We can learn a lot of lessons from old horror comics.
These lessons weren't evident until recently. As most comics fans know, horror comics — and comics in general — were nearly wiped out when public hysteria panicked comics publishers into adopting the draconian Comics Code of 1954. Which was nearly the end of comics in America.
Now, comics are back. And so are horror comics. Further, old horror comics have been rehabilitated, and are getting high-end reprint treatment. America's horror comics — or "suspense" titles, as they were called after 1954 — are finally available in a fairly broad sample.
That means we can now start learning those aforementioned lessons:
1. Stop listening to people who blame pop culture: In addition to exhaustive academic studies that show no link between sex and violence in entertainment and criminal behavior, comics provide an object lesson.
So tomorrow, when you hear another cable-news talking head blame some awful event on comics — or movies, video games, TV, rap music, "Dungeons & Dragons" or any other scapegoat — don't believe him or her. Pop culture isn't the engine of our value system, it's a reflection of it.
2. Not all horror comics are the same: When people discuss early-'50s horror comics, they're usually thinking of EC Comics, the gold standard for both quality storytelling and gross-out gore. But as these new collections demonstrate, each line had its unique qualities.
The mostly unknown writers of the '50s demonstrated time and again that genre — and crummy pay — was no constraint to creativity.
3. The times, they are always a-changing: Read '50s horror comics, and you see a lot of tough-guy detectives, two-fisted newspaper reporters, vampiric European noblemen and other reflections of the era. Read "Creepy" and "Eerie" stories from the '70s, and be prepared for Day-Glo bell-bottoms, people saying "right on" without irony, strings-free sex, campus unrest, Vietnam-war cynicism, tons of facial hair, VW vans and Afros so big they can be seen from space. If you read enough comics, you become an expert on American sociology. And often it's unintentionally hilarious.
4. Never make a deal with the devil: One thing that never changes, in stories from any era or any medium, is that trying to outsmart Satan never works. Also, wishing on a monkey's paw is a bad idea. As is buying anything from a strange curio shop that wasn't there a minute ago.
Some people just never learn. That's a bad thing for them. But it's a good thing for those of us who like a good chiller. Even if it's a bit silly.