Sunday, December 6, 2009

And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose...

Classic Creepy Comic Covers - Creepy #59 (January 1974)
Art by Manuel Sanjulian

December of 1973 was a very blue Christmas for America. Watergate dominated the front page of every newspaper, with the nation still reeling from the Constitutional near-crisis of the Saturday Night Massacre and the sudden resignation of Vice President Agnew. Jobless rates were soaring, inflation was racing out of control, meat shortages were commonplace at the supermarket, and the energy crisis prompted by the Arab Oil Embargo left millions dreading the winter cold. President Nixon, his approval rating hemorrhaging, went on national television and pleaded with Americans to refrain from hanging up Christmas lights that year, so as to conserve energy. At the Senski household, we complied, as did every other house up and down the darkened streets. Those of us who lived through the winter often refer to 1973 as The Year Without Christmas. Small wonder that The Exorcist was days away from galvanizing the attention of the nation, because, for this eleven year old, it sure felt like Hell on Earth.

Oh. And Santa was coming, too. With an axe.

Under the editorial direction of Bill DuBay, Warren Magazines were entering a new era of excellence, following years of reprints, substandard material and financial woes. By this time, with over a year's worth of issues under his belt, the black and white comic mags were feeling frisky - amping up the sex and gore quotient and pulling in new readers with each issue. The economy necessitated a price increase (up a quarter to an even $1.00), but readers were getting their money's worth, especially as the titles offered up more tales of gritty psychological horror. A prime example was DuBay's own story in this issue, "Bless Us, Father..." (with typically stellar art from Richard Corben) in which a NYC cop grapples with a homicidal Santa. It was one of those Warren experiments in color, published in the middle of many issues, that unfortunately demonstrated that, while the company may have been trend-setters in b&w, the often-sloppy separation process showed they should best leave the four-color work to the competition. Although DuBay's Santa employs a meat cleaver with great aplomb, "Bless Us, Father..." comes close in matching the spirit of the cover. And what a cover it is!

Fully two decades after the axe-wielding Santa of the EC classic Vault of Horror tale "...And All Through the House," and eleven years before America would go wiggy over a serial Santa in the cinemas (watch for a much more detailed telling of that story in the days to come, gentle readers), artist Manuel Sanjulian (known simply as Sanjulian on the Warren credit pages) gave us his arresting version - and with a little bit of skin, to boot. The Spanish-born artist had been doing work for 20th Century Fox when Warren enveigled him to begin producing covers for its horror line. In just a few short years, he had created a sophisticated look for the books that they hadn't seen since the salad days of Frank Frazetta, and his knockout covers for Vampirella defined the voluptuous bloodsucker for generations to come. Creepy was the last of the Warren books to display his brushstrokes, with many more winners to follow from him throughout the 70s.

To the best of my knowledge, this issue hit newsstands with little controversy, as clearly the nation was preoccupied with other concerns. Indeed, the sales must have been impressive; Warren did yearly Christmas issues of Creepy, usually with twisted Santa covers (we'll look at a few others in the days to come), and whereas this issue featured only a few holiday-themed tales, future Decembers would see every story with a yule theme, from the sentimental to the positively sick. For the rest of the decade, the Creepy Christmas issue became a holiday horror tradition, and made for a spectacularly scary stocking stuffer.

Stockings...hmmm...that reminds me of the next one in this series we'll look at. Stay tuned, kiddies - it's a doozy.


Jay Watson said...

Great post Steven! This was one issue of Creepy I bought SOLELY based on the great Sanjulian cover. I wish I had kept it... dang!
I also love your remembrances of Christmas of '74. I was almost 19 at the time, and thank goodness the part of Indiana I was living in did not suffer a blacked-out Christmas.

Unknown said...

I read reprints and old back issue of Eerie and Creepy that I found at comic shops when I was a kid and I loved that stuff. I must say, that cover is awesome and I can't wait to see what other ones you post. I am very surprised that went by without controversy, as even now, some one would get all pissy about that great cover.

Jeff Allard said...

Sadly I was too young during the heyday of Eerie and Creepy to buy it off the newsstands - or to have anyone buy them for me! - but I always loved oogling the amazing cover art. A few copies of DC's House of Mystery found their way into my hands during the '70s but never Eerie or Creepy, unfortunately.