Monday, September 15, 2008

DECADE BY DECADE, Part 14: No super-heroes need apply

During the 1950s, comic books remained a popular medium, but the superheroes that dominated the scene through the 1940s had pretty much faded away.

Only Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman bucked the trend and remained in print. Most comics dived into other genres. There were Western, crime, science fiction, horror, romance, and humor comics. A lot of the output was mediocre, but there were some real gems popping up as well.

EC Comics was a source of a lot of these gems. EC employed some of the best artists working in comics at that time and experimented with a wide range of genres. Pirates, soldiers, cops, and even psychologists all got their turn within the pages of EC's comic books.

Today, EC is best remembered for their horror comics such as Tales from the Crypt. But I think the horror books are actually overrated. If I had to pick EC's best stuff, I'd turn to Two-Fisted Tales.

Two-Fisted Tales started out as an adventure strip. Soon, they began to specialize in war stories--with most of them set in the then-current Korean War. But every once in awhile, the book would jump a little farther back in history to tell tales of past conflicts.

Two-Fisted Tales #32 (1952) concentrated on Civil War stories. Like most EC comics of the time, it contained four 6- to 8-page stories, each of which was a superbly illustrated and well-told story set during America's bloodiest-ever conflict.

The first story, "Blockade," was illustrated by Wally Wood and recounted the clash between the Monitor and the Merrimac from perspective of the average crewmen.

"Campaign," with art by John Severin and Will Elder, follows a platoon of Union troops as they slog and fight their way through the 1862 Peninsular campaign.

"Donalson" (art by Jack Davis) details the fight to capture Fort Donalson from the Confederates, recounting both the land and the river fighting. Once again, the story gives us the perspective of the average soldier.

It's the last story--"Grant!" (art by John Severin)--that gives us the point-0f-view of a high-ranking officer. It's a short but effective biography of U.S. Grant, describing what was pretty much a failed life as a civilian before re-entering the Army to fight in the Civil War, thus placing him back in his natural element.

All the stories are excellent--historically accurate with solid characterizations and well-choreographed action.

Superheroes resurged to take over the market again a few years later. By itself, this wasn't a bad thing, since many excellent stories and characters came out of this genre. It's kind of a pity, though, that the variety in storytelling comics gave us in the 1950s seems to have disappeared forever. It must have been nice to stop at the newstand and have the option of returning to 1862 to fight the Rebs; or take a trip into deep space; or face off against a gunslinger on a dusty, tumbleweed-strewn street; or fight a giant crab deep under the sea; or even accompany Little Lulu on an 8-page slapstick adventure. Good times, indeed.
This'll be the last of the Decade by Decade series. I originally planned to take it into the 1970s, but I'm ready to move on to something else. I've no idea what yet, but I'll think of something.

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