Saturday, November 28, 2009

Boris Karloff Blogathon - The Sea Shall Give Up Her Dead

Classic Creepy Comic Covers - Boris Karloff Tales of Mystery #32 (November 1970)
Artist unknown

It took me a number of years to realize it, but the cover to this issue of BKToM is a rarity because of its subject matter; Gold Key's primary competitors on the newsstand - Marvel and DC - were unable to depict what was featured here in rich tones of aquamarine and two eye-catching splashes of scarlet. (Look at the absolutely perfect positioning of the four zombies, each in a different stance, as well as the overall composition that allows for the clean placement of the title's logo - exquisite.) As the cover boasts, "From the depths of the sea arise the living dead!" Yes, the Living Dead - or, as they are known by the restrictions of the Comics Code Authority, Zombies. And, as the often-frustrated editors of the competition would have told you at the time, zombies were expressly forbidden by the Code. It didn't matter in what state of decomposition they might be; they could not appear on the cover or within the pages of any comic title that bore the CCA seal of approval.

But this cover doesn't have a CCA seal, does it? How very interesting...

The CCA was established in 1954 in the aftermath of Dr. Frederic Wertham's book Seduction of the Innocent, a screed against the excesses of horror and crime comic books of the early 1950s, with the titles published by EC coming under the greatest scrutiny and attack. Following a series of congressional hearings, the comic industry opted for a system of self-policing, lest government intervention impose even greater restrictions. Gone were
the stories of criminals who got away with their heinous acts. Gone were the grisly Contes Cruels that were EC's stock in trade. Gone were the gore-filled denouements that delivered poetic justice. Gone were the vampires and werewolves and ghouls. And zombies. Especially the zombies. (One could scarcely buy a copy of EC's horror line - Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror and The Haunt of Fear - without reading at least one tale of an ambulatory corpse out for vengeance...even as parts of them kept falling off.)

This was a voluntary system of regulation, for after all the negative publicity engendered by the hearings, every company wanted to be on the side of the angels. Every company...except Dell, which took out full-page ads at the time testifying to the purity and harmlessness of their mostly-funny-animal product, and indignantly said they required no regulation to keep their material pure as the driven snow. They opted out of the Code, God was in his heaven, and all was once again right in the world as youth crime and juvenile delinquency was eliminated from America's shores, never again to return. 1962, Dell was ending a partnership with Western Publishing, as that company decided to branch off and publish titles under the new Gold Key imprimatur. Gold Key published a handful of original titles during its history, but was noted for aggressively pursuing pre-existing properties from television and film - like the NBC anthology series Thriller, hosted by Boris Karloff. The company managed two issues under that title (each a whopping 80 pages of material with a 25 cent price tag - adjusting for inflation would mean that a contemporary comic would sell for over ten dollars!) before NBC pulled the plug on the series. Gold Key decided that the Boris Karloff name was the true selling point, and changed the title's name to Boris Karloff Tales of Mystery. However, throughout this, Gold Key maintained Dell's practice of forgoing the CCA seal.

Here's what the code says about supernatural characters in comics -
  • Scenes dealing with, or instruments associated with walking dead, torture, vampires and vampirism, ghouls, cannibalism, and werewolfism are prohibited.
I'd say that this 1970 cover, illustrating the tale "They Came from the Deep," would be a pretty cut-and-dried violation of the Code - that is, if the code had ever been applied to Gold Key titles. In 1971, the CCA loosened up its restrictions to permit vampires and werewolves. In fact, although zombies still remained verboten, other companies found ways to circumvent this rule by simply not calling the walking dead "zombies" (hence Marvel Comics and their omnipresent "zuvembies," but that's a post for another day). While I have no evidence to support this, I'd like to think that the CCA saw the cover for BKToM #32 and, the world not ending in the aftermath, decided to loosen the leash a bit.

One final point: it is a sad fact that so many of the credits for Gold Key titles go unknown, especially authors of individual stories, but more tragically the talent behind these remarkable painted covers. A number of them have been attributed to one George Wilson, and later covers by Luis Dominguez bear his unmistakable touch, but most of the canvases for their horror titles cannot definitively claim an artist as responsible for their beauty. Occasionally the original artwork will show up for an eBay auction, and usually fetches a price in the low four figures. But the sellers are often unable to provide authoritative proof of creator. For a company that did so many things so well for so many years, this inattentiveness is simply shameful. Let us be grateful that the artwork survives, even though fandom can only offer an inconclusive toast to the artist.


filo said...

I even didn't never notice this cover !!! one of the greatest ! thx

senski said...

Thanks, Filo - I loved clicking to your blog and hearing The Cramps!

Mr. Karswell said...

Really good post!