Sunday, September 26, 2010
  Four Color Fear
It seems unfortunate to me that cartoonist Howard Nostrand (1929-1984) was not a contributor to the early Mad comic book. He would have been a comfortable fit, more so than John Severin.

Below is Nostrand's strange, surreal "What's Happening at... 8:30 P.M." from Witches Tales #25 (June 1954). This has just been reprinted in Greg Sadowski and John Benson's noirish, nightmarish Four Color Fear, an anthology of pre-Code 1950s terror tales, coincidentally shipping during Banned Books Week (September 25 to October 2).

When I interviewed Nostrand in 1968, I carried along a copy of Witches Tales #25. I asked him about Harvey Comics, Bob Powell and this story: "Harvey had a sort of chicken attitude about horror stuff. Like it should be horrible but not too horrible. Granted, they get a little ghastly every once in a while, but I suppose they wanted to keep it in fairly good taste. When you look at '8:30 P.M', there's nothing particularly horrible about it. It's a little germ wandering around. And the fact that the germ gets killed, nobody's going to lie awake at night thinking about it."

He also spoke about the Eisner-like title billboard in the splash and achieving atmospherics on the first page: "Powell was a great fan of Hitchcock's, same way that Eisner was. You look at an old Hitchcock movie... the first thing you do is set the scene. This is what I tried to do in a lot of these things. You set a mood for the whole thing. With about the first three shots, you set the mood, and then you go from there... Eisner used to get his titles in the opening panel there. The treatment is strictly Eisner. But then again, the background and all that is EC." Nostrand also commented on the unusual coloring: "It's supposed to be on the inside of a body, and so everything is kind of reddish. The only thing that isn't red is this foreign body."

This analogy between the interior of a city and a human body, linked only by redness, is what makes this story remarkable, actually more imaginative than such movies as Fantastic Voyage (1966) and Innerspace (1987). As I wrote years ago, it has more in common with Samuel Beckett's journey into self-perception, Film (1965), shot in lower Manhattan with a dying Buster Keaton. You can see Film here.

Strange synchronicity when I wrote about this story in the early 1980s for The Comics Journal: I wanted to compare it with Film and wished I had a copy of the obscure book about the Beckett movie published years earlier by Evergreen Books. I shlepped up the hill toward the usual Saturday afternoon yard sale. There was a table with only about 20 books. One of them was the very book I needed. Stunned, I gave someone 35 cents for the book, walked back down the hill and continued typing.

The stories in Four Color Fear are public domain, but the 
specific restored images and design are ©2010 Fantagraphics Books.

I feel lucky Four Color Fear: Forgotten Horror Comics of the 1950s (Fantagraphics, distributed by W.W. Norton) made it here. One side of the W.W. Norton cardboard mailer was ripped open with the book poking out. The mailer was too big, causing the unwrapped book to slide around inside. Someone at the Post Office put it in a plastic bag, and it was delivered hanging on the mailbox where it stayed overnight. You would think a company like W.W. Norton would have figured out how to package books for mailing by now.

Greg Sadowski and John Benson did a superb job on this collection of early 1950s horror stories, including Wood's "The Thing from the Sea" from Eerie #2 (August-September 1951) and Joe Kubert's beautifully drawn "Cat's Death" from Strange Terrors #7 (March 1963). Also included: Fred Kida, Everett Raymond Kinstler, Basil Wolverton, Al Williamson, Frank Frazetta, George Evans, Sid Check, Jack Cole, Bob Powell and others. There's a spectacular section of 32 front covers, full bleed on slick paper, including covers by Wood, Frazetta, Lee Elias and Norm Saunders.

In addition to Greg's attractive design throughout, he delivers meticulous, pixel-perfect restorations, quite evident to me when I compared the reprint of "What's Happening at... 8:30 P.M." with the original comic book. In the pages above, scanned directly from the book, one can see Greg's patience and precision in creating flawless restorations. It can also be quite time consuming, as I recall from 1988-89 when I did restoration work on ten volumes of NBM's Wash Tubbs and Captain Easy book series.

There are 25 pages of fascinating, informative notes by both Greg and John. I love that line "Comic Media... featured a rising sales chart as its logo". The book has an interactive aspect as one turns back and forth from stories and covers to the notes. The "Cover Section Key" shows the influence of web design, as each note about a cover is accompanied by a full-color thumbnail of the cover.

In an attempt to nail down which issues are "true horror comics", John Benson lists 1,371 pre-Code issues representing 110 titles from 30 companies. He also contributes a full article analyzing the work of scripter-editor Ruth Roche, noting, "Many 1950s horror comics featured violence, gore and menace for their own sake, but in Roche's world they were often only suggested, for they were merely manifestations of her real subject: the unbridled evil and chaos that was always lurking just beneath the surface, waiting to escape into the world. The innocent died with the guilty in her stories, and sometimes the particular personification of evil would still be at large at the story's end. A chilling variation on the theme of hidden chaos is the discovery that a loved one or trusted figure is actually 'the other' (a theme effectively used in the movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers a few years later). 'Evil Intruder' tellingly develops this theme and is one of the more horrifying stories in the whole genre." The slobbering love-starved creature in this outr√© story (from Journey into Fear #12) is totally unlike anything one might see in fantasy films or TV.

I don't like to read an article reversed into black, but even so, the inside front cover, title pages, contents page and intro, unified by the black background surrounding colorful typographic devices, all demonstrate Greg's skill as an inventive designer.

The only real flaw is the Adam Grano cover design. I always disliked the idea of enlarging panels to show halftone dots. Maybe this was clever 40 years ago, but now it's just annoying. Greg could have easily designed a much better cover, possibly by combining his logo-like title page creation with the Frank Frazetta/Sid Check cover of Beware #10 (July 1954), showing the undead about to toss a gravity-defying girl into an open grave.

This book is like time-traveling, a document of an era. Some of these stories and covers I barely recall, some are familiar and others are new to me. This will stand as an important reference work that should be shelved alongside David Hajdu's The Ten-Cent Plague. Where Hajdu detailed the behind-the-scenes political machinations and wild witchhunts of the 1950s anti-comics crusade, Four Color Fear shows what was actually available on newsstands at the time.

One minor error: The 1931-38 horror-fantasy radio series which inspired Gaines was The Witch's Tale, not The Old Witch's Tale. The host-narrator of the series was not the Old Witch, but Old Nancy, the Witch of Salem. Miriam Wolfe, who died in 2000, was 13 years old when she began portraying the cackling Old Nancy. The program's creator, Alonzo Deen Cole, provided the meows of Old Nancy's coal black cat Satan. To hear The Witch's Tale, go here.

For PDF preview of Four Color Fear with four complete stories, go here.

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wonderful stuff ...from a fan !!
What a world we live in. Many years ago, as a Buster Keaton fan, FILM was my Holy Grail. I had seen all of his rarest pictures but never the Beckett one. I finally did get to see it a few years back. By then I had long since become a Samuel Beckett fan in general so, of course, I liked it quite a bit. The important thing, though, was that I had finally seen this rare footage!

And now it's just a simple link--See FILM here. Wow. The world has changed in so many ways for the worse but that immediacy for what were once rare films, comics and TV shows never ceases to amaze me.
I always thought the three witches used by EC came out of the Reed Crandall Blackhawk story in Military Comics #15 dated Jan 1943 which has three witches giving narrative commentary. Done any research along those lines?

Robert Beerbohm
My copy of Four Color Fear, which I am looking forward to, hasn't arrived yet, but I echo your comments on the enlarged panels. DC does this a lot on their reprint volumes, sometimes featuring wildly out of register panels. I don't know what market they think they are appealing to with this ugly, out of register stuff. Maybe they think the people who really love the stories will put up with it, and the ugly covers will say "sophistication" and "pop art" to your average pretentious reader who might otherwise turn up his nose at comics. --Bob Cosgrove
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