HISTORY OF THE COMIC BOOK FILM: Films From The Crypt

In a multi-part series, Comic Book Film Editor William Gatevackes will be tracing the history of comic book movies from the earliest days of the film serials to today’s big blockbusters and beyond. Along with the history lesson, Bill will be covering some of the most prominent comic book films over the years and why they were so special. This time, we’ll take a look at EC Comics and the impact they had on the silver screen.

When the superhero was waning in popularity during the late 1940s and early 1950s, there were a number of other genres that rose up to take its place. Comics that told stories of romance, the wild west, war, true crime and horror became the most popular comics on the market.

The company that excelled at these genres was EC Comics. Started in 1944 by Max Gaines after his All-American Publishing, merged with DC Comics, the company’s initials originally stood for “Educational Comics.” Max Gaines intended his comic books to teach kids about religion and the bible. One of its most popular titles from this time period was “Picture Stories from the Bible,” which is ironic considering the content the company would become known for.

When Max Gaines was tragically killed in a boating accident in 1947, his son William Gaines took over. Bill Gaines changed the focus of the comics published from bible stories and teaching science and history to telling stories of twisted horror, gripping combat and unusual science fiction. Bill Gaines also changed the name of the company to “Entertaining Comics.” Thus, a legend was born.

EC Comics were known for quality tales of horror, typically drenched in gore with a surprise twist in the end. The stories often times had a social or political message as part of its subtext and the company hired the best writers and artists of the day. The company was also almost responsible for the destruction of the comic book medium in the 1950s.

The graphic violence and gore in the EC Comics—and other companies comics as well—caught the eye of a child psychologist named Frederik Wertham. Wertham started writing articles about the dangers of horror comics like the ones EC published in 1948, culminating in the infamous (to comic fans) book Seduction of the Innocent. The furor Wertham helped to raise caused comic books to come under attack, even to the point that they were called into question under a Congressional hearing concerning juvenile delinquency.

The comic companies were scared of being forced out of business. Gaines suggested a self-regulatory code agency that would monitor the comics from within to get the government off their backs. This was the worst suggestion Gaines could have made because the organization created, the Comics Code Authority, set its sights on EC Comics as public enemy #1. The other publishers saw EC Comics as an attractive nuisance, drawing the attention of the witch-hunt through their gore-laden books.  The Comics Code made in incredibly difficult for EC Comics to continue publishing books, and by 1956, the company closed up shop.

While Entertaining Comics lasted less than a decade, their influence was wide reaching, as exemplified by the fact that filmmakers were willing to adapt EC stories a full 16 years after the company closed its doors.

British horror films took on a certain cache during the late 60s to early 70s, mostly due to Hammer Studios output in the late 50s and early 60s. By the time 1972 rolled around, there was an explosion of British film studios specializing in horror. One such studio, Amicus Productions, took a special interest in the EC line of comic books. In 1972, they produced a film based on the EC books titled Tales from the Crypt:

Watching that trailer, you can see where Edgar Wright got the inspiration for the mock ad for “Don’t!” that was attached to the theatrical release of Grindhouse, can’t you?.

This film adapted five stories from the whole line of EC horror comics—Tales from the Crypt, Vault of Horror and Haunt of Fear—linked with a framing sequence about tourists visiting ancient tombs. The eclectic cast included award-winning actors such as Ralph Richardson and Patrick Magee, horror legends like Peter Cushing, and a pair of actors who would become best known by American audiences for their work on U.S. television –Joan Collins and Roy Dotrice.

The film proved successful and a sequel, The Vault of Horror, was released in 1973.

This film featured an intriguing cast which included Denholm Elliot, Terry-Thomas, Glynis Johns and a pre-Doctor Who Tom Baker. The film followed a similar format to Tales from the Crypt, adapting stories from the Tales from the Crypt and Shock SuspenStories comics with a framing sequence tying them all together.

Another “comic” that EC is known for was MAD, which was published in comic book form for its first 23 issues before moving over to the magazine format which it is published in today. What might not be as well known is that MAD once had its name attached to a film.

In 1980, in response to the popularity of fellow humor magazine National Lampoon’s association with the film Animal House, William Gaines was looking for a film he could co-brand MAD with. The magazine had a deal with Warner Brothers to develop a movie, but the scripts that they suggested didn’t meet Gaines’ muster and a script Gaines favored didn’t meet Warners expectations. Frustrated, a script focusing on the adventures of a bunch of kids in a military academy crossed Gaines’ desk and he decided that it was close enough in tone to what he was looking for to lend MAD’s name to.

That film was MAD Magazine Presents Up the Academy, the movie that was so bad that it caused more than one entity, including MAD, to remove their name from it.

The film, directed by Robert Downey, father to future comic book movie star Robert Downey Jr., was a critical and commercial bomb. Ron Liebman, who played one of the adult leads, had his name removed from the film and promotional materials. William Gaines actually paid money to have MAD’s name removed from the home video release of the film (The MAD association was put back on for all videos and cable showings after Gaines passed away). MAD would lend its name to more than one TV show in the future, but would never appear on the big screen again.

Next installment, we will conclude our look at EC Comics as we view the influence of the comics on creators as varied as George Romero, Stephen King and John Hughes.

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About William Gatevackes 1931 Articles
William is cursed with the shared love of comic books and of films. Luckily, this is a great time for him to be alive. His writing has been featured on Broken Frontier.com, PopMatters.com and in Comics Foundry magazine.

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