Trouble with Comics, Christopher Allen Reviews Four Color Fear

Christopher Allen Reviews Four Color Fear

Four Color Fear: Forgotten Horror Comics of the 1950s
Editor - Greg Sadowski
Publisher - Fantagraphics Books. $29.99 USD

I might have reviewed this book a little differently a week or two ago, but in ramping up to Halloween I’ve been watching a number of horror films, new and old. And one realizes that there are few differences between this installment of the Friday the 13th or Final Destination or Saw franchises, really. You go in expecting adherence to certain tropes of the genre, and if there are some surprises, great, but that’s not really why anyone watches them. 

The EC Comics horror titles were popular because they adhered to a winning story model of the wicked getting their just desserts, often in grisly fashion, and as depicted by some very talented artists. But the EC titles like Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror become notorious as touchstones for investigations into whether such comics warped impressionable young minds. This ended the books but also later cemented in the minds of many the idea that in that era, these were, if not the only horror comics published, at least the only ones worthy of later consideration.

That Greg Sadowski has gathered up 40 or so mostly forgotten non-EC Comics is cause for celebration, if perhaps a muted and brief one. We are living in a time when comics publishers are digging up more and more old work for the aging core fanbase. Classic, near-classic and even mediocre old newspaper strips get deluxe hardcover reprints with adoring essays and copious background material, not unlike the expensive CD box set devoted to one artist. This volume is more like a “Best of the ’50s” compilation CD, priced to move, or a Warner Home Video Film Noir box set, each disc featuring an unrestored film, commentary track from a devotee, and skimpy featurette. 

That isn’t to say the scholarship on this volume is lacking; indeed, Sadowski does an excellent job of providing historical information for the talent and studios producing each story here, with fellow ’50s comics expert John Benson chipping in on some of these as well as starting off the proceedings with a tart Introduction about the contents and how they were arranged. 

Sadowski is wise to arrange the work “aesthetically,” basically following each story with one as far as possible from it in tone, plot and artistic style. It works far better than trying to sequence by theme, artists or studios, and emphasizes that these stories are meant to be fun, consumed in their five or six page chunks or in a long jag. The cover also conveys the lack of pretention, with a grinning ghoul chomping on a chicken leg, glossy, overlaid blood spattering below. 

Although Benson’s Introduction admonishes the reader to consider the writing, not just the art, there isn’t much here that rises above joyous trash. It’s charming that the Iger Studios effort, “Corpses…Coast to Coast,” about an organized, industrial army of zombies, is absolutely free of allegory, but, well, that’s all there is to it. Lou Cameron displays Ditko-level skills at depicting strange worlds in “The Maze Master,” and bonus points for doing it with such small panels. The halftone textures of Harry Lazarus’ “Nightmare” are thrilling, and there are also a pair of gorgeously exuberant Jack Cole stories, “Custodian of the Dead” and “Valley of Horror” (the latter a bit more restrained, actually), and Basil Wolverton is always fun and always a little out of place wherever he goes. Bob Powell’s “Colorama,” one of the few stories I already knew, is here, but so are several other Powell tales—he and Howard Nostrand appear about the most. In fact, as the main aim of the book is to present the best ’50s non-EC horror work, it’s a little puzzling that we have stories like Nostrand’s “Dust unto Dust” and Wallace Wood’s “The Thing from the Sea.” True, they came from other publishers, but Nostrand’s storytelling is (as Sadowski notes) heavily influenced by Harvey Kurtzman’s, and Wood’s story is text-heavy and with a dead lettering style not unlike an Al Feldstein script, and plotwise it fits well within the EC formula. Still, it’s a fine story, and Wood eases up on the narration to let the action flow better after a couple pages.

The book ends up being just about right. Good scholarship to put the stories into context, a glossy gallery in the middle of covers of the horror comics magazines of the day, and a highly entertaining selection of material from some of the better talents of the era. As far as reproduction, they have elected to stay faithful to the original comic book when original art wasn’t available, with no retouching or recoloring, against a creamy white paper that is much whiter than old newsprint but not at all glossy. It’s a good compromise. Some of the work is stunning to look at, and some looks faded, but that’s a pretty realistic expectation with an anthology, especially a $30 softcover one. When I wrote earlier that the celebration for this book might be brief, it wasn’t to denigrate the book itself, which is a solid primer and should be an entertaining one for years to come, but to point out that sometimes books like these are first steps towards more lavish or more focused work to come. We are seeing books on cartoonists like Mort Meskin and Fletcher Hanks that would have been hard to conceive of earlier in the decade. A volume on Bob Powell or Howard Nostrand might not be far behind. And that’s exciting.

— Christopher Allen

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