Saturday, March 21, 2009

Tales From The Crypt: From Comic Books To Television

Tales From The Crypt made me terrified of polyamory.

I kid you not. When all my friends in early college got all intellectual and experiment with their relationships, I freaked out. That path leads to betrayal, murder, and some grotesque shambling thing breaking into your house in the last panel. Years later, having dipped my toes into the waters of alternative heterosexual relationships, I'm still waiting for the arsenic in the dark, the grasping hands, the descending axe.

Wow. That was ickily personal. Let's get back on-subject.

I picked up Tales From The Crypt: From Comic Books To Television, the horror documentary from Chip Selby and popped it in the player. I have a lot of fond memories from both the comic book reprints and the TV series, but I haven't really returned to the Crypt in a long time. The TV show, to my memory, was very 90s and the comics are full of such impenetrably purple prose that I have a hard time returning to it.

The documentary was very, very good. Like His Name Was Jason, the filmmakers know enough to stay out of the way of the subject and they do a tremendous job interviewing the people involved with the creation of the original work. We learn the skills different artists bring to the table, from one's ability to draw beautiful scheming women, to another's masterful hand at the shambling, rotting corpse.

Learning more about the creation of the comics inspired me to dig out my copies of the original. I found my stack, popped them open, and drifted off to sleep one dark night reading them. I was treated to vivid dreams where I had a mixed martial arts fight with a headless corpse in my bathroom.

And that's when I remembered the real power TFTC held over me: they scared the fuck out of me as a kid.

The artwork was masterful, completely unrivaled in horror comics today. The stuff they did, with its combination of explicit grue and dread suggestion, fired up my imagination like nothing else. Comic books are fundamentally more interactive than television or movies. In movies, the filmmakers do all the work for you. They show you terrible things and how you react to them is dictated primarily on what throws your switches. With comics and the written word, you dictate the pace that you engage the story and the horrors require more effort and involvement. If, like me, you have a gigantic imagination that is particularly gifted to visualizing the magical, mysterious, and macabre, TFTC is going to eat you alive.

Best of all, TFTC was the master of the awful final image/line. They knew exactly what to linger on and what point to end the story so you had to do all the work. The format doesn't always work perfectly, and the text-heavy wouldn't work too well with modern comic audiences, but the fine people at EC Comics were true genre masters.

One of the things that really got to me in the documentary, aside from the craftsmanship of the stories, was the intense level of persecution that EC Comics and editor-in-chief William Gaines suffered during the anti-comics backlash. The stories were remarkably adult for the time and rather than being encouraged and explored, Gaines was forced to stand before Congress and answer, essentially, why he was choosing to corrupt children. Anti-horror sentiments aren't anything new and every fan has had people ask why they were devoted to such an uncomfortable genre, but the level of moral outrage was amazing and laughable. By and large, I think comic books suck and a big reason is because they were repressed before they had a real chance to grow up.

I'm sure I'll get to talking about individual stories at some point in the future. Suffice to say, go check out the documentary. It'll give you a new appreciation for one of the masterworks of the horror genre. There's also an interview with EC contributor Ray Bradbury, another influential figure in my development, but I fell asleep halfway through that part. Bad me.

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