When Harvey Comics staff editor Sid Jacobson handed writer-artist Howard Nostrand a stack of EC horror comics in the early 1950s and told him, “Here, copy what these guys are doing,” Nostrand did a pretty good job of it. While he’s a comparatively unsung figure alongside the bigger names responsible for classic horror comics, his output, which included stories in anthologies Chamber of Chills, Tomb of Terror, and more, was so well-executed that it eventually earned inclusion amid the dubious data presented by child psychologist Dr. Fredric Wertham during his industry-crippling crusade against the medium back then. A short foreword penned by Nostrand’s editor in a flashy, recently published hardcover from IDW’s Yoe Books imprint has some choice quotes about the volume’s Hoboken, New Jersey-born subject.
“(E)ven on his worst days, he was a hell of an artist,” writes Jacobson of Nostrand. “Howard certainly was one of the very best in my crew during those years and created some of the very best stories I ever put out.”
For the Howard Nostrand’s Nightmares entry in comics historian Craig Yoe’s ‘Chilling Archives of Horror’ series, a selection of pre-Comics Code horror stories gets bound alongside reproductions of original art. The gruesome yarns collected here, which have been reproduced to appear as they did on the newsstand, when smudgy colors bled across black ink lines on the printer’s cheap paper stock — “Dust Unto Dust,” “Dead End,” “Zodiac,” to name a few — are set against detailed backdrops and even get a hallucinatory finish at times, especially in a more supernatural setting, where Nostrand’s linework swirls and coils to fill-out panels with borders that loosen into circular figures and then come unbound from the grid altogether. There is playful graphic design at work in the title pages — also an EC hallmark — and getting lost in the wealth of shadows here, and often amid creatures lurking within them, is a blast.
“Dust Unto Dust” ran in Chamber of Chills in May of 1954. Maybe it’s standard vintage horror comics fare for most — there’s a walking corpse, a bit of axe-swinging, some blood, and its narrative captions brim with hyperbole and ellipses: “Suddenly a hand grabbed Hugh from behind…a foul, decayed, fetid hand…reeking putridness…” But it looks wonderful — Nostrand shines in detailing hyper-expressive facial features, and for a handful of rainswept thunderstorm scenes, the use of shadow for a city skyline silhouette proves striking. Several of the sequences depict moment-to-moment action with clever zoom-ins, in which the narrative is framed by way of a medium shot, and a couple of subsequent close-ups that inch us nearer to a murderous frenzy or — against a grainy graveyard — to Nostrand’s “reeking putridness.”
Nightmares is indicative of a Will Eisner influence, but imprint of EC Comics’s Jack Davis is undeniable — I swear that there’s even a stringy-haired stand-in for the Crypt Keeper keeping a watchful eye over these pages. Writer Jasper Bark, cited in the book’s interesting introductory material, points out as much in an essay at This Is Horror.
“As few artists were allowed to sign their work in the 50s many comic collectors initially thought that Nostrand’s work was done by one or more of the EC artists freelancing for the competition,” writes Bark.
In her 1996 article for Inks: Cartoon and Comic Art Studies, Seton Hall professor and comics researcher Amy Nyberg traced the roots of horror comics for publisher EC back to the late 40s. “By 1948, every fifth comic book sold was a crime comic,” wrote Nyberg in ‘William Gaines and the Battle Over EC Comics.’ “After the circulation of crime comics peaked, the industry added elements of horror and terror to keep reader interest high.”
One of the comics that William Gaines added to the EC lines when he inherited the company after his father Max was killed in a Lake Placid, NY boating accident was Vault of Horror, an anthology book that ran for 29 issues. It was canceled in late 1954 due to the effects that Wertham’s crusade had on the industry. Vault of Horror has since seen the light of day over and over again, but now, Dark Horse has partnered with Russ Cochran (who has had a hand in reprinting this stuff before) to reissue big hardcover collections of EC classics. The 200+ page The EC Archives: The Vault of Horror Volume 4 landed in January of 2015.
This Dark Horse collection doesn’t quite get the archival treatment that Howard Nostrand’s Nightmares gets at Yoe Books — the insightful essay about the subject, including a fascinating overview of Nostrand’s successful career as a commercial artist; the supplementary reproductions of the original art. We do get a short introduction here by EC expert Grant Geissman, who has written several books on the publisher, as well as an effort to offer a thorough presentation by way of reproducing the original ads and fan letter pages. And these colors might ruffle purists’ feathers, too — even as colorist Carlos Badilla is said to have based his digital recoloring on color guides (hand-colored pages w/ codes to guide a printer for the purposes of a comic’s final coloring) provided by legendary EC colorist Marie Severin, it can be somewhat jarring to experience these comics in a digital recolored fashion, specifically when extreme gradients appear, or when unnecessary Photoshop brush techniques are applied, as EC Archivist points out. I have a handful of the 1990s-era Gladstone reprints, with which Cochran was also involved, and here, the appearance of unnatural skin or hair colors, or excessive white gloss to add realist texture feels unwarranted.
Aesthetic quibbles aside, this is a bulky collection, and the table of contents is overrun with marquee names of the horror comics genre, with work from Jack Davis, those well-known outrageously gratuitous covers from Johnny Craig, and scripting from Al Feldstein.
For the June/July 1953 issue of Vault of Horror — digitally recolored for this collection — Feldstein adapted a short story by Ray Bradbury called “The Lake,” which appeared in Dark Carnival, the revered author’s 1947 debut collection. In fact, “The Lake” was reportedly the first story Bradbury had ever sold to a magazine, Weird Tales, in 1944. He had trouble selling work to glossy magazines like The New Yorker, for example, which accepted one but rejected his stories for many years. When “The Lake” had appeared in The Vault of Horror, it was only after Bradbury had contacted EC when he learned they’d been plagiarizing his work. They settled amicably, and official adaptations followed. Feldstein loved Bradbury’s stories, notes Steven Riggenberg at The Comics Journal.
The Vault adaptation begins with Bradbury’s description of September from the perspective of a young boy, who senses the oncoming school year and mourns the end of summer, “when things are getting sad for no reason.” Feldstein plucks bits of the original’s lively visuals: “All of the hot dog stands were boarded up with strips of golden planking, sealing in the mustard, onion, meat odors of the long, joyful summer. It was like nailing summer into a series of coffins.” Artist Joe Orlando details a grim but subdued lost-child scenario — a blonde, pigtailed Tally ventures out into the water, sunlit and dressed in Orlando’s wiry ripples, and she doesn’t return.
“The Lake,” in which a boy is haunted by the memory of his first love, who is taken from him at the lake where they spent their summer days — is ultimately a ghost story without a ghost. Alongside the volume’s stories like “One Good Turn,” “Out of His Head,” and “A Peach of a Plot,” each inclusive of decaying corpses or gruesome deaths, Bradbury’s story might prove mild to the bloodthirsty reader, but Feldstein shines here, and Orlando’s linework is a marvel. Natural settings are exquisite, with each tree branch hosting limitless leaves while a wedding cake is nothing short of a design phenomenon, its icing a fine weaving of ornamental squiggles and strokes. You can probably spend hours mulling these details in the original artwork, which was auctioned off in late 2014 along with more than 400 other items from Bradbury’s estate.
Even as the horizontal page orientation probably fractures the experience that Feldstein and co. originally intended, I liked seeing this one in black & white many years ago, as a part of Bradbury’s The Autumn People, a short 1965 Ballantine collection of Feldstein’s adaptations of the author’s stories (I’ve long been a Bradbury enthusiast). The gathering of ghouls on the cover were painted by Frank Frazetta, who worked for EC Comics in the early 1950s. Bradbury defended his love of comics in the introductory pages.
“I have no patience for the literary snob who turns his back on his root-system, what he was, what he once loved with all his heart,” he wrote. “So it follows that having these comic adaptations of my short stories reprinted in book form is a good and happy experience for me.”
Images: Howard Nostrand’s Nightmares is © 2014 Gussoni-Yoe Studio, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Images: THE EC ARCHIVES: THE VAULT OF HORROR Volume 4. © 1953, 1954, 2015 William M. Gaines, Agent, Inc. All rights reserved.