The Readthru is designed to take you through the issue run of a comic book or magazine. It will be an ongoing series of capsule review guides to famous titles of yesteryear.
Of all horror comic books, the titles published by E.C. Comics were the most influential. The genre only accounted for three of their titles but it was these comics that brought the company profits and infamy in equal measure. Their bold, youthful approach was highly influential on a budding crop of horror writers, artists and filmmakers. If you grew up watching horror in the ’70s or ’80s, it’s likely that these the creative DNA of these four-color fearfests influenced at least some of what you were watching at theaters or on the t.v.
Tales From The Crypt was a key title for E.C. and the namesake of the long-running hit HBO anthology series that would appear in the late ’80s. Like its E.C. horror brethren, Tales From The Crypt followed a formula: it offered short tales of terror, often incorporating a big plot twist and always emceed by a macabre host whose narration was filled with playfully macabre puns. The Crypt Keeper was the main host here though E.C.’s other hosts (the Vault Keeper, the Old Witch) would regularly appear.
The first five issues represent the baby steps of this title, lacking the gore that would become infamous later on, but they benefit from tight plotting and stylish art by some of the finest comic book artists of the era.
For your information, the first three issues of this title were published as Crypt Of Terror. It was only with the fourth issue that it took on its classic Tales moniker.
CRYPT OF TERROR #17: The debut issue is on the tentative side: its back half features a story with a corpse that is really more of a detective tale, albeit one with the E.C. twists, and a werewolf-themed mystery whose non-supernatural reveal has become predictable in the ensuing decades. That said, it opens with a dandy, Al Feldstein-illustrated tale of surgery-assisted eternal youth (“Death Must Come!”) that borrows its plot from The Man In Half-Moon Street and “The Man Who Was Death,” a fun tale of a prison executioner who develops a fateful God complex. The latter was adapted to memorable effect by Walter Hill for the Tales t.v. series.
CRYPT OF TERROR #18: The style continues to develop here. The middle tales are the lightest here: there’s a tale of the undead that offsets its non-supernatural resolution with a satisfying E.C.-style final twist plus some imaginatively twisted Wally Wood art while “Madness At Manderville” is a crazy-or-not tale that is light on the gothic touches. The killers are the opening and closing tales. “The Maestro’s Hand” is a revenge-beyond-the-grave tale that makes excellent use of a reanimated severed hand via cinematic Al Feldstein art and “Mute Witness To Murder” sets the crazy-or-not story archetype on its ear by telling it from the perspective of a gaslighting victim. The storyline is laid out with precision, Johnny Craig’s art brings imaginative visual devices to the telling and it’s got the kind of ‘ironic justice’ ending that would become an E.C. staple (it was adapted for the Tales t.v. show).
CRYPT OF TERROR #19: Things really start to come together here. The issue is framed by two stories using the narrative device of people learning a tale of horrific past events told in flashback: the first is a tale of greed taking out a pirate ship via a supernatural curse with evocative Al Feldstein art and the second uses voodoo as a tool for revenge in a tale of racial intolerance (an early example of EC’s forward-thinking approach to that topic). The latter boasts some excellent fireside jungle ritual art by Johnny Craig. However, the two best tales are the middle ones: “The Hungry Grave” is a tale with the classic E.C. theme of doomed infidelity that boasts creepy, gothic Graham Ingels art and “Cave Man” mixes a frozen-then-thawed caveman with revenge themes and some stylized Craig art that plays up the tale’s comedic edge.
TALES FROM THE CRYPT #20: the first issue of the comic under its famous title. It offers a solid cross-section of E.C.’s burgeoning approaches to horror. “The Thing From The Sea” is a ghost story that props up a standard, lite-horror plot with slick Feldstein art. The other tales up the horrific ante. For instance, “Rx… Death” is a nifty body-horror tale derived from an Arthur Machen story that boasts moody Ingels art in a fitting gothic style and “Impending Doom” uses crisp Craig art to convey a tale of people trapped in a cycle of inescapable fate (another classic E.C. theme). That said, the killer here is “Fatal Caper,” a tale of college kids fooling around with black magic (evocatively illustrated by Jack Kamen) that one-ups a seemingly obvious twist with an unexpected second twist that will make you grin with ghoulish glee. It was later adapted for the Tales t.v. show.
TALES FROM THE CRYPT #21: This is strong from top to bottom, an issue where even the thinner storylines are enlivened by inspired and effective artwork. For example, “Terror Ride” and its scenario of an eerily realistic horror-themed boat ride has become standard horror fare since the ’50s but it’s easy to imagine a young Tobe Hooper being influenced by its garish Wally Wood art. Similarly, college initiation scare tale “House Of Horror” does a lot of setup to get to its punchline but Harvey Kurtzman’s moody, cinematic layouts really bring it to life. The other two tales are all-around strong: “A Shocking Way To Die” mixes crime, mad science and zombie themes to memorable effect, topped off by ace Feldstein art, and “Death Suited Him” is a tale of stolen love that boasts a killer twist ending and Ingels art that enhances its vibe of simmering psychosis.