Thursday, April 25, 2013

Tales of the Incredible – 1965

[1] 1952, ‘By George’ by Al Williamson.
by John Adcock

If I were asked to choose my favorite comic of all time it would have to be the Ballantine pocket book EC reprint collection Tales of the Incredible, first published in March 1965, in black and white. 

EC comics had been gone from the newsstands for over a decade when I spotted the amazing retrogressive Frazetta cover on the pocket-book racks and excitedly carried it home. (Ballantine’s Tales from the Crypt was issued first, in 1964). For those of us who were too young to have experienced EC firsthand these book presented something of a mystery, unlike today when information on comic history (and the comics themselves) are just a click away from your desktop, every bit of information was hard come by. Alex Raymond died in 1956 and already his work on Flash Gordon was forgotten. Who knew our hero Harold Foster was a Canadian, or that he had once drawn a brilliant Sunday comic strip in the thirties featuring another of our heroes, Tarzan of the Apes? The same year, 1965, more historical information was provided by Jules Feiffer in his hardcover book The Great Comic Book Heroes. All I knew about comic books of the thirties and forties up to that point was gleaned from reading and slavering over the titles in Howard Rogofsky’s second-hand comic book lists advertised in comic book columns, mailed out from New York.

[2] 1965, pocket-book cover by Frank Frazetta.
The Ballantine Books cover itself was a mystery – it was comic but drawn in that feathered ink style favored by long dead illustrators like J. Allen St. John or Joseph Clement Coll and seemed to have dropped out of some alternative comic book universe whose home base was Mars or Venus. The indicia were not much help either, crediting the stories to an unknown  I.C. Publishing and Fables Publishing between 1950 and 1953. The entire contents were trademarked E.C. Publications 1965, and, though familiar with MAD, I had yet to draw the publishing connection. The first clue was on the first page of the first story, ‘Spawn of Mars,’ where the word ‘WOOD’ was dug into a broken log at the bottom of the first panel, which I recognized from similar images in the MAD comic books reprinted in paperback throughout the sixties. Wally Wood was not a household name in those days; indeed most comic artists were recognized by style not by name. When I saw ‘WOOD’ etched on rocks and logs in MAD paperbacks I had tossed it off as a sight-gag rather than an artist’s signature.

[3] 1951, ‘Spawn of Mars’ by Wally Wood.
‘Spawn of Mars’ was also in a retrogressive style, the feathered ink-lines might even be considered a little overdone, and was printed in black-and-white. I was not a big fan of science fiction, except in short story form, and was more interested in fantasies like Jerome Bixby’s ‘It’s a Good Life,’ or Theodore Sturgeon’s ‘Yesterday Was Monday,’ than the works of Arthur C. Clarke or Robert Heinlein, but I will never forget that first story (originally published in Weird Fantasy no. 9) involving a woman who marries an alien and sees his true hideous betentacled shape after a horrific vehicle crash. The second story, ‘Plucked,’ was also signed ‘WOOD’ which confirmed the artist’s name. The feathery style of the first story was replaced by the shining chiaroscuro of Wally Wood’s mature style mingled with generous use of halftones, cross-hatching and pointillism. It was a bravura artistic performance and quite unlike anything I had ever seen in a comic book.

[4] title-spread with Al Williamson illustration.
‘By George’ was, and still is, my favorite of all the EC comics. I recognized the art of Al Williamson from his work for ACG comics, although I’m unsure if I knew his name at that point. He had a sketchy unfinished style which had always irked me when I saw it in Adventures into the Unknown and other titles but this was another beautifully realized work of comic art with very effective use of halftones, feathering and luminous blacks. I have always preferred EC comics printed in black and white, the color tended to obscure the moods created with the variety of illustrative techniques favored by the major EC artists. This pathetic story by the way was the basis for at least two EC fanzine titles, Squa Tront and Spa Fon (still up for grabs are Chaz Furnd, Bas Crod, and the best of the lot, Frud Nyuk).

[5] 1965, pocket-book cover by Frank Frazetta.
Another superbly realized feature was ‘50 Girls 50,’ most notable for the sexy space-noir heroine lolling about in clothing that had yet to be invented in the fifties. The next two stories ‘Judgment Day’ and ‘Chewed Out’ were less memorable. ‘Judgment Day’ is celebrated for its use of a black character at a time when Civil Rights were in their infancy. It was nicely drawn but like the ‘protest songs’ of the sixties relied on its topicality for effect. What was considered shocking in the fifties seems mundane from our future vantage-point. ‘Chewed Out’ was humorous filler, most memorable for its last panels where an Army General (a Patton ringer), who has just eaten a frankfurter, picks a tiny squashed rocket ship, dripping with spit, from out of his teeth and stares at it with his eyes bulged out in horror. At fifteen I thought it was the funniest thing I had ever read.

[6] 1953, ‘50 Girls 50’ by Al Williamson.
‘Child of Tomorrow,’ the stiff and clunky work of Al Feldstein, was aesthetically jarring after perusing the sharply drawn fantasies of Wood and Williamson but I was an indiscriminate reader of comics at the time. I recognized bad drawing but found myself strangely attracted by the worst of it. I once cherished a complete set of the Archie comics version of the pulp Shadow, surely one of the worst drawn superhero comics ever. Feldstein’s blocky atomic mutants were very effective and I still read ‘Child of Tomorrow’ with pleasure.

[7] 1950, ‘Child of Tomorrow’ by Al Feldstein.
Wally Wood closed out this first Ballantine EC anthology with ‘The Precious Years,’ a bleak look into a boring future where citizen’s wants are tended by machinery and eternal life leads to terminal boredom. It’s a love story with a happy ending, remarkably drawn by an artist at the peak of his powers. Woods ennui-ridden hero bore quite a resemblance to DC’s Superman.

[8] 1953, ‘The Precious Years’ by Wally Wood.
Tales of the Incredible was the first of the Ballantine Books EC anthologies to appear on the newsstand, at least in my town, and was followed by collections of Tales from the Crypt (1964) and The Vault of Horror (August 1965). Two great paperback collections of Ray Bradbury comics from EC were also published, The Autumn People (1965), and Tomorrow Midnight (June 1966).

[9] 1966, pocket-book cover by Frank Frazetta.
Since the seventies all of the EC comics were brought back into print, in poorly reproduced color newsprint comics and in deluxe hardcover editions by Russ Cochran but it was the sixties Ballantine Books paperbacks that were responsible for the renewed interest in EC comics. The sixties Edgar Rice Burroughs revival as well as MAD and EC paperback reprints were to have a strong effect on the cartoonists of the late sixties and the seventies. Bernie Wrightson, Michael William Kaluta, Barry Windsor-Smith, Gray Morrow and Rich Corben’s work was mightily influenced by Frank Frazetta, Wally Wood, Al Williamson, Roy Krenkel, Reed Crandall, George Evans, and ‘Ghastly’ Graham Ingels, who in their turn had been influenced by newspaper cartoonists Hal Foster, Alex Raymond, Milt Caniff and Roy Crane. Most of these seventies artists were not well suited to survive the pressures of comic book deadlines and concentrated on illustrations or one-shot comic book work instead.

[10] 1951, ‘Chewed Out’ by Joe Orlando.
My present copy of Tales of the Incredible is a newer copy – my original copy was so lovingly dog-eared, tattered and torn that I was forced to search out a better one. The old companion of my long ago youth I left in a bus shelter near the junior high school on the corner. I like to picture some wide-eyed callow youth turning off his computer at night, picking up his dodgy old found copy of Tales of the Incredible and dreaming the dreams (the like of which we’ll never see again) that were laid down on paper in simpler times. Perhaps he (or she), if artistically inclined, will be inspired to emulate the lines of wondrous Wally Wood, sleek Al Williamson or clunky Al Feldstein and carry these still powerful dreams into the future of comics.

[11] EC Classics No. 2, September 1985, published by Russ Cochran.


  1. I had the first two paperbacks when they came out & really loved them. I recognized most of the artists from Mad, and somehow or other knew about EC Sci-fi and Horror comics, but you are right -- these put them on the map for many, many kids.

  2. "The old companion of my long ago youth I left in a bus shelter near the junior high school on the corner."

    Perhaps less honorably, I remember walking past a class my senior year in high school (1973) and seeing a bunch of folks reading comic books for a class on heroes and heroism. I walked in and dug through the books on a table in the front and saw the Spirit #1 (Harvey) and read it because my dad had recommended him as the best comic ever. I did not return the comic to the pile and still have it to this day. But I do appreciate the person who had it originally.

    I also turned on a lot of people to the Spirit. When Warren came out with their BW books in early 1974, I bought the first issue and showed it to a bunch of friends. Ironically, I found that the second issue was sold out, but I found three or four copies among my dorm-mates.