Harvey Horrors: Chamber of Chills vol. 1

A column article, Classic Comics Cavalcade by: Jason Sacks

You know, on some level Frederic Wertham was actually right.

I know those words are absolute heresy for most old-time comics fans, who have been conditioned over the years to believe that the infamous 1950s crusader against comics was a mere flamethrower, a man who fought for his own self-aggrandizement to incorrectly portray the comics of the 1950s as being depraved, horrific explorations into pure evil.

But you know what? Based on the evidence presented in PS Artbooks's sumptuous reprint of Harvey Comics's notorious '50s horror series Chamber of Chills, Wertham was kind of right to say that comics presented a terrifying world that would give children nightmares and engender fears that might take their whole lives to purge.

The comics reprinted in this book are as cold and dark and, yes, chilling as a witch's teat, or a depraved surgeon's scalpel, or an ice cave full of terrifying figures, or the icy soul of a heartbroken librarian, or a strange congealing blob, or any of two or three dozen other figures of great evil nastiness in the pages of this dark, dark horror comic. Any one of the creatures portrayed in these stories could strike fear into a child's soul; reading these comics all in a row leads to the most compelling sort of despair of the worst qualities of humanity.

It's true what Wertham said: the world of '50s horror comics was a disturbing place, where mostly wretched people met really wretched fates at the ghostly hands and feet and necklaces and blunt objects of a series of creatures that are worse than each other in turn. In the sanitized media of the '50s, when film was still governed by the Hays Code and long before The Exorcist or Psycho, let alone Scream, Jason Vorhees and Freddy Krueger, this sort of material was the lowest sort of pornography.

Kids flocked to these sorts of comics for all the reasons most kids flock to weird stuff – it's fun, parents don't like it, their friends loved it. Of course, those same reasons sowed the seeds of these comics' own destruction.

Of course, the true test of a $50 deluxe hardcover isn't in the perception of the works at the time they were created. The test is whether the works stand up today, whether it's worth your hard earned money in these tough economic times to invest in this book.

The answer is a very strong YES.

First of all, nearly every one of the issues reprinted in this book features a story drawn – and often written by – the great Bob Powell. Powell is a name that's mostly forgotten now, mainly because, well, he did a lot of work on crappy horror comics like Chamber of Chills. But Powell worked alongside the great Will Eisner for many years, and Powell's stories are all filled with the same sort of wonderful storytelling cleverness and vérité that Eisner brought to his work. "The Shrunken Skull", from Chamber of Chills #5, for instance, is a surprisingly spooky take set around the accidental purchase of a shrunken head and the horrors that the head creates for its owner Michael Stearns. The story is ridiculous, but Powell's amazing storytelling makes the reader want to believe the story that he tells. Using offbeat panel arrangements, striking camera angles, the effective use of blackout, and some wonderful facial exaggerations, Powell creates an awesomely compelling and spooky world.

Another standout artist on these stories is Manny Stallman, another mostly forgotten artist who also drew a few stories for the Warren horror magazines during Warren's mid-'60s heyday. Stallman has a unique style that manages to be both crude and oddly sophisticated, and features some of the ugliest human beings you are ever likely to find in comics.

Workmanlike artistic stylists like Al Avison (once a prominent artist on Captain America), John Guinta, Warren Kremer and Lee Elias make their way into these pages. All of them bring their highly distinctive styles to the stories they illustrate, helping to make their stories stand out amidst a sea of unremitting horror.

I found myself unable to put this book down, as if I were the victim of a witch's spell. Of course, in a way I was. I was spellbound by the quality in these books, and by the feeling that I was breaking away from a spell cast by some zealous comic historians. Those historians fell under the spell of the Old Witch, one of EC Comics's might triumvirate of evil witches who adorned the pages of their famous horror comics.

EC has received most of the fame from fans of '50s comics, and deservedly so. Where Harvey's horror comics are a bit deprived and childish, the EC books were more sophisticated and moody. As many commentators have mentioned, the EC horror comics had a very specific sort of morality at play. Good would always overcome evil in an EC Comic, even if that good came in the form of a zombie walking out of a swamp to exact revenge on the people who had killed it.

The EC Comics also featured some of the greatest artists of their era, legends like Engels, Jack Davis, Reed Crandall and many others.

Based on the evidence of this first collection - the first of many in the complete Harvey Horrors library – the stories in the Harvey books don't quite match up to the quality of work that EC created. But the Harvey comics make up for that disparity of quality with an intensity and passion and pure fun that is sometimes lacking in the ECs. The comics in Chamber of Chills positively wallow in their depravity, and that wallowing gives them a very contemporary feel.

This book is published by UK book publisher PS Artbooks, and just as was true in their magnificent biography of artist Frank Hampson, Tomorrow Revisited, the production on the book is absolute sterling. The scans of the original comics are clean and precise, not pixelated at all, and the book is printed on a clean white paper stock that I'm sure will survive an attack by zombies or any other supernatural creature.

If you're looking for an offbeat and awesome book to give to a loved one this Halloween season, this is one of the best books you can buy. It already has a treasured place in my library next to my collection of Tales from the Crypt reprints.

This book was awesome. Wertham was right. These comics are depraved. Just the way I love them!

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