl artist Matt Baker collaborated on a second tale, with the former handling the inks. Especially early in his career, Baker’s influence on Feldstein’s art is evident. Properly fitted and outfitted with his kit, we next see Alvin make it across town to join a time travel group going back into the past, his past. Once he’s made it safely back, Alvin anxiously hold his new prize under one arm, proclaiming: “I can’t wait to get started! Imagine! A real woman all my own!” Later, after Alvin has followed the instruction manual to a tee, he’s greeted by a beautiful, full-figured blonde who wants to be called Jean. Naturally, they get married quickly and after he’s bought some nice clothes for her, she is ready to be introduced to his friends. Jean indeed makes him a complete man and she does wonders for his career since even his business acquaintances have a much higher opinion of him now, as one of the men tells him as his eyes lustfully wander over Jean’s body: “I’ve underestimated you, Alvin. How did you ever get such a beautiful wife?” But all this pales in comparison when the time has arrived for Alvin Blank’s coup de grâce, namely when he introduces his wife to his best friend Bob and his erstwhile fiancée Grace. And finally, Alvin gets his satisfaction when Bob, in a moment of privacy, confides in him: “You don’t know how lucky you are! I’m sorry I ever married her! She’s a shrew! I… I’m very unhappy! In fact, I’m miserable!” But this being an EC story, Alvin Blank’s luck wouldn’t last, either. When one day he returns home from work and he finds a note from Jean, he has to fear for the worst. Not that his de luxe wife has left him, her creators made sure she’s incapable of doing this, but Jean has decided to go to the Rockefeller Center to join one of the guided tours they offer. And just like that, Jean is gone, and all Alvin is left with are the bottles and boxes which had enabled him to create the perfect de luxe wife.

 

By the end of 1951, due to his workload, Feldstein stopped doing interior art. He continued writing. But more things changed as well. What he and Gaines had set into motion had begun to evolve. While many of their competitors were imitating the style of EC Comics, they never caught on to the fact, that it were the themes which made these stories so special (and the outstanding art, of course). Under Feldstein, Craig and Kurtzman, EC’s output had become much more thought-provoking and mature. When asked by Gary Groth who his ideal reader was, Al answered: “Someone in the 13-to-17 age groups. Although we knew that we were getting ex-G.I.s who had started reading comics in the barracks and they were still reading them as they were being discharged. And we knew that we had a kind of select audience of the more discerning readers. So we attempted to satisfy them and ourselves by writing just a little above the level of [other] comic book writing.” Though Feldstein most likely knew his audience best, a case can still be made that many readers were a bit younger, especially whenever they saw their older siblings with books from EC that promised more bang for your buck or for your dime. But also, Feldstein had grown much older and more cynical. By 1953, most of his satirical humor which you found in “Made of the Future!” two years earlier, had given way to the hard-edged nihilistic outlook on life found in the novels by James M. Cain and Jim Thompson. You only needed to look at the first two stories in the more experimental series EC had started in 1952, Shock SuspenStories, in issue No. 8 (cover dated April-May 1953) specifically, to get this right away. Both stories were written by Feldstein (with plot input by Bill Gaines) and they are both rather shocking in how dark they are on a humanistic level. In “The Assault!”, illustrated by the mercurial Wally Wood, we are introduced to a young girl named Lucy. What transpires in these seven pages are several scenes from Lucy’s life over a couple of weeks. When you take in what you learn about Lucy, as told by Feldstein and Wood, you get the sense that indeed much had changed. Lucy was dark version of Peggy from Feldstein unpublished project for Gaines from just four years prior. The story starts with Lucy’s elderly parents and a group of men gathered on a porch. The whole town has been looking for the pretty teenager who hasn’t come home the night before and also not the night before that one. In fact, nobody has seen her for nearly two days. When Lucy finally shows up as a new day approaches amidst heavy rainfall, and she sees all the ruckus her disappearance has caused among the townsfolk, she quickly invents a cover story. It was old man Hodges, Lucy says, the dirty hermit who lived by himself in a cabin at the edge of town. He abducted her, Lucy tells her parents and the men as she goes down on her knees for dramatic effect. Like Florence in “Prison Widow”, she cries as she paints a grim picture: “He forced me to stay in his cabin. He locked me in… and he did things!” This is enough evidence for Lucy’s father and the other men who her story has all riled up and bothered. Armed with clubs and bats they make their way across town. Hodges, who is asleep when the agitated group storms into his shabby residence, never has a chance. They club him to death for what he’s done to poor Lucy. Well, he clearly got what he deserved. But then in the afternoon, a man shows up at the house where Lucy lives with her parents. He is in his late twenties, a good-looking fellow whose name is George and who demands to see Lucy. Over the objection of her father, who is still flush with anger over what had been done to her, Lucy leaves with George. They take a drive to the nearby woods. Now we learn how she and George met, we hear about their clandestine affair and how he even introduced her to the old man who was like a father to George. After some stolen hours, one time, Lucy stayed longer in George’s apartment in the city. She’d stayed there for the night and the day after and then another night till the sun began to set in the East, the time she said Hodges had kept her prisoner in his cabin. But as it turned out, George was also a brother of sorts to wide-eyed, naïve Jerry in that he completely misread Lucy’s intentions or what this meant to her, what he meant to her. When George began to speak of marriage, she laughed right into his face: “Marry you…? Don’t be silly! I’m not ready to marry anybody! This! This is just for kicks!” And when George failed to understand, she drew him a picture: “You don’t think you’re the only man I’ve known, do you, George? Don’t be so egotistical! I’ve had plenty before you! I like ‘em! And you won’t be the last either!” Angrily he’d kicked her out of his apartment, calling her foul names. Now in the woods, George tells her that he’ll tell the truth. That she’d lied about her whereabouts, that she had caused the death of the old man who had treated him like a son. But again, Lucy just laughs at George and his thread. Lucy reminds him that she’s like Peggy, only grown up by a year or two, but still very much underage: “You’re forgetting, George! When you open your mouth, when you tell them what really happened, you’re sending yourself up the river for twenty years! I’m seventeen, you know… and in this state, there’s a law…” This is when George pulls out his revolver and he fires six rounds right into her face. Then he sits down on the ground, his face buried into his hands. This was how the story ended. This is a story that is complicated on many levels. There is the plot which works like a dark mirror to Al Feldstein’s first project for Gaines. Like Peggy’s dealings with the shop assistant in “Lashes for Lashes”, Lucy is headstrong, and she is used to getting what she wants. She loves that man admire her, that men want her, and there isn’t really much difference between the way Feldstein had depicted the underage Peggy in a tiny bikini, stretched out a beach towel while being ogled by her four admirers, and the way Wally Wood presents Lucy in her overly tight blouse, her hiked up skirt and her seamed nylon stockings. Both Peggy and Lucy know how to manipulate men and they are well aware that their beauty gets them what they want. With Peggy this is somehow alright, whereas Lucy’s acts are perceived as transgressive. Lucy smokes and she acts very adult, but she is also upfront with her lovers about her age. What is the moral of this tale, what lesson does Feldstein want to teach to his young readers? If anything, does this story not highlight his own insecurities in dealing with women who demand the same liberties that men take for granted? In a sense, was this not the core of the James M. Cain novels, in that it were men who passed judgement on women and their behavior? When Lucy rejects George’s marriage proposal and he angrily and bitterly calls her “a cheap little tramp” was this not “a femme fatale” by a different name? The other tale in Shock SuspenStories No. 8 that brings Feldstein’s growing cynicism to the fore is called “Piecemeal”, and it’s one of Jack Kamen’s best work for EC (with outstanding color work by EC Comics’ only female creator Marie Severin). On its surface, this was indeed another story in of the “The Postman Always Rings Twice” variation. Beautiful Sally, who looks a lot like Barbara Stanwyck in Wilder’s “Double Indemnity”, is married to an older man. The balding Sydney is a nerdy collector of exotic fish, but he is also fairly wealthy. Right away we get how this marriage works. Sally gives up her freedom for a lifestyle that awards her security and luxury, Sydney gains another trophy for his collection. But like Florence in “The Dead Will Return!”, Sally is unhappy. This is when Eric enters the scene, Sydney’s kid brother. He isn’t a success story like his older sibling and doesn’t need to be. He’s young, handsome and virile. They start up an affair right under Sydney’s nose who is more concerned with his fish and a new delivery he expects than with what’s going on in his own house that comes with a large swimming pool, a pool Sally and now Eric use quite frequently. And Sally uses Eric as well, physically, as her confidant and a partner in crime. She wants her freedom and that means, she wants Sydney’s money, too. But he needs to go away, best of all in his sleep. Thus, she secretly increases the dosage of the sleeping pills he takes since he’s jittery with anticipation. On the night when his new fish is delivered, this when she does the deed. While Eric anxiously awaits her return at the pool, Sally makes sure that Sydney will never awake from his slumber. Finally, she an Eric are reunited. They race each other to the dark pool. But as with Bert in the other story, Eric hears her scream. Without hesitation he jumps after her into the black water. This is when he learns about Sydney’s new fish. There’s a man-eating shark in the pool and it has killed Sally. Now it has taken Eric’s left arm as well. He manages to crawl out of the pool. Desperately, Eric tries to get into the house to call an ambulance. Apparently, Sally has forgotten to release the catch, and while he pounds on the door with his right arm and his right fist, he slowly realizes that his brother won’t hear his knocking or his screams. He sinks to the ground knowing that he will bleed to death. His last thoughts are with Sally, we just don’t know if these are tender feelings he has during his final moments or if these are thoughts of hate and bitterness for the blonde woman who’s led him astray. Reading this story one can only wonder what Feldstein’s story “Prison Widow” would have been like had he produced the tale four years later. A year before “Prison Widow”, Johnny Craig created a crime tale called “The Scavenger Siren” for War Against Crime! No. 7 (1949). A criminal couple escapes from the police to another town. But then they get taken for everything they have by an unscrupulous casino owner. The women, Toni who’s the dominant partner in their relationship by that point in time (interestingly named after Craig’s own wife), pulls her gun on the man, and they make off with their money and the cash from the casino. Now they are hunted by the police and the underworld. This is when Toni realizes that her beau Mike Malott, a former criminal mastermind she’d cut down to size, is dead weight. Without so much of a bat of an eyelash she shoots him dead. This story is even more remarkable in that it’s a precursor to one of the most surreal crime novels of the 1950s, Jim Thompson’s “The Getaway” (1958). While the first two acts of the novel read like a standard crime thriller, we follow a couple as they and their associates pull a bank heist and then try to make it across the border into Mexico, once the third act opens, we are in the mysterious sanctuary of a man other criminals call El Rey, and in El Rey’s kingdom the house always wins. In fact, our two protagonists are put in a position where one has to kill the other in order to simply survive. As they acknowledge that they love each other, “Doc” McCoy and his love and partner in crime Carol leave little doubt in their relationship. Both are ready to kill the other to avoid a fate worse than death for themselves. This very much feels like the end Feldstein would have given to “Prison Widow”, had he written the story much later. Carol had started as an innocent, but perhaps that was never true.