Probing social-protest comics of the postwar era

qiana whitted EC comics

When EC Comics published “Master Race,” were there any stories available to American audiences that even remotely resembled it? In particular, were there any comics like it?

The full-color, eight-page comic, which ran in the debut issue of a serial anthology called Impact in 1955, detailed an account of an unnamed Holocaust survivor who, by chance, recognizes and confronts a Nazi death camp officer, Carl Reissman, on a subway train ten years after the war. Scripted by writer Al Feldstein, edited/co-plotted by EC publisher William Gaines, and dynamically visualized by artist Bernie Krigstein, “Master Race” is revered as a classic of the form, owing in no small part to the stark imagery that Krigstein drafted (the quality of drawing typically exceeds that of EC’s writing, and the latter was often bolstered by the former, as Fantagraphics’ Gary Groth asserts). In its assembly of uncompromising composite scenes, cinematic-style low-angle framing, and unconventional sequencing, “Master Race” is striking in its clarity and distinctly forward-looking approach.

The original pre-color inked pages for “Master Race” went to auction late last year. This stage reveals strips of pasted-in, very unadorned and mechanical-looking captions and word balloon text—by way of a Leroy lettering set—atop Krigstein’s crisp linework. Witness his chilling expository depictions of real-life genocidal horrors and the architectural splendor of his immaculately drafted subway platform—a sterile, barren setting for the comic’s final act, which sees Reissman plummet down onto the tracks and in the path of an oncoming train. It’s an act of retribution for the abominations over which Reissman presided, but up until the last panels of the second to last page, we’re led to believe he’s a former prisoner, not a commandant. The lot of 64-year-old pages fetched a considerable $600,000 in November.

“It is a powerful narrative, using the most dramatic events of this century as a backdrop for the brief confrontation of two antagonists,” wrote John Benson, David Kasakove, and Art Spiegelman of “Master Race” in 2008’s A Comics Studies Reader. “Obviously it was the basic narrative that inspired the artist to make this story the classic that it is. But it is just as obvious that it is the artist’s contribution that lifts the story out of the context of the twist-ending comic book story and makes it a memorable artistic experience.”

qiana whitted EC comicsAs comics scholar and University of South Carolina professor Qiana Whitted points out, “Master Race” belongs to a certain brand of socially conscious stories—the “preachies”—that EC Comics published in postwar America. They haven’t earned nearly as much attention as the fare for which the infamous company is primarily known, and Whitted sets out to change that in EC Comics: Race, Shock, & Social Protest. She explains:

“The preachies—also referred to in this book as social-protest comics or message stories—are cautionary, discomforting, and often quite grim; many rely on a extradiagetic narrator to drive home the lessons signaled by exclamatory titles such as ‘Hate!’or ‘The Guilty!’ Critics of the preachies do not hesitate to characterize the stories as ham-fisted or overly didactic, while admirers speak just as effusively of the guts it took to print them. Their surprise plot twists tend to underscore the deep moral failings of the status quo through acts of violence and depravity that reflect the contradictions of the post-World War II era known as both the ‘Fabulous Fifties’ and the ‘Age of Anxiety.'”

Home to MAD magazine as well as comics anthologies Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror, Entertaining Comics’ gory postwar crime and horror titles at a time were deemed so irredeemable by scores of religious zealots and a child psychologist that a full-fledged censorship campaign was born. As I wrote at Hyperallergic in 2017, the backlash earned EC boss William Gaines a seat before the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency in 1954 and crippled the comics industry. Before the decision was made to include it in Impact, “Master Race” was initially slated to appear in Crime SuspenStories, one of the titles that EC killed as a result of the controversy over the violent content they were producing. But censorship isn’t the main event in EC Comics: Race, Shock, & Social Protest—Whitted is instead concerned with a lesser-emphasized facet of the otherwise exhaustively chronicled history of the downtown New York City publisher.

qiana whitted EC comics

Within the pulpy pages of Shock SuspenStories and Weird Fantasy more than six decades ago, the so-called “preachies”—as coined by Gaines—were provocative comics narratives underpinned by healthy progressive messaging. They addressed contemporary political and social issues, such as religious prejudice, racism, and more. 

Stories like “The Guilty!”—drawn by Wallace Wood in 1952—took aim at racism and the threat of mob justice, “which might have taken place anywhere in the United States,” warned writer Feldstein in the narrative copy. Similarly, “Master Race” brought unimaginable real-life horrors to the fore, rendering for comics readers in (very) plain terms details of mass genocide and the rise of a fascist regime. Whitted cites critic Martin Jukovsky, who wrote of the importance of Life magazine photo essays and the memoirs that followed the war, because at the time of Impact and “Master Race,” large media outlets hadn’t yet substantially reported on the Holocaust. But for those who were all too familiar with what the Nazis had done, Feldstein and Krigstein articulated a fantasy revenge scenario that played out slowly “over the course of an eleven-panel sequence,” even if its conclusion doesn’t render much in the way of “relief or comfort.”

“In EC’s social-protest comics, shame chastens society from the inside out; the writers and artists used the emotional burdens of affect to accomplish what the law would not,” writes Whitted. “Yet the shame experiences as represented in these shock comics further reveal the difficulty of maintaining the presumption of fairness at the barbed, bloody heart of the EC way.”

William Gaines told the Senate that EC’s controversial horror and crime yarns—with their dependable plot twists, bad puns, and wealth of axe murderers—were merely entertaining, but in the preachies, there were good lessons on display. Whitted concurs. For all of their clumsy heavy-handedness, the EC Comics: Race, Shock & Social Protest author argues that the publishing house was boldly responding to its time with stories like “Master Race,” and that EC’s stable of talent worked to “engage the problems that Americans faced during the early Cold War and civil rights-eras.”

EC Comics: Race, Shock, & Social Protest is available now from Rutgers University Press