Greetings kiddies! Let's start things off with a serving of screams!

*Right after


The Punisher MAX #20

City of Tomorrow! #1 (of 6), Solo #4 (that's a Howard Chaykin double-shot there)

Not too much, never enough.

*When I was a boy, I was all about “The Phantom”. I’d even clip out the daily strip six times a week, and keep the accumulated chapters in a shoebox so I could read them all at once after the adventure was over. I chirped in glee with the Billy Zane film was released: finally! One of my most obscure yet visible pleasures (in that many papers carried “The Phantom”, yet almost no one actually read it) was breaking out for everyone to admire.

But then I grew.

I was no longer a child, and I put away childish things.

I was a grown man. A “Mark Trail” man. Only a mature adult could truly grasp the sublimity of that alchemical concoction, brewed from jut-jawed adventure, eccentric animal portraiture, and the untamed perspectives that nature demands from its sequential depiction. I was safe. Secure. Perfect.

That bastard.

That bastard at The Comics Curmudgeon. He’s gonna turn me.

He’s gonna make me into a “Mary Worth” fan.

And when I say “Mary Worth” ‘fan’, I mean ‘fan’ in the Jack T. Chick context. Not exactly enjoying the work straightforwardly, but not merely deriving pleasure through irony or mockery; I’m talking about a bizarre purgatory between, somewhere in which your spit can kiss the shore of perverse admiration, just as the gravitational pull of comics revulsion exerts its beauteous pull. That is the world which religious comics pamphlets and serialized newspaper dramas occupy. The papers don’t have the background, the baggage, the mania, the glory of Chick (who does?!) but their embrace is not unalike, however diluted.

And yet - MARY (fucking) WORTH?!?!

Don’t weep for your gentle narrator, no, for his dilemma is unworthy of tear nor a single furrow on the brow…

*So. Review.

Foul Play! The Art and Artists of the Notorious 1950s E.C. Comics!

I bet you’ve seen this big slick 272 page tome sitting on the shelf of your local shop; I have. It’s out there in the Direct Market. Whether or not it’ll be worth your $29.95 is perhaps in direct correlation with your level of EC knowledge; there’s a lot of gloss and color and rare images and items included in this volume, but the core information is condensed and kept simple. Voracious fans may not find all that much new of substance, although maybe the most voracious fan will want it anyway for what new stuff it offers.

It’s written and designed by Grant Geissman, also co-author of Fantagraphics’ “Tales of Terror!”, another EC-related book. That later volume featured (from what I’ve heard, having not read it myself) an exhaustive checklist of EC books, every writer and artist sorted and accounted for, with additional history and trivia deployed. This one shifts its focus to color and gloss and art, with the historical info kept at a quick-read simmer. In this way, the book is perhaps aimed at casual readers or even brand new fans, their eyes susceptible to the lurid magic of the EC stable (one can even glimpse such an intent through the book's very title: no hardcore fan-addict needs to be told the decade from where such material issued). There are no less than fifteen complete stories included here: fourteen New Trend stalwarts and a lost Picto-Fiction potboiler seeing print here for the first time ever. Each of the fourteen reprinted stories is matched up with one of fourteen EC artists profiled in quick biographical essays, ranging in length from five to fourteen pages, liberally sprinkled with art and rarities and photographs and all manner of visual accoutrement. There’s extra stuff, but the alternating biography/story rhythm forms the core of the book.

First off, though, we get a flurry of extreme details from assorted EC pages, dings and yellowing and color dots all adoringly captured. These close-ups feature dialogue that seem to comment on the flow of the book; contemporary readers of texts-on-comics will immediately think to the (many) works of Chip Kidd, and indeed, much like in the Kidd-designed “Jack Cole and Plastic Man: Forms Stretched to Their Limits”, such an aesthetic flows directly into the full-length story reproductions. But already I’m getting ahead of myself. We next encounter a 12 page summary of the birth of EC, the reluctant rise of Bill Gaines, the Pre-Trend, New Trend, and New Direction eras, along with the familiar political strife that marked the comics era. The reader could be forgiven for setting one’s hopes low early in the text as Geissman refers to a certain powerful contemporary comics influence as “…the more recent Japanese comic-book style of Manga, with its provocatively rendered women, erotic content, and often-violent storylines,” presumably because violence, suggested sexuality, and pretty girls were not already present and accounted for in the Direct Market. But Geissman certainly knows his EC, and moreover he has access to all sorts of great visuals, including unpublished cover art, delightful house ads, even the United States Patent Office logo trademarks for a variety of Pre-Trend titles, most of which never saw active duty (and thus the world was spared the thrill of “Classroom Comics”). It’s an impressive spread, accompanied by breezy history.

And so it goes through the fourteen bios, all of which follow the same basic format, moving from birth to childhood reading of comics to art schooling to military service to early comics work to EC and all of the titles they were best known for to post-EC comics work to retirement/fan rediscovery. All Eisner Hall of Fame inductees are duly noted. And tons of lovely artwork dot those pages, including the occasional full-page splash, some uncolored originals, and other applicable materials. Some of it, unfortunately, is a bit too small to read. The bios are quick and zippy, though serious when necessary. Graham Ingels gets the most interesting chapter, largely because so little was heard from him in his later years, leaving Geissman to provide quotes and anecdotes from other sources to fill in the blanks. Speaking of quotes, there’s plenty: Geissman cites to a variety of sources, including a ton of interviews from “The Comics Journal” along with a handful of prior books. As a result, a lot of the information in the text may be familiar to seasoned fans: the Bernie Krigstein chapter offers nothing I didn’t hear in understandably more detail in Greg Sadowski’s “B. Krigstein” (which Geissman commends as “excellent”). But then, this book seems intended as an overview, with quick chapters on everyone available for quick reference. It could have been a little tighter on that front, among others. There’s no bibliography page, leaving the hungry reader flipping through the text itself for the title of a future reading source. The text as a whole sometimes shows its editing seams, with certain facts (like the nature of M.C. Gaines’ All-American Comics) explained, then left to sit, then re-explained later in another chapter. There’s the occasional factual gaffe, like crediting the story of “Judgment Day!” to Ray Bradbury in the text then giving Gaines and Al Feldstein credit later on in the story's full reproduction). But the information itself is presented interestingly, the quotes are well-chosen, and certain sensitive areas are given the necessary poking and prodding (such as Gaines and Feldstein’s decidedly relaxed attitude toward borrowing plots from prose sources - Bradbury’s hilariously droll letter on the topic is provided in its entirety).

Of course, we then arrive at the stories themselves. They appear to be shot directly from the printed comic pages, all yellowed and still wearing their original colors (again, much like in that Kidd book on Plastic Man). The pages are also set against some rather bizarre backgrounds, apparently comprised of ultra extreme close-ups of other pages of art; the effect is initially distracting, although I can’t say it impedes the reading process. The stories are somewhat mixed in impact: I suspect the aforementioned “Judgment Day!” may have been selected for inclusion as much on the basis of its admirable (albeit ham-fisted and flagrantly telegraphed) social statement and historical cachet than as a prime example of Joe Orlando art. Krigstein is represented by “The Flying Machine”, and it’s interesting to slide out your copy of “B. Krigstein” and compare Marie Severin’s revised color in the latter to her 1954 hues in the former (certain colors are completely different, not merely updated). But there’s some genuine classics too. Harvey Kurtzman is represented by some prime war material, “Corpse on the Imjin!”, showcasing his bleak, viscerally dramatic writing, with truly gorgeous art; Kurtzman was nearly as visually unique a dramatist as Krigstein (his use of barely-sketched background figures is superb), and had a great command of action (his exaggerated, whooshing punches and lunges remind me of Osamu Tezuka for some reason). And no breathing body can possibly resist Will Elder’s classic rendition of “The Night Before Christmas” from the pages of “Panic”. And if these stories occasionally embody the weaknesses of the EC style (too many words, Al, too many words, and some awfully soppy morals while we're at it), they’re only acting as an honest sampler can.

There’s still more. A chapter of extra-short bios covers colorist Marie Severin, plus assorted tangentally EC-related luminaries as Joe Kubert, Alex Toth, and Basil Wolverton. And there’s a very nice bit on Sheldon Moldoff, the Pre-Trend artist who took EC to court over his proposed “Tales of the Supernatural” project. Not only is Moldoff’s proposal included, cardboard and paste and everything, but Geissman digs into the very work product of Gaines’ attorney to reconstruct both sides of the story; it’s a great little piece of investigative writing, and maybe the most valuable section of the book for hardened EC aficionados. Finally, we have the never-before-printed Al Williamson illustrated saga “Wanted for Murder” from the aborted “Crime Illustrated” #3, plus a funny collection of office Christmas posters and cards. Why are they included?

Why not?

After all, this is a visual book, a worthily visual book; it does justice to those seeking optic EC fun and rare things, so long as unrestored comics stories are kosher. I expect they will be for those who’ll appreciate the book most: the newly tempted, the occasionally partaking, and those who just want a quick overview of an awful lot of the story in one place. Such is the utility of “Foul Play!”, and it crosses its appropriate finish line in appropriate style.