December 18, 2010

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The Horror! The Horror!

Comics Written and Illustrated by various creators, including Steve Ditko, Bill Everett, William Gaines, Dick Giordano, Don Heck, Basil Worthington, and Wally Wood
Collection Selected with Commentary by Jim Trombetta
Abrams

Imagine a world without rules in a medium that's not yet been regulated or standardized. Anything goes and often does. People's careers are made and broken, and each twist and turn might cause yet another scandal and calls for regulation.

No, it's not the internet circa 1996, it's horror comics in the pre-code era. Filled with violence, gore, melting faces, lecherous skeletons and ghouls, offensive racial portrayals, and more sudden turns out of nowhere than a Twilight Zone episode. Horror comics were something unlike what had ever come before, and despite the return of blood to comics over the years (especially today), we'll never see this mix of copying and creativity again.

Older comics are seeing a huge rebirth lately, and I couldn't be happier. I wish the archival collections were a bit cheaper on my pocketbook, but I am absolutely in love with these 1950s stories from when I first started reading them in semi-bootlegged editions that my local library had. When I saw this on the shelf at my new library, I simply had to give it a try.

Trombetta's entry into the world of old horror comics is quite different from what I'm used to. He has no ties to comics, which is both good and bad. Trombetta is more interested in the visuals of the time rather than the stories, so we mostly get covers and clips rather than entire comics. Seeing so many old horror covers together is cool, don't get me wrong, but when he's discussing the plots of certain stories, I longed to actually READ them. That's the comics fan in me coming out, and I'm sure any lover of the four-color world is going to feel similarly if they pick up this book.

On the other hand, if I were an art fan or a person who grew up in the 1950s, this collection would be perfect. Trombetta crafts a book that follows a logical flow and gives plenty of visual evidence for his explanations of what horror comics did and their primary tropes, such as the ones I mentioned above. One of the things I liked best is that there is often just enough talking to set up the covers or short stories without bogging the reader down in details that they, quite frankly, probably don't want. After all, this is book picked to the coffee table crowd. The more words there are, the harder it will be to sip your wine and eat your crackers.

I say none of that with offense. For what this book is designed to be--an introduction to a time long gone that has glaring colors, striking drawings by underrated (or worse, lost entirely) artists, and a realization that no matter what time we live in, there are going to be people that hate anything that exposes American society for what it really is. Trombetta treats his subject with respect at all times (no Biff! Pow! cliches here, almost to the point of pretending superhero comics don't exist), which is rare and refreshing when a non-comics professional is involved.

There's only one thing I did not like and that was Trombetta's decision to over-analyze in the pop psychology mold. Characters are always doing sexual things or worrying about their inner fears and using that to write/draw comics. There's implied psychic trauma all over 1950s comics according to Trombetta, and sometimes that gets to be a bit much. His linking of everything to the Korean War just seems forced to me. I tend to think of these comics as tied more to exposing the repressive nature and fake wholesomeness of post-war America. I guess that just goes to show how good these comics really were--you can interpret them in any number of ways.

The Horror! The Horror! is not going to satisfy hardcore comics fans because of its extremely small number of reprints. For a casual comics reader, however, it could be a gateway to the weird and wacky world of comics before Stan, Jack, Julius, and Carmine started thinking heroically in a whole new way. I enjoyed seeing covers I might never get to see again and to get a feel for how an "outsider" views these books. This is not an essential purchase for comics fans, but it certainly makes for a nice visual treat over a few evenings in bed.