Thursday, September 24, 2009

For the Love of Comics 1: Tales from the Crypt Amidst A Twister

Words: Christopher Irving

I can tell you the exact date I first picked up Tales from the Crypt: May 5, 1990. In a very dramatic way, it was minutes before a twister came through my hometown.

Much like a town in a typical EC story, my hometown of Farmville, Virginia is typical Americana. Walk a mile into the heart of the town from my house, go across the Appomattox River bridge, past the old warehouses that were once Civil War hospitals (where several medical horrors undoubtedly happened, the ghosts of which are probably roaming the cement floors to this day), go over the train tracks and past the diner where old men still compare fishing stories at five in the morning, past the barber shop or bakery that had always been there (because, when you’re 13, history never starts before your birth), and on to Crute’s, a mom and pop store run by the mayor of our fair town.

Unlike the convenience store further down yonder on Main Street (past the old movie theater that housed a community ‘theater group’, where I made my first presence felt on a stage [and, on good authority, had it’s own share of ghosts]), Crute’s had two entire racks of comics, stocked every Thursday by the sweet middle-aged lady behind the counter.

Farmville also has a festival every year, the Heart of Virginia, on the first Saturday of every month, where a few streets are blocked off and booths sell random sundries went up. One year, I realized I could buy a ninja star right next to a booth selling candy apples.

For a few years, I helped my pal Lloyd Robinson and his dad fill helium balloons up at the balloon stand right on the corner of Third and Main. It was always hot, I always got a sunburn, and more often than not ran into a succession of really cute girls I was too awkward to strike up a conversation of any meaning with.

But, on the plus side, I almost always walked away from that balloon stand at the end of the day with a coveted $5 bill given me by either the late, great Mr. Robinson, or one of the sweet ladies who helped out.

It’s 4:00 on that May day in 1990. The booths are gone, and tables have been broken down, and sweepers dutifully push their wide brooms down Main Street to have it all cleaned up in time for the nightly fireworks on the golf course. I leave my Mom, my $5 bill in hand, and make a beeline for Crute’s.

It starts to rain.

Sitting on a rack, for more than an average comic (a whole $1.95 for 64 pages of horror and suspense!) is the first issue of Tales from the Crypt, featuring a female mummy striking a pin-up girl pose for a two-headed boy in a tank of formaldehyde, all under a tent’s roof. It’s a reprint, apparently, with the same title as that show on HBO, with the twisted and cackling puppet. The only similarity between the Crypt Keeper of the show and the comics is in the name, as the comics Crypt Keeper looks relatively normal and is flanked by his pungent pals The Old Witch and The Vault Keeper.

The winds pick up outside, and debris is flying through the air at seemingly bullet speeds when my brother dramatically runs in to grab me. I make him wait, while I pay for Tales, and tuck it (in the protective brown paper bag) under my shirt.

What comes next is a twister, as we all huddled in the center of another building. Winds howl and buffet the buildings, making stop lights precariously swing from their wires, a tree is uprooted behind our building, and rain comes down in quick sheets that obscure everything.

It’s quickly over and peace is restored to Main Street, occasional raindrops the hanger-ons at the destructive meteorological party. We drive home, my nose is still in-between the pages telling Crypt Keeper’s origin as my family surveys the damage done down the street.

By the time we get home, the sun is out, and the sky is bright sodium yellow. Like clockwork, a storm comes every Heart of Virginia for two years after.

And I have become a life-long EC addict.

There was more than Tales from the Crypt: CK’s cohorts in terror The Vault Keeper and Old Witch had their own books (titled The Vault of Horror and The Haunt of Fear, respectively). There was something a little too jolly-looking about the weirdly grinning Vault Keeper, while the effectively gruesome Old Witch took away from the books being a boys’ club of grossness and gore. But, I kept digesting them, snagging up whatever made it to the rack with whatever allowance money I’d gotten my hands on.

The EC horror books also taught several life lessons:

Never get married. It’s rare that married couples truly love one another in an EC book: nine times out of ten, one was only marrying the other for their money and, when someone better came along (like, I don’t know…a secretary or chauffer) the only way to get free of matrimonial bonds was murder!

Don’t ever murder anyone. Because, unfailingly, they’ll dig themselves out of the grave and massacre you in a poetic and brutal way.

Never get married.
Married life with kids is hell. If you’re born into a family, chances are you’re being smothered by the suburban lifestyle.

Stay away from dark cellars. Trust me on this.

Don’t fuck with voodoo. You might find yourself stuck forever with a zombie wife (re: rules #1 and #5) or, even better, get beheaded for your shock of red hair.

Beyond the life lessons taught in grisly fashion, the illustrators of such lurid tales were top-notch, and far better than any of the Batman or X-Men artists I was also stuffing my pubescent brain with.

My favorite then was “Ghastly” Graham Ingels, who drew most of the Old Witch’s stories in a goopy and gross manner. I think his moniker should have been “Grisly” instead of “Ghastly,” for the amount of slime-like gore that fell off his zombies or out from the insides of a ripped-open character. Skin was stretched out like taffy, and intestines were darker and just…ugh.

Then, there’s Johnny Craig, who makes drawing comics look easy. His art, clean and bold, looks simplistic at first glance, but have you ever tried to draw like him? The elements of design in his work were steadfast in their foundation, and the expressive faces of all his caricatured characters were always winking at the reader. Craig was even such a sport, that he posed for "real life" pictures of the three hosts, sent to readers.

How could we forget Jack Kamen, who could draw buxom beauties like no other? Whenever I looked at his work then, I was reminded that puberty had started (or perhaps it was brought on quicker because of his drawings of the fairer sex?); when I look at them now, I’m still amazed at how lovely and luscious he could draw the ladies.

Of course, the inimitable Jack Davis, the Crypt Keeper’s main artist, had a knack for humor unlike any of his also-talented contemporaries. His people were often spindly and knobby-kneed, and always expressive, features exaggerated to convey inner character; their body language exaggerated just enough to be funny enough to keep you from getting too scared.

We can’t forget the slick stylings of Joe Orlando, or the fine art approach of Bernie Krigstein, and the other EC stalwarts who came through the Crypt/Vault/Haunt doors.
Like many things, I’d go through phases of the Tales from the Crypt for a brief while, pulling my stacks of reprints out every couple of years, just to flip through for nostalgia’s sake. And then they’d end back up in their cardboard longbox mausoleum, only to be disinterred when the mood struck me.

Just recently, I dug the EC books out of their cardboard prison and have since accrued an almost complete run of '90s reprints by Gemstone Publishing. They just read better on newsprint than in the new slick archives, where the putrid bones of a walking corpse just seem too…colorful.