It's a PANIC!The Other Satire Mag at E.C. Comics


"My Gun Is The Jury," from PANIC #1. Script by Al Feldstein, art by Jack Davis

People so favorably remember Harvey Kurtzman's impressively hilarious satire comic MAD, that they can be forgiven for overlooking the fact that E.C. had another irreverent parody funny book, PANIC. Edited by Al (Tales From the Crypt) Feldstein, it was a fine training ground for Al's later twenty-nine year run on MAD as a magazine. The comic, illustrated by many of MAD's "usual gang of idiots," also stirred up such a hornet's nest among the Moral Majority of its day that I sometimes wonder if Panic, not Mad, should rightfully be considered the progenitor of the Underground Comics -- if only on the grounds of the shocks it provoked among the squarer elements of 1950s American society.

It's difficult to nail down the genesis of Panic.There are conflicting origin stories. In a first page editorial in the first issue (February-March 1954) Feldstein and Gaines had this to say: "Mad is an imitation of Panic! Yes, Panic was created many months before the first issue of Mad ever appeared. It was all ready to go. It was locked in the 'New Book' file, safe from the prying eyes of our competitors... Why then, you ask, did we wait?... We'll tell you why! Frankly, we didn't think it would sell!"

Kurtzman vehemently denies this, and resented the fact that Panic "plundered all my techniques and artists. For me, there was a real conflict of interest."

To my mind, E.C. publisher Bill Gaines can be forgiven for issuing "the only authorized imitation of Mad." Kurtzman's "Humor in a Jugular Vein" had spawned a flood of imitations like Ross Andru's Get Lost! (a rip-off that really ticked off Kurtzman), Madhouse, Nuts!, and Eh!. Although Gaines never had the reputation of being a hack who was only in the business to make money, he can hardly be blamed for wanting to join the bonanza, and although Panic never came close to Mad in sales, it earned enough on the newsstands to justify its publication.

But....

What Panic also earned was a storm of indignation that burst over Gaines' head with the very first issue, and all over the holiday of "Peace on Earth, Good Will Towards Men." It's strange that Gaines didn't see it coming, but some people got very annoyed with a satire of "The Night Before Christmas." To put it mildly.

The lead story was provocative enough --an eight page satire, drawn by Jack Davis, of crime novelist (and comics writer) Mickey Spillane's work, titled "My Gun Is The Jury." Feldstein set about to parody Mike Hammer's rather gory crime solving techniques, labeling the satire "Sex and Sadism Department." In page after page "Mike Hammershlammer" blows away a variety of beautiful women ("I let her have it, right in the gut, a little below the belly-button..."). In the last few panels Mike has shot Stella --only to discover that "she" is a "he." Not only that, but Mike "himself" is a female transvestite! That was pretty heavy stuff for the nineteen fifties and came to cause Gaines considerable grief, as did the last story in the first issue!

The next two stories in the first issue were "This Is Your Life," a TV show satire illustrated by Joe Orlando, and a "Grim
Fairy Tale," usually a regular feature in E.C.'s horror titles, illustrated by Jack Kamen (father of inventor Dean Kamen).

Then came "The Night Before Christmas."

"T'was the night before Christmas when all through the house... Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse..."

Small wonder, because in the first three panels Bill Elder has drawn the interior of a butcher's meat-storage locker, with various gutted carcasses --including a rodent's-- hanging from meat hooks! Panel by panel Elder used visual puns to lampoon the 1822 poem by Clement Clarke Moore. The last page was a splash, a Christmas greetings from E.C. to its readers. Elder has drawn Gaines as Santa rolling away in a wheelchair. The sack over his back contains caricatures of all the E.C. staff, and on the right wheelchair armrest are a number of pill containers (an in-joke reference to Gaines' problems with insomnia and dieting) and a revolver.

A hornet's nest was stirred up. Some people evidently mistook Santa Claus for a Christian icon. In one panel Elder had placed a "Just divorced" sign on the back of Santa's sleigh! The result was a burst of indignation that was particularly strong in the state of Massachusetts and resulted in Panic being banned there. Gaines 'retaliated" by announcing that he was yanking his Picture Stories From The Bible from that state --a hollow gesture, since it was soon discovered that the book hadn't been published in years!

"My Gun Is The Jury" caused a bigger splash, however. A few days after the Santa Claus storm burst, the E.C. offices were raided by N.Y. police, announcing that they were arresting whoever was in charge. Lyle Stuart, a friend of Gaines and publisher of the muckraking Expose magazine (which Gaines financed) was on the premises and volunteered to take the rap. Stuart needn't have worried about doing any time: a judge labeled the case as nonsense and threw it out.

That might have been the end of it, but Walter Winchell, an influential and controversial newspaper, TV, and radio columnist, mentioned Stuart's arrest in his column (without mentioning its outcome) and proclaimed "Attention all newsstands! Anyone selling the filth of Lyle Stuart will be subject to the same arrest!"

Inasmuch as Expose had published an exposé of Winchell, that column was hardly surprising. Neither was Stuart's decision to sue. It eventually netted him $21,500, good money in the fifties, which he used as seed money for more publishing enterprises. A further revenge came with the cover of Panic #9, which parodied a Winchell favorite, Confidential magazine, by featuring scandal headlines about Superman, Smilin' Jack, and Dick Tracy. In the right hand corner is a photo of Winchell with the caption, "Does Walter Winchell read comics?"

Panic lasted twelve issues, with comic book writer Jack Mendelsohn writing all the material from issues #7 through #11, but it relied far too much on puns and running gags to ever achieve Mad's brilliance. Joe Orlando's work, although credible, seemed strained and even grotesque at times. Davis and Wood, stars in Mad, didn't seem to be trying as hard in Panic (although Wood turned in a superb satire of African Queen in #2), and their work looked slapdash at times, particularly towards the end of the comic's run, when the handwriting was on the wall.

The real leading light of Panic,the artist who makes it worth collecting, was Bill Elder. Elder had joined E.C. as a serious cartoonist, inking John Severin's art for Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat, and contributing occasional horror and s.f. stories for other E.C. titles. With Mad and Panic,however, he really found a niche with his ability to adapt any artist's style and his zany sense of humor.

While at Panic, Elder satirized Smitty, Dick Tracy, The Lady and the Tiger, The Phantom, Alley Oop, Joe Palooka, Li'l Abner, Captain Easy, Charlie Chan, Rex Morgan, Mary Worth, and The Heart of Juliet Jones. His ability to capture the style of other comic strip artists was uncanny.

Panic ended in January 1956, a victim of the comics crash that brought down a great deal of the comics industry. After E.C.'s last magazines went under, Feldstein went without work for a few months until taking over at MAD after Kurtzman left. Mendelsohn went on to become a successful sitcom writer (Laugh-In, The Carol Burnett Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show) and later became involved in the field of animation (including Yellow Submarine). Bill Elder went on to cartoon for Trump, Humbug, Help!,and finally Little Annie Fanny,sticking with his friend and mentor Harvey Kurtzman.

 As comic book collectibles, original Panics can pull some hefty prices if in good condition. For those interested in getting black and white copies in hardcover volumes, the entire run of Panic is still available as a reprint from Russ Cochran's Gemstone Publishing.
 

--Steve Stiles