Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Week Twenty-Five - Jeanette

The Weird World Of Eerie Publications by Mike Howlett (2010)
Recommended by Mike

It was my birthday. Kathryn directed me to an unlabelled VHS tape.

‘It’s from me and someone else,’ she said. ‘Play it! Play it!’

I screamed in delight and threw my arms around her.

‘Turn it off now,’ Kathryn said, as the title sequence finished. ‘I’m not watching it.’

Cannibal Holocaust, for the uninitiated, is a notorious video nasty. You can get a flavour of it from this trailer (NSFW):

Even when considered in the later context of torture porn films like Hostel, Cannibal Holocaust is repulsive and intense in its imagery. But, (very unlike Hostel) it has a great deal to say about serious subjects – such as authenticity, Western anthropological assumptions, media exploitation of culture, and the abuse of animals. I’d wanted to see this film, (then) banned and very difficult to get hold of, for years.

So how did Kathryn, who avoids horror movies at all costs, track down Cannibal Holocaust?

The answer is Mike.

Kathryn and Mike ‘met’ on an indie-pop message board. I find it utterly brilliant that my first introduction to Mike was through Cannibal Holocaust, while Kathryn’s was through songs like this:

Mike is American, and he and I began writing letters to one another. Through our correspondence, I found out that he loved horror movies of all eras and styles. My own palate was then fixated on stylized 1970s Euro-horror and nihilistic American efforts like Last House On The Left, and I credit Mike with considerably broadening my tastes.

So when I asked Mike for a book recommendation, he came up with a lavishly illustrated and unapologetically nerdy history of a gruesome comic book company. What kind of person would write a book like this?

Mike would. And he did!

If anyone’s thinking Mike recommended this book to me in order to promote it, I can guarantee that’s the furthest thing from his mind. I know exactly why this most generous and enthusiastic of souls sent me this: so I could understand and love the very weird world of Eerie Publications for myself. If he’d not written this book, he probably would have shipped me over two dozen original comics instead.

Weird and its clammy ‘the world’s gone to shit’ brand of horror was one of the few pop harbingers of what was just around the corner.

Weird, along with Terror Tales, Horror Tales, Tales Of Voodoo, Witches’ Tales, Tales From The Tomb and many other shorter-lived titles, represented the empire of Myron Fass. Fass, a mixture of opportunistic capitalist and deranged gun-toter, cut his teeth in the early 1950s horror comics boom. Blood and oddness had run riot during this period, but it didn’t last. In 1954, the quasi-academic tract Seduction Of The Innocent tenuously claimed horror comics had a deleterious effect on children, and it ushered in an era of censorship (‘the code’): the comics’ bloodletting was stemmed, and unsurprisingly no-one wanted the new neutered stories. Horror comics were over.

Fast-forward a decade. In January 1966, this hit American newsstands.

The first Weird reprinted seven pre-code horror stories […] In some panels, a few extra drops of blood were added to the original art to make it a bit more gruesome.

Myron Fass had hundreds of these 1950s horror stories to mine. Once he’d printed ‘em up on cheap paper (with even cheaper ink that turned a reader’s fingers to charcoal) all Fass had to do was commission new covers.

And what covers they were: a sick, wonderful art form in themselves. In this book, Howlett generously reprints every single one (and the best get their own full-page glory). Check out the human corn-on-the-cob!

And the meat grinder!

The titles were successful, and because Fass now had so very many horror comics on the go, those 1950s stories were running dry. Did he commission new stories? Did he buggery! The man was allergic to paying for stuff. He went for the cheapest option: to give the impression of freshness, he got artists to redraw those same 1950s stories, retaining the original dialogue balloons and text, but with instructions to gore them up. A new title, and voila: a ‘new’ story.

However, it was this very workhouse that gave some talented artists freedom. They creatively interpreted the 1950s material, playing with panels, perspective and character. As long as they also shoved in an eye trauma or a disembowelment, Fass couldn’t care less if they indulged their artier side. Finally, even the redraw tactic ran dry and new stories were grudgingly included, but reprints of the same ancient shit continued right up to the magazines’ dying days in the mid-1970s.

I think my favourite part of the Eerie Publications story was the ultra-bizarre short-lived projects. Look at the mixture of Lady Gaga and Fantastic Planet that was Gasm, from November 1977…

…and the obligatory Star Wars cash-in with amusing copyright-dodging name!

There was even a magazine on the Swine Flu epidemic of 1976! Was there nothing this man couldn't exploit?

I’m so made-up for Mike. This book is a brilliant achievement. With specialist geeky subjects like this, the writing is often stale, but that’s not the case at all with The Weird World Of Eerie Publications. Mike is as funny and lovely in print as he is in real life, and I’m really proud that he’s my friend.