In previous columns I discussed the comics of:
- Jack Davis
- George Evans
- Al Feldstein
- Graham Ingels (first column)
- Graham Ingels (second column)
- Jack Kamen
- Bernard Krigstein
- Harvey Kurtzman
- Joe Orlando
- John Severin
- Al Williamson
- Wally Wood (first column)
- Wally Wood (second column)
And this week, with Fantagraphics Books’s reprints of EC Comics classics looping back to a second go-around, I return to discuss more classic crime tales from the underrated Jack Kamen.
Jack Kamen’s crime stories reprinted in Forty Whacks and Other Stories show an America that’s been lost for many years. These classic stories, reprinted from issues of Crime SuspenStories and Shock SuspenStories from 1951 to 1953 show that times were far from calm in the immediate post-World War II era.
As the United States eased back from a wartime footing to peacetime, and men and women started edging towards a new American normal, there was great stress under the surface. With men scarred by the War and women empowered in the workplace, the country was in a new, uncharted era for male-female relations. And with the United States the world’s greatest superpower in the “free world”, then country turned inward – to marriage, folklore and long-repressed dreams.
If we take the stories written by William Gaines and Al Feldstein and illustrated by Kamen as examples of the new America of that era, the country had turned inward. Instead of worrying about Nazis and Japanese fighters, it often seemed the greatest threat to the company was a beautiful woman with sex appeal. With his passion for up-to-date fashions and domestic drama, Kamen often delivered stories about the architypes of the era, and his work makes this collection exciting in a few different ways.
Forty Whacks reprints two dozen Kamen tales, and more than half of them feature beautiful, conniving women. Hilariously, they often are willing to murder over amounts that seem like small change to us today.
Quite often, those women leave their ugly, annoying husbands and take up with incredibly handsome boyfriends and begin to plot murder, often with a lot of implied sex.
The repetition of this formula begins to create a drumbeat in the reader’s head. Obviously these stories were created for crime fiction, but these comics (and comics like them) were bought in big quantities during the early 1950s, so they obviously touched a nerve. Like the best films of Hitchcock or the film noir era, they seemed to display a secret world behind the façade of the well-dressed and seemingly happy people of the era.
In fact, these stories often feel like overt parodies of the romance comics that also dominated the era’s sales. As millions of comics were sold promising young love and true romance, comics like Kamen’s showed that there was a second act of many love affairs –and that it could often be far from “happily ever after.”
Occasionally the women are driven to murder because their husbands are so cruel. Eleanor Berdeen of “The Neat Job” is married to a cruel man whose insane zeal for tidiness leads him to abuse and her to murder. This feels a little bit like a very old Lifetime movie, except that under Kamen’s inks, the cruelty of Elenanor’s husband is accentuated by his perfect attire and his swarthy but handsome looks.
And sometimes the men are the manipulators, as in “The Perfect Place”, which recalls Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado.”
Some of the most fun stories in this book are the ones that don’t follow the “black widow” storylines, like the eerie “Contract for Death,” in which a suicidal man is offered $5000 to live one more month before he is murdered but everything happens when the suicidal man finds redemption. It’s easy to imagine this story as a noir thriller at a 1950s cinema.
Or the title story for this volume, in which Lizzie Borden’s axe drives this cataclysmic ending that sticks to the bones.
Of course, the endings are the best part of the EC stories, and I’m deliberately avoiding mentioning too many of them here for fear of spoiling the punchline. Well, maybe I’ll share one or two of the more memorable ones. Like the revenge of a man in “Well Traveled” whose wife keeps spending their money on vacations and prevents him from adding to his model railroad.
Or the karmic revenge of the woman in “Medicine” who poisons the medicine of her doctor husband and then needs him to perform surgery on her. (I love the way Kamen draws the woman’s eyes in the next-to-last panel.)
And how about the the revenge of two jealous husbands in “Beauty and the Beach” delivers an iconic EC ending to a classic Kamen tale in which sex ends up being the characters’ downfalls.
What better or more iconic ending is there than that one? Good lord! Choke!