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Review of EC Comics: Race, Shock, and Social Protest

by Grace Gipson

Whitted, Qiana. EC Comics: Race, Shock, and Social Protest. Rutgers University Press, 2020.

Since their inception, comic books and publishing companies have always commented on current society. Considering past and present administrations and sociopolitical climates, discussing issues of racism, prejudice, and human rights through the comic book medium is not new. As a popular medium, comics, showcase elements of controversy, anxiety, and entertainment. In many instances, these creative texts also provide crucial historical lessons and serve as reminders that some issues are just as prevalent now as they were in their early beginnings. Throughout Qiana Whitted’s EC Comics: Race, Shock, & Social Protest she discusses many history lessons and reminders. As a heavily researched book, Whitted documents the methods and storytelling practices of EC Comics, its branding and marketing strategies, and how its stories not only resisted the status-quo but openly invited readers to experience the amalgamation of emotions as seen through its many characters.

Inspired by her love for Mad, a magazine distributed under the “Entertaining Comics Group (EC)”, and the provocative stories of the company’s social-protest comics, Qiana Whitted’s EC Comics: Race, Shock, & Social Protest serves as a detailed account and analysis of the once New York-based comic book publishing company. Known for its controversial publishing of horror, crime, humor, and science-fiction content from the late 1940s to the mid-1950s, the company’s engagement with problems and issues centered around the Cold War and civil rights era sees in-depth analysis within Whitted’s work. Through past and present dialogues and interviews, fan letters, editorials, fanzines, social media posts, and her investment, Whitted compiles a significant critical analysis of the now defunct company.

While there have been other projects which mention EC’s overall contribution (Bradford W. Wright’s Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America and David Hajdu’s The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare and How It Changed America), Whitted’s specific contribution of EC’s approach to race and social protest serves as a necessary project to the field of comic studies. While the company is primarily known for frightening its readers through the recognized Tales From the Crypt comic book series and the mass distribution of the company’s longest-running title, Mad, Whitted departs from these popular series to focus on EC’s lesser-known but still noteworthy and influential stories. Thus, as an investigation that has often been over and under-looked within comic book culture, EC Comics: Race, Shock, & Social Protest contributes to the existing legacy of discussing race in comics, but also within American history and popular culture.

Before Whitted dives into the investigation of the company’s numerous stories and its many controversies, she provides a historical layout of EC. Founded in 1944 by publisher Maxwell Charles (M.C.) Gaines, it would be originally named “Educational Comics,” where the stories were educationally centered and child-oriented. However, after M.C.’s passing, his son William Gaines later changed its name to garner a more adult audience and readership. Through this change, the content would specialize in progressive social, racial, and political commentary through horror fiction, crime fiction, satire, military fiction, dark fantasy, and science fiction. This focus significantly differed from other publishing companies that were producing material at the same time—for example, DC Comics and Fawcett Comics published superhero narratives including “Superman” and “Captain Marvel” (also known as ‘Shazam’), respectively.((Before moving and appearing in DC Comics, the Captain Marvel character would make his first appearance under Fawcett Comics publishing.))

With her goal of “reframing entertainment” (pg. 9) within American comic book culture, Whitted demonstrates the progressive nature of EC’s stories and series, which ultimately changed the norms of comic book publishing. Moreover, the content would not be limited to a single series, but how a group of stories labeled as the “preachies” were a fundamental part of EC’s overall picture.  As perceived by EC’s lead editor and writer Al Feldstein, these stories “had some sort of plea to improve social standards” (pg. 3).  Described as “social protest comics or message stories,” (pg. 5) they pushed the envelope on what stories comics were told during that time. Although the stories were meant to entertain, they also provided an intentional level of discomfort and expressed feelings of caution and grim. The comics offered frequent racial, social, and political commentary with unique and shocking endings that ultimately sought to bring about some sort of societal change. By laying the foundation surrounding the significance of the preachies early on in her first chapter, Whitted highlights what Gaines’s vision was for EC.

The impact of the preachies demonstrates EC’s formulaic origins and how it would develop into a publishing company that wanted to distinguish between entertaining and educational storytelling strategies. Through Max Gaines’s initial vision of an educational comic book publishing company to the shift from his son William Gaines into a more shocking direction, EC emerged into what Whitted would see as a semblance of social reality. The preachies were a regular go-to and became a notable tradition for William Gaines and Al Feldstein; they served as one of their most successful tools in the company, especially when conveying certain messages and targeting specific audiences. 

Through the second chapter, Whitted puts forward an examination of stories like “The Guilty!” (1952) and “In Gratitude” (1953) which primarily tackled issues of justice and racism to illustrate as she explains “how shameful and horrid prejudice really is.” As part of the Shock SuspenStories series, “The Guilty” is the first story to foreground antiblack violence and the racial inequalities of the criminal justice system, especially toward Black men. To print a story of this caliber was unheard of and ultimately surprised and shocked many EC fans. Ultimately, the story would receive an array of feedback from praise to shock and the encouragement of publishing more stories such as this one. For example, one writer described the story as “outrageous,” explaining, “I am not prejudiced against any race, but the story just shocked me…I realize that it could happen, but I just don’t think it should be printed in a comic book” (pg. 52). Another response from an African American reader would provide an opposite reaction: “I am colored, and do not object to this kind of story. On the contrary, I wish there were more to show how shameful and horrid prejudice really is, how it is a mar on the beautiful face of America. This story is all too real and true. All America should read it!” (pg. 52). While the stories are not perfect depictions of racial inequality, EC consistently took risks in not just acknowledging societal problems and issues but publicly illustrating them for a mass of readers.

Whitted’s analysis brings attention to the dissident messages, such as racial equality and anti-war advocacy, that many of EC’s writers and artists were trying to make. More specifically, EC also began placing Blackness and race front and center of the comics’ discussion. The many messages presented throughout the book speak to how comics expose society’s racial ills and secrets and serve as a tool to tell multiple stories from various vantage points. More specifically, these preachies incorporated the use of shame alongside their depictions of race. As seen through their illustrations and text, they challenged American democracy, highlighted racial terrorism, and presented a charge to take action against injustice within American society.

In the third chapter, Whitted zooms in on the use of shame as a function of transformation. EC used shame to make use of an ordinary situation with an ironic and gruesome twist while simultaneously playing a pivotal role in seeking some sort of justice and humanity. A featured story in this chapter using shame is seen in the 1952 story “Hate!.” As a story of a white, anti-Semitic family man, it serves as an example of how Whitted digs deeper into EC creative methods and asks a variety of questions such as: “Where in the preachies does the real work of combating racial prejudice, anti-Semitism, and red-baiting begin?; What are the consequences for the characters and the communities that use fear and hate to disrespect, ostracize, and harm others (pg. 78)?” These questions allow for an opportunity to engage with the conflicted relationships surrounding race and comics of the past, present, and potential future. Diversity has always been an ongoing struggle within the comic book industry. Additionally, shame became an effective strategy on the part of EC to generate emotion and a hope for change. The abovementioned questions could also suggest a probing into how the preachies strategically use shame to convey antiracist messages. In “Hate!” Whitted points out how the writers creatively discuss the experience of prejudice and harassment from the point of view of a white American man who terrorizes a Jewish family. Instead of seeing the victim’s perspective, readers must deal with how the protagonist justifies and handles their immoral actions. Thus, Whitted addresses how EC readers must sit in the discomfort of society. Ultimately, this shaming focuses on EC’s overall push to challenge audiences into thinking about the performances of hate, where and who teaches it, and how it can be unlearned.

In the final chapter, Whitted goes into great detail to explore EC’s critique of the Jim Crow era and the Comics Code Authority’s (CCA) refusal to republish one of EC’s most notable stories, “Judgement Day,” in a 1956 issue of Incredible Science Fiction. Written by Al Feldstein, illustrated by Joe Orlando, and published in Weird Fantasy #18, “Judgement Day” features a powerful visual of a fictional Black astronaut and antiracist messages. As the most popular of the preachies, “Judgement Day” inserted a mix of emotions (fear, anxiety, and hope) into its readers. Whitted also emphasizes the importance of how “message stories” like the abovementioned were able to cut across genres (pg. 18). Unfortunately, the disapproval from the CCA would have a major impact on the story’s public distribution. In light of the CCA’s denial and decision not to republish the story, EC responded with threats of a lawsuit and a public shaming through a press conference. Whitted goes on to further note these threats led Charles Murphy, a New York magistrate hired by the CCA, to rethink the approval as long as Orlando revised the illustration.((Murphy’s condition for approval was contingent upon Orlando removing the perspiration from the black character’s face. This was complete opposite from the initial protest that the character’s blackness as presented in the comic was deemed unacceptable.))Gaines angrily refused and ultimately did not comply, and the story remained unchanged and still received the CCA’s approval. Being privy to the back and forth of this particular incident gives readers a direct insight into EC’s dedication to not conform and the risks they were willing to take. This is a necessary inclusion on Whitted’s part. Her specific examination of the “Judgement Day” story and its impact provides an entry point to discuss authority figures’ use of power to censor and monitor content.

Whitted addresses this transformation of feelings and blending of fantasy and science fiction within EC’s plots to discuss the troubles of society. Additionally, it should be noted that EC, although probably not intentionally, also incorporates such themes as space travel, alien encounters, and speculative fiction to critique American humanity resonates with the goals of Afrofuturism. The growing relationship between comics and Afrofuturism creates a platform to visually interrogate topics such as Black bodies and disability (as seen in Marvel Comics ‘Misty Knight’ character), and provide illustrations of American patriotism (as seen in Dark Horse Comics character Martha Washington), while also tackling subjects like teen pregnancy and motherhood (as seen in the Milestone Comics character Raquel ‘Rocket’ Ervin). Despite its disapproval, “Judgement Day” would become one of EC’s most widely known stories as well as become largely used in classrooms. The story was even acknowledged in the African American newspaper The Chicago Defender as “worthy of a special citation” (pg. 5). Most Black newspapers and press often hired their own staff writers and cartoonists that would regularly speak to these social problems, so this acknowledgment was a sign of appreciation and respect for EC’s ability to deliver a compound message in a meaningful way. Bringing attention to the innovative storytelling strategies from EC’s stories and its specific influence on the African American community shows the diversity of its readership and the possibilities of an evolving future.

Overall, Whitted’s comprehensive analysis of EC further acknowledges the role comics have played in contributing to social and political commentary, whether nationally or globally. Each chapter builds upon the next as Whitted skillfully addresses and highlights how EC used marginalized and supernatural, extra-terrestrial voices to constantly challenge white privilege and prejudice and, in some cases, evoke public shame and humiliation. EC Comics: Race, Shock, & Social Protest is a fresh approach to spotlighting the social and racial significance of Entertaining Comics and its deliberate efforts to make society aware of and accountable for their actions. While this is important and necessary, the text fails to connect with other popular culture mediums (such as radio, television, and films) during the 1950s. Though Whitted briefly references the film Intruder in the Dust (1949) as a model used by Gaines and Feldstein, providing additional films or television to put in conversation would open the landscape even more for discussions of equitable depictions. Incorporating a more in-depth discussion of the 1949 film offers an opportunity to further engage with diverse depictions of Black characters and the complexities of racial resentments. Other media examples that address race, racism, and racial integration include: A Soldier’s Story (1984), the television mini-series Separate But Equal (1991), and the recent film Just Mercy (2019). Additional comparisons such as these can serve as what Whitted calls “plot resolutions and proposed solutions” (pg. 78) that can be used across popular culture landscapes.

Nonetheless, each chapter serves as a mini history lesson on the importance of examining representation from various lenses and further confirms why I continue to study comics. EC Comics: Race, Shock, & Social Protest paved the way for what it means to be experimental and take risks. Due to the overlapping topics and issues, Whitted’s book can be used as both primary and supplemental in multiple disciplines and classrooms ranging from the humanities (African American Studies, English/Literature, History) to social sciences (Anthropology, Sociology, Psychology), to mass media and communications. As a highly readable text with eye-catching images and full-color panels (often a difficult to achieve accomplishment due to licensing in comics scholarship), Whitted offers comic book fans an entry point into one of the pioneer comics’ publishing companies. Thus, this text is a useful tool for comic book scholars to engage with the medium outside the perspective of the “Big 2” publishing companies (Marvel Comics and DC Comics).

Whitted introduces to some and reacquaints with others how comics, particularly EC, can and do answer the “call of action” to confront unjust laws and social inequity and fight for justice and civil rights. While the company, EC, is led primarily by white creatives (writers and artists), the voices of African Americans, whether subjects in the stories or fans of EC, are not just heard but acknowledged. Whitted’s analysis brings to the forefront of comics scholarship the bold and unapologetic social and political commentary as relayed through aliens and monsters, demonstrating the unique way in which popular culture can make an impact and possibly change the mindset of a society.

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