Review: Wally Wood’s EC Stories Artisan Edition (2015)

Wally Wood’s EC Stories Artisan Edition

Wally Wood’s EC Stories Artisan Edition
IDW, 2015 (containing material published previously)
Writers: Various
Artist: Wally Wood

Review by N Emmett.

Anyone looking for reprints of the classic EC comics is spoilt for choice these days. In addition to Dark Horse’s archive editions and Fantagraphics’ artist editions, IDW has given us the Wally Wood’s EC Stories Artisan Edition, a celebration of one of the finest talents to have worked in the American comic book’s golden age.

Here, Wood’s comic pages are presented more or less as they would have looked as he handed them in to his editor: everything from the faint lines on the paper to the generous dabs of correction fluid are visible, making the Artisan Edition a real treat for anyone with an interest in the finer aspects of comic illustration.

The book is very much skewed towards Wood’s science fiction comics, which portray a specifically 1950s concept of the future: a universe of sleek rockets, explorers clad in space-tunics, and the occasional hideous monster. This is a classic comic-book world, one in which men are chiselled and dashing, women are doe-eyed and shapely, and children are fresh-faced and cheerful.

Wood’s best-known creations are the Mars Attacks aliens, so it is no surprise to see him show a flair for designing weird extraterrestrials. Meanwhile, his famous affinity for cheesecake is represented by a deadly dame who turns up in wood1the crime story “Came the Dawn!” clad in a skin-tight sheet…

Wally Wood himself is the central character in a story entitled “My World”. Here, a godlike narrator conjures up various fantastic scenes before finally revealing himself to be Wood sitting at his drawing board (although the story was apparently scripted by Al Feldstein). The story is a veritable showcase of Wood’s skills as a pop-fiction fantasist: he was not the only illustrator drawing battles between spacemen and monsters, but he must surely be counted amongst the most polished.

Wood showed a fondness for combining the mundane and the fantastic, sometimes in grotesque ways. “The Children”, for example, ends with the revelation of a mutant child whose body is a mass of tentacles but whose head is that of a ten-year-old boy – slightly sullen, but neatly-groomed enough to appear in a Norman Rockwell painting.

wood5A more refined example of this theme can be found in ”There Will Come Soft Rains”, adapted form a story by Ray Bradbury. This tale is set in a futuristic building whose inhabitants have been wiped out by an implied nuclear blast, leaving the various mechanical mod-cons to carry on unabated as in some sort of post-apocalyptic Jetsons. A cooking machine continues to produce food, which is     dutifully swallowed by an automated waste disposal; a bath regularly fills itself with warm water, which nobody ever uses; a liquid crystal display fills a nursery wall with frolicking animals, to entertain long-dead children.

Unusually for EC, the most chilling scene comes not at the end of the story, but at the very beginning. The comic begins with an establishing shot of the building, the silhouettes of the former occupants visible on the wall; the neatly outlined figures show the man and wife tending the garden, while the boy and girl play ball. Aside from the sci-fi gadget held by the man, the silhouettes all wood3adhere to 1950s fashion – the mid-century ideal of the nuclear family, frozen in time by their deaths.

Wood tackled a similar subject with a less fantastic approach with “Atom Bomb!”, a story in which an elderly Nagasaki woman reminisces about the nuclear bombing of her city – a refreshing departure from the wartime comics that portrayed the Japanese as subhuman nosferatu-like beings. Although the event’s portrayal is somewhat melodramatic, and inevitably lacks the directness of Keiji Nakazawa’s eyewitness-derived Barefoot Gen, Wood makes a strong effort at capturing the horror of the bombing. This is most evident in the panels set at the time of the blast, which render Nagasaki’s civilians in stark chiaroscuro.

EC’s comics are remembered more for their carefully-crafted tableaux than for their action scenes, but Wood was ready and willing to depict fast-paced battles when necessary. Whether creating wood2gunfights or swordfights, Wood’s fight scenes rattle along without losing any of his loving detail. The elegant battle between two knights in “Trial By Arms!” is something of an oddity, however: it is remarkably similar to the fight drawn by Howard Nostrand in “Ivan’s Woe”, a story from the rival publication Witches Tales #23 (and reprinted in Howard Nostrand’s Nightmares). It is an established fact that Nostrand modelled his style on the art of the EC team – but Two-Fisted Tales #34, which contained Wood’s story, actually hit the newsstands in a few months after Nostrand’s tale was published. Could it be that the influence worked both ways…?

The book is obviously a celebration of Wood’s illustrations rather than the work of EC’s scriptwriters, but there is a good deal to enjoy in the stories by Al Feldstein, Otto Binder and Harvey Kurtzman. While the tales are inevitably dated – Feldstein contributes two yarns based on the old chestnut about Biblical figures actually being astronauts – a few were quite inventive for their time. Of special note is “A Weighty Decision”, also by Feldstein, which offers the same essential premise as Tom wood4Godwin’s later (and considerably better-known) short story “The Cold Equations”.

Two of the book’s stories were written by Wood himself. The first is the Korean War tale “Parameter!” which follows a bigoted white soldier forced to fight alongside a black man; the anti-racist message is obvious by today’s standards, but was commendably forward-looking in an era of racial segregation. The other is a basic but competent comic biography of biologist Carl Akeley.

All of this adds up to a varied and appealing collection of work. The Wally Wood’s EC Stories Artisan Edition is a worthy addition to the bookshelf of anybody with a fondness for this bygone age of comics.