Welcome to the seventh part of our multi-part look at the great EC cartoonists!
In previous columns we discussed the comics of:
And now this week we discuss the comics of Johnny Craig.
It's appropriate that the first image we see in Fall Guy for Murder, Fantagraphics's collection of Johnny Craig's E.C. stories, is a photo of Craig and his wife Toni. Johnny is dressed in a dapper suit with a perfectly tied tie, while Toni is dressed attractively in the fashion of the time, and probably stood tall in attractive high heels. In one of Johnny's hands is a film camera that he was given at a party; in the other is the fashionable crutch of middle-class Americans in the 1950s, a cigarette. The Craigs radiate a certain sort of 1950s vitality and positivity: after the terrors of World War II, the world is now theirs, and men and women of the Mad Men era are confidently ready to embrace that change
But as we know from reading these E.C. reprints, beneath the apparently placid surface of 1950s calm was a roiling tumult of pain, anger and frustration that helped to create the film noir movement, the pervasive fear of juvenile delinquency and the horror comics boom. Craig's comics revolve around the dichotomy of that era, presenting men and women who appear on the surface to have figured everything out, while below the surface they are pathetically confused and capable of horrifying actions such as murder.
So many of Craig's tales revolve around money: lust for money, the driving need for money, the wish to keep a shrewish wife stocked with minks and the need to pay for an expensive surgery for a tragically ill wife. But money wasn't the true end goal of the characters in these short stories. Money was just a means for keeping relationships alive. Johnny Craig's material for E.C. comics were all really about relationships: happy relationships, hateful relationships, manipulative relationships and the need to keep relationships alive by investing large amounts of money in achieving demented goals.
Fred, the lead character from "Stiff Punishment," is the perfect example of a Craig character. As we meet Fred, his wife is driving him crazy…
This perfectly dressed man is a professor at a medical college in a small college town. Four years previously, he had met and rapidly fallen in love and married Jo Ann, a girl 15 years younger than him who was enchanted by his position of power and her wish to hook up with an older and wealthier man. But Jo Ann quickly grew disenchanted with her new husband:
And right there in that panel above you can observe the turmoil erupt below the surface of placid 1950s life. Fred appears to be successful, with his job that he loves and his trophy wife, but his spouse hastily grows to hate him. Jo Ann can't stand that Fred seems married to his job, with books everywhere in the house; Fred grows to despise Jo Ann's endless nagging. Domestic violence erupts in a scene that's as shocking as any in this book:
From there, amazingly, things become worse. In a sequence of scenes stunning in their ferocity, Fred completely loses his patience. He commits the ultimate act of anger towards his wife:
The long panel on the bottom tier is almost primal in its intense energy, flawlessly realized by Craig as an instant of raw passion and anger. That moment exemplifies the core theme of this whole book: the handsome, well-dressed man is furious at his beautiful, equally well-dressed spouse. He wears a fashionable tie, she wears a nice dress and fashionable high heels, and around them are all the spoils of a perfect post-war life. But all the money and peace in the world can't prevent the fury that lives inside mens' souls from erupting with almost operatic intensity.
Needless to say, Fred is caught for murdering Jo Ann, with two wonderfully ironic twists in the end. But the horror of the passions sticks in the mind, unresolved by sending the man to jail.
The same pattern strikes again and again in these stories, often with small variations. "When the Cat's Away", again begins with anger between married couple Jay and Emma:
And domestic violence:
(note the brilliance of the action that Craig creates in the panel above, how the two figures are almost a pair of blurs battling each other. Also notice they're both well-dressed and again she's wearing high heels – I don't think there's a woman in this book that wears flat shoes.)
This time, there's a third side to this triangle: neighbor Dick Jordan, who lives across the alleyway on the other side of a small grove of trees, and is a special friend for both Jay and for Emma. Those searching hard for a homosexual subtext between Dick and Jay can probably find it here, though that subtext is subtle if it actually is there amidst the talk of sleeping in the guest room to allow anger to settle down.
After the fight Jay discovers to his horror that Dick and Emma are having an affair:
And rather than look inside himself to try to discover why Emma is cheating on him with his best friend – you'd think the reasons would be obvious – Jay instead plots his revenge. He cruelly manipulates Emma to believe her lover is dead:
Look at that thoroughly smug face in the first panel of the second tier. That is the face of the dark side of the 1950s, the vision of the post-War euphoria gone tragically, cruelly wrong. War turned some people into vicious, abusive sociopaths, and we watch that real-world horror on display in story after story in this collection.
It's an especially profound and resonant sort of horror because these elements tell readers that everything they believe about their society and success is wrong, that the peace they had expected after the horror of the war was just a lie and illusion, shattered by our own terrible psyches.
Other tales don't require a shrewish wife to create a sociopath. Maybe the most powerful piece in this collection is "Easel Kill Ya!", the tale of an artist who can only paint the images of car crashes that he creates, is a brilliantly bleak yarn with a gorgeous sense of grandiose passion:
"A Stitch in Time" is a shocking social-realist piece that presents the cruel treatment of a sweatshop owner who treats his employees with a terribly harsh antipathy. The leering, corpulent face of the owner towers over the faces of the older immigrant women who are forced to work for him until he receives his appropriate (and thoroughly memorable) punishment. This story was unique in Craig's canon of work at E.C., which makes "A Stitch in Time" difficult to forget.
The zombie tale "Till Death" has one of Craig's most ironic endings, but before readers reach the ending, we receive shock after shock. It's fascinating to watch the progressive collapse of a once-happy couple as Donna's illness overwhelms her.
For a change, the couple in "Till Death" actually does love each other with all their hearts, but of course in a Craig story there has to be a twist that places everything into a much darker context – this time the illness mixes with the supernatural in Haiti to create a horrifying fate for both characters.
But my favorite pieces in this book are the ones that revolve around the gold-digger woman and the henpecked, desperate man. "Rendezvous" revolves around a ridiculously greedy wife:
Who drives her husband to blow up an airplane in order to collect insurance money that will allow him to pay for his wife's luxuries. The story is a noir tale that looks beautiful in black and white but which also seems the apotheosis of the henpecked husband tales.
Johnny Craig's E.C. stories aren't as gory as some creators' work nor as shadowy as others'. But none of Craig's counterparts presented the despairing underbelly of the 1950s in quite the way that he did. Craig was a master at showing the terrors that lurked just below the surface, at the horrors that live inside the human heart. These tales have zombies, vampires and ghouls, but the true evil in them is with ordinary men and women, driven to desperation by their mad lusts and deep sense that they've committed themselves to an impossible life that is impossible to sustain.
Craig's tales are driven by an implacable sense of inner logic, by the feeling of inevitability created by smart foreshadowing and intelligent planning. As you can see from these scans, Craig's art is impeccable – like his characters, not a line is out of place and not a moment is wasted. Though he could be as bloody as any of his counterparts – Craig drew two of the most (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Crime_Suspenstories_22.jpg) notorious covers of the E.C. New Trend line (http://files1.comics.org//img/gcd/covers_by_id/36/w400/36584.jpg)- Johnny Craig's real power was in the way that he showed ordinary people in real turmoil.
After E.C. collapsed, Craig eventually moved into advertising but kept his hands inky by producing work for Warren, DC and Marvel, where he drew several issues of Iron Man before moving away from comics for good. It seems Craig's calm and intelligent style just wasn't a good fit for the bombast of early Marvel.
Fall Guy for Murder is a celebration of that calm and intelligent style.