In my previous two posts (here & here) about the history of E.C. Comics, I have discussed the value of these comics as a form of nostalgia cannibalism and the ways in which nostalgia and consumer culture overlap. As an important part of the Baby Boomer childhood experience, the various comic titles published by E.C. Comics from 1950-55 — Tales From The Crypt, The Vault of Horror, Weird Science, Mad, and many more — have been re-packaged and sold to consumers every 20 years (or so) to this day. Check out the current set of reproductions, titled The EC Archives, available on Amazon right now.
Having already written twice on this nostalgia cannibalism, why am I re-visiting it again?
Well, because I’m a college professor and this stuff can actually be useful. The simple fact that these comics have been re-visited so many times in our cultural history means they can be researched in-depth, and offers a perspective that we find in only a few cultural artifacts. This is because the material, as violent and gruesome as it is, keeps evolving with the cultural moment and yet retains tied to the original, more innocent source material.
Before I dig deeper, let me explain that I’m a professor teaching film. The University where I work has received a grant to develop and implement pedagogy for visual literacy, and I’m on a team of four that includes a writer, photographer, historian and me — nerd, filmmaker, photographer, general practicioner of dorkiness…
My partner, Prof. Liv Cummins, is working on a Screenwriting class that incorporates visual literacy by starting with movie posters, working backward into a visual vocabulary of genre and meme, eventually arriving at a process for creating stories and scripts based in a visual experience. Since I work in the art school, I’m thinking about how to work forward from the textual to the visual.
Here is where the E.C. Comics come in. If they were just bits of cultural detritus that had been discarded during the Eisenhower administration, they would be forgotten. Many comics were. If they were over-used and abused bits of Baby Boomer nostalgia, they would have already been stripped of meaning — like The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan — to be used to manipulate nostalgia but separated from original context.
Instead, E.C. Comics tend to pop up about every 20 years and then fade away. Just as important, they remain intact as both comic books in print and moving images on screens.
This is the pedagogical path that I plan to forge for my students. Using the original comics as our textual base — thinking of the comic as both script and storyboard — we’ll analyze and consider the possible outcomes for presenting the story on screen. Elements such as time, pacing, movement, music… these will all be part of the discussion as we think about how a simple comic becomes a moving image.
The choice of the E.C. Comics is more than just my own love of the source material, though. As I mentioned in a previous post, there were two movies based on the comics in 1972 & 1973: Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror. There was also the 1989-96 HBO series Tales From The Crypt. Each of the movies includes 5 stories from the original series of comics (that’s 10 total), and the TV series has 93 episodes over 7 seasons.
The overlap of the two 1970s movies and the 1990s show includes two stories: “…And All Through The House” and “Blind Alleys.” This means that we can read the comic version from the 1950s, watch the story on screen in the 1970s, and then watch a new version in the 1990s.
While it’s not uncommon to see the same source material appear multiple times on screen, it’s very rare to see a comic re-made multiple times and in different generations. The exceptions might only belong to Superman and Batman.
From a teaching perspective, and especially from a visual literacy perspective, these stories are priceless. To be able to immerse oneself in the comic, then the indulgent film versions of the 1970s (these films featured actors like Peter Cushing, Joan Collins and Tom Baker) as well as the 1990s versions directed by some of the best filmmakers of the day — there is so much we can learn!
This post is an encouragement to think about what happens from page to screen, and also to think about how cultural constraints change over time. The 1950s comics, while gruesome and provocative, are actually quite restrained compared to our current cinema (cough*Tarantino*cough), yet the 1970s versions are actually much more powerful than the sexualized 1990s version. The 1972 version of “Blind Alleys” is one of my favorite bits of cinema of all time.
Below are the full versions of both stories from the 1950s, 1970s and 1990s.
Below are the original 1950s comic version of “…And All Through The House…” along with the 1972 film version and the 1989 HBO TV version. Enjoy!
Below is the full, original 1950s comic version of the story “Blind Alleys” followed by the 1972 film version and the 1990s HBO version.
Note: this plot actually appeared twice in the comics. Due to the pressures of time, the original editors recycled the story. It appears as “Blind Alleys” in Tales From The Crypt #46 and “Revenge Is The Nuts” in The Vault of Horror #20. HBO used the latter title.
Another note: the “Blind Alleys” comic below appears under the header “The Vault of Horror” — which is a bit confusing. Every E.C. Comic had 3 “Ghoul-lunatics” to guide the stories — the Crypt Keeper, The Vault Keeper, and The Old Witch — and while this story appeared in TFTC #46 it was in the Vault Keeper’s section of the magazine.