Hello True Believers! The Atlas Comics Aficionado here to regale you with tales that will make you shiver with, you guessed it, fear! Let me take you back, back to a time before Spider-Man had met President Obama, before Frankenstein’s monster or Captain America awoke from their chilly comas, before Spider-Man existed at all, even before Marvel existed, but not so far back that Timely exists. That’s the purview of the Timely Comics Watchamacallit. I don’t mess with him.
It’s January, 1953. President Truman announces the successful US development of the hydrogen bomb. Over 70% of US television sets tune in to see Lucy give birth to Little Ricky. Walt Disney’s Peter Pan premieres. And, amidst a host of horror comics, Menace #1, with a March 1953 cover date, hits the newsstands with one of the grisliest pre-Code covers you’re likely to find.
Sometimes called “corpsies,” pre-Code horror comics were crime and superhero comics’ creepy sibling. But, aside from just being a vehicle for sex, violence, and gore, issues of Menace also engaged in social commentary, and benefited greatly from Stan Lee’s flair for flashy narrative. Menace comics certainly weren’t from Timely, but they weren’t from Marvel either. Instead, Menace epitomizes the horror publications from Martin Goodman’s forgotten middle child, Atlas Comics.
Menace: But What About Timely?
Following a decline in sales of superhero comics in the late ’40s, Atlas Comics grew out of Martin Goodman’s attempt to re-brand Timely. Although Atlas did print a select few superhero-themed titles, the vast, and I mean vast, majority of Atlas publications were filled with stories about crime, war, funny animals, the Old West, and “romance.” In fact, out of its 170 serial publications, Atlas only published six superhero titles, the longest-lasting of which — Sub-Mariner of course — eventually folded before the end of 1955.
Goodman, who obviously had a great effect on his nephew Stan Lee — Timely’s, Atlas’s, and eventually Marvel’s editor-in-chief, and finally publisher like his uncle — was a man who aligned his corporate model with popular trends. After the second world-war, when Goodman saw sales of superhero magazines declining, he did whatever it was people did before they could use twitter to determine what trends in entertainment he should follow. Stories of science-fiction, teenage love triangles, monsters, and war were in. Superheroes? Out.
Menace: The Competition
Although stalwart rival National/DC didn’t stop printing, their horror fare was relatively tame in comparison to Atlas’s. Instead, the horror staff at Atlas found their main competition in Entertaining Comics, or EC, who had been publishing Tales From the Crypt and other horror titles since 1950. But, unfortunately for EC’s owner Max Gaines, the good people at Atlas, and lovers of risqué comics everywhere, things were about to change.
Menace: The Code
It wouldn’t do to discuss horror comics, and not bring up the Comics Code Authority. A result of paranoia over the moral decay of American youth, fomented in large part by notorious buzzkill Fredric Wertham and his ilk, “the Code” represents much of what went wrong with 20th-century censorship.
Much like the inattentive parents of today, inattentive parents of yesteryear were concerned that their children might engage with entertainment media designed for older age groups. So, rather than try to regulate their children’s media consumption habits, inattentive parents cried out for censorship. Unfortunately, not only were gore, sex, and violence censored, so too were progressive ideas such as, in one landmark story, having a story’s protagonist be a black astronaut.
And even though some publications already submitted their work to review by a board of psychiatrists and educators, to which Fredric Wertham mockingly refers in his work of puritanical lunacy Seduction of the Innocent (1954), this process was deemed unsuitable. The Comics Code Authority was born, and, like a bad cold, stuck around until 2011 when every major publisher had dropped it in favour of their own more consistent and more reasonable ratings schemes.
Menace: Social Commentary
Now that we’re all up to speed on the history of horror comics and the CCA, let’s get to the actual reviewing of this hardcover! As I mentioned before, one of the the strengths of a few of the stories in this collection is their ability to engage in social commentary.
Not that it’s brilliant or ever-present, but, perhaps ironically given the backlash against it, it’s surprisingly supportive of the status quo, in favour of little more than what most would call basic virtues. The first gruesome tale from Menace #1, “One Head Too Many!” shockingly implies that committing treason for personal gain is wrong. The next, “The Man Who Couldn’t Move” implies that murdering people in vegetative states for personal gain is wrong. An all-text story entitled “Quest” implies that an archaeologist should’ve been more respectful of the culture he was studying. “Poor Mister Watkins” implies that bullying others can have harsh consequences. And, my favourite in Menace #1, “They Wait in Their … Dungeon!” is a strong argument for treating prisoners of the state with humanity.
Menace: Social Commentary – “Wertham? I hardly know him!”
Stan Lee, who wrote every story in the first seven issues, and his artists at Menace, who regularly included such names as Carl Burgos, Bill Everett, Joe Maneely, John Romita, George Tuska, Joe Sinnott, Russ Heath, and Gene Colan, were some of the best that the struggling industry had to offer. As such, their social commentary wasn’t limited to simple moral lessons.
In Menace #7, Stan Lee and Joe Sinnott take aim at Wertham and his sympathizers in “The Witch in the Woods,” a story that pits the violence and gore of horror comics against the violence and gore of Hansel and Gretel by the Brothers Grimm. A father who disapproves of his son’s Uncanny Tales comicbook, another fine Atlas publication, chastises his son for reading something as graphic as a horror comic. Deciding to educate his son on the merits of fine literature, the father picks Grimm’s Fairy Tales off of the shelf. But the out-of-touch father gets a rude awakening when he tries to read Hansel and Gretel to his son. He becomes so sickened by the description of the witch’s immolation that he can’t continue reading, beads of sweat forming on his forehead.
The disapproving father, the comicbook read by flashlight in bed — especially the comicbook being an issue of Uncanny Tales — and the humorously rendered yet horrifying children’s story make for a nice piece of meta-narrative in Menace #7. ‘Nuff said!
Menace: The Art
Based on the list of artistic talent above, I doubt there’s much question as to the quality of this volume’s art. The covers and interior work are all, more or less, excellent. As a longtime fan of Namor, I have a particular fondness for Bill Everett’s work, especially on “Zombie!” from Menace #5. Lee’s roster of Menace artists, though, makes it exceptionally difficult to choose a favourite from Menace‘s 11-issue run. All of the artists use their talent to great effect, showing each story in shocking detail.
Menace: The Writing
As I said earlier, Stan Lee was responsible for writing every story featured in Menace up until issue #7. As is the case in any collection, some stories are stronger than others. And, the surprise ending format that Menace follows makes for some strange and seemingly tacked-on conclusions: although some endings are telegraphed to the reader long before a story’s close, other endings are so unrelated to their stories that they become essentially interchangeable.
One formal element of these stories that’s handled significantly less awkwardly, though, is Lee’s practice of writing them in the 2nd person. Each story demands that the reader cast him/herself as a main character in the story. Notable bits of 2nd-person writing from Lee include, “You’re a zombie,” “Your wife is dying right before your eyes,” and, “You have no name! For flying saucers are never given names! You are merely number 184!”
Menace: Still Poignant Sixty-four Years Later
One of the more poignant tales in this collection, especially considering the current rise of bigotry and xenophobia around the world, is from Menace #3, “Men in Black.” In it, the reader is cast as Jim Horton, “This is your story, Jim Horton … for you are a bigot!”
Horton, down on his luck, blames any and all of his problems on “dirty immigrants.” And, after his wife has left him, Horton along with some like-minded barflies dress in black sheets, and, having coerced him to leave his house by throwing bricks through the windows, beat an immigrant outside of his own home. Someone inside the house phones the police who come quickly, but Horton makes a hasty escape back to his tenement. Once he gets home, Horton decides that he must quickly dispose of the black sheet covering his face before the police arrive and connect him to the beating. But, when Horton rips the sheet off he finds underneath an unending number of identical sheets covering his face.
Horton pulls sheet after sheet from his face until he’s lying on the floor frantically tearing them off before the inevitable visit from the police. A few minutes later, when the police finally break into Horton’s tenement, they find him dead on the floor having torn his face off with his own hands. The final caption to this morbid moral tale, “You were an awfully sick man! But what bigot isn’t?” Indeed.