Creepshow and the horror comics of the 1950s

Originally published on Liverpool Small Cinema

Cheap Thrills organiser Christopher Brown looks at the history of comic books that inspired George A Romero and Stephen King’s 1982 comedy horror Creepshoow, screening in January.

George A Romero was no stranger to bringing elements of comic book horror to the screen when he took on Creepshow. His 1977 film Dawn Of The Dead, with its bright red blood and black humour (even featuring a custard pie fight) was already a mix of gross-out violence and slapstick jokes. By teaming up with writer Stephen King though, this anthology comedy horror Creepshow (1982) was far more of a homage to the vicious comic books he grew up with.

Creepshow is a mix of short horror tales, all with a heavy nod to comic books.

The early 50s had seen a boom in horror comics. At its heart was EC, a company that brought out a host of anthologies. Beginning 1950 there were 91 issues of EC Comics’ three series: The Haunt of Fear, The Vault of Horror and Crypt of Terror, renamed Tales from the Crypt.

In 1947, publisher William Gaines had inherited what was then Educational Comics upon the death of his father, Maxwell Gaines. Three years later, Gaines and editor Al Feldstein introduced horror in two of the company’s crime comics to test the waters. Finding them successful, the publisher quickly turned them and a Western series into EC’s three main comic lines.

They were notable for their violent tone, black humour and garish colour palette, all designed to entice kids after a scare.

With the comics’, ghoulish tone and macabre content matter it isn’t surprising that they caught the eye of moral guardians. In 1954, Dr. Fredric Wertham published Seduction of the Innocent, it claimed horror, crime and other comics were a direct cause of juvenile delinquency. Wertham said their content was enough to bring out violent behavior in children.

Wertham painted a picture of an industry, shrouded in secrecy and masterminded by a small cartel, that preyed on the innocent and defenseless minds of the young. He added that the business strong-armed vendors into accepting their publications and forced artists and writers into producing the content against their will. All this was, of course, utter bollocks.

But for young fans the chance to own such incendiary contraband, comics that were sure to offend their parents, meant that sales continued to grow. By 1953, nearly a quarter of all comic books published were horror titles.

In September 1954, the Comics Magazine Association of America (CMAA) and its Comics Code Authority (CCA) was formed. The Code was designed to limit horror comics. The Code banned the “unique details and methods of crime…Scenes of excessive violence…brutal torture, excessive and unnecessary knife and gun play, physical agony, gory and gruesome crime…all scenes of horror, excessive bloodshed, gory or gruesome crimes, depravity, lust, sadism, masochism…Scenes dealing with, or instruments associated with walking dead, or torture”.

The industry changed tact, either by toning down content or by publishing in black and white magazine format, which was exempt from the code. In the early 70s the code was lightened, bringing in Marvel’s Morbius, the Living Vampire, followed by the introduction of Dracula in Tomb of Dracula, amongst others.

Romero’s Creepshow though is influenced right at the heart of the early 50s horror boom. Its typeface echoes the garish colours and dripping letters of EC in all its pomp, while the stories dart between absurd sci-fi invasion, starring writer Stephen King, to ghastly revenge dramas and skin-crawling insect attack tales. Like all anthology horror people will always point to different stories as their favourite. Much like the comic books the film takes its influences from, the tone varies wildly, but that’s all part of the movie’s appeal.

Few horror films feel quite so much like a ride as Creepshow. Its use of comic book styling, violence and comedy make it a heady, intoxicating mix.  But, just when you think the carnival can’t get truly scary, Romero and King manage to pull off some real frights, especially in the stark closer They’re Creeping Up on You.

The film is there to remind you of the fun that horror films (and comics for that matter) can be. Not all fright films need to take themselves too seriously, just as long as they know when to pack a punch when it counts.

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