PARADISE VALLEY, MT—The New York Times printed a long obituary for Al Feldstein last week, but it barely scratched the surface of this anti-censorship crusader's life. While the obit focused mainly on Feldstein's work building MAD magazine from a 24-page comic book to the 96-page (and often larger) humor magazine read around the world, it gave short shrift to Feldstein's earlier work—specifically, his editorship of most titles in the Entertaining (EC) Comics line—a line which was driven to extinction, save for MAD, as a result of congressional hearings in the mid-1950s largely instigated by the publication, in 1954, of Frederic Wertham's pro-censorship tome, Seduction of the Innocent.
"The most subtle and pervasive effect of crime comics on children can be summarized in a single phrase: 'moral disarmament,'" reads one section of Wertham's book. "I have studied this in children who do not commit overt acts of delinquency, who do not show any of the more conspicuous symptoms of emotional disorder and who may not have difficulty in school. The more subtle this influence is, the more detrimental it may be. It is an influence on character, on attitude, on the higher functions of social responsibility, on suger-ego formation and on the intuitive feeling for right and wrong. To put it more concretely, it consists chiefly in a blunting of the finer feelings of conscience, of mercy, of sympathy for other people's suffering and of respect for women as women and not merely as sex objects to be bandied around or as luxury prizes to be fought over."
See? Comic books of the early '50s were that era's boogeyman, much as adult movies are the conservatives' touchstone for everything that's "morally wrong" with society today!
But the truth is, EC Comics were wildly popular, whether it be their science-fiction titles (Weird Science, from which the 1985 John Hughes movie took its title; Weird Fantasy and both books' successor, Weird Science-Fantasy, not to mention Incredible Science-Fiction), war comics (Frontline Combat, Two-Fisted Tales), crime stories (Crime Suspenstories, Shock Suspenstories) or the horror titles (Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror and The Haunt of Fear).
And Feldstein, along with publisher William Gaines, managed to attract some of the top pulp writing talent in the industry, and even outside the industry, at the time, including such well-known names as Ray Bradbury, Jack Oleck, Otto Binder and even Harlan Ellison.
But perhaps even more importantly, Feldstein hired some of the best comic strip and comic book artists in the business, including Al Williamson (Flash Gordon newspaper strips), Wally Wood (a favorite cover artist for science-fiction pulps), Johnny Craig (who also wrote many of his own stories) Frank Frazetta (Tarzan, Buck Rogers newspaper strips), Jack Davis (a MAD favorite), Bill Elder (likewise), Bernie Krigstein, and at least a dozen more whose names would be instantly familiar to any classic comic book fan.
Of course, one of the reasons those artists are still highly respected is that they produced some of the sexiest artwork available in the pre-code era, like the Wood illustration, from the story "...For Posterity" from Weird Science-Fantasy 24, shown above. Obviously, since their drawings were for comic books that were read by children (and also a lot of adults), the artists couldn't be too graphic in their depictions, but prominent bosoms, meaty bootys, micro- and slit skirts were common fare in all of the EC books.
Of course, it was partly that free sexual expression and partly the frequent use of taboo societal themes like racism, antisemitism and police corruption—not to mention the severed heads and/or hatchet blades dripping blood that appeared on the covers of some of the horror titles—that brought the wrath of Congress down on the comic book industry and led to the creation of the Comics Code Authority, which had to approve the content of every comic book published between the mid-'50s and 2001, when Marvel Comics formally dropped its support of the institution.
So it's fine to remember Al Feldstein as the man who almost single-handedly grew MAD from less than half a million readers in the '50s to over 2 million in the '70s, but it would be a shame to forget the major strides against society's suppression of all forms of sexuality that Feldstein made through his EC Comics work.