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Classic Comics Cavalcade: Came the Dawn and Other Stories

A column article, Classic Comics Cavalcade by: Eric Hoffman

Welcome to the second part of our multi-part look at the great EC cartoonists! Last time Jason Sacks wrote about one of the greatest comics storytellers of all time, Bernard Krigstein. This time Eric Hoffman looks at one of the finest craftsmen of the EC line: the amazing Wally Wood.

The comics published by EC have long been viewed by historians as among the most important in comics, at least since their reprinting by the Nostalgia Press in 1971 and later by former physics professor Russ Cochran from the late 1970s to the 1980s, and in 1990-91 under the Gladstone imprint. EC’s success was largely the result of the vision of two men, Al Feldstein and Harvey Kurtzman, who had the good sense to populate their creative stable with the most talented and imaginative freelancers in the industry, including Bernie Krigstein, Joe Orlando, Johnny Craig, Jack Davis, Will Elder, Reed Crandall, George Evans, Jack Kamen, John Severin, Al Williamson and, perhaps most talented of all (and certainly the most puzzling and private), Wallace (“Wally”) Wood. William Gaines once said of Wood: “Wally may have been our most troubled artist . . . I’m not suggesting any connection, but he may have [also] been our most brilliant.” That brilliance is everywhere apparent in Fantagraphics’ recent reprint of a selection of Wood’s work for EC, Came the Dawn and Other Stories, comprised of twenty-six stories, from his early, inker-only work to the later “preachies” (in Gaines’ description), morality tales, often for those times (the mid-1950s) a subversive condemnation of corruption and hypocrisy among authority figures, racial and ethnic discrimination, and so on.

Wally Wood Fantagraphics Came the Dawn

What Came the Dawn makes apparent is that Wood’s early training as an inker and background artist served him well for the pencil and ink work that followed. The attention to detail is extraordinary and operates on an almost subliminal level. Most of the plots of his EC work follow the well-worn, O. Henry-esque moralistic twists readers have come to expect. So, for the seasoned reader of EC, the true delight and fascination of Came the Dawn will be seeing again Wood’s sublime understanding, indeed his enrichment of, the comics language, from panel and page composition to the pacing, direction, of capturing and conveying of mood. Many of these techniques may seem old hat but, as with Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, the techniques often originated in these very pages.

The first story included here for which Wood provides both pencil and ink is “The Living Corpse.” The fourth panel on page 16 conveys a struggle with characters in silhouette, surrounded by a swirl of circular lines, expertly depicting the tension, panic, violence of the action. The following panel caption reads: “SLOWLY CONSCIOUSNESS CAME AS JED RETURNED FROM THE VERY BRINK OF MADNESS! HIS THROBBING EYES WILDLY SEARCHED THE ROOM. . . THE CORPSE WAS GONE!”

Wally Wood Fantagraphics Came the Dawn

To depict the action of the attacking corpse, Wood presents what appear to be blood-spatters with two disembodied eyes, one large, one small, conveying in reduced visual language the movement of eyes darting about. Speaking of panic, who else but Wood could convey the look of mortal terror so effectively? When it comes to panic and fear in comics, the eyes have it.

Wally Wood Fantagraphics Came the Dawn

This is thanks in part to the contribution of Wood. Typical of a Wood comic, visual themes are developed and – miraculously for comics – maintained; on the following page are shown more disembodied eyes, some of them attached to monstrous, inhuman forms and accompanied by some rather foul-looking beasts that torture the protagonist in his sleep.

Wally Wood Fantagraphics Came the Dawn

Just look at how he writhes in agony. There’s no other word for it – it’s agony – another emotional state Wood helped to perfect visually.

Wood, particularly in stories like “Man from the Grave!” and “Terror Ride!” – both included here – makes effective use of backgrounds. In the former story, Wood provides wonderfully detailed depictions of his protagonist’s horrific imaginary paintings with visuals straight out of Lovecraft. In the latter, Wood carefully suggests the brutal scenes of the morbid wax displays of a carnival canal ride. In another story, “The Curse of Harkley Heath,” while one of the characters confesses feelings of guilt over having helped to murder his cousin (she stood to inherit the entirety of their uncle’s estate, of course), the smoke from the fireplace morphs into the visage of his murdered cousin.

Wally Wood Fantagraphics Came the Dawn

The characters are unaware of its appearance. The visage is there for the benefit of the reader only, in order to create an atmosphere of menace, and to underline the character’s remorse, an almost physical manifestation of guilt. “I can feel her everywhere! She’s ... she’s haunting us!” In the story’s final panel, a skull appears in the smoke of the now burned-down estate. The skull is not anyone’s in particular, but rather a visual metaphor for the air of fate and death overhanging these characters.

Beyond the often expressive and imaginative lettering of the comics’ stories and covers, EC was not known for its creative use of lettering, depending largely on typesetting for its word balloons and panel descriptions; where hand-lettering does appear it is usually utilitarian. Yet Wood’s lettering for the story “Horror-Ahead!” is notable for the wonderfully maddening Ditko-esque laughter depicted in the story’s concluding panel. Note also its use of decidedly Eisner-influenced rain puddles and drops and Wood’s cinematic super-imposition of the narrator’s eyes over the background to convey a flashback by dissolve (in two separate frames, one beginning and one ending the page).

Wally Wood Fantagraphics Came the Dawn

Wally Wood Fantagraphics Came the Dawn

Wally Wood Fantagraphics Came the Dawn

There’s also the fantastic use of lettering in the final panel of the story “The End.” Here, an emaciated zombie rises from the grave, to revenge his murder by drowning by, what else, drowning his murderer. Here Wood depicts the zombie pulling his murderer down into the water, the words “The End” rippling over the water in their wake.

Wally Wood Fantagraphics Came the Dawn

Let’s face it: No one draws an emaciated corpse – especially in zombie form – better than Wood. Just look at the following panels from “Man from the Grave!” Here one sees the foundation for decades’ worth of horror comics – and Wood’s influence on artists as diverse as Berni Wrightson, Gene Colan and Frank Miller:

Wally Wood Fantagraphics Came the Dawn

Wally Wood Fantagraphics Came the Dawn

Wood packed an abundance of visual information into each panel, yet his pages never appear crowded.

Wally Wood Fantagraphics Came the Dawn

Wood is also one of comics’ most gifted caricaturists. Unlike many comics artists past and present, each of Wood’s characters are distinctive and unique and perfectly evocative of their personalities. His range is astonishing. Wood was an artist that was never content, never satisfied with one style.

Wally Wood Fantagraphics Came the Dawn

Born in Menahga, Minnesota in 1927, Wood witnessed the birth of the comics industry. For all intents and purposes a self-taught artist (he attended art school at the Minneapolis School of Art in 1947 but dropped out after a single term and again at the Hogarth School in 1948, a tenure that did not last much longer), Wood cut his teeth learning his skill by copying the masters: Raymond’s Flash Gordon, Caniff’s Terry and the Pirates, Foster’s Prince Valiant, Eisner’s The Spirit and Crane’s Wash Tubbs.  Following a two-year stint in the army - he saw combat at the tail end of the Second World War - Wood moved to New York City where he found work as a busboy while expanding his already voluminous portfolio, making the rounds of New York publishers (he was routinely rejected). In the lobby of one of these publishers, Wood met the equally disheartened artist John Severin. Severin introduced Wood to Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder. Learning that Will Eisner needed a background artist for his newspaper insert comic The Spirit, Wood applied for the job and was hired.  He later found work as an assistant to George Wunder on Terry and the Pirates (Wunder had taken over duties on the strip for Caniff before publishing his own strip, Chief Obstacle, in 1949).

Wally Wood Fantagraphics Came the Dawn

Wood’s first comic book work was lettering Fox romance comics in 1948-49, followed by background and inking work at an abysmal $5 per page rate; allegedly, Wood often had to ink ten pages a day just to pay his rent. His first EC work, some of which is included in Came the Dawn, was inking Harry Harrison’s pencils for romance and horror comics. Following his work with EC, Wood produced a wide variety of illustration work, all of it excellent: everything from children’s literature to covers for Galaxy Science Fiction to gag cartoons for men’s magazines Dude, Gents and Nugget, to inking Jack Kirby’s syndicated newspaper strip Sky Masters of the Space Force (1958-61), followed by work for Marvel, DC, Warren, Charlton, Harvey and King. He created T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents for Tower and in 1964 designed the red costume for Marvel’s Daredevil. In 1962, he helped design Topps’ legendary Mars Attacks! trading cards. And if that wasn’t enough, Wood almost single-handedly initiated the self-publishing/underground/ground-level movements with his magazine Witzend (1966-85), which published Wood’s work and the work of other comics professionals, allowing them greater creative freedom and the ability to retain ownership over their creations (though most contributors did not deviate from prevalent generic conventions of super-heroes and science fiction) and illustrated the notorious Disneyland Memorial Orgy poster, printed in 1967, depicting numerous Disney characters engaged in sexual acts and drug use. In fact, much of his later work was a mixed-bag of “adult-oriented” comics, including his hysterically funny strip Sally Forth (1968-74) for the Armed Forces publication Military News (and later reprinted under the Fantagraphics imprint Eros Comix in 1998), and two issues of a comic book entitled Gang Bang (1980-81), which included such small pornographic masterpieces as “Berry and the Privates,” “Prince Violate” and “Flasher Gordon.”

A consummate professional, Wood also composed a series of “visual notes,” essentially shorthand reminders of various composition techniques Wood utilized in order to keep his work visually stimulating. These notes eventually made the rounds in the Marvel Bullpen (thanks to Wood’s protégé Larry Hama) and were highly influential on an entire generation of comic artists, leaving a substantial mark on the medium’s visual lexicon.

Wood was troubled with health problems for much of his life; he had chronic headaches and his rampant alcoholism led to kidney failure. A stroke in 1978 resulted in the loss of vision in one eye, severely impairing his ability to draw. Poor health and the inability to work led him deeper into depression and financial woes; he committed suicide by a self-inflicted gunshot in 1981. Toward the end, Wood was reported as saying “If I had to do it all over again, I’d cut off my hands.”

Wally Wood Fantagraphics Came the Dawn

Despite his many achievements, Wood’s work for EC will likely remain his best-remembered. Recent years have seen a flurry of reprints of this golden age of Wood, including Vanguard Publishing’s Strange Worlds of Science Fiction (2012), collecting Wood’s science fiction stories. Two more reprint books are slated for publication: the somewhat redundantly titled Eerie Tales of Crime & Horror: The Complete Non-EC 1950s Crime and Horror Comics of Wally Wood is due in May from Vanguard and The Complete Galaxy Illustrations will be published by IDW next month. Perhaps the most authoritatively-produced volume is IDW’s astonishing Artist’s Edition of Wood’s EC Stories published in 2012 in a large 12 x 18 in. format, photographed from the original art boards and capturing every detail and nuance of Wood’s detail-and-nuance rich artwork. IDW’s companion volume, the retrospective Woodwork published earlier this year, is a catalogue originally published in tandem with a career retrospective in De Palma, Spain in 2010 (and not in the US where Wood’s work is, except for a few comics aficionados, criminally underappreciated). Lastly, there is last year’s Fantagraphics collection, part of a series of collected editions of EC comics centered on a specific artist, including Jack Davis, Bernie Krigstein, Al Williamson, Johnny Craig and Harvey Kurtzman. Compared with IDW’s Artist’s Edition, Came the Dawn is a mostly utilitarian collection, an affordable means of acquiring some of Wood’s best EC work. (Actually, to be fair any book compared with the IDW volume will probably be less expensive but will also pale in comparison). And yet, several things trouble me about this Fantagraphics volume. Foremost is the lack of serious attention given to the work – the table of contents is no more informative than a DC Showcase or a Marvel Essential edition – for example, there is no information provided on the original publication, either the title of the comic or the date in which it first appeared. The introduction by Bill Mason, a teacher at Dawson College in Montreal, provides little context for the stories that follow, assuming that the reader is already familiar with Wood and/or EC. Mason’s introduction is also somewhat repetitive, consisting of virtually identically constructed paragraphs involving a somewhat formulaic story description, and providing some socio-historical context along with brief criticism and commentary (but again, no specific dates). There is no clear context in Mason’s introduction, and no straightforward biographical or critical apparatus with which to guide the reader; as such the introduction would have been better placed as an appendix or, even better, divided in such a way as to appear before each individual story (and thus somewhat obscuring its repetitiveness). Correspondingly, the biographical sketch by S.C. Ringgenberg and the short essay on EC by Ted White, here printed as an appendices, would have been better placed at the front of the book. As it stands, the volume’s critical and biographical context is scattered and somewhat thin.

The B&W format, unlike the aforementioned Showcase or Essential editions is not terribly bothersome; first, it’s printed on a heavier stock and so there is better reproduction of artwork offered here, and second, the B&W brings out the nuances of Wood’s superb inking and attention to detail in composition. The reproduction is sufficient if somewhat cheap. Often there are “bleed-throughs” from the following pages that disrupt the artwork and are a minor annoyance. And yet, on the strength of Wood’s artwork alone, it is still a volume worth acquiring and, indeed, celebrating.

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