Saturday, May 3, 2014

Weird Science

The Complete EC Archives: Weird Science: Volumes 2 and 3: written and edited by Al Feldstein; illustrated by Al Feldstein, Wally Wood,  Al Williamson, Jack Kamen, Joe Orlando, Bill Elder, Harvey Kurtzman, and others (1951-52; collected 2007): EC Comics' wild and wooly science-fiction anthology series stands the test of time, and testifies to what was lost in American comic books with the inception of the Comics Code in the mid-1950's. These are stories for adults that can be enjoyed by kids, with nary a superhero to be found.

There are, of course, a plethora of shock endings -- this is EC Comics, and EC specialized in shock endings in every genre. Most work, some don't, and some really weren't necessary. The overall standard of writing on both the original stories and on adaptations of stories by Ray Bradbury is consistently high thanks to Al Feldstein. Oh, a few zingers go awry, but the humour is generally appropriate.

Much of the art is wonderful, whether by the matter-of-fact Jack Kamen, the occasionally grotesque Joe Orlando, the romantic Al Williamson, or the phenomenal, lush, detailed Wally Wood. Wood entered what many consider to be the peak of his artistic career on the stories included here and in other EC Comics of the time. He was only 24. The dissonance between his humans -- gorgeous women and heroic men -- and the storylines they find themselves in generates a zingy level of cognitive dissonance.

It would all be over too quickly. But the stories that remain really are, on the whole, astonishing. Some are surprisingly criticial of the United States military, and of America's paranoia in general. Some are really, really bizarrely, almost anachronistically boundary-pushing.

We've got a sex-change story. We've got a time traveller who sleeps with his own mother. We've got beautiful alien women who impregnate human men. And we've got people being eaten all over the place. And stepped on. And tortured. And asphyxiated. All in bright, glorious colour, and rendered by some of the finest artists to ever work in American comic books.

Feldstein had a tendency to wordiness that was a symptom of the era -- these are really dense stories, most of them seven pages long but packed with the information of about 25 pages of modern comic-book information. That wordiness can sometimes be skimmed, as Feldstein often describes exactly what one sees in the panel, but it also allows for character-building and world-building. On a couple of notable occasions, somebody, whether Feldstein or publisher William Gaines, saw fit to actually explain the climax of a story. I don't think it was necessary in either case, but then again, I'm not eight years old. I'd also love to know what happened the first time an easily outraged parent took a look at the sex-change story. Hoo ha, indeed! Highly recommended.

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