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Who Invented Horror Comics?

I was a guest on JamComic Book Marketplacees DC’s excellent Atomic Bark show on Resonance FM recently. The theme of the show was EC and pre-code horror comics – that wonderful cavalcade of quickly drawn, anonymously written and often badly printed horror comics that flourished for five brief years in the 1950s before the creation of the comics code authority. The fact that these throwaway items are still being discussed over 60 years later is a testament to their importance to both horror and popular culture in general. EC, and their brothers in badly drawn blood, have had a huge impact on the most influential writers, filmmakers and musicians working in modern horror, names such as Stephen King, George Romero and Rob Zombie all acknowledge their influence.

At the beginning of the show I rattled off a potted history of pre-code horror comics, including the standard line about how they came into being. I based my account on the birth of horror comics on several sources but one of the primary ones was an interview with EC editor, and chief writer, Al Feldstein in Comic Book Marketplace 80 (July/August 2000). According to Al, the idea to do a horror comic arose out of a conversation he had with his boss Bill Gaines while Bill was giving him a lift home to Brooklyn, where they both lived.

At the time EC were simply following market trends and putting out books that copied what was selling well for their competitors. Al suggested to Gaines that maybe they should:

…innovate rather than imitate. We found that we both had a fondness for the old scary radio shows, especially Arch Obler’s Lights Out, and I thought scary stuff would work well in comics.

So they tested the waters with a few back up stories in their crime comics Crime Patrol and War on Crime. The stories were so well received that they quickly took over the crime comics and were relaunched as EC’s new line of horror comics – Tales from the Crypt, Vault of Horror and Haunt of Fear.

It proved so successful that soon every other publisher in the business was putting out horror comics – at one point there were 110 titles from 30 different publishers on the newsstands. Gaines himself even reiterated the claim that EC started this publishing trend when he testified in front of the United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency on April 22 1954. Gaines stated:

I was the first publisher in these United States to publish horror comics, I am responsible, I started them.

According to Greg Sadowski, comics historian and editor of the anthology Four Color Fear this might not be entirely true. In an interview with Roy Thomas in Alter Ego Vol 3, #4 (Jan 2011) Sheldon Moldoff, the golden age cartoonist responsible for drawing The Flash, Hawkman and later Batman, claims that he came to Gaines with the idea for a horror comic just after Bill’s father died and passed what was then a failing company on to him. As Moldoff tells it:

I had met Bill before, but now he was in charge, and I was doing some work for him. I asked him, ‘How’s things going?’ He said, ‘Lousy. The family’s considering closing up and getting out of the comic book business.’ I said, ‘Bill, if I give you an idea which I think will be the next trend, will you give me a contract and a percentage of sales if it shows a profit? I only want it if there’s a profit; I’d get paid a percentage of the profit. I think I know what’s going to come in next.’ And he said, ‘I’d be glad to!’ I said, ‘Okay, I’m going to bring you a couple of titles and a little breakdown, and show you what I have in mind.’ So when I came back, I showed him two titles. One was Tales of the Supernatural, and the other was This Magazine Is Haunted. And I said, ‘This is going to be it: horror. This is going to come on strong.’

The Crypt of TerrorMoldoff had already shown this idea to Fawcett who published Captain Marvel which at the time was outselling every other superhero title, including Superman and Batman. Fawcett passed on the idea so Moldoff showed it Gaines. Although Moldoff got his contract, he soon found out it was worthless. He put together two issues for EC and even included the work of two artists who would go on to become stalwarts of the EC roster, namely Johnny Craig and Ghastly Graham Ingels. However, Gaines kept stalling Moldoff when he inquired about when the next issues were due. Then, nearly a year later, Moldoff saw The Crypt of Terror on the newsstands, the comic that would soon become Tales from the Crypt EC’s first hit horror comic.

When Moldoff confronted Gaines, Bill admitted that he didn’t want to pay Moldoff a percentage, but he was wiling to offer Moldoff as much work as he wanted in recompense. Moldoff turned him down and got himself a lawyer, however as his contract had been drawn up by EC’s lawyers he soon found there was nothing he could do. Moldoff offered the idea to Fawcett once again, impressed by the healthy sales of EC’s horror comics Fawcett offered Moldoff a one off payment of $100 dollars and as much work as he wanted, essentially the same deal Gaines had offered. This time Moldoff took it.

There are other contenders for the title of first horror comic. In 1947 Avon publications put out Eerie, widely recognised as the first horror comic even if only one issue was produced. ACG actually beat EC to the newsstands by over a year with Adventures into the Unknown the first ongoing series of horror comics. Al Feldstein even drew a few stories for this publication, casting further doubts on his claim to have come up with the idea for horror comics. There had been several other instances of successful horror themed stories in comics even before this, most notably Dick Briefer’s original Frankenstein for Prize Comics. However I think it’s now safe to say that Shelly Moldoff was the man who came up with the idea for the standard anthology horror comic that has remained popular in the face of industry censorship and reader indifference even to this day.

Making this claim shouldn’t detract from the incredible and pioneering work that EC did in the field. Feldstein and Gaines’s stories were widely copied and they set a standard that the rest of the industry has rarely met even to this day. Few stories from This Magazine Is Haunted stand up to anything that EC put out. Even still it is an injustice that Sheldon Moldoff has been whitewashed from the official history of the medium and it seems only fair to give him his rightful place as the dreamer and visionary who ushered in six decades of ink stained insanity and newsprint nightmares.

And before I go here’s an episode of Atomic Bark that features James DC and I talking about old time horror radio and their impact on horror comics:


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