Saturday, July 16, 2016

FEAR IN FOUR COLORS: LOVECRAFT'S LAST GASP

 
“It was an era of tea rooms and card readings, horoscopes and spells. And, under it all, a seething political revolution in the making.” – Peter Levenda, Sinister Forces

INTRODUCTION
The following is a selection from an essay I wrote while a member of the Esoteric Order of Dagon, a group of writers and others who shared their interest in H.P. Lovecraft by way of an Amateur Press Association. The group was (and still is) moderated by noted Lovecraft scholar, S.T. Joshi. It was a very fulfilling experience and I had the great fortune of Joshi selecting one of my essays (“Lovecraft and the Polar Myth”) for inclusion in his The Lovecraft Annual (2009).

While this essay focuses on Lovecraft in the comics, it is at its heart a short history of underground comics, and in particular, Last Gasp’s SKULL COMICS, an underground title that provides an excellent example of what writers and artists could do with horror comics if left to their own devices.

This is the first in a series of posts that discusses the history of SKULL COMICS, H.P. Lovecraft, and horror comics in general.

LOVECRAFT’S LAST GASP
By the late 1960s, the fabric of mainstream society had been stretched thin by the hippie counterculture on the one hand and liberal activists on the other. The line between them, however, was easily blurred, and their ostensibly divergent paths often crossed, usually on the grounds of the universities that were the Petri dishes of the youth culture of the times. The pot-smoking, music-loving, sprout-munching land of the hippy commune and “crash pad” was also often the breeding ground for the more extreme in revolutionary expression, and from seeds sown from the “flower power” way of life sprang the infamous Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), Yippies, Black Panthers and the like, supported by such radical figureheads as Tom Hayden, Angela Davis, Eldridge Cleaver, and Abbie Hoffman. It became increasingly evident that even the Love Generation had its own black sheep of the family.

The counterculture itself assumed many of the aspects of conventional, contemporary life, albeit with an LSD-induced twist which added the necessary measure of “counter” to the culture. In a milieu that was part Land of Oz, part Alice’s Wonderland, the hippies ate organic food instead of the processed food found in grocery stores, drank carrot juice instead of the hormone-laden stew sold for milk, and dressed in clothing more befitting of a century before -- or even earlier -- as if one were a citizen in good standing of fabled, sunken Atlantis.

Eventually, as is the fate of all quasi- and pseudo-Utopias, the bitter breeze of reality began to dissipate the purple haze surrounding the hippie movement. Altamont, the Son of Sam, and Charlie Manson sounded the death knell of the halcyon days of “love the one you’re with”. Moreover, many of the freaks who had been content to alter their reality with a boda bag full of Annie Green Springs and a joint, found themselves pushing the limits of their scrambled, short-circuited cortex with stronger strains of LSD, and other, more psychologically and physiologically-debilitating drugs such as heroin (as chronicled in Nicholas von Hoffman’s depressing We Are the People Our Parents Warned Us Against).

By the early 1970s, a few of the various industries of the subculture were still hanging on, and even going strong; in particular politics and publishing. Indeed, the profitable business of underground independent publishing was not lost on a number of industrious people. Newspapers like The San Francisco Oracle, The Los Angeles Free Press (1), The Staff, and The Berkeley Barb, all had varying degrees of longevity on the corner news racks of the day. Even comic books, known as “comix” in their counterculture guise, enjoyed a healthy circulation, and were read among both hippies and straights alike.

Irreverent, politically-charged, and teeming with sex and drugs, characters found in the "undergrounds", from R. Crumb's Mr. Natural and Flakey Foont, to Gilbert Shelton's Fabulous Furry Freak brothers, to S. Clay Wilson's Checkered Demon, were more likely to say "F*#k You" than "Thank You", albeit in a perversely cynical and satirical way. To anyone remotely possessed with a sense of humor, one couldn't help but to at least snicker at some of the wry pot shots that were taken at the institution of The Great Society in the pages of the undergrounds.

This attitude was further fueled by the copious use of the most populare mind-melting drug in town, known in short as LSD, by many of the creators of underground comix, most notably by the most famous of underground comix artists, Robert “R.” Crumb:

The [LSD] experience itself is indescribable, but afterward you no longer feel a member of this accepted version of reality. Basically, you’re coming from another planet. You’re using the old language to communicate with people, but you’re definitely seeing things as if you’re coming from somewhere else. Going to work after a night of LSD was like coming from Mars back down to Earth, it was hard to do. People would stare at me and say, ‘Crumb, what’s the matter with you? What’s wrong? What’s wrong?’ I’d say, ‘Nothing, oh, nothing.’ ‘You look funny. What happened?’ So, functioning in normal society became very strange: going to work, dealing with things that people were taking very seriously, which to you were obviously just a bunch of silly games that didn’t mean anything.

Ironically, many of the creators of underground comix were proud to admit they cut their artistic teeth on the mainstream comic books of the late 1940s and 1950s, and even before, literally drawing upon the inspiration of the masters that came before them. Names such as Winsor McCay, Will Eisner, Lou Fine, and Basil Wolverton are often mentioned as inspiration. A good many of them were also impressed by the wave of horror comics that deluged the "Hey Kids! Comics!" spinner racks of the day. Titles like Beware! Terror Tales, Tomb of Terror, Ghostly Weird Stories, Horrific, and Weird Terror, all promised many a blood-and-gore drenched page to the reader, and especially the budding comic artist.
 
But the greatest influence on this group of rogue draftsmen was a group of publications that were the brainchild of a comic book genius by the name of William “Bill” Gaines. His flagship title which almost everyone mentions had changed their lives was called Mad. Hosted by a dorky mascot, one Alfred E. Neuman, Mad is now generally regarded as the classic series in the history of illustrated humor. And if that wasn't enough, Gaines also launched yet another classic series of comic books under the E.C. (Entertaining Comics!) logo, which are recognized by nearly everyone as the most famous line of horror, crime and science fiction titles in the history of comics. They were so popular in fact, that they were virtually singled out by a 50’s campaign against horror and crime comics. This modern-day Inquisition was headed by the Joe McCarthy of the comic books, Frederic Wertham, M.D., an erudite, self-appointed vocal champion of decency whose book Seduction of the Innocent was read by thousands of concerned but gullible parents. This lead to the infamous Kefauver Senate Subcommittee Hearings where horror and crime comics were literally put on the stand and alleged as major contributors to the burgeoning salacious behavior and delinquency of American Youth. It's hard to imagine in the world of today, but this was pretty serious stuff back in the 50’s.
 
Speaking on censorship right in the pages of one of his own comic magazines (Tales From the Crypt #45, Jan/Feb 1955), Bill Gaines lamented:
 
Comics are under fire … due to the efforts of various “do-gooders” and “do-gooder” groups, a large segment of the public is being led to believe that certain comic magazines cause juvenile delinquency, warp the minds of America’s youth, and affect the development of the personalities of those who read them. Among those “do-gooders” are: a psychiatrist who has made a lucrative career of attacking comic magazines, certain publishing companies who do not publish comics and would benefit by their demise, many groups of adults who would like to blame their lack of ability as responsible parents on comic mags instead of themselves, and various assorted headline hunters. These people are militant. They complain to local police officials, to local magazines (sic) retailers, to local wholesalers and to their congressmen. They complain and complain and threaten and threaten. Eventually everyone gets frightened. The news dealer gets frightened. He removes the books from display. The wholesaler gets frightened. He refuses shipments. The congressmen get frightened … November is coming! They start an investigation. This wave of hysteria has threatened the very existence of the whole comic magazine industry.

In an essay from the pages of a current day E.C. fan magazine, Horror From the Crypt of Fear, author “The Old Witek” offers a very astute observation that describes both the reason why kids loved E.C.’s and why opponents abhorred them:
 
When E.C.’s were new they were very edgy, almost underground, and potentially dangerous, in ways we didn’t fully understand them. Reading them was an illicit pleasure. Before Playboy and the sexual revolution made T&A as common as A&P, E.C. managed to be a hot girlie magazine for kiddies, right under the inquisitors like the Roman Catholic Church’s Legion of Decency.

So, it can be safely said that comix assimilated both the irreverent humor of Mad and the dark, sardonic wit found in titles such as Tales From the Crypt and The Vault of Horror, incorporating them into the most extreme examples of each. In some ways, comix were the next logical step, albeit one drenched in Boone's Farm and pot smoke.
 
Spain Rodriguez was one of a number of underground cartoonists who literally drew their inspiration from the old E.C. and other censored and blacklisted 50’s horror comics, and shared an acute understanding that these “funny books” held the key to the type of forbidden fruit that would grow and flourish in the fecund soil of the underground comix garden:
 
I’d always had this thing and had a small core of friends who somehow believed these comics would come back and people would have dreams and walk into a drugstore and they’d find some E.C. comic they’d never seen before … I mean, I had these dreams, but I knew other guys who had these dreams. E.C. comics really touched people deeply, and me, too. With Marvel [the comic book publisher that gave the world such enduring super-heroes as Spider Man and Fantastic Four], at some point, the psychedelic pop came back, and you knew that underground comics were just down the line and had to happen. 

The thing about the stuff you read in E.C. comics was that it was incredible … and somehow you just knew everything else you got in the media was bullshit, you just knew that even these people who were conformists weren’t really that way, they weren’t really these nice people. They were basically as rotten as everybody else, but they somehow put on the “goody-goody” fa├žade. Spain (The New Comics) 

The artist known as Jaxon is responsible for what is probably the most recognized image of the H.P. Lovecraft material that eventually found itself in the pages of underground comix, his cover of Skull Comics #4 depicting the tale, “The Hound”:
 
I was born in 1941 and wasn’t really aware of E.C. comics in my “formative years”. I don’t think our town drugstore carried them. Only after I finished college, moved to Austin and drew for the Texas Ranger humor mag did I get “turned on” to E.C. comics. [Gilbert] Shelton took me over to Bill Helmer’s house (Helmer later went on to Playboy fame), where I devoured his collection.

The king-pin behind the E.C. influence in underground comix of course, was Gary Arlington. His San Francisco Comic Book Store and his obsession with E.C. horror comics gave birth to Skull (his title) and the energy was carried over to Slow Death, our stab at sci-fi.

We stuck close to the E.C. format, creating characters like the Crypt-Keeper to introduce our strips. [Richard] Corben and [Dave] Sheridan were into the E.C. trip, as was Spain [Rodriguez] – I think we were all aware that we had the liberty to expand on E.C. in terms of sex, violence and most of the other aspects that were taboo back in the ‘50s. Thus we tended to see just how far we could go without getting stepped on. The artists that took this attitude with Disney’s characters soon found out …

Charles Dallas, another underground comix artist who uniquely adapted Lovecraft’s poem, “To A Dreamer”, in the pages of Skull comics, was also influenced by the E.C. line:
 
I was born in 1951 and was thereby spared a childhood traumatized by E.C. Comics. I do have vague recollections of reading Mad comics, and later, Mad magazine. Mad performed a valuable service by presenting a point of view other than that of the schools, advertising, and government, and that was a rarity in the ‘50s. Mad and the other E.C. titles gave voice to a lot of truths that may have otherwise gone unspoken.
 
My first real exposure to E.C. horror and science fiction was courtesy of Gary Arlington of the San Francisco Comic Book Company. Gary was the genius behind Skull comix and was sort of an E.C. guru. He was kind enough to loan me anything I wanted from his collection and I made the best of it…

It is not surprising, then, that those underground artists who discovered elements of horror and the supernatural in the comic books of their youth as well as later in life would express their counterculture ideas by utilizing a newer, mutated form infused with satirical and sociological horror. It is also not surprising that, based upon the various sources of their material they would sooner or later come around to Lovecraft.
 
And, it is exactly in this underground comix milieu that we again find the name of H.P. Lovecraft, another seemingly incongruous conjoining of pop culture and genre literature that for all intents and purposes should have been relegated to the musty paperbacks with lurid covers found only in midway flea markets and seedy used bookstores. On the contrary, H. P. Lovecraft’s work found new, enthusiastic readership in the 60’s and 70’s (Ballantine’s Adult Fantasy Series edited by Lin Carter, and a series of Lancer paperback reprints), and even, as we shall soon see, extended to the world of head shops and hippie comix!

 
Notes
 
(1) The Los Angeles Free Press, or “The Freep” as it was affectionately called, was the newspaper where cartoonist Ron Cobb designed and introduced the now world-recognized “ecology symbol”, a combination of the words “environment” and “organism”. In true hypocritical fashion, Cobb went on to sell-out to the same establishment that he so fervently ridiculed in his satirical cartoons, making his bundle on storyboarding and other capitalist free-market design work in Hollywood.
 
(2) The Lovecraft adaptations that appeared in Marvel Comics Group publications will be discussed in a later installment of “Fear In Four Colors: H. P. Lovecraft in the Comics”. 
 
Works Cited or Consulted
Beauchamp, Monte, ed. Blab #1 (reprint edition). Princeton, WI: Kitchen Sink Press, Spring        1993.
 
Estren, Mark James. A History of Underground Comics. San Francisco, CA: Straight Arrow, 1974.
 
Goldwater, John L. Americana In Four Colors: Twenty Years of Self-Regulation by the Comics Magazine Industry. New York, NY: Comics Magazine Association of America, 1974.
 
Groth, Gary and Fiore, Robert, ed. The New Comics. New York, NY: Berkley, 1988.
 
Leach, Bill, ed. Horror From the Crypt of Fear #10. Oakley, CA: February 2000.
 
Sennitt, Stephen. Ghastly Terror: The Horrible Story of the Horror Comics. Manchester, UK: Critical Vision/Headpress, 1999.
 
Skinn, Dez. Comix: The Underground Revolution. London, UK: Collins & Brown, 2004.
 
von Bernewitz, Fred, and Geissman, Grant, ed. Tales of Terror: A Compendium of All the Incredible old EC Comics. Timonium MD, and Lake City WA: Gemstone Publishing/Fantagraphics Books, 2000.
 
 NEXT: SKULL COMIX!

 

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