Illustrated by Joe Orlando, written by Al Feldstein & Jack Oleck with Ray Bradbury, Otto Binder & Bill Gaines (Fantagraphics Books)
During an era of traditionally genre-inspired entertainments, EC Comics excelled in tales that both epitomised and revolutionised the hallowed, hoary themes such standard story categories utilised.
The company had started publishing in 1944 when comicbook pioneer Max Gaines – presumably seeing the writing on the wall – sold the superhero properties of his All-American Comics company to half-sister National/DC, retaining only Picture Stories from the Bible.
His high-minded plan was to produce a line of Educational Comics with schools and church groups as the major target market. He augmented his flagship title with Picture Stories from American History, Picture Stories from Science and Picture Stories from World History but the worthy projects were all failing when he died in a boating accident in 1947.
As detailed in the comprehensive closing feature of this superb graphic compilation (‘Crime, Horror, Terror, Gore, Depravity, Disrespect for Established Authority – and Science Fiction Too: the Ups and Downs of EC Comics’ by author, critic and fan Ted White) his son was rapidly dragged into the company by Business Manager and unsung hero Sol Cohen who held the company together until the initially unwilling Bill Gaines abandoned his dreams of being a chemistry teacher and quickly refashioned the ailing enterprise into Entertaining Comics…
After a few tentative false starts and abortive experiments copying industry fashions, young Bill began to closely collaborate with multi-talented associate Al Feldstein, who promptly graduated from creating teen comedies and westerns into becoming Gaines’ editorial supervisor and co-conspirator.
As they began collaboratively plotting the bulk of EC’s stories together, they changed tack, moving in a boldly impressive new direction. Their publishing strategy, utilising the most gifted illustrators in the field, was to tell a “New Trend” of stories aimed at older and more discerning readers, not the mythical semi-literate 8-year-old all comicbooks ostensibly targeted.
From 1950 to 1955 EC was the most innovative and influential publisher in America, dominating the genres of crime, horror, war and science fiction and even creating an entirely new beast: the satirical comicbook…
Feldstein had started life as a comedy cartoonist and, after creator/editor Harvey Kurtzman departed in 1956, Al became Editor of Mad magazine for the next three decades …
This ninth volume of the Fantagraphics EC Library gathers a mind-boggling selection of science fiction tales – mostly co-plotted by sci-fi fan and companion-in-crime (and Horror and Comedy and…) Gaines – all illuminated by the company’s most successful alumnus: a legendary, chameleonic artist, illustrator, editor and latterly discoverer of new talent who went on to impact the burgeoning comics industry over and over again.
The Amazing work of Joe Orlando (1927-1998) has been gathered here in a fabulous bible of iconic graphic futurism: a lavish monochrome hardcover edition packed with supplementary features and dissertations; beginning with historian and educator Bill Mason’s informative and laudatory essay ‘Orlando Ascendant’.
What follows is a spectacular beguiling, amazing and frequently wryly hilarious panoply of fantastic wonders, opening with an adaptation of one of Ray Bradbury’s most famous short stories taken from his Martian Chronicles cycle. Bradbury – a huge fan of comics – had, after a tricky start (involving an unsanctioned adaptation of one of his works), struck a deal with EC that saw a number of his horror, crime and science fantasy tales transformed into quite remarkable pieces of mature strip magic.
The eerily poignant and disturbing yarn ‘The Long Years!’ was adapted by Feldstein for Weird Science #17, (January/February 1953) and detailed how a relief ship to the Red Planet found an old man and his young family. …Or rather the perfect thinking facsimiles he had built after they had died decades previously. In that same month Weird Fantasy #17 featured an all-original Feldstein/Gaines yarn.
‘In the Beginning…’ was a delightfully convoluted time-paradox tale which took flight after Earth explorers landed on a mysterious tenth planet in the solar system, after which
‘Infiltration’ (Shock SupenStories #7, February/March 1953) highlighted Cold War paranoia and repression as a plucky young woman takes up her post in Washington DC and uncovers evidence of alien enemies entrenched in the corridors of power.
Wry irony underpinned the tale of a greedy TV repairman who stumbled upon a crashedUFO and sought to make his fortune by patenting some of the unique components in ‘Dissassembled!’ (Weird Science #18, March/April 1953), whilst simultaneously, in Weird Fantasy #18, ‘Judgment Day!’ took a powerful poke at America’s institutionalised bigotry and racism with the allegorical tale of an Earthman visiting a colony of robots who had devised a uniquely oppressive form of apartheid.
The stunningly effective story was reprinted in Incredible Science Fiction #33 (January/February 1956) as Gaines & Feldstein’s last sally and parting shot against the repressive, ever-more censorious Comics Code Authority before shutting down EC’s comicbook division for good…
‘Keyed Up!’ from Weird Science #19, May/June 1953 detailed how a drunken spacer who had accidentally killed most of his fellows came a cropper after trying to bury the evidence, whilst that month in sister publication Weird Fantasy #19 ‘Time for a Change!’ saw explorers on Pluto lethally succumb to the tempo and dangers of local rotational conditioners before ‘The Meddlers!’ (Shock SupenStories #9, June/July 1953) revealed how small-town suspicion and hostility turned a scientist into a pariah, a corpse and eventually the doom of scenic Millville…
Gaines and Feldstein were as much satirists, reformers and social commentators as entertainers and never missed an opportunity to turn a harsh spotlight on stupidity, cupidity, prejudice and injustice. They struck gold with ‘The Reformers’ (Weird Science #20, July/August 1953), which outrageously lampooned interfering star-roving blue-stocking do-gooders who discovered a planet they simply couldn’t find fault with… no matter how infernally hard they tried.
More importantly this also gave the phenomenally gifted humorist Orlando a rare opportunity to apply his subtler gifts of character nuance and comic timing.
Totalitarianism came under the hammer with ‘The Automaton’ (Weird Fantasy #20, July/August 1953) as a rebellious individual who refused to acknowledge that he was “property of the State” killed himself. Over and over and over and over again…
‘Home Run!’ (Shock SuspenStories #10 August/September 1953) saw a creature trapped on Earth go to extraordinary measures to return to Mars whilst Weird Science #21 (September/October 1953) played with the plot of the Ugly Duckling for the cruel fantasy ‘The Ugly One’.
An invisible, untouchable intruder wreaked havoc with a band of stellar prospectors in the chilling ‘My Home…’ (Weird Fantasy #21, September/October 1953), before Bradbury’s deeply moving family fable ‘Outcast of the Stars’ (Weird Science #22 November/December 1953) confirms Orlando’s artistic star quality with the subtly uplifting tale of a poor man who gives his children the most magnificent gift of all time…
In a genre where flash and dazzle were the norm, the illustrator’s deft ability to portray the subtler shades of being merely human regularly took the readers’ breath away…
Alien archaeologists reconstructed a shocking surprise when they reached Earth and reconstructed ‘The Fossil’ (Weird Fantasy #22 November/December 1953) and ‘Fair Trade’ (Weird Science Fantasy #23, Spring 1954) explored the ever-present prospect of atomic Armageddon before Feldstein adroitly adapted another pulp sci-fi author’s masterwork in ‘The Teacher from Mars’ (Weird Science Fantasy #23 June 1954).
Otto Binder had two writing careers. As Eando Binder he crafted superb short stories and classic space novels whilst as comicbook scripter using his given name he revolutionised superhero sagas as chief writer on Fawcett’s Captain Marvel, assorted icons of the Superman Family and a host of others.
Amongst the legion of publishers he worked for was EC Comics, but he had no part in the adaptation of his deeply moving tale of an alien educator facing intolerance from his human students. The magic comes purely from Feldstein’s sensitive adaptation and Orlando’s passionate drawing.
Weird Science Fantasy #25 (September 1954) offered a gem of existentialist philosophy in ‘Harvest’ wherein a robotic farmer questions his never-ending task… until he finally meets the things he’s been growing his crops for, after which Jack Oleck concocts a brace of clever yarns beginning with ‘Conditioned Reflex’ (Incredible Science Fiction #30 July/August 1955) which tells a brilliantly conceived shaggy-dog story about alien invasion and the perils of smoking before ‘Fallen Idol!’ (Incredible Science Fiction #32 November/December 1955) takes us to a post-atomic World of Tomorrow wherein a bold raid on a fallen metropolis promises to change the lives of the barbaric humans and their ambitious leader forever…
The last three stories in this titanic tome are adaptations of Binder’s astoundingly popular pulp sci-fi series starring “Human Robot” Adam Link: ten novellas written between 1939 and 1942.
As detailed in prose introductory briefing Adam Link: Behind the Scenes, the first three prose thrillers were adapted by Feldstein and Orlando at the end of the publisher’s struggle against comics censorship. Orlando returned to the feature a decade later when EC-influenced Creepy revived Adam Link, with Binder himself on the scripts. (Another graphic novel collection, another time, perhaps…?)
Here however the wonderment commences with ‘I, Robot’ (yep, Isaac Asimov didn’t coin the phrase, and was forced to use it on his own anthology of robot tales in 1950) from Weird Science Fantasy #27 (January/February 1955) which saw an erudite, sensitive mechanical man commit his origins to paper whilst waiting for a mob of outraged humans to come and destroy him…
The story continued in ‘The Trial of Adam Link’ in issue #28 (March/April) as crusading
lawyer Thomas Link struggles to clear the robot of a murder charge and win for him the right to be called human before the sequence concludes with ‘Adam Link in Business’ (Weird Science Fantasy #29 May/June 1955) as the enfranchised automaton struggles to find his place in society and is struck low by the emotion of love…
Throughout this collection, encompassing monstrous pride, overweening prejudice, terrifying power and fallen glories, Joe Orlando’s sly and subversive artistry always captured the frailties and nobility of Man and the crazy, deadly and ironically cruel, funny nature of the universe that awaited him. These stories are wonderful, subtle and entrancing and, adding final weight to the proceedings, is S.C. Ringgenberg’s biography of artistic renaissance man ‘Joe Orlando’, the aforementioned history of EC and a comprehensively illuminating ‘Behind the Panels: Creator Biographies’ feature by Arthur Lortie, Tom Spurgeon and Janice Lee.
The short, sweet but severely limited output of EC has been reprinted ad infinitum in the decades since the company died. These astounding stories and art not only changed comics but also infected the larger world through film and television and via the millions of dedicated devotees still addicted to New Trend tales.
However, the most influential stories are somehow the ones least known these days.
Judgment Day is a mind-bending, eye-popping paean of praise to the sheer ability of a master of the comic art and offers a fabulously engaging introduction for every lucky stargazer fan encountering the material for the very first time.
Whether you are an aging fear aficionado or callow contemporary convert, this is a book you must not miss…
Judgment Day and Other Stories © 2014 Fantagraphics Books, Inc. All comics stories © 2014 William M. Gaines Agent, Inc., reprinted with permission. All other material © 2014 the respective creators and owners.