In previous columns I discussed the comics of:
- Jack Davis
- George Evans
- Al Feldstein
- Graham Ingels
- 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 horror tales from the brilliant Graham Ingels.
Graham Ingels was the master of the macabre, a genius at delivering the tremendously terrible in horrific and glowing detail. His handful of comics, nearly entirely horror stories and nearly every one delivered at E.C. Comics, were genuinely gory and delightfully dreadful. Over two dozen of his finest seven- and eight-page stories are on display in this latest collection of Ingels’s horror comics, this time presenting material just slightly earlier that the comics included in the previous Sucker Bait and Other Stories. For anyone who loves classic American comic art, this comic is a must-read. And with Halloween approaching, these terrific tales of outrageous retribution, rotting corpses, Frankenstein’s Monster and cheating spouses is a terrific terror treat.
This is the second volume of Ingels work that Fantagraphics has reprinted, but that doesn’t mean this work isn’t first-rate. As we’ll see in this article, these are stories that are as dramatic and intense as any horror ever produced. If you can get past the sometimes ridiculous amount of words in some of these stories, they contain some of the spookiest and most memorable images in comics history. It’s easy to see why Ingels nicknamed himself (and signed most of his stories) “Ghastly”, because his comics are so ghastly, they’re gorgeous.
One of the hallmarks of Ingels’s comics in this volume is the near-operatic level of intensity of the arguments between people who are long-suffering and their tormentors. Again and again, abusive husbands, landlords, political rivals or other variations are unfeeling, viciously stupid assholes. Their whole mission in life seems to be overcoming their self-esteem problems by making someone else’s life miserable. In the story excerpted above, Anita is an animal-lover and her hubby Jonah doesn’t understand that love — so he tries to get close to her in some ways by stuffing the animals. The idea came from William M. Gaines and Al Feldstein, but the fury, anger and outstanding panel arrangements epitomize Ingels’s approach. The faces above are so emotional in every panel, and the scene-setting in the fourth panel above does a terrific job of foreshadowing the next scene. This is just a random page I chose from the book, but it’s fractal — it could represent any page from Grave Business.
In the page above, we see another argument between spouses, this time between Robert and Irma, who has killed Robert’s life for his insurance money and then married Robert. Ingels does a subtle but smart job of depicting Irma’s vicious anger in the first couple of panels on this page, and the images of Robert’s face in panels three and four above show pure terror.
The bottom tier above continues the page with one of Ingels’s most powerful repeating motifs: the impressionistic view of an event filtered through an intense image that emphasizes the mood. The rain above gives the moment a noir feel that emphasizes Robert’s pain. Readers see that sort of approach throughout this remarkable book.
In this excerpt from “A Sucker for a Spider”, Ingels entangles the nasty Maxwell Stoneman in a spider-web — and makes readers feel complicit in the entanglement as we see the scene from the perspective of the huge vermula spider. His use of white to convey the web in the first panel above is stunning and lovely, a moment that forces the reader to stop and consider what he’s seeing. It’s a genuinely shocking moment, rendered with a stronger impact through the way the art puts the reader at a full stop in order to consider what we are looking at. Our contemplation makes us complicit on some level, and that gives everything real power.
A lot of stories in this book involve creepy creatures, playing on our nearly universal fear of spiders and especially of rats.
I don’t know about you, but this scene shocked the fuck out of me. Slumlord Edgar Chambers, who rents a house to a soldier but won’t do anything to exterminate the roaches and rats in the house, meets a viciously ironic death caused by his own obscene actions. Even though Edgar deserves his end, though, the scene is still incredibly creepy. You can almost hear the rats chirping to each other as they jump atop the fat man and chew him up. It’s a perfect Halloween scene, and that ironic ending is echoed throughout this book.
The scene above is one of my real favorites in Grave Business, and a perfect demonstration of the power of Ingels’s artwork. Jealous Cyrus has killed Jed after framing him for robbery because Jed wants to be mayor of their small town. After previously dumping Jed’s body out to sea, Cyrus decides to go fishing one day, only for his own guilt and hubris to overcome him. A reader can choose whether to see a literal dead body in panels five and six above or to see the image as a kind of manifestation of Cyrus’s guilt, but the roiling seas and furious struggles by Cyrus show the painful, roiling struggles that the world is using to punish this evil man.
Punishment or retribution seem to always visit upon these corrupted people. Their own hubris does them in, and in these stories that hubris and that revenge are often seen as responses that nature takes to those who have done wrong in the world.
For example, the trees in “A Tree Grows in Borneo”, which comes to life (an attentive reader might wonder if the strangling Amos feels from the tree is actual strangling or the shadow of his own guilt).
I could show you final pages throughout this column because they’re all so delightfully, darkly satisfying. The conclusion to “Poetic Justice” (above) is one of the most iconic of all EC endings, with the rotting corpse’s hand reaching up from the grave and the ambling body wandering the lightning-lit streets in panel four above. It’s glorious and compelling and thrilling — one of the finest moments in all of EC.
But pretty much every story is filled with scene after scene that builds upon themselves. I used the term “operatic” above to describe these stories, and that does seem like the appropriate word: they start at a moment of intensity and then build from there, with every page exaggerated and powerful and full of dramatic tension.
A relatively minor scene like the one above from “Ooze in the Cellar” is intensified by the way that Ingels builds the scene. There’s power in Emily’s face as she touches the dusty record player in panel three above, her gnarled hands covered in dirt from the abandoned item. The scene of Silas looking down the stairs for Emily bespeaks of horrors to come, and her shadow in the final panel, at a ninety degree angle to her husband’s face, delivers a frightening foreshadowing of her eventual fate. Even one random scene like this shows the mastery of storytelling elements on display in this book.
“…With All the Trappings” tells the story of a fur trapper at work in the frozen country and includes some of Ingels’s loveliest scenes. Panel two is a gorgeous vista and also an extremely well-composed image that uses a blackout figure and setting sun wonderfully to emphasize Pierre’s loneliness. We know that the triumph in the last panel above will ultimately be futile (this is an EC horror comic), but it’s all so wonderfully drawn and smartly conceived that I was wishing I could spend more time in the woods with Pierre and his traps.
Nearly every one of the stories in Grave Business are wonderful, but two stand out to me.
“Horror Under the Big-Top” is an absolute delight, for a few reasons. One is the spectacular art on display here – look at the incredible way Ingels draws the trajectory of the body and the brilliant use of black in the last panel above. That’s powerful and dramatic. I also love the way that images on this page break out of the panels. That’s unique to this story in this volume — in no other place does Ingels break the sanctity of the panel border, and he does so effectively here. The breakout in the top panels emphasize the power of the gun and the fright of what will happen.
This is also powerful because this unique story actually has several twists at the end that leave the reader shaking his head, trying to make sense of the rush of events. This clever juxtaposition of moments is intriguing because it presents an almost Shakespearean sense of tragedy befalling all who touch it. Yes, very few people would confuse even EC at its best with Shakespeare, but the series of events at the end of this tale have a sense of rightness and inevitability epitomizes the best of EC.
My other favorite here is “The Monster in the Ice”, which updates Frankenstein to the 1950s, resurrecting the monster in a small sequel to Mary Shelley’s classic novel. It’s a delight to see how Ingels depicts the monster, very different from the Karloff version but on-target to the Shelley version, with eyes akimbo and wretched teeth. This is a fearsome Frankenstein’s Monster, one that would frighten anyone who sees it.
Graham Ingels didn’t draw many comic books in his short career in the business, but in some ways he was the apotheosis of EC horror artists. His work has a hand-hewn crudeness and brilliance of page and panel design that makes it look vital and terrifying even sixty years after it originally saw print. If you want some chills as you get ready for Halloween, you should pick up “Grave Business.”