The Al Feldstein Story, Pt. 2

Good Lord! The Dynamo At E.C.
In addition to his scripting and editorial duties at E.C. Comics, Al Feldstein also found time to illustrate numerous horror, crime, and science fiction stories in 1950. He turned out a total of thirty-two stories for the New Trend titles in the first few years, and a total of fifty-five covers during the entirety of his tenure at the company, in what he himself referred to as "My particular kind of stiff, stylized style." Stiff it was, but quite a few of the covers had a dramatic flair that must have helped at the newsstand. Eventually the workload of writing for and editing seven titles became too much and Feldstein was forced to phase out his art chores. His last covers for E.C. were done in 1954 for Panic, Mad's sister publication.

Even without the illustration work, Feldstein's workload was considerable. Each day a complete script had to be finished and delivered to one of the artists. Publisher Bill Gaines was a voracious reader due to insomnia and used the sleepless nights to work up plots to try out on his editor: "He would come in the morning with what he called 'springboards,' which were little notes about some of the stories or things he had read." Gaines would toss out ideas for stories for Feldstein and "after he had rejected thirty three stories on general principles, he might show a little interest in number thirty four." Feldstein would then go into another room and proceed to hammer a plot idea into a finished script.

Artist George Evans was impressed with his editor's ability: "If he planned to write a seven page story, he'd start writing at page one, panel one, and it would end just right, on page seven... without any outlines or anything else." Feldstein was a dynamo, churning out a story a day for more than four years without missing a day, and editing the books on Friday. Stories regularly followed the O'Henry shock-ending formula and Feldstein was a virtuoso at the technique.

Feldstein's plotting sessions weren't at the typewriter, but were written, panel by panel, on illustration board after he'd ruled in the guidelines. After a staffer lettered the pages, they would then be turned over to an artist, the reverse of today's technique of working with a rough plot and then adding dialogue and narrative after the pencils are finished. Feldstein would discuss the plot with his illustrator as they went over the story together."I'd say 'What I have in mind here was, Joe is up on the cliff and he's looking down at this or that.' He could take it from there. That was the artist's choice, and I never had any qualms about giving them that kind of freedom."

E.C.'s artists also had the freedom from adhering to any house style and were encouraged to develop their own individual look. Such individuality allowed Feldstein to place particular kinds of stories with the artist whose style was best suited to that type of story. Johnny Craig and Jack Kamen had styles that went well with urban settings and eternal triangle themes, while Graham Ingels' expressive, moody line lent itself to stories set near moldy graveyards, decaying houses, and moss-laden bayous. The policy of encouraging his artists to develop their own stylistic personalities is one of the reasons E.C. is so well remembered.

As for the stories themselves, most were tales of foul play and retribution. In one, "Horror We? How's Bayou," a middle aged misfit lures three travelers to his old wreck of a plantation so that his homicidally mad brother can dismember them. Later the victims' parts reassemble, incorrectly fusing together into three bodies. They totter out of their bog and to the plantation house where they reassemble their living betrayer. As the Old Witch commented in the mandatory summing-up last panel, "The doc was a surgeon, so his head directed the whole operation. What a laugh, though! He had no anesthetic in his bag! Sydney thought it was a scream."

Readers enjoyed the formula. One young fan submitted a plot that summed it, suggesting that a man with an obsession for sharpening pencils end up with his head being sharpened. "We can'tuseit," Gaines told Feldstein, "but the kid has the right formula --you sharpen the pencils, the pencils sharpen your head."

Crime Suspenstories and Shock Suspenstories, Gaines' two crime titles, were more grounded in reality than the horror fantasy themes of revenge-seeking animated corpses and dealt with plots about "perfect" crimes becoming undone, adultery, and more controversial themes exposing discrimination, police corruption, and anti-Semitism.

The end of E.C.'s golden age began when Senator Estes Kefauver's committee investigating juvenile delinquency decided to look into the comics industry with the help of a psychiatrist, Dr. Fredric Wertham. New York publishers began to get nervous and as an attempt to clean up their act instituted the Comics Code Authority. The self-censorship group soon became a thorn in Feldstein's side, even going so far as to object to the depiction of a black man in Incredible Science Fiction, E.C.'s final s.f. title.

Ninteen fifty three was the peak of the McCarthy era and the country was in an oppressive mood. An issue of Panic stirred up a hornet's nest of negative publicity in Massachusetts, sparked by Bill Elder's hilarious satire of Clement Clarke Moore's "The Night Before Christmas." (Evidently some people felt that the jolly ol' elf was part of the Christian pantheon!) The negative publicity increased when Gaines was called before Kefauver's committee. He was pilloried and left the courthouse in a state of shock.

Partly because of the deluge of criticism, E.C.'s sales began to plunge. Comics bashing wasn't the only problem, though; Entertaining Comics were distributed by Leader News Company, which not only distributed Gaines' comics but published many of its imitators as well. When comics came under fire, Leader's sales dropped too. The company went bankrupt, leaving E.C. to go down the drain. A disgusted, discouraged Gaines was forced to fold all his titles, with the exception of Harvey Kurtzman's Mad.

Suddenly the prolific Al Feldstein was out on the street and (Good Lord! Choke!) unemployed.

 Next:Go Mad, Young Man!

--Steve Stiles