Review of EC Comics: Race, Shock, and Social Protest
Qiana Whitted. EC Comics: Race, Shock, and Social Protest. Rutgers, 2019. Comics Culture. Paperback. 196 pg. $29.95. ISBN 9780813566313. Ebook. ISBN 9780813573106.
Qiana Whitted’s EC Comics: Race, Shock, and Social Protest, the latest volume in Rutgers’s Comics Culture series, is of more value to comics scholars than to SF scholars, but it is nevertheless both eminently readable and a valuable addition to pop culture scholarship. As Whitted notes in her introduction, despite the general high regard in which EC comics are held, they have received relatively little scholarly attention. In this volume, Whitted focuses on the so-called “Preachies,” the stories in various EC titles (mainly Shock SuspenStories) that were “designed to challenge readers’ assumptions about racial, ethnic, and religious prejudice, Cold War paranoia, and other anxieties over social difference and American heterogeneity” (5). Whitted does not attempt to do a high-level survey of how EC stories addressed social concerns, and rightly notes that a great many of them have little or no (overt) social commentary. Indeed, she cites William Gaines’s testimony from the US Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency hearings in 1954, in which he differentiated between the “preachies,” which carefully spelled out the messages readers were expected to receive, and stories designed merely to entertain. Instead, she focuses specifically on the more obvious examples of the “preachies,” notably the story “Judgment Day!” written by Al Feldstein and drawn by Joe Orlando, originally published in Weird Fantasy #18 in 1953 and reprinted in one of EC’s final comics, Incredible Science Fiction #33 (1956), as a poke in the eye to the Comics Code Authority. EC subsequently shuttered its comics division. While Whitted could have fruitfully expanded her study by looking more broadly at EC comics (I would especially have been interested in her take on New Direction titles such as MD and Psychoanalysis, the latter title especially, with its proselytizing for the benefits of psychotherapy), the focus on a few key stories allows her space not only for extensive and detailed historical context but also for deep dives into the stories on which she does focus.
For readers of SFRA Review, the most relevant chapter here is chapter four, “‘Battling, in the Sea of Comics’: EC’s Invisible Man and the Jim Crow Future of ‘Judgment Day!’” This famous story recounts the visit of Tarlton, representative of the Galactic Republic, to the planet Cybrinia, to determine whether its robot inhabitants, descended from (if robots can indeed descend from ancestors) robots first built on Earth. Tarlton discovers that there are two robot classes, orange and blue, and that the blues are treated as distinctly second-class, despite being identical in manufacture to the orange robots, except for the colors of their external shells. Tarlton determines that the robots are not yet ready for admission into the Galactic Republic. Probably unsurprisingly to readers today, but very much controversially when the story first appeared (this issue was the basis of the Comics Code Authority’s attempt to bar EC from reprinting the story in 1956), Tarlton, who has worn his space suit throughout the visit, is revealed in the final panel of the story to be Black. Whitted’s reading of this story is detailed, subtle, and nuanced. Especially beneficial are her detailed comments on the historical context of Jim Crow, other relevant comics stories of the time, and, most interestingly—for me, anyway—her linking of the story to Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man, published in 1952, one year before this story was first printed. Whitted reads the imagery and dialogue (even its use of ellipses) closely and carefully to build a complex reading that acknowledges not only what makes the story important but also the ways in which its proselytizing intent is complicated by its own assumptions. This chapter alone makes the book of value for scholars of SF, especially those interested in issues of race and of colonialism as explored in SF.
The whole book, however, is of enormous value to comics scholars. While Whitted has little to say about the vast catalogue of other SF, fantasy, and horror stories published by EC (and there is indeed much room to consider the merely entertaining stories, as well as the “preachies,” through the lens Whitted applies), her study nevertheless engages deeply and insightfully with EC’s complex legacy as a comics publisher renowned for its overall quality while also at times criticized for its formulaic storytelling and often pat moralizing. Whitted assumes a middle ground, between EC idolatry and the tendency of some scholars to attempt to apply a corrective to the often uncritical admiration of EC via harsh critique. This book is especially valuable for comics scholars but also of use for SF scholars, especially ones interested in SF in visual media.
Dominick Grace is professor of English at Brescia University College in London, Ontario. He is the author of The Science Fiction of Phyllis Gotlieb: A Critical Reading and the co-editor of several books, many focusing on comics and graphic novels.