Comic book preservation and archiving is a wonderful thing. I dearly love my Fantagraphics Popeye series, with the complete run of E.C. Segar’s Thimble Theater Staring Popeye reproduced at their original size. I love my huge, oversized, leatherbound Monster Society of Evil that collects that famous Captain Marvel epic. Dark Horse’s Archie Archives series has been a revelation, teaching me how fantastically fun (and edgy) the Riverdale gang were before having the sex drained out of them by the 1950s and devolving into boring, repetitive clichés.
But the only thing I learned from the first volume in Dark Horse’s Forbidden Worlds archive collection is that maybe not all comics are worth preserving. At least not in an edition this fancy.
Make no mistake: the book itself is beautiful. Dark Horse has given these questionable comics the royal treatment. This is a beautiful hardcover, and the first four issues of Forbidden Worlds have never looked better. Dark Horse even included the ads, which can be as much fun as the comics themselves for these old collections. The colors are bright. The paper is nice. Everything is great … except for the content.
Because, judging from this volume, Forbidden Worlds is an exercise in comics writers and artists just not giving a fuck.
Seriously, this is some of the worst writing and art I have ever seen in the comic format. Everything here is so formulaic, so mind-numbingly dull, it reads like the editorial staff just assigned writers templates like “Vampire Story #3” or “Mystic Invader #5.” Or maybe that is giving them too much credit. There is really only “Plot #1″—Man and woman are walking along. Man and woman are suddenly menaced by something otherworldly (vampire, monster, or alien). Woman screams. Man is unfazed. Man single-handedly repels otherworldly attack. Woman rewards man with a smoocharoo. Man and woman get engaged and/or married.
There isn’t even an attempt to make this pattern interesting, and the writers and artists had a clear distain for what they were doing. Granted, this was a time when a writer and artists working for comics was a shame they felt they needed to hide, like an actress/waitress in LA “moonlighting” in the adult industry while waiting for her Big Break. But even then … Elementary school fanfic would be more interesting than Forbidden Worlds. Everyone working on this book was clearly preserving their ideas for something else, and expending the minimal amount of effort necessary to draw a paycheck. But even working for a paycheck, you would think people would get bored now and then and just stick something in for their own amusement. Possibly any such rebellion was squashed by editors who wanted a bland, safe book.
It says something that all of the writers are unknown. While most of the artists have been tracked down, none of the writers left any sort of identifiable mark on their scripts—or sought to have their credit rightfully restored.
For what it is worth, the art is marginally better than the writing. You can get away with a stick figure plot, but not with stick figure drawings. I’m not going to say that there is anything good here, but it is passable figure work. The designs are lazy … their monsters are almost a parody of “monster template” – type character designs. And don’t be fooled by cover blurbs promising early Al Williamson, Frank Frazetta and Wally Wood art. Their contributions here are minor to the extreme. Even the credits admit it is at best “Collaborating with Frank Frazetta” and “Collaborating with Wally Wood,” whatever that means …
So why preserve Forbidden Worlds at all? In the intro, Dan Nadel tells us that Forbidden Worlds was one of the first of its kind, a proto-horror series that predated EC’s famous horror comics by two years. Of course, because Forbidden Worlds publisher American Comics Group had a strict policy as a “clean” publisher, there was no gore or edge to win over readers. Nadel admits that Forbidden Worlds was not very popular when it was published, winning over “a devoted, if small, audience.”
I can see a case for preserving this comic digitally, as a record of What Went Before. Really, in the modern world it seems like no art should be thrown away, if it can be scanned and uploaded. But I just can’t see how such bad comics deserve the royal treatment of Dark Horse’s superb Archive Editions. There are SO many other comics I could see wanting a $50 hardcover of. But to be fair, most of those comics have their rights owned by DC or Marvel, and they have given up on printing Archival editions like this. Even then, this really seems like scrapping the barrel.
I could be wrong. Maybe there are some out there who will find this formulaic kitsch fascinating. Maybe Forbidden Worlds is somebody’s treasure trove of irony and oddballness. There is a certain charm to a bizarre world where an alien invasion from the moon is so passé so it barely registers emotion to the leading man, or where vampires are so lazy they open up vampire hotels luring in oblivious guests with obvious traps. Maybe some artist will find inspiration from the sheer laziness of the artwork, with artists producing things a more diligent artist would never allow themselves to draw.
Me, I had to struggle to get through this. I can only take so much of “Plot #1” repeated over and over again.