Welcome to the tenth part of our multi-part look at the great EC cartoonists!
In previous columns we discussed the comics of:
- Jack Davis
- Al Feldstein
- Graham Ingels
- Jack Kamen
- Bernard Krigstein
- Harvey Kurtzman
- John Severin
- Al Williamson
- Wally Wood
And this week we discuss the comics of Joe Orlando.
Compared with his fellow E.C. artists, Joe Orlando was a bit of a ‘tweener. He was a great science fiction artist but never quite as slick as Al Williamson or as emotional as his friend Wally Wood, and he was a great horror artist but never reached the depths of darkness that his colleagues such as Graham Ingels and Jack Davis reached. Next to those men, Orlando looked competent – heck, he looked like a thoroughly entertaining professional – but his work didn’t quite resonate in the same way that his colleagues’ work did. Orlando was outstanding but he was merely outstanding – just one of the greats in a pantheon of the absolute best.
That’s what makes a book like Judgment Day such a treat. This collection of 23 of Orlando’s classic science fiction stories removes Orlando from the context of his peers and places him solidly on his own, showing off the artist’s outstanding versatility and virtuosity with the brush. Reading this book leaves the reader with a new and deeper appreciation for the artist’s skill and makes a strong case for Joe Orlando being one of the finest cartoonists of his era.
The highlight of the book is its title tale. “Judgment Day” is considered to be one of the finest stories that E.C. ever published. Though its satire of racism in the form of some very judgmental robots may strike some as a bit preachy, the piece was cutting-edge 60 years ago. More than that, Orlando sells the hell out of it. His slick drawing style, with its bold metallic edges and time-appropriate robots, lulls the reader into a false sense of complacency as we consume the piece.
As the story turns and readers are shown the decrepit world in which some robots live, the style takes on a more social realist turn. The panel on the right above demonstrates that beautifully, with the rundown buildings and tight spaces fighting the gleaming slickness of what has come before. There’s a sci-fi gleam to the town of the orange robots, but the gleam has a tinge of jaundice to it, a sense of pain and anger and the feeling of a seemingly utopian society gone dystopian.
Of course, the famous final panel is a kicker and makes the point explicit that had been implicit: even a society as affluent and powerful as America in the 1950s was deeply troubled by racism and poverty. The proud face of the astronaut, stars juxtaposed on his face and classic E.C. sci-fi setting surrounding him as is done in so many other E.C. sci-fi tales, leaves the short with a touch of optimism that must have been both exciting and frightening for many at the time. It seemed to reflect a future in which racism was conquered but its specter would haunt us all. Hmm, that does sound like a wise prophecy, come to think of it.
It’s always wonderful seeing the worlds that Orlando creates inside his panels, as in the splash to “In the Beginning…” This splash, showing a space ship leaving a gleaming city (reminiscent of the idealized view of future America displayed in the famous Democracity at the 1939 New York World’s Fair) is also symbolic of everything that the world of that story was moving away from. That makes it one of the most perfect EC splashes that Orlando ever drew.
Though Orlando could deliver some delightful science fiction tales, the most interesting pieces in this collection are the moodier tales. “Harvest”, for instance, spins a yarn about robots farming even long after all the humans are dead and gone. The scene above is both beautiful and haunting, doing a brilliant job of showing humans as if perceived through a literal veil, the memories of humanity just so much fuzzy remembrance through opaque windows.
The zombies-in-space tale “My Home…” shows maybe Orlando’s greatest strength as a ‘tweener, in the way that he juxtaposes striking science fiction settings – the spaceship looks like it could have been drawn by Wally Wood – with zombies that could have come from any contemporary comic. The combination of the slick with the grotesque, done smartly and well, was a big part of what made E.C. special versus its contemporaries, and this piece exemplifies that.
Even more intense is the psychological horror tale “Keyed Up”. It’s a tale of space madness and sheer obsession, a deep noir piece made brilliantly effective through Orlando’s smart use of blacks that seem so rich at times that they threaten to pull the reader out into the black vacuum of space. He also uses sharp and upsetting angles to give the reader a feeling of being off-centered, or feeling things from a strange and subjective angle. Combine that with the intense emotions shown in the sequence above and you have a memorable and powerful story.
And though the stories could sometimes be melodramatic (c’mon, whaddya expect? This is an E.C. comic!), they still triumph due to raw energy and a kinetic and dark drawing style, as in this ridiculous and wonderful sequence from “The Meddlers.” Orlando has sold this wacky b-movie moment with some smart choices earlier, so by the time the twist happens, it feels earned.
Even the most b-movie type twists are delivered with real verve and passion that show why Orlando is a worthy companion to his compatriots at E.C. There’s a lovely stylishness to the scene above and a level of craftsmanship that helps to accentuate the ridiculous moment.
At times, Orlando’s art is both attractive and innovative for its era. The sequence above from the occasional series of stories featuring ‘Adam Link, Robot’ shows both of those attributes. These images tell a full narrative even if you don’t read the words: with impassive judges or jury behind him, an aggressive lawyer berates an impassive robot while the robot keeps eerily calm. It’s gorgeous storytelling to watch the lawyer slowly edge closer and closer to Adam Link, his hands and face progressing from calm professionalism to showboating anger as he makes his case for the jury. This is extraordinarily effective comics, presented in a way that emphasizes narrative over all else.
It’s tempting to conclude this review with some grand pronouncement about Joe Orlando’s artistic career, something about how in 23 stories, this “tweener” exemplifies the entire E.C. line with his broad range of styles and presentations. But that’s selling Orlando short. Judgment Day and Other Stories shows that Joe Orlando was as fine a craftsman and cartoonist as his popular contemporaries and delivered some outstanding comic work. This book is a delightful reminder of that fact.