Welcome to the eleventh part of our multi-part look at the great EC cartoonists!
In previous columns we discussed the comics of:
- Jack Davis
- Al Feldstein
- Graham Ingels
- Jack Kamen
- Bernard Krigstein
- Harvey Kurtzman
- Joe Orlando
- John Severin
- Al Williamson
- Wally Wood
And this week we discuss the comics of George Evans.
George Evans is primarily known for one thing in his work at EC Comics: his deep passion for aviation strips, for stories of haunted fighter pilots flying in the wild blue yonder. His happiest times in comics, it’s said, were enjoyed when he presenting astounding World War I era fighter pilots flying in their rat-trap biplanes that threaten always to crash to the ground. He loved drawing great birds with shattered wings, dropping into the terrifying bleakness of No Man’s Land and certain death.
About half of the strips reprinted in this volume of Fantagraphic’s wonderful EC artists’ collections involve war and flying men. As we’ll see later in this article, the pilot tales are outstanding tales that represent a very specific genre of comic art that was pretty much dead when William Gaines cancelled Aces High at the end of the New Direction era in 1954. The aviator sagas that Evans created for EC stand alone as their own very interesting sub-genre, with its own set of rules and expectations.
Reading those stories was a joy, in large part because they felt so unique compared with everything else published by EC during that era. But the seven-pagers that I enjoyed the most in Aces High are Evans’s crime shorts. It’s easy – and lots of fun – to read these tales of angry wives and greedy brothers on a deeper level than is apparent on the surface. Of course we can consume these crime shorts on a surface level, as atmospheric accounts of ruthless criminals, very well told (and as we’ll also see below, they were very well told). But it’s also easy to see them as meditations on the fragility of the early 1950s political consensus and the way that the culture strove for conformity.
The best of the EC crime tales are quite literally printed counterparts to the great film noir of the ’50s, suffused in darkness, telling us about broken and bad people doing terrible things to each other even while they are dressed impeccably and conform to many of the social attitudes of the era.
One of the best stories in that genre is the delicious cat-and-mouse game of “Wined-Up”, the nasty little yarn of a woman who wants to kill her husband and collect his insurance money (insurance is frequently a big thing– you sometimes have to wonder how much cash Allstate and State Farm were paying to murderers). Evans’s art is gorgeous on this piece. Notice now nicely he accounts for the little details in the page below. The perspective is perfect, the features of the dock are nicely placed, and the shrewish face of the wife and frightened face of the wheelchair-bound husband are emphasized for dramatic effect.
Another dark husband/wife tale is the delightful “As Ye Sow…”, the tale of a cheating wife and her husband’s lust for revenge on her. In the sequence below, the heads and bodies are staged perfectly for dramatic effect but there’s no cheating with them. Evans pays close attention to details. Note the perfect folds on the man’s shirt, the way woman’s hair is perfectly brushed, the detail on the subway train and the desperate look in our protagonist’s eyes as he chases the train.
“Seep No More” is a riff on Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart”, about a man haunted by the evil acts he commits. This one is basically a one-act play and requires Evans to “direct” that play effectively in order to ensure that it pops for the reader. Evans delivers beautifully. Notice the slackjawed fear in the face of our main character in panels two and five below, and how in panel five it’s obvious that his paint job doesn’t cover up the crime that he committed.
Each of these crime tales is a real treat in terms of presentation, mood and the complexity of the characters. “…My Brother’s Keeper” is marred by a really corny ending, but it builds nicely to the ending with one of the darkest set-ups of any story ever published by EC.
In “…My Brother’s Keeper”, an evil “bad seed” forces everyone around him to commit suicide or he ends up murdering them. But he continually is set free for his crimes and the reader is left to wonder why this is true. The panels below capture some of the atmosphere, with the dangling feet of the hanged man and mother’s face turned away from the suicide scene conveying the family’s pain. The blackout in the next panel shows even more fearsome events building towards their inevitable tragic conclusion.
The tormented woman piece “Maniac at Large” is essentially a one-person play focusing on the fear and paranoia of a young librarian in a town that has, well, a maniac at large. Beautiful Blanche seems like she could have stepped right out of 1955 America and onto the comics page.
The sequence below is staged in a way that accentuates her fear – Evans stages Blanche’s appearance in different way: first through the glass; then a view of her cheek and hair; a full-face in full fear; a rear view; a shadowed view; then gone. It’s a wonderfully effective way to build this scene. Evans doesn’t quite use repeated images the way that Kurtzman or Krigstein might have done, so the artfulness of this presentation (perhaps designed by editor Al Feldstein) shows through.
Maybe my favorite story in this collection is the one with the truest noir feel. “The Assassin” is told in shadows and half-light on a rainy day, a tale of pursuit and fear told with sharp camera angles amidst deeply symbolic squalor. Evans sells the hell out of it, strongly accentuating a relatively straightforward narrative with an atmospheric splendor that is much more associated with the work of Will Eisner.
These crime stories are wonderful pieces, full of life and energy and verve. They also act as a curious counterpoint to the aviator pieces presented in Aces High, giving it a slightly schizophrenic feel. If the ordinary people in his crime shorts are grounded in their base reality, the flyers in his aviator stories get to soar above their troubles – until they come back to the ground and have to be part of the real world again.
Though that said, sometimes angst can be a tremendous motivator, as it is for the pilot in “Yellow!”, who is taunted by a stray word said by one of his fellow aviators (with ironic results). You can see the different approach Evans takes to his characterization in the panels shown below; instead of being shrouded in an all-encompassing darkness, the pilot’s face is bathed in a bright, all-seeing light that seems to force him to confront the truth of his actions.
The ending of “Lufberry” represents a great moment of failure for the amazing pilot and one of the most terrifying endings of any EC comic. Who hasn’t had nightmares of falling tens of thousands of feet from an airplane without a parachute? Here we see those events play out in horrifying slow motion, with the “thud” at the end being particularly final. The detail on the farmhouse is wonderful. (“Lufberry” is reprised in the back of this collection, originally in 3-D and decidedly inferior to this version.)
Evans was clearly in his element in the air. He obviously loved the motif of showing classic aviation moves like the Immelmann turn, as he does here. This is one of those pages that may look better in black and white than it ever did in color, as the small but telling details pop in ways that they wouldn’t against a blue sky (or even more, against modern coloring). Evans does a masterful job here of controlling his lines to convey a complicated scene in a simple manner.
Many of these stories follow a fairly familiar pattern, telling readers some of the unwritten rules of World War I air warfare, and showing the vengeance that is brought down on those who break the rules. Lt. Edward Dale, who continually broke the rules, in a story of the same name, shoots down planes that are already damaged or that wave a white flag at him, indicating their surrender. But he pays the ultimate price for breaking the rules: humiliation.
It was a chivalrous world out there in the sky during World War I, the reincarnation of the Middle Ages’ code of conduct and the best men were those who were brave innovators in the midst of a cruel and unfeeling war. The splash page of “Chivalry” shows the kind of scene that Evans seemed to truly love, an event that gives him the chance to accurately draw several planes in close combat with each other, while a larger battle rages around them. You can almost hear the engines humming on these planes, and hear the machine guns firing as these brave men battle each other in life and death struggles.
Chivalry seems the ideal topic to wrap up this review of Aces High because it is the topic that binds the two halves of this wonderful collection. Where the petty and small-minded philanderers and frauds of the crime tales have no chivalry nor honor, the brave pilots of the war stories are consumed with chivalry and honor. There’s a subtle message here, I think, about the importance of moral codes, self-respect and personal integrity. One must always strive to be above it all and brave the machine gun bullets and attacks that comes their way. It’s only through daily life-and-death struggles that we can begin to embrace true respect for ourselves and for others. The men and women of the crime stories are craven while the pilots are noble. Hey, look at that, these EC comics had a deep moral message after all!