Classic Fantastic is our series of features on the classics of the format—please check out our other picks for the most important titles, in terms of appeal, innovation, and storytelling, that every library should own.

What’s it about?

Dark Horse has been reprinting EC Comics titles in high quality, hardcover volumes as a part of The EC Archives collection. These editions, resplendent with revitalized coloring (and thankfully acid-free paper), bring an incredible era of comics back to life, making them more accessible than ever to libraries and their readers. EC Comics is considered one of the most historically significant publishers in American comic book history. The company, headed by William Gaines, gained notoriety in the early 1950s when they expanded the comics they published from titles such as Picture Stories from the Bible and Tiny Tot Comics to horror and crime comics such as Crime Suspenstories and Tales from the Crypt. In a time when it seemed like everyone was trying to cash in on the popularity of comic books, the titles EC Comics was publishing broke away from the model of superhero tales with happy endings. These fresh and unique stories featuring violence, suspense, and fear led to a boom in sales and greater attention from the anti-comics crowd. That group included concerned parents, religious groups, politicians, and a psychiatrist named Fredric Wertham, who is best known for his 1954 book Seduction of the Innocent in which he detailed the supposedly detrimental effects of comic-reading on children. Both Wertham and Gaines testified in the infamous Senate Hearings in April 1954 to determine whether comics contributed to juvenile delinquency. One result of the hearings was the implementation of the Comics Code Authority (CCA) in October of the same year, which was the comic book industry’s attempt to self-censor and reform comics to ensure their continued publication. However, much of the content that the CCA banned was staple in EC’s comics, and is thus considered one of the major factors contributing to the death of all their titles, with the exception of MAD which managed to bypass the code and continue publication in magazine form.

Panic was originally published in the early 1950s, released as an imitation of MAD in the days when MAD was still a comic book. There were twelve issues of Panic, with each issue containing several self-contained stories parodying everything from pop culture icons to famous artwork to drugstore advertisements. (My favorite of the latter is a one page comic touting the power of Pepso-Abysmal.) One story parodies a dozen nursery rhymes with twisted comical endings, another looks at literal variants of sports idioms, and yet another reinterprets a classic movie scene through six different styles of filmmaking. Wordplay and puns rule the pages of Panic alongside bizarre artwork featuring exaggerated expressions and grotesque caricatures. A single story could feature styles ranging from fairly realistic to utterly absurd, from pin-ups lounging on pianos to the “ugliest gal in the world,” with the change in characters carrying the mood of the stories. Many artists worked on Panic, though there were quite a few regulars such as Bill Elder, Wally Wood, Joe Orlando, and Jack Davis. The art is fast-paced and action-packed to keep up with the quick wit of the writers. However, all sorts of jokes and references are worked into the details of the art, for those who take their time to read. The cover of the second issue, featuring a child blowing up a model town, shows that this explosion is the result of the child having access to a “Junior Kem-Kit,” labeled as “educational” and “harmless.” This seems to throw back to EC’s origins as Educational Comics while making fun of the current climate labeling comics as dangerous.

While the comics themselves have their own charm, there is a lot of enjoyment in the other features such as fake articles, interviews, and advice columns, along with advertisements for EC’s other comics. One such advertisement touts a new cover design for MAD that makes it look more like literature, so that instead of looking like an idiot who reads comic books in public, “you can look like an idiot reading high-class literature.”

The comic’s self-awareness makes it easy to trace the struggles that Bill Gaines and EC Comics faced in the 1950s. Issue number 6, the first issue dated after the CCA was formed, is a white cover with a small red asterisk in the center. At the bottom of the cover, the asterisk clarifies “This cover, the result of hours of conference, is E.C.’s final answer to the comic book controversy. Designed to offend no one. It is blank!” Issue 8, published in the spring of 1955, declares in an eye chart style font “This is no magazine,” corresponding to MAD’s change in format from comic (last issue May 1955) to magazine (July 1955).

Notable Notes

As far as I can tell, no content has been censored or softened from the original comics. While this reprint does not act as an exact replica of the original comic book, it stays fairly faithful, with two significant differences: coloring and advertisements.

In the beginning of each volume they note that they wanted to follow the style of the original colorist, Marie Severin, “to retain the integrity of the original EC comic books.” Dark Horse’s reprint provides a bit more consistency with color, some of which was likely not feasible in the print world of the 1950s. The coloring technique for the art is a bit tidier—no colors blur or bleed outside of their lines, and they are printed as solid colors rather than a modern imitation of Ben-Day dots in four color process printing. In the original comics, the color behind the narrative text varied from panel to panel whereas Dark Horse chose one color for each story. Some pages are recolored entirely, notably covers and the pages advertising subscriptions for Panic or other EC comics. A few of these pages that were black and white in the original printing are reprinted in full color. When these choices are made, they generally feel consistent with the rest of the comic, creating a reproduction that’s faithful in intent.

The other major difference comes in the lamentable absence of advertisements. While this is understandable, considering that most comic book collections do not reprint advertisements and there would likely be copyright implications for including them, there is a whole other level of nostalgia and glee present in 1950s comic book ads. Reprint readers will not get the chance to start a “Quick-Cash spare time Shoe Business” (“EVERYBODY wears shoes!”) or order the 1953 “Space Commander” vibro-matic walkie-talkies (two phones for only $1!), but that is probably for the best. Advertisements for other EC titles are mostly retained, though it seems that some editorial decisions were needed depending on the number of advertisement pages that needed to be cut for the reprinted version. For instance, a double-sided advertisement for EC’s “new direction” comic books such as Valor, Aces High, and Psychoanalysis, is shortened to one page presumably to fit the page count.

Significance

While all of EC’s comics are historically significant, Panic is particularly so in its function as a satire publication (or as a parody of a satire publication—however you might consider it). Though its first issue was published well before the creation of the CCA, it still created quite an uproar for its parody of “The Night Before Christmas” in its first issue, which led to a newsstand ban in Massachusetts. The Attorney General took issue with the way the story portrayed Christmas “in a pagan manner.” This incident is recounted by the editors in the “Pan-Mail” feature in issue three. Other officials took issue with Santa’s sleigh bearing a sign that says “Just Divorced.” Funnily enough, the CCA later specified that “Divorce shall not be treated humorously nor represented as desirable,” presumably to appeal to Catholic values. (For more information regarding the reaction to this story, check out this piece from the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.)

Having Panic on library shelves gives readers the opportunity to ask “What content was deemed worthy of censorship in the 1950s?” and would be a great companion to any Banned Book Week programming. Interestingly enough, the last four issues actually carry the CCA‘s seal of approval. This could be used as a teaching exercise in a workshop or a classroom, and ask readers to take note of the restrictions the Code imposed and how later issues may have differed in content from the earlier issues.

Appeal

When it was first published, Panic’s intended audience was fairly broad: anybody with a dime, including children. Today, Panic will appeal strongly to adult readers, academics, and pop culture enthusiasts, though the humor might surprisingly strike a chord with teens. While the stories employ cartoonish violence, a lot of slapstick, some gore, and a handful of sexy pin-ups, the humor is not entirely crude and is often self-aware. A good line comes from a parody of Dick Tracy (Tick Dracy), where one character extols the virtues of a black suit: “You can’t see wrinkles and creases…!” The main character responds: “Besides…it’s easy to draw!” However, today’s younger folks may miss out on some of the references, famous figures, and events being satirized in Panic’s pages. Even the wordplay might be a little bit far removed to make much sense. For instance, the cover’s tagline “humor in a varicose vein” is a play on MAD’s “humor in a jugular vein,” where jugular is used in place of jocular. If you revel in absurdity, Panic is absolutely the comic book for you.

Why should you own this?

The books may be fairly expensive at $49.99 each, but considering the near impossibility of reading the stories in any other way, I think it’s a worthwhile investment. These well-bound hardcovers are printed somewhat larger than the original comics, with very high quality paper and sturdy bindings. Splitting the work into two volumes keeps the collection more manageable with much less stress on the books’ spines.

In an age where comics are becoming an increasingly popular medium, Panic offers a way for readers to take a closer look at the history of comic books. These reprinted archives are an excellent opportunity to experience the thrill of comics when they first peaked. Panic would be well-contextualized in a collection with nonfiction books such as David Hajdu’s The Ten-Cent Plague, Amy Kiste Nyberg’s Seal of Approval, and Les Daniels’ Comix: A History of Comic Books in America.

The EC Archives: Panic
by Al Feldstein, Jack Mendelsohn, and others
Art by Jack Davis, Wally Wood, Bill Elder, and others
vol 1 ISBN: 9781616558833
vol 2 ISBN: 9781506702711
Dark Horse, 2016-2017

  • Maria Aghazarian

    Past Reviewer

    Maria Aghazarian is a librarian at Swarthmore College and the Lower Merion library system, in the stretch of southeastern Pennsylvania otherwise known as the “greater Philadelphia area.” Her love of graphic novels started with manga in middle school, but exploded after graduating college when she learned that superheroes aren’t the be-all and end-all of comics. She aims to support small and independent presses, and manufacturers of sturdy bookcases.

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