Book Review: Weird Fantasy, Volume 1: Glossy Reprint of Classic SF Comic

EC Comics holds a special place in comic book history. After all, it was EC comics in particular that were singled out in the mid-’50s comic book panic, by both Frederic Wertham, whose book Seduction of the Innocent was about the mind-bending, anti-socializing power comic books had on the minds of the young, and in actual congressional inquiries. All of which led to the Comics Code Authority, that little symbol that was underneath the issue number on comics for years, and without which comics could not easily get distribution. It was private sector de facto censorship and a major influence on keeping comics in the “super powered people wearing tights” ghetto.

But the horror and crime comics that made EC a congressional whipping boy were not all that they produced: they were the original publishers of Mad magazine, put out several war comics (many of their artists and writers had actually served in combat). and had a small line of science fiction comics, Weird Science and the series reprinted here, Weird Fantasy. Despite the different names, the two magazines were largely indistinguishable in content, and eventually merged into Weird Science-Fantasy before being canceled in 1955.

Weird Fantasy, Volume 1 is the latest release in the troubled EC Archives series. Attempts to reprint all the old, popular EC works have been going on intermittently for decades. The EC Archives began in 2006 at Gemstone Publishing, ran for half-a-decade, and has recently been picked up by Dark Horse, starting with Tales from the Crypt Vol. 4, and continuing with this release. Like most EC comics, Weird Fantasy is an anthology, with each issue containing four eight-page comic-stories and (usually) a couple of page-long short prose pieces, all dealing with various aspects common to science fiction of the ’50s: time travel, nuclear warfare anxieties, lots of robots, and space travel. This release contains six issues, Weird Fantasy #13-17 (which are the first five issues – the series took up the numbering from a previous comic of a different name for postal reasons) and Weird Fantasy #1, which is actually the sixth issue.

What sets these EC Archives apart from previous reprints is also what might be the most controversial aspect of their publication: they do not use the original colors, but have been digitally recolored using contemporary digital techniques. This allows for a much larger color range, and isn’t unheard of, even for more recent comic book reprints – the Absolute Sandman release redid the color for its early books. There are several advantages to the new color schemes: the colors are crisp, the excellent linework isn’t muddied up by the cruder techniques used when these comics were first published. And, for those who want the old colorings, the EC Annuals series reprints the comics in their original size with the original color. It’s a real question whether an audience for old comics wants their old comics to look old – that’s a decision for the buyer. I find the new coloring to be refreshing, and it made reading the stories a little less of a chore than some older comics printed with inferior technology can be.

With an archive release like this, it is easy to focus on this historical and technical aspects (as I have for the last several hundreds words): but how are the stories?

As with any anthology, they are a mixed bag. Space limitations dictated that each story be complete at eight pages, and all of them have some kind of an ending twist – a surprise on the last page that the reader didn’t see coming. What a 12-year-old in 1951 didn’t see coming, and what an adult in 2014 doesn’t see coming are two completely different things. There are at least two stories whose twist is “It was Earth all along!”, and the obvious morals of many of the stories of technical innovation are the same: don’t do it! Don’t invent the bomb, the force field, the time machine. But that doesn’t mean all the stories are rote – there was at least one in each issue that was inventive, strange, and enlightening. One of the early letter columns (and the EC Archives do include the letters, and some original EC ads, but not any other ads that might have run in the magazine) stated their intent to be a real science-fiction magazine, not just cowboys and Indians in spaceships, and on that criteria all the stories past muster.

They aren’t all good ideas, but they are ideas, and that’s what science fiction is about. My favorite story, and the final one in the collection, “Rescued”, had a rather obvious resolution but was well-told and above all, had terrific (often gory) illustrations. That was one of the reason EC comics were beloved when they were new and have maintained interest all the while: the art, while always in the conventions of comic-book illustrations, is uniformly good. EC had some top notch artists, Wally Wood in particular with a cinematic, dynamic style, and even with the hoary stories, Weird Fantasy Volume 1 is always a pleasure to look at.

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Kent Conrad

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