For years, my biggest comic collecting regret has been that I didn’t know or understand how amazing Pre-Code Horror and Crime books were when I was younger. I am not a horror movie junkie. In fact, violent images make me turn green and I don’t handle graphic horror movies well. However, for some reason, if it is in comic form, I find it fascinating. I have always wondered if anyone else is like this. Part of this fascination is due to the history that surrounded the comic industry in the 1950s.
Most of you know about the modern day witch-hunts in the 1950s regarding Frederick Wertham and the corruption of the youth due explicitly by comic books. If you do not, I suggest you read up on it as it really changed the history of comics and literally almost caused the collapse of the industry. I will not go into detail of all this, suffice it to say one of the reasons it is so difficult to find these books at present time (especially in higher grade), is directly due to these witch-hunts. Parents burned books, companies collapsed, Senate hearings were heard, and a stifling Comic Code was born. On top of all these things going bad, the companies needed to save money, so they printed on cheap paper with cheap ink, which made books fall apart faster.
Working for Heritage Auctions now for over two and a half years has allowed me to see many of these books. I see far less than Super Hero books, but I do get to see them now and then. EC is easily the most prolific. Nevertheless, one thing I have noticed, masses refused to acknowledge: in every book that I have personally read, the bad guy gets his/hers in the end. The biggest problem with that though is that one needed to OPEN the book and read it to finally understand what was going on. Comic covers, on the other hand, were designed to grab attention to create a sale and violence was a way to achieve this. To a parent who believed everything they heard on TV or read in the papers, they wouldn’t know this.
Violence we see in the media today make the late 1940s and 50s look like a kindergarten classroom, but that does not negate the fact that, at that time, comics were pushing the line as to what was acceptable. And believe me, covers were violent. Some to the extreme. Below (in no particular order and certainly not all-inclusive) is a list of what I believe to be some of the most violent covers created prior to the heyday of censorship. Do I really need to add a disclaimer that I do not condone any of the images you are about to see? They are not for the weak of heart, and if they are in your collection, they sure will make you cents.
What makes these books so violent is just the simplistic callousness as to what is going on. Crime Does not Pay #58 has been under many a person’s radar for a while, if they knew about it at all. Look at the simple imagery used to convey such a brutal thing. Open mouth, SLAP, shut mouth. All with a cheerleader on the side. How does the other girl not see that the same thing will happen to her down the road? In Man Comics #1, the same simple imagery is used, but against a child. I believe in Karma, and I am pretty sure he gets his in the end.
I think she drove him to it. Twice. She doesn’t even look upset! For the longest time I had a difficult time rationalizing #17 as a “suicide cover” because, his arm does not look right to me. Then I saw the reflection in the background and really understood. It was one of those “ooooooooooo ahhhhhhhh” moments. Personally, I think she was so mean that he went and hung himself three issues later just to make sure it was done correctly this time. All joking aside, these are very gruesome covers, made all the more realistic by the fact that they look human and aren’t zombies, skeletons, or cartoony. I had a police officer that sometimes laughed at different things within horrible stories he had encountered. I asked him about it one time and he said “Brian, if you don’t laugh at certain things about it, your mind cannot rationalize it and you will literally go insane”. While I would like to own the #17 because of it being a reflection cover (one of the themes of a collection I have started), I am not sure I ever will. It isn’t the expense so much as it is just a little too much for me.
It may seem strange that I am in the comic industry with a Criminal Justice degree, but it is true. I always wanted to be a cop. I am also a huge LB Cole Fan. Naturally, because of those two things, I am inclined to be on the law and order part of the coin instead of the opposite. This book just causes me to gravitate towards it because of the history. Raymond Hamilton ran with Bonnie and Clyde until his capture and execution (of which this cover depicts). He seems to be “lit up” with apprehension (a little electric chair humor) that the law caught up to him, does he not?
If I were a bad guy, and there was any comic cover that could “scare me straight” this would be the one. This specific book gives me the heebie jeebies to no end. I love it. The perspective of the guillotine moving towards you gives this sense of point of view that makes this cover so very realistic. If you have doubts that this guy is repenting all his sins, just look at his face. Give it a sec and you can get a close up since his face will be in your lap in 3… 2… 1…
Take your pick… bound and lowered onto a spikey slicey dicey wheel of death or bound to the wheel and lowered into a boiling vat of… (do you really want to know? I don’t). Let us review the “classic cover” checklist shall we?
Bound good girl: check.
Instrument of crazy death: check.
Hooded or skeletal figure of evil: check.
The daring and dashing hero! Questionable timing: CHECK!
While Terrific Comics #5 isn’t particularly violent compared to others on the list, you can see the slight progression into more violence by the time Mister Mystery #6 comes around. Things are just a little more gruesome. Here is a burning question that I need answered in the future. If you wear a pointy hat/hood, do you automatically become a crazed psycho bent on world domination?
I grew up in Chicago. When I was three, I almost drowned in Lake Michigan in two feet of water. I just couldn’t get my feet under me. My father’s best friend saw what happened and saved me. Until this day, I have a minor phobia about swimming. Every time I see this cover, I flash back to that day in Illinois. Horror and Crime genres, however, were not the only ones to have violent covers. Westerns and war covers had their share also, but typically, they weren’t so detailed. Shootings never showed anything but facial expressions and bullet holes never really showed blood. This book however shows a whole different story. The only thing I can interpret from this is straight up murder. There wasn’t even any disguise of the “savages attacking”. They just moved past it into drowning them. While not even remotely acceptable now (and rightly so), remember, at that time, the last Indian conflicts had ended only 20 years prior so public perception thought this sort of depiction wasn’t offensive in the least.
Ok these are just plain gross. And I want them. If these weren’t comics, people would be puking their guts out on the floor. Having ones face fall off due to radiation, or explode due to… well whatever… cannot be a pleasant way to go. Sometimes I wonder about these artists the same way I do with Stephan King (whom I love)… “how do you come up with this stuff?”. These two books have gone CRAZY in price over the last few years. If you have one, great job. If you want one, you may need a second mortgage on your house, sell a kidney, win the lottery, or give up your first born.
Fresh off WWII, America was still recovering and claiming its spot as a superpower in the aftermath. Flexing our new super power status in the world, the United States became embroiled in the Korean War and comic books were on the forefront of that propaganda machine. By that time, however, they had gotten a bit darker. Instead of propaganda urging nationalistic pride, we see instead what we really wanted to do with the Commies. While the Cold War started at the end of WWII, clearly this is when it started ramping up. Interesting side note. Wertham never really used examples like this in his famous book Seduction of the Innocent. I guess he was a bit afraid of being labeled a Communist.
While I did not necessarily have these in any particular order this time, the last two entries are. I think this is the 2nd all-time violent cover and only second because #1 has a place in US history that goes along with it. The graphic violence that this cover portrays has all the hallmarks of a 1950s book, but it was created a decade earlier. This cover is dark. Much darker than anything prior, and even anything after until a bunch of years later. The harbinger of what was to come in a mere decade, one can use this book symbolically to predict the future. Everything fits, from the ghostly evil figure in the background (Frederick Wertham), to the Antagonist (the Comic Book Companies), the poor victim (kids of all ages), and the rushing hero police (Parents, the Senate Judiciary Committee, and let us not forget the savior of the Comics Code Authority).
One of the most classic decapitation covers in history, this book was used in the Senate Investigations into comic books and juvenile delinquency. People needed a scapegoat because otherwise they would have to admit they were… GASP… bad parents. Unfortunately comic books took the brunt, while EC and a few other companies were the express targets and looking down the barrel of a loaded gun. It didn’t matter that the books had morals to them. It didn’t matter that Wertham doctored his results. It certainly didn’t matter that Freedom of Speech was in the Constitution. It should have mattered.
We as collectors gravitate towards certain things. Certain books are deemed “classic covers” not due to some arbitrary assigning by a random person, but because an inordinate amount of people like the book. Many of the books we gravitate towards are the books singled out in Seduction of the Innocent because they ARE the most violent and gruesome of the rest (although many on this list are not in SOTI). This is true for every genre. After all, so many people love Spider-Man because they identify with who he is. I tend to gravitate now towards Pre-Code because I think it has the best artwork, is much rarer, and is oh so very valuable. If I can give you any advice, collect what you love. Don’t get the books on the above list because I put it there. If it doesn’t pull at your heart, then it is just another comic book with no meaning. Find which ones do.