The horror comic, a staple of the 1950s before the Comics Code, where mostly published by EC Comics. This was the brainchild of MAD Magazine’s William Gaines, who peddled gory little numbers with his partner in crime Al Feldstein, who would later take the nom de plume Al Jaffee when working in puerile sight gags for the aforementioned MAD.

They played an important part in American culture, bridging the days of the horror short story, a calcifying genre mostly Lovecraftian in mode by the 1950s, and the burgeoning horror movie industry. Thanks to the folks over at archive.org a nice selection of Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror, and The Haunt of Fear have been scanned and preserved for the ages. They demonstrate a frankly second rate oeuvre - misspelled words, hastily produced and frankly derivative drawing, and colors that can be best and most charitably described as “muddy”. The stories tend to repeat the same motifs over and over, and a few are simply lifted wholeheartedly from earlier classics with only the tiniest of changes - Cold Air by H.P. Lovecraft and the man kept alive by hypnosis after death yarn by Edgar Allan Poe, The Facts in the case of M. Valdemar.

Those that are oft repeated tend to

- It turns out that X is a Y! ( The protagonist’s spouse / A vampire, etc.)
- It turns out that X is a Y, but A is a B! (I have killed the vampire! Thank you sir, that clears the path for me, a werewolf!)
- For some reason, I’m buried alive to cheat the law somehow, but I don’t get rescued as planned!
- I killed someone, and that person comes back from the dead as a shambling rotting mass, and kills me! (One of the most oft repeated tropes, often times multiple victims come back and chase down the victim. They are completely devoid of sentience and powered only by revenge)
- Some king wants more taxes, and the peasants revolt and dismember him! (this is repeated a lot, one wonders just how opposed to Eisenhower-era tax rates they really were)

Karma is a huge part of these stories. A man who upsets his wife, an animal lover, by killing and performing taxidermy on animals just to spite her and her new pet cat, ending with killing the cat - has her lose her mind as a result and ends up stuffing and mounting him in revenge. A man who is cheated out of a metal foundry by being pushed alive into a vat of molten metal ends up being made into an iron maiden which the pusher decides to step into as a gag, only to find it is somehow possessed and snaps shut fatally, for reasons science can’t explain. A man who cheats a town out of money by faking oil in a town ends up buried alive (to be rescued within some hours by a co-conspirator) and finds out to his chagrin that the town really does have oil, and his grave is dug right over it, drowning him well before rescue can come to his aid.

You can tell who the authors had an axe to grind against in any particular issue - obviously at some point someone bought a second hand car that had been cheaply patched up and resold. Not only did the author eviscerate and dismember the seller by proxy in print, but also took time to research and put forth a field guide to how ripoff artists sell dangerous cars by faking repairs (an inner tube piece will do instead of a brake pad for a few miles, a welded axle will hold just long enough for the owner to take a test drive and purchase the car, sawdust in the transmission will prevent it from knocking for a hundred miles or so, etc.) in order to rob that person of a generation of future business. A travelling salesman who comes afoul of a family tired of being sold shoddy goods finds out that they, at gunpoint, now make sales people prove the effectiveness of a product by suffering its effects somehow: a vacuum cleaner salesman got his insides sucked out, a washer and dryer man got drowned in the spin cycle and then baked alive in the dryer, leading to the punchline, that this particular salesman happens to be peddling a home meat slicer….

As a result, many of these stories are extremely predictable, making those few with a genuinely surprise twist that much more the sweeter. There was a really good one in Creepy, for example, in which a ghost hunter exorcises a boarding house of evil spirits by the use of science and electricity. He completes a circuit with his body badly injuring himself in the process, but he assures the kindly old lady who owns the place her house is now devoid of evil spirits. She thanks him, pointing out that the restless spirits of her victims have rendered the boarding house uninhabitable, making it difficult for her to find more victims, as she is a vampire, and takes the opportunity to kill the incapacitated scientist.

The best of these were first brought to life in the portmanteau horror films of Hammer clone Amicus, first Tales From the Crypt but then The Torture Garden and The House That Dripped Blood and so forth. Later on, the genre would be kept alive by the TV show Tales from the Crypt as well as Tales From the Darkside and a Twilight Zone reboot, as well as the cinematic ode to the comics Creepshow and Creepshow 2 in US releases. Later films, such as Tales from the Hood and Snoop Dogg’s attempt at a copycat film - are technically odes to the film recaps of the comics, but they’re part of that lineage, so are given an upnod here.

But the other impacts of the horror comic are felt not only in Kustom graphics and the work of Rob Zombie, an extensive body of work whose impact on alternative culture is a writeup in and of itself - but it can be argued that repeated imagery of mindless rotting bodies coming out of graves to simply kill people was at least an unconscious suggestion to the makers of the Night of the Living Dead film, which kicked off the zombie movie craze.

Horror comics meant that comics didn’t have to always be about goody two shoes heroes and spandex-clad villains, opening the door to underground comix and more introspective, alternative genres - which made the 60s a far more groovy place to be. It even led to Alan "Every comic book has to have at least one rape" Moore and folks having the leeway to turn Swamp Thing into a treatise on Buddhist cosmology and the "grad students will have a field day analysing this for theses" magnum opus Watchmen.

For the longest time, any aficionados of the genre had to settle for flea markets and expensive trips to comics stores to find copies whose owners had not had them confiscated by parents. But thanks at first to Fantagraphics, the Seattle, Washington house that publshed many an alternative title and then Dark Horse Comics, glorious omnibus reprints are available. The Dark Horse versions, recently released, have taken the muddy, poorly printed originals and cleaned up the artwork considerably, rendering the colors with better inks and more expensive print processes, and painstakingly sharpening the line work.

Even though William Gaines might have produced the same material over and over cheaply to make a quick buck, the genre has become so beloved that a bona fide “restored print” version is not only desirable, but marketable.

Not in the United Kingdom, though. The UK took matter much further than the voluntary Comics Code that killed the genre in the 1950s - and outright banned horror comics as illegal to buy, sell, produce, or import in the 1980s. They will be seized just the same as child pornography or other illegal obscenity and disposed of, with penalties to the importer.

But to those of us who either shell out lots of money to the Dark Horse company, or simply peruse back issues on archive.org, we can relive those giddy times (or in my case, live by proxy, since I wasn’t alive back then), where werewolves, vampires and ghouls chewed and slashed their way through cheaply produced pulp, alongside advertisements for dynamic tension and editorials from the publisher about how comics are about freedom of expression, and you know who else wants to ban comics? Communists, that’s who!