Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The stockings were hung by the chimney with care...

Classic Creepy Comic Covers - Creepy #68 (January 1975)
Art by Ken Kelly

Did I tell you that this one was gonna be something else, er no?

The very first issue of Creepy that I bought off of the newsstand was #73, cover dated August of 1975, and sporting an atypical science fiction cover of a futuristic suited astronaut engaged in zero gee combat with an advancing robot, the pair floating high above the planet Mars. I think this tableau must have appeared safe to me, because, truth be told, up until that point Warren's comic magazines...uh...scared me a little. I had been a regular reader of the company's Famous Monsters of Filmland for about four years, and also purchased many of Marvel's efforts at Horror b&w magazines; graphic though they were, they still seemed to operate within the confines of the Marvel Universe. The Warren titles felt different, dangerous, filled with more overt sex and gore. But hey, I was twelve years old now, and it was time to put away childish things. Bring on Uncle Creepy!

One of the greatest things about the Warren titles, and a sheer act of genius in my estimation, was their offering of back issues for sale in every single mag. Open the back end, and you would find a double-page spread of Creepy covers, miniature thumbnail shots of the entire run up to that point. Filling out the second page was a listing of classic story titles, including such interesting-sounding tales as "Like a Phone Booth, Long and Narrow" and "The Beckoning Beyond." Issue #73 hooked me and hooked me hard, and being the fetishistic completist that I am, I started ordering up the previous issues in reverse order, finding a newly-discovered passion for household chores that paid stipends of a dollar here, a dollar there. I still remember the thrill of opening that first package of fifteen or so back issues, and the revelation of seeing, in color and full-size, the covers that tempted me so in miniature.

And that's how I first saw the cover to #68. I could tell by the thumbnail that it was a Christmas issue, I could tell it was Santa, I could tell it was elves, I could tell they were by a fireplace. But I couldn't tell what it was they were doing exactly, or certainly what it was that Santa had in his bag.

Almost 35 years later, and I can't for the life of me figure out how the hell they got away with this. In its 149 issue history, the magazine never featured anything nearly as gruesome, as grisly as this Ken Kelly masterpiece. Sure, there were a pair of decapitations and a "Murders in the Rue Morgue"-inspired throat slashing, but those were models of restraint compared with this. If the magazine had received any complaints about the "Santa with an Axe" of one year prior, then it was cheekily doubling down with its second Christmas issue (and raising the price by yet another quarter to $1.25 - the sales on these holiday issues must have been good).

By his own admission, no one did more covers for Warren during their history than the Frank Frazetta-trained Kelly (over 150), and seeing his growth as an artist over the years was a wonderful thing to behold. Together with Sanjulian, Enrich, and the incomparable Basil Gogos over at FM, those four made the Warren name synonymous with sophisticated dark fantasy, and in the case of Creepy, Eerie and Vampirella, unashamedly adult. To be fair, it is also easy to look at his output and find the occasional cartoonish rush job, but there aren't many of these.

Were there complaints? This time, yes, as the letters page seemed to indicate that the shocked outnumbered the supportive. (Some readers thought those were the body parts of children, but I never quite saw that myself.) The Warrens never again swung for the fences as boldly as they did here. Oh, the inside stories were often jaw-droppingly graphic (there's a Bill DuBay / Luis Bermejo effort in Creepy #95 entitled "Orem Ain't Got No Headcheese" that still makes me kinda queasy just thinking about it), but relative restraint followed this beauty. Me, I'm glad as hell they were able to get away with it, if only once.

You can buy an autographed print of this canvas (called "Season Greetings") by going to Ken Kelly's website here. Methinks I might have just made a few sales...

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