The Chilling Archives of Horror Comics!: Devil Tales

Most are aware of how in 1954 the Comics Code Authority (CCA) went into effect, all but obliterating graphic horror, science fiction, crime, romance, humor, you name it from the medium until 1971, when a slight rewording within the code about horror imagery and usage allowed monsters to roam across garishly colored pages once again.  Marvel Comics especially exploited this opportunity, launching a horror line that ran throughout the 1970s, into the 1980s, with repercussions still being felt today.  Decades later, the CCA was decommissioned, and publishers are free to issue wonderful archives containing comics from the early 1950s.  Dark Horse has been releasing editions collecting titles from the EC Comics line, everything from Tales from the Crypt and Vault of Horror to Psychoanalysis and M.D.  Other companies, such as PS Artbooks and IDW/Yoe Books, are focusing on comics beyond EC’s stable that died beneath the CCA.  The field was wider than I’d imagined, and it’s good to be alive in this wonderful multimedia age when access to materials thought lost forever are a simple “Add to Shopping Cart” or “Buy Now with 1-Click” move away.

With The Chilling Archives of Horror Comics! series, IDW/Yoe Books has been restoring lost treasures to horror fans.  Each edition targets specific horror themes: voodoo, ghosts, swamp monsters, and, yes, the Devil.  Not long ago, I came across Devil Tales, edited by Steve Banes.  The anthology includes artwork by Ross Andru, Gene Colan, Dick Ayers, Lin Streeter, Bob Powell, and others through over two dozen stories.  Sadly, no writers receive credit.  Banes struggled with finding stories that shun the following “time-tested plot devices” as he describes them in his introduction:

. . . 1.) the “be careful what you wish for / sell your soul” theme, where Everyday Joe (or Jane) meets an inevitable fiery fate after their contract with The Great Liar comes due . . . and 2.) the final panel reveal[s] [a] twist of “it was actually the Devil the whole time, you dope!”, where the seemingly once charming and harmless secondary character takes off a mask or hat to reveal horns.  No, either way it’s highway to Hell, and depending on how well the story was handled by the artist or writer, you might not even see that ending coming from . . . why . . . 666 miles away!

Of course, prideful fools stumbling toward their falls abound.  Take, for example, Johnnie Grotz, a gangster who manages to become the King of Hades after getting ahold of Satan’s trident.  How will that end for Johnnie?  I think you know in general, but I won’t reveal the interesting details.  This story is from Voodoo #11 (September 1953), art by Robert Hayward Webb and the Iger Shop.

Fools are plentiful, sure, but readers encounter at least one strong enough to bail out a doomed sort, a young son, Bob, who both saves and redeems his father, who’d only sold his sold for money needed for his wife’s medical expenses.  “The Devil’s Pact” shows Satan playing the worst type of hustler, one who preys upon the weak and forlorn, not greedy idiots who have it coming.  Holy water for the win!  Lin Streeter drew this story for Adventures into the Unknown #31 (May 1952).

A few tales may feel familiar since some yarns use tropes encountered throughout genres across time, and I felt for Banes.   What a massive editorial task, avoiding such wide-spread plot devices.  For instance, “Welcome to My School,” from Tales of Horror #12 (August, 1954), artist unknown, features a gradual invasion through infiltration with misogynistic overtones.  Here a detective sends his woman assistant undercover to take classes at the Lenox Charm School.  Clients were concerned about supernatural powers their wives were displaying upon completing courses, but our intrepid gumshoes will get to the bottom of it . . . unfortunately.  What’s discovered?  A diabolical scheme with elements similar to Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Stepford Wives.  Woe unto humanity.

These uncredited authors tap into folklore as well, not surprising given that Devil stories are “there” already with such borrowings.  “The Son of Satan” first appeared in Tales of Horror #9 (February, 1954), art by George Oleson, who crafts a white-bearded Satan, one different from the usual red-skinned image permeating this collection. The plot source is the changeling legend, where fairies substitute changelings in for the children they kidnap.  Will it work?  Find out for yourself.

Finally, Banes sprinkles science fiction among the fantasy.  “Out of the Blackness They Come” reads like 1950s science fiction, at least partially.  A scientist discovers that by blending colors along the spectrum he can generate a deep blackness, one that attacks and draws nearby observers into . . . I think you can guess.  Let me just say that all had a hell of a time.  The original comes from Web of Mystery #18 (May 1953).  Art credit goes to Dick Beck.

Unlike Dark Horse, IDW/Yoe Books expends no energy toward polishing original artwork, instead simply scanning the originals and inserting them into the book.  The outcome isn’t too horrible, however, and perhaps we encounter these stories as individuals from the 1950s did.  Compare the plots, characterizations, and themes with popular images of the Devil in comics today, — Neil Gaiman’s Lucifer, say, or Mephisto from Marvel Comics, more an interdimensional being than a biblical adversary, and who in recent arcs has been giving the Avengers a run for their money.  Was writing Mephisto more interdimensional than scriptural a dodge on the CCA?  You know it. Lastly, of course, contrast the horned goat boys here with Tom Ellis’s presentation on Lucifer, based on Gaiman’s work and later depictions from DC branching from his efforts.  Creators have taken Scratch a long way since the CCA began weakening and then deservedly passing.  Still, I enjoyed Devil Tales and look forward to other entries from The Chilling Archives of Horror Comics.  Old Nick will get his due, indeed.