In previous columns we 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
And this week, with Fantagraphics Books’s reprints of EC Comics classics looping back to his science fiction work we discuss the comics of Wally Wood again.
In some ways Wally Wood epitomized the approach that comics had to science fiction in the 1950s. His style embraced the technological wonder of space adventure as well as the strange alien nature of mankind’s encounters in a way that no other EC artist could capture. He was a master at so many things on display in this book: steadfast heroes who make tremendous mistakes, soaring rocketships that seem always to be crashing into terrible situations, beautiful women who are tougher than they seem, strange creatures that are misunderstood.
One of the things that emerges after a reading of Spawn of Mars is a sense of ambition tempered, of writers, and through them a society, coming to terms with the idea that the gleaming technological future will have unimaginable risks. It’s a worldview tempered by the horrors of World War II, created by men who had just lived through the war, a time when amazing technological innovations proved to be the engines of mankind’s potential destruction.
And yet, despite the post-war cynicism, there’s often a sense of joy in technology that slips in here, too. These stories were created close enough to the Golden Age of Sci-Fi that optimism still has resonance and power. American strength will extend to soaring rockets and steadfast men and women willing to live their whole lives on spaceships. As written by Al Feldstein, William Gaines and Wood himself, these stories are a fascinating mix of joy and fear, worry and optimism. As such, they’re portraits of 1950s America in miniature.
Again and again, Wood’s stories start with moments of great technological optimism, scenes that seem like they could be taken off a recruitment poster for some future government agency in charge of pushing Americans into space. It’s striking how orderly and detailed everything looks in these images, how safe and in control the system presents itself in contrast with the way that these pseudo-societies break down later in these stories. And it’s striking how the enormous cylindrical rockets are in the middle of everything, like giant protective phalluses.
The men and women in these stories often start out as optimists, or at least as people who are very serious about their missions. There’s talk of colonization, of escaping Earth’s problems with pollution, war or whatever other crime we’ve committed against ourselves. The best way to resolve these problems is by escaping to the unknown and to embrace the joyous American tradition of trailblazing.
But much more often in these stories, we get a sense early that these steadfast explorers aren’t Buck Rogers adventurers. In Wood’s famous extremely detailed spaceship scenes, we feel that the technology is overwhelming the people, preying on their minds and their emotions, presenting a strange kind of “space noir” that is a unique aspect of Wood’s art.
Again and again the explorers have their fears realized, but in ways they couldn’t expect. Wood was brilliant at drawing strange space aliens (a “huge mass of living ooze” indeed!), and these designs are thoroughly delightful.
And of course I’m selling short the wide range of stories told here. There are delightful sci-fi domestic dramas…
…and some time travel drama…
Often with that classic very wordy EC approach to science fiction.
But no matter how wordy some of these stories are, Wood’s love of beautiful women and steadfast men, and his love of detailed noirish drawing comes through.
This volume concludes, a bit incongruously, with the handful of stories that Wood’s friend and partner Harry Harrison wrote and drew for EC. Harrison, who would later write several popular science fiction novel series, has a more open style and a very different sensibility from his friend. It would have been very interesting to see how those two men would have collaborated more in their careers.
Spawn of Mars contains some of the finest comic art of Wally Wood’s long career. Optimistic and full of dread, with events that start with great promise but descend into chaos, it’s tempting to call a parallel to Wood’s own life in this impressive collection of great comic art. Woody, an alcoholic, had a notoriously difficult life, and while most of that life was ahead of him as he created the art for these stories, we can see the personality quirks that led him to his troublesome adulthood. In that way, though these stories often take place millions of miles away from Earth, their centers are as close as the human heart.