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Foul Play. Foul Play! The Art and Artists of the Notorious 1950s E.C. Comics!
Written by Grant Geissman
Published by Harper Design, an imprint of Harper Collins; $29.95 USD

I know that many of you out there will find this hard to believe, but I was born too late to experience the EC Comics phenomenon first-hand. By the time I made my debut here on this plane of existence, the comics empire that William Gaines and his compadres had established had faded away, leaving only Mad Magazine as proof that it had ever existed at all. Well, that and a host of fanatical fans, who were old enough to remember those heady pre-Doc Wertham days, and it was they who spread the word and established the reputation that every subsequent hard core comics and horror/sci-fi enthusiast has come to know and cherish. Then of course there were the series of Russ Cochran's reprints, which kept the pitch torch burning for years, and the hundreds of readers who have grown up since and turned pro -- and have paid homage several times over.

One of these fans, or "fan-addicts" (if you will) is Grant Geissman, who's just written a sort of "EC 101" book, Foul Play! The Art and Artists of the Notorious 1950s EC Comics! (Exclamation marks are all his), just published by Harper/Collins. In this book, Geissman chooses to focus on the creators themselves, rather than the history of the company, which is given a quick run-through at the beginning of the book. Then, with that out of the way, we're given fairly thorough bios of all the key players (some warranting more pages than other on the strength of Geissman's estimation of their contributions). Most of the names you know: Gaines himself, artist and later editor Al Feldstein, Harvey Kurtzman, Johnny Craig, Graham Ingles, etc. Other, more peripheral, players in the EC world but greats in other places like Basil Wolverton, John Severin, Joe Kubert, and Alex Toth, who flirted with Gaines and Co. but whose involvement was minimal, get shorter pieces but all profiles are lavishly illustrated with covers and interiors, and many of them also feature full-length stories as examples of their work- some familiar to anybody who knows anything about E.C. at all, like obvious Wrightson influence Ingles' "Horror We? How's Bayou" and George Evans' "Blind Alleys," and others not quite as expected, such as the decision to represent Bernie Krigstein with one of his first jobs for Gaines, "The Flying Machine," an adaptation of a Ray Bradbury short story which the author held in high regard, and Will Elder's hilariously nutball adaptation of "The Night Before Christmas." The design work of the book is solid and attractive -- its most obvious point of reference the recent Chip Kidd-designed Jack Cole bio, but it's much cleaner than that.

If you're unfamiliar with this seminal work and are inclined to be curious, this is a great place to start -- we're given a lot of information not only about the creators' work not only with Gaines & Co., but also before and after, a touch which I appreciated since my first exposure to the work of Craig, for example, was his short-lived stint as artist on the first few issues of Iron Man in the late '60s, represented here. Of course, the sad, sad story of Wallace Wood is recounted yet again, but not in an exploitative fashion. Others which interested me, to name a few, were the accounts of Joe Orlando's productive Warren and DC careers as an illustrator and editor and the section on Reed Crandall, whose graceful and painstaking work I first saw in the pages of Warren publications Creepy and Eerie, as well as reprints of his '40s Blackhawk stories for DC. Hard-core EC-heads might not be as satisfied, since I would imagine that most of the information given wouldn't be new to them, but we do get an heretofore unpublished "Picto-Fiction" story by Al Williamson and a lot of behind-the-scenes cartoons drawn for the EC Christmas parties, which are huge fun and I wouldn't think that many people have had the opportunity to see.

In fact, that brings me to the thing that I enjoyed the most about Foul Play! -- it successfully invokes the sense of camraderie and friendship that this group shared, referred to throughout in reminisces but made palpable by a caricature that's reproduced on page 241 in the section dealing with the great Marie Severin, who was colorist there in her pre-Marvel days, of the group having dinner at a local Italian restaurant. Many of them are shown with a charming, idiosyncratic touch, be it George Evans' model airplane or Will Elder's portfolio bearing stickers from Bedlam and Bellevue, and the feeling of bonhomie this throwaway cartoon evokes is absolutely wonderful. Maybe you had to be there, but it perfectly captures the sense of a wonderful group of talented people, in a moment of time that we'll most likely never again see. Heck, it's almost worth the price of admission for me, all the other incredible art notwithstanding.

Of course, I can quibble -- I really fail to understand what the appeal is of reproducing these classic stories on yellowed paper, as is done here throughout -- sure, I know it's meant to evoke a sense of nostalgia, but it's just plain ugly and doesn't do justice to the work. If I want to see a classic car, for example, I want to see it as it rolled off the showroom floor and not as it looks 40 years later in the junkyard, and the same goes for comics pages. There's this amazing new creation called Photoshop, fellas, and it works wonders on those old page scans. But really, that's the only serious complaint I have -- Foul Play! The Art and Artists of the Notorious 1950s EC Comics! is an obvious labor of love and serves as a great introduction to this important period in the development of sequential fiction. Of course, you should just use this as a springboard for further research, and I recommend Fantagraphics' outstanding B. Krigstein: Comics as your next step. But I have a feeling that you'll be constantly referring to this one time and again, no matter how deep you dig. Grade: 4.5/5

-- Johnny Bacardi

The ADD Blog by Alan David Doane. Trouble with Comics Reviews of comics and graphic novels. Commentary about the artform and industry of comics. Get back to the main page.

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