Severed Head Hearing: Golden Age Crime and Horror Comics

by Alan Harper

120921D-1024x536 Severed Head Hearing: Golden Age Crime and Horror ComicsGolden Age crime and horror comics feature some incredibly gripping covers. But what is the story behind them? What went on behind the scenes of their creation? Let’s take a look at some of the origin stories that influenced the genre as we know it today.

crime_suspenstories_22-207x300 Severed Head Hearing: Golden Age Crime and Horror ComicsSenator KEFAUVER. Here is your May 22 issue. . . . Do you think that is in good taste?

Mr. GAINES. Yes, sir; I do, for the cover of a horror comic. A cover in bad taste, for example, might be defined as holding the head a little higher so that the neck could be seen dripping blood from it

Senator KEFAUVER. You have blood coming out of her mouth. 

Mr. GAINES. A little.

This is the exchange between US Senator Estes Kefauver and Entertainment Comics (EC Comics) publisher Maxwell Gaines during the Judiciary Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency in 1955.  It didn’t go well.   Comics are not just a mash-up of art and story-telling. They are often a reflection of our times and cultural norms. The Comic Code Authority and harsh censorship would follow.

Comics Leading to Juvenile Delinquency

Seduction_of_the_Innocent001-213x300 Severed Head Hearing: Golden Age Crime and Horror ComicsIn the early 1950s, EC Comics was a leader in the comic industry, publishing titles such as Crypt of Terror, The Vault of Horror, Shock SuspenStories, and Weird Fantasy.  The industry was thriving but there was a growing concern about what kids were reading down at the drug store.

One of the loudest voices was Fredric Wertham, an American psychiatrist who believed that violent images in mass media were having a negative effect on children.  His 1954 book, The Seduction of the Innocents, takes the position that comic books were causing children to become juvenile delinquents.  In these days of Bewitched (which even if you missed the original tv show you may have seen the WandaVisioin episodes in the same style) and other examples of acceptable behavior and parental overreach, the US Senate felt it should get involved.

The Senate report includes a lot of history about the comic industry from 1935 to 1954. It also makes some serious judgments. For example, Section III of the report starts by saying, “It has been pointed out that the so-called crime and horror comic books of concern to the subcommittee offer short courses in murder, mayhem, robbery, rape, cannibalism, carnage, necrophilia, sex, sadism, masochism, and virtually every other form of crime, degeneracy, bestiality, and horror. These depraved acts are presented and explained in illustrated detail in an array of comic books being bought and read daily by thousands of children.

The Birth of the CCA

Public opinion quickly turned against the popular crime and horror comic books; cities such as Oklahoma City and Houston banned them.  Rather than face government regulation, the industry came together to form the self-regulating Comic Code Authority.

The CCA quickly prohibited even using the words “horror” or “terror” in the title, along with many other restrictions, all of which would impact storytelling well into the next century.  The CCA seal of approval would remain mandatory for decades with occasional battles such as the key books dealing with drug use.  All of this makes the classic Crime and Horror books of the 1950s valuable, culturally important, and visually unlike anything else.

The Big One

punch_comics_12-204x300 Severed Head Hearing: Golden Age Crime and Horror ComicsThe key book in this niche is the 1945 Punch #12.  It is a visually amazing cover.  The book contains two Punch (a boxer) and Cutey (his blond girlfriend) stories.  There are several crime stories drawn in the realistic art style associated with the Dick Tracy comics. It is also full of cultural stereotype depictions of African Americans in zoot suits, Africans, and Japanese soldiers.

Altogether, this book captures the historical time and genre.  It combines popular detective stories with the best cover art.  It’s definitely the big key to own in this Golden Age crime genre.

The black background makes finding books above an 8.0 grade next to impossible.  Valuations have ranged from $35,000 to $75,000 with a 2021 sale of a 4.0 graded copy selling for $36,000.

Key Golden Age Horror Comics

Eerie-comics-1-214x300 Severed Head Hearing: Golden Age Crime and Horror Comicsvault_of_horror_12-208x300 Severed Head Hearing: Golden Age Crime and Horror ComicsLargely considered the first ‘horror’ comic, Eerie Comics #1 was published by Avon Periodicals in 1946 (cover date 1947) and has a 2021 sale of a 9.2 graded book for $90,000.  It contains six relatively tame horror stories and is a one-shot book.  Avon would publish another Eerie #1 in 1951, starting a run of the series, but the 1946 is considered the start of the horror genre.

Vault of Horror #12, published by EC Comics is considered the start of the first horror series.  Published in 1950 – this is a numbering continuation of EC’s War Against Crime, the numbering didn’t change with the title name – Vault of Horror #12 really kicks off the genre, eventually leading to the Severed Head hearing on Juvenile Delinquency and the creation of the CCA.  A 2021 sale of a 8.0 graded book sold for $14,400.

Horror and Sci-Fi Take on Social Issues

shock_suspenstories_6-209x300 Severed Head Hearing: Golden Age Crime and Horror ComicsThis genre of comics were not just tales of sex and gore, as the Senate hearing report and the CCA might lead us to believe.  These stories were also platforms for strongly taking on social issues in direct language rarely seen in the media of the day.  One has to wonder if these messages were part of what was threatening to the status quo of the 1950s.

EC Comics created one of the most iconic and reproduced horror covers in Shock SuspenStories #6.  The introduction to the story doesn’t pull any punches, “Safe behind their masks of prejudice, these hooded peddlers of racial, religious, and political hatred operate today. Mind you, they are shrewd and ruthless men such as those in our story. How long can we stay cool and indifferent to this threat to our democratic way of life? It is time to unveil these usurpers of our constitutionally guaranteed freedoms.”

incredible-Sci-Fi-33-207x300 Severed Head Hearing: Golden Age Crime and Horror ComicsSadly, by 1955 the newly created CCA was a body of blatant censorship, not just addressing violence but also censoring statements addressing race or religion.  the EC Comics team eventually snapped in 1956 when Judge Charles Murphy, the Comic Code Administrator, demanded that the story within Incredible Science Fiction #33 be changed to remove the fact that in the final reveal, the narrator astronaut is black.

In the story, he has judged a robot race on another planet too bigoted to merit entry into the Galactic Republic.  After a blow-up with the CCA, EC Comics ran the story uncensored. However, it would be the last comic published by EC Comics. It would continue on with their popular Mad Magazine publication, but would signal the end of the era.

Today’s worth?

While Shock SuspenStories #6 has a  9.8 graded 2021 sale of $26,400, while a copy of the also significant Incredible science Fiction #33 in a 7.0 grade sold at the same time for just $1,140.  A raw copy of the same book can be found for under $100!  The cover of Shock SuspenStories #6 is dynamically more powerful, but both are important pieces of this chapter of history.

These comics were at the center of a historic battle of censorship and American history.  The cover art is powerful and supplies in good condition are scarce.  As you all know, these are the elements of solid investments.  Are there other golden age books that are more important than these?  Let us know.

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*Any perceived investment advice is that of the freelance writer and does not represent recommendations from GoCollect.

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1 comment

SJ Orzel December 13, 2021 - 11:01 pm

Alan… always enjoy your articles and insights. To add briefly to this great installment, “Incredible Science Fiction” #33 is a real gem. For those who don’t know, the story Alan refers to is called ‘Judgement Day!’ and originally appeared in “Weird Fantasy” #18 (March-April 1953). If my memory serves (which is always questionable), the ‘Judgement Day!’ story was a last minute substitute for ISF #33. Originally, the story ‘An Eye For An Eye’ was to be published (with great pencils by Angelo Torres). But when the CCA rejected it, EC Comics went with the tale about racism… and, as you point out, got into a big dust up with the CCA for that as well.

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