The Horror Comic Never Dies

Michael Walton opened and operated a comic book shop in Virginia during the 1990s, and therefore bore direct witness to the impact these stores had on the comic book industry. While retail booksellers and magazine stands continued limiting their comic book sales to titles approved by the Comics Code Authority, the dedicated stores sold a wider range of comics, including those not bearing the CCA’s stamp of approval. Writers, artists, and publishers saw an opportunity to bypass the onerous content restrictions of the CCA and began producing more mature content. When sales of these titles began superseding the revenue from their Code-approved counterparts, the CCA’s influence began fading until it disbanded in 2011.

Anecdotes and insights from Walton’s shop-owner days appear throughout his 2019 history of horror comics, and my only significant disappointment with the book is that it does not contain enough of his personal stories. His history is certainly informative and well-researched, but if you’re looking to understand comic books there are better choices available. David Hadju’s The Ten-Cent Plague is a more extensive cultural history of the early 1950s hysteria over horror and crime comics, and Bradford Wright’s Comic Book Nation provides a better and more thoroughly researched analysis of the comic book medium. If you don’t know about William Gaines and EC Comics, or Dr. Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent and the 1954 hearings of the Senate Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency, then Walton’s book might be a good place to start; if you’re already familiar with this history, you won’t find much fresh insight here.

However, when Walton steps away from historical scholarship, his prose comes to life. His engaging sense of humor comes through in passages such as the following analysis of tie-in sales, a rumored but never proven practice of comic book distributors that supposedly compelled retailers to sell comics they found objectionable:

… if a newsstand owner decided they didn’t like the cover of this month’s Horrific comic book and kept it hidden away under the counter and not for sale, the distributor could punish the newsstand by no longer sending them more popular magazines like Time or TV Guide and thus hurting the retailer’s overall sales. Distributors were portrayed as some shadowy entity that was motivated strictly by profit. “So what if you don’t like those horror comic books,” the distributor would say, “We don’t care that they are corrupting our children. You MUST sell them or we’ll pull ALL of your inventory and then your children will starve,” and the distributor would break out in demonic laughter before vanishing in a puff of sulfur-smelling smoke.

I would have liked more of these passages, and also to know more about the actual interaction between distributors and retailers, on which Walton could have offered a unique perspective as a shop owner. The glimpses he provides of this industry are fascinating, but there are frustratingly too few of these views.

Perhaps the most valuable part of this book is Walton’s review of current and past horror comic titles. The opening sentence announces his “deep and abiding love for all things horror,” and his reading list is extensive and, based on his descriptions, often compelling; on my next visit to the comic store, I’m definitely purchasing Clean Room. Walton’s catalog of horror titles reminded me of how much I enjoyed the black-and-white magazines published by Warren in the 1970s. While not as lurid as the EC Comics of the early 1950s, they were definitely edgier than the Marvel comics I avidly consumed in my teens.

I can’t leave reviewing this book without noting some inattention to detail in its editing; Walton’s tendency to repeat phrases or ideas could have easily been rectified, and some outright errors, such as listing the birth year of Dr. Fredric Wertham as 1985 instead of 1895, should not have been overlooked. But these problems don’t significantly detract from the overall value. Anyone who’s curious about the horror comic genre will definitely appreciate Walton’s book.

***

I’m adding a personal note to this review. I met the author and purchased his book at my local library a few days before the start of my state’s COVID-19 lockdown. It now seems like his talk occurred in a different era, one which we may never revisit. I had no idea this could have been the last time I ever stepped in front of an author and had him or her sign a book I had purchased. It’s a small loss in the great scheme of things, but one that shouldn’t go unnoticed.

Day 78

I started this journal to record my observations on COVID-19 and the lockdowns ordered in response to the pandemic. I’ve deliberately avoided enlarging my scope, but I can’t ignore the riots which broke out in cities across the the United States last Saturday.

This country’s racial history has been ugly and violent. Africans were brought here in chains during the colonial period, and slavery had became so well-established by the time of out independence that it was written into the Constitution. We fought a devastating civil war (don’t give me this crap about mercantilism or states rights being the true causes), and in its aftermath allowed Jim Crow laws and lynch mobs to suppress freedom. The legal justification for American apartheid was struck down in the two decades after World War II (most of it anyway; lynching didn’t become a federal crime until 2018), but the pestilence of racial discrimination and race-based violence continues.

I’ve had my head in the sand on this issue since I’ve been old enough to recognize the scope of the problem. I’ve been hoping our country’s race problems would go away without my active involvement, because I’ve been avoiding coming to terms with my own biases and fears.

After what happened two nights ago, I can’t ignore the problem any longer.

It’s not enough to “be a good person.” Being silent in the face of systemic racism allows that system to perpetuate itself.

I may not have directly contributed to systemic racism, but I’ve certainly benefited from it.

It’s a damn shame that it took a night of violence to rouse me from my stupor, but just as I can’t go back to my life before COVID-19, I can’t put my head back in the sand.

I don’t know how I’ll respond. I’ll probably start the way I always do, by educating myself, attend some talks and do a lot of listening. I’m going to take my time on this decision because I don’t know what I’m doing and don’t want to screw this up.

Seventy-eight days ago, I began a journey with an unknown destination. Today, I’m starting on another uncertain road. Conducting two journeys simultaneously might make for a clunky metaphor, but we all need to accept a little ugliness in our lives these days.

Emergence at Dusk

PHOTO PROMPT © David Stewart

The plaza at dusk was one of Connie’s favorite places, when she was alive. She returned there frequently after becoming a vampire, not to hunt for victims (the presence of so many camera phones was too great an exposure risk) but to find peace in her chaotic new existence.

Colored lights in the plaza’s fountain were programmed to illuminate when the sun dipped below the horizon. This was also when Connie could safely exit her apartment.

The plaza’s lights piercing the dusk were like a signal to Connie, letting her know she was free to continue her strange journey.

Friday Fictioneers is a weekly flash fiction contest with a photo prompt.

Electric Spec

The latest in my weekly reviews of literary journals and genre magazines.

Image © Brian Malachy Quinn

Founded in 2005, Electric Spec is a quarterly online magazine of speculative fiction.

What they say about themselves:Electric Spec is a not-for-profit speculative fiction magazine published four times per year. Our primary goal is getting great speculative fiction into the hands (or screens) of readers. Since 2005, we’ve been publishing short stories from authors all over the world. We’ve worked with all kinds of authors, from published professionals to new writers. We also believe in the value of the editorial process, and we edit every story we publish.”

Issue reviewed: Volume 15, Issue 1 (February 28 2020)

Genre: Speculative fiction

One Story I’ll Remember Not to Forget: “Welcome to the 27 Club,” by JL George. A troubled singer for a popular club band in England is possessed by a spirit whose mission is to rejuvenate lost souls. I liked how this story celebrated the singer’s creativity while being honest about her self-destructive tendencies. I also appreciated the author’s language; “[s]he shrugs and pins him with her Jolene eyes” was a fitting image for the singer’s seductive power.

Clapperboard Rating: Three Klacks. The stories feature plenty of action and dialogue.

Profanometer: Son of a Bitch. There were more than a few f-bombs in “Welcome to the 27 Club,” but the other stories were pretty clean.

Day 72

My eldest son came home for his college’s spring break at the end of March, and he’s remained at him as his college went to all online classes in April. He needed to move out of his fraternity house this weekend, so he and I made the four hour drive to campus on Saturday.

I’d never been to his college when school wasn’t in session, so there’s a chance that the streets of the surrounding town were usually as deserted as I witnessed. It was an erie feeling though, seeing so many businesses open with almost no pedestrian traffic. It seemed almost like the shops felt obliged to be open, as if the majority of the population had fled, leaving a few volunteers to mind the environs until everyone felt safe coming back. Maybe the town’s always like this when the college isn’t in session; maybe the COVID-19 lockdowns have altered my perspective.

It was an anti-climatic end to my son’s collegiate career. We attempted to get together with family we’d become friendly with while my son was in college, but it was an awkward meeting. Since both the husband and wife are asthmatic, they are especially anxious about contracting the virus, so instead of meeting at a restaurant we ordered carry-out and ate in their garage, never coming within six feet of them. A minor inconvenience for sure, yet this pandemic has taken away so much of what we’ve come to take for granted.

Only four out of over twenty members of my son’s fraternity were around. We drove away Sunday with the accumulated belongings of his college days in our trailer, feeling like we were leaving without having the chance to say goodbye.

Hunger Mountain

Another week, another of my reviews of literary journals and genre magazines.

Hunger Mountain has been published since 2002 by the MFA in Writing & Publishing program of the Vermont College of Fine Arts, which evidently has a fondness for the ampersand sign.

What they say about themselves: “The graduate students in the Writing & Publishing program at Vermont College of Fine Arts create Hunger Mountain, & we have a voracious desire to elevate the best of today’s literature. VCFA is the only college devoted exclusively to graduate fine arts education, & the W&P program is the only MFA program that prepares students for careers in the Publishing industry as well as honing their writing. Students live full-time on our historic campus in Montpelier, at the base of Mount Hunger. The editors of Hunger Mountain share VCFA’s belief that the arts are central to the human experience & have the ability not only to reflect reality but also to create it.

Students in our Publishing & Fieldwork class are offered the rare opportunity to experience the complete creation of a literary journal: reading submissions, choosing writing, deciding the look & feel of the print journal, & promoting the magazine. Our Masthead changes annually, & our revolving Guest Editors & Contest Judges reach into their literary communities & help make them part of ours. This allows for aesthetic flexibility, guided by our steady ethics: promoting voices that have gone unheard, expanding our representation & scope, & critically examining our contemporary culture & our field. We are dedicated to transparency, & we value vulnerability, adventure, & accessibility. We are run by the future of the literary world, & we take great pride in discovering new voices, as well as publishing the freshest work from established artists.”

Issue reviewed: Issue 23 (Silence & Power)

Genre: Literary realism

One Story I’ll Remember Not to Forget: “The Good Shepherd,” by Michael Nye. After a virus decimates chickens in America, laws are passed to allow the meat industry to begin harvesting dogs. When Pruitt Sullivan’s dogs begin dying, he realizes it’s too late to save his farm. This vision of the near future almost reads like a documentary in the days of COVID-19.

Clapperboard Rating: One Klak. Most stories feature more interior monologues than dialogue.

Profanometer: Son of a bitch. The language isn’t gratuitous, but certainly not Disney material.

Day 67

Had a private lesson with my fencing coach this week, the first time I’d made the 40 minute drive out to the club since March. While in many respects it felt like any other of the other individual lessons I’ve had with her, the differences were noticeable. She had me sign in when I arrived, as she’ll keep a log of all visitors should any problems arise later. She had doors opened and fans blowing to increase air circulation. We maintained six feet of distance between us, difficult but not impossible to do in a fencing lesson.

The club will reopen for limited group lessons next Tuesday. There will be a maximum of eight athletes in each class, and the classes will consist of conditioning, drilling, and practice on targets spaced six feet apart. There will be no bouting, and while practicing fencing without competing seems like preparing an elaborate dinner without eating, it’s a compromise we have to make at the moment.

The Pilates studio I attend is also reopening next week, with restrictions that won’t be as onerous as those at the club. No word yet on when the community gym will reopen, but having two of my former sources of recreation available again, even in a limited capacity, will be a great relief.

***

The grocery store where I’ve been working has posted one-way directional signs at the ends of each aisle. This restriction on foot traffic is intended to reduce the amount of close passing between and among customers and employees.

After noting how the directional arrows were being routinely ignored, I decided to conduct an informal survey. As I walked through the aisles of the grocery store filling customer orders, I kept a tally on a small notepad of the number of customers and employees I encountered, and whether they were going down the aisle in the proper direction. I also kept track of how many people were not wearing masks, or were wearing them improperly (mask wearing is required of employees, but not of customers). It was not a scientific study by any means, but my results are worth sharing.

During the day, I encountered 269 people (234 customers and 35 employees) over the course of eight trips around the store. Among customers, 65 (28%) were not wearing masks and 18 (8%) did not follow the directional arrows. The numbers were much better for employees — one of my co-workers (3%) wore her mask on her chin for a while, but none went down the aisle in the wrong direction. Overall, compliance with mask wearing was at 75%, which is what I would have guessed before my survey, but the 93% compliance with directional arrows was surprisingly high.

Mask wearing is one of the most effective tools in stopping the spread of COVID-19, but having 25% of the population deciding not to participate isn’t going to help. We’ve made a fetish out of personal liberty here in America, and acting irresponsibly, especially in response to a government warning, is seen by many as a virtue. I don’t have much hope these attitudes will change any time soon, which means I’ll likely keep writing these posts for many more weeks.

Bards and Sages Quarterly

The latest in my weekly reviews of literary journals and genre magazines.

Founded in 2008, Bards and Sages Quarterly describes itself as a “semiprozine.” As the title indicates, it is published four times a year.

What they say about themselves:Bards and Sages Quarterly features original fiction, art, book reviews, interviews, book announcements, and more for fans of the speculative genre. Each issue showcases the work of both fresh new writers and established authors. We strive to balance literary styles with more mainstream tastes to provide readers with a wide cross-section of speculative stories. From the whimsical and lighthearted to the dark and terrifying, fans of speculative fiction will enjoy each issue.”

Issue reviewed: Volume 12, Issue 2 (April 2020)

Genre: Speculative fiction

One Story I’ll Remember Not to Forget: “The Open Source Time Machine,” by Joe Vasicek. A scientist loses funding for his time machine and feels his project is doomed, until an unexpected visitor tells him it was the best possible outcome.

Clapperboard Rating: Three Klaks. From time travel and space battles to mad scientists and nurturing trees, this magazine displays the broad spectrum of speculative fiction.

Profanometer: Dammit. Only two uses of the common word for excrement, and not a single appearance of an f-word in any of the nine stories.

Surveillance

PHOTO PROMPT © Jan Wayne Fields

Shoplifting at Eddy’s WikiPlaza had become a threat to the store’s survival. Kalani’s father had worked too hard for her to capitulate.

Thieves knew where the surveillance cameras were installed and avoided them. On her way to move one of her cameras, Kalani passed a display of tacky tourist caps and was inspired.

She installed small cameras at the crown of the hats, angling the lenses to provide full coverage of the store. Shoplifters were soon caught, and the threat to the WikiPlaza ended.

All Kalani had to do was remember to remove the cameras once a hat was sold.

Friday Fictioneers is a weekly flash fiction contest. Look at a picture, and write a story in 100 words.

Once in the dark

I wrote the following this week for a writing group exercise on fiction writing. The prompt was the four words in the title of this post, and the story had to contain each of the ten words I’ve bolded below. As I don’t feel inspired to develop it further (for now anyway), I’ll treat it as flash fiction.

***

Once in, the dark is more than an absence of light. The field where Gomez and I have landed may look barren, like a corn field after a harvest, but I can feel life teeming around me, the seeming void pulsating with energy, vibrant as an ocean. No heat source appears on my infrared goggles, which I’ve learned in my years in the corps is a sign that trouble is ahead. I check that my TR-400 is energized, and remove the safety lock.

“Captain?” Gomez is whispering for some reason. The night vision of the average Creature is far superior to its hearing; if any cluster of Creatures is within seeing distance, they would have found us already. We would also know we’d been detected immediately, as their aggression is even greater than their eyesight.

I respond in an overly loud voice, my way of reminding her that maintaining silence is not protocol. “You picking up anything?”

Gomez looks at her pad, and shakes her head. “No Creatures within 10 kilometers, sir. But that doesn’t make sense. Their attack on the Moisture Farmers was just an hour ago.”

“They’re learning,” I tell her. “They figured out how soon the corps will respond, and that they can’t overwhelm us. They don’t wait for their next victims like they used to.”

“I thought they couldn’t communicate.”

“Yeah, we all thought that. Not the first time we’ve been wrong about the Creatures.”

Gomez pulls up the topo on her pad, and we identify a small hill a few hundred meters to our right, a perfect spot for an overlook. I remind Gomez to walk over, even if her pad picks up Creatures, as they’ll be able to see us better if we dash. Heat lightning colors the dark dome above us like a paint brush, reminding me of an Aurora Borealis from Earth.

The lightning ebbs as we ascend a pile of rocks that form a natural bridge to the overlook. I call in our position to the overhead transport, and Gomez confirms her pad still shows no Creatures in range. Our CO reminds us to light a flare as soon as we suspect any trouble. After acknowledging the order, I tell Gomez to engage the safety lock on her TR-400.

“That’s not protocol,” Gomez reminds me. “We’re not supposed to engage our safeties during a field mission.”

“The pad gives us at least a minute warning if any Creature approaches,” I tell her. “I’ve been in enough fights with these things to know your TR-400 will need as much battery as possible. Engaging the safety saves power.”

Gomez doesn’t seem convinced, but being smart enough to realize I’ve been on many more of these missions than she has, she engages the safety. I haven’t had the opportunity yet to ask her why she asked to join my squad. If she wanted to fight, there’s squads that see much more action than ours, and if she wanted to be a face in a safe lineup there’s plenty of other outposts she could have gone. My squad operates in a land that lies somewhere between insanity and ennui; I’ve never been sure which I’d prefer.

Alerts illuminate Gomez’s pad. She looks at it and frowns; she then shakes it in frustration. “Sensors picking up Creatures?” I ask.

Gomez looks up at me, and shakes her head. “No Creatures, or any life form. Just… it doesn’t make sense, but a TR-400 was just activated two kilometers to the northeast. And it’s headed towards our position.”

***

Maybe someday I’ll give the Captain a name, and let him and Gomez find out what’s powering up that TR-400…