Friday, September 26, 2008

Creepy Archives vol. 1

Creepy Archives, vol. 1
Dark Horse Comics 2008

Garrett Martin: Remember when we talked about David Hajdu's book The Ten-Cent Plague (um, not you, Hillary, but our "readers")? How it was about EC and their horror comics from the '50's and how the comics industry basically drove 'em out of business with the Comics Code? No? Then go read that post again, buddy, and head back here when you're done.

Alright. So in the '60's a company called Warren Publishing decided to fill the hole left in the market by the death of EC's crime and horror comics. The Code prevented them from putting out anything in standard comic form, so they turned to oversized black-and-white magazines, like EC did with Mad. Warren round up a gaggle of former EC artists, handed the writing and editorial reins off to a young Archie Goodwin, and named the final product Creepy. Dark Horse recently collected the first five issues of Creepy in one highly impressive hardcover, allowing relative young'uns like us to see just how well the magazine stacked up to its hallowed inspiration. I'm tempted to say "not very", but, honestly, what little EC I've read isn't that especially great, either. Like EC's somewhat overrated line, Creepy's strength lies in the art, more than the writing, and that's a bit of a problem when you're trying to scare anybody over the age of 10. How many stories about vampires, werewolves, and Frankensteins can one magazine run, anyway?

Hillary Brown: So many! I guess I definitely have a fondness for this stuff, but you're right that it rarely transcends its silly origins. Even Tales from the Crypt in its TV form rarely did, although it certainly incorporated a lot more blood and guts. Creepy strikes me as a strange project, built on a kind of overpowering nostalgia for EC's horror books. You'd think, for example, that the form would have evolved some in the approximately ten years that passed between the dissolution of EC and the formation of Warren Publishing, especially considering the speed at which pop culture directed at teenagers tends to cannibalize itself in interesting ways, but the only big difference I can see between EC's stuff and Creepy is that Creepy seems to have fewer social messages built in (although still some). It is big on the twist endings, to the extent that nearly every story has one and to the point that even the twist is sometimes visible in the first panel of a six-page story. Okay, so it's goofy-ass shit, but the art really is a pleasure to look at. I wish Jack Davis had a bit more to do in these first five issues (the cover of #1 and, I believe, Uncle Creepy a fair amount), and it would be nice if Frank Frazetta had done more than one story (he also does four covers), but, even with the occasional sloppy panel, this is the kind of stuff that makes me really happy, and the devotion to black and white on the interior, while doubtfully an artistic decision, does indeed heighten the things one can do with shading and hatching. It's a pretty nicely produced anthology, too, with some of the original ads appearing throughout (Boris Karloff records, collections of monster books, hilarious iron-ons, plastic giant flies, etc.--just picture anything vaguely horror-related that you ever saw advertised in a comic and wanted) and the letters page from each issue, but the decision to incorporate some of this stuff makes one really want all of it. Would it just have been filler? Or did you, too, notice that each issue was a hair under 50 pages?

GM: Yeah, I do wish they ran more of the ads and other assorted material. That stuff provided a surprisingly significant portion of my enjoyment of the book. It doesn't make or break the collection, but miscellaneous bits of business like that definitely give a book extra value. So yeah, more of that, plus greater variety of what they did run, would've been good. Plus, did you notice Bernie Wrightson's name in one of the letter columns? I don't know why, but I love seeing future professionals' names in old lettercols.

I don't want to sound too down on Creepy; the art is pretty uniformly great, and the stories are almost never less than competent. Y'know, it's Perfectly Acceptable Comic-bookery, which is fine but kind of disappointing. Still, they're quick, easy to read, and always a pleasure to look at. It's slightly frustrating that they hardly deviate from the EC playbook, though, and maybe even more so that they dumb that formula down a bit; sure, EC's jokes were corny and the twist endings often telegraphed or nonsensical, but they were usually wittier, more subversive, and even more playful despite being more savage and nihilistic. A lot of it's got to do with Creepy's fixation on supernatural monsters over the more human sort and their crimes.

HB: It's true. Creepy really has no interest in horrible humanity, only in the aforementioned vampires, werewolves, etc., which is pretty funny, but ultimately limiting. They could at least delve into some weirder monsters (wendigos, banshees, the Loch Ness Monster; the cat people story was one of my favorites, partially for its sheer weirdness and partially because it was something a little different), and perhaps they did later, or maybe it's just that making it obvious that none of this stuff was real was a way around the vigilant anti-horror comics folks. After all, wasn't it the supposed realism of the crime stories that started to attract attention in the first place?

GM: Right, I didn't consider that. And shit, there's nothing inherently wrong with just doing monsters; it's good to have a clear-cut purpose. It just makes the magazine really damn goofy. Not as goofy as Herbie's frequent use of Dracula and Frankenstein (I am seriously gonna mail that to you, btw), but still pretty damn silly. That silliness does keep Creepy away from EC's more gruesome and realistic extremes.

Do kids today still give a shit about Frankenstein?

HB: That's a good question. My friend Lauren would probably say yes, as she was telling me about a children's book she read called Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich (which really is about what its title suggests). So I guess Frankenstein is still pretty cool. I don't know about werewolves though. There certainly seems to be plenty of silly-ass supernatural shit in our culture, but it's less directed at the age group Creepy was marketed to. The last thing I remember being for that demographic was Are You Afraid of the Dark? on Nickelodeon, which was probably twelve or so years ago. The Twilight series seems more serious. Harry Potter is operating in a different realm entirely. But the great desire pre-teens and early teens feel to be scared (and I'm sure there are great theories out there about why that age group seems especially attracted to Christopher Pike books--something to do with approaching adulthood, perhaps) is probably fairly continual, from at least I Was a Teenage Werewolf onward. Do you think Creepy has any pretense at being actually scary? Or is it just a goof?

GM: Oh yeah, and Goosebumps. Does that still exist?

There is a lot of youth interest in the supernatural, true. Most of it seems to be about how cool it is to have supernatural powers, though. And I guess that's always been a large part of the appeal; yeah, Dracula was scary when I was a kid, but I still thought it would be awesome to turn into a bat and live in a castle and keep a harem of sexy undead chicks.

I think the creators of Creepy had a pretty low opinion of their audience's intelligence and maturity level if they actually thought any of these stories would scare anybody.

HB: So I figured. It's more "vampires are awesome" than "vampires are really scary." Maybe the required presence of a "twist" precludes scariness, although you'd think that surprise and fear are pretty connected. Anyway, I should stop trying to create a nice theory that wraps it all up. Creepy: flawed but still kinda fun?

GM: Yeah, it's fun stuff, despite how many times it made me sigh and wearily mutter "oh, Archie." I might flip through the next volume to see if things progressed any.

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