Sunday, 16 May 2010

Harvey Comics' Dark Secret

Today Harvey Comics is best known for publishing innocuous, sometimes even bland children's comic books featuring such characters as Casper the Friendly Ghost, Wendy the Good Little Witch, Little Audrey, and Richie Rich. Even Archie Comics, well known for their wholesomeness,  was not as squeaky clean as Harvey Publications (as the company called itself for much of its history. Despite the company's reputation today for wholesome entertainment today, this was not always the case. In the Fifties Harvey Publications published horror comic books that were so violent, so graphic, that they made EC Comics' more famous titles look tame by comparison. Casper the Friendly Ghost would have been terrified by them!

Harvey Publications was founded by Alfred Harvey. A cartoonist by trade, Alfred Harvey began his career at the age of 15, drawing advertising cartoons. It was in the late Thirties that Detective Comics Inc. (one of the companies that would become DC Comics) published Action Comics #1, June 1938, featuring Superman was published. The comic book and the character of Superman would be a smash hit, leading to a boom in the comic book industry, with new companies swiftly joining in the boom. This was not lost on Alfred Harvey, who took a job at Fox Feature Syndicate (the notorious publisher best known for The Blue Beetle). By 1940 Harvey had tired of working for someone else and founded what was then called Alfred Harvey Publications.

Harvey Publications first comic book would be a digest sized title, fittingly called Pocket Comics #1, August 1941. Not only was Pocket Comics #1 historic as the first Harvey comic book, for also featuring the first appearance of  The Black Cat. The superheroine would become Harvey Publications' most popular character in those days before Casper and Richie Rich. While Pocket Comics would fold after four issues, The Black Cat would be a mainstay at Harvey Publications, receiving her own title in 1946. Harvey Publications also acquired Speed Comics from Brookwood Publications, along with the superheroes it featured (such as Shock Gibson and Captain Freedom). Speed Comics #14, September 1941 would be the first issue published by Harvey. Harvey also acquired Champion Comics (later known simply as Champ Comics) from Worth Publishing.

In addition to publishing its own superhero anthology titles, Harvey Publications also published comic books featuring licensed characters. Originally published by Helnit Publications (later known as Holyoke), Harvey took over The Green Hornet with issue #7, June 1942. In 1945 Joe Palooka became the first newspaper strip licensed by Harvey Publications. His comic book lasted from 1945 to 1961. Harvey Publications would eventually license several newspaper strip characters, among the most successful being Dick Tracy (1950 to 1961) and Blondie (1950 to 1964). By far the most successful Harvey title featuring a licensed newspaper strip character would be Sad Sack. Originally created by George Baker in the pages of Yank, the Army Weekly in August 1942, Sad Sack was first published by Harvey in September 1949. It ran until 1982, and at times Sad Sack was featured in upwards of six different titles Here it must be noted that it would be Harvey's licensing of established characters that would eventually save the company in the wake of the moral panic over comic books in the late Forties and early Fifties.

Aside from newspaper reprints, Harvey Publications would also enter other genres in the Forties. They would make their first foray into humour in the mid-Forties, with litle success with such titles as Clown Comics and Dotty Dripple. In the late Forties they entered the romance genre with such titles as First Love Illustrated (1949-1963), First Romance (1949-1958), Hi-School Romance (1949-1958), Love Lessons (1949-1950), and Sweet Love (1949-1950). Unfortunately, romance would not be the only trend in the comic book industry that Harvey would choose to enter.

It was in 1950 that William Gaines would launch EC Comic's "New Trend" series of titles, including Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror, The Haunt of Fear, Two-Fisted Tales, Frontline Combat, and other titles. EC Comics' titles were intelligently written, well drawn, and often extremely violent. Seeing the success at EC, Harvey would also enter the war comics genre, with such titles as Warfront (1951 to 1958), War Battles (1952-1953), Fighting Fronts (1952-1953), and True War Experiences (1952). They also emulated EC Comics' Mad with their own humour title Flip. The success that EC Comics had with its horror titles would also lead Harvey to publish its own horror titles. Not only would Harvey Publications' horror titles meet with a good deal of success, they would also meet with a great deal of notoriety.

It was in January 1951 that Harvey Publications published their first horror comic book, Witches Tales #1. In June 1951, Harvey launched another horror title, Chamber of Chills. With issue #30, July 1951 Black Cat Comics became a horror anthology entitled Black Cat Mystery, and The Black Cat was banished from her own title. In April 1952 Harvey debuted their final horror title Tomb of Terror. Of the four titles, it would be Chamber of Chills that would become the most notorious. The Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide entry on Chamber of Chills notes that, "About half the issues contain bondage, torture, perversion, sadism, gore, eyes ripped out, acid in the face, etc." While Chamber of Chills has often been singled out for its high degree of depravity, it must be pointed that out that all of Harvey's horror titles had more than their share of gratuitous violence. In fact, one issue of Black Cat Mystery may have more gore and brutality than any six issues of Tales From the Crypt combined.

Indeed, some of the stories featured in Harvey's titles seem extreme even for horror comic books of the early Fifties. The web site Oddball Comics spotlighted Chamber of Chills #23, May 1954, which featured a story called "Heartline" In the story a young surgeon has discovered a technique whereby he can replace any diseased organ with one from a corpse. When his fiancée had a heart attack, the surgeon swiftly replaces her tatally damaged heart with a heart from a cadaver. Unfortunately, the operation had one unexpected side effect--his fiancée and the cadaver from whom he retrieved the heart now want to be together! An article in the June 13, 1954 issue of The Florence Times Daily (as in Florence, Alabama) by Roger McCrary, one of the many articles condemning comic books written in 1954, describes a story from Tomb of Terror (he does not tell which issue). In the story a young boy named Robin despised working in his father's butcher shop because he hated the sight of blood. For this he was roundly abused by his father, who calls him "gutless." After taking his father's abuse one too many times, Robin had a psychotic break and butchered his father with a meat cleaver. The end of the story featured Robin staring at his father's guts strewn before him on a counter and saying, "..who's gutless now?"

The covers of Harvey's horror titles could often be more graphic than the stories contained within their covers. Black Cat Mystery #50, June 1954 featured a cover in which a man's face is rotted away as he holds a bar of radium. The cover of the aforementioned  Chamber of Chills #23 featured a rotting corpse assaulting a young woman, something Oddball Comics describes as "..a case of nauseating reverse-necrophilia..." Tomb of Terror #15, May 1954 featured a cover in which a man's face was literally exploding. Wtiches Tales #25, March 1954 had a cover in which a man is ringing a bell whose clapper has been replaced by a rather gruesome severed head.

Without having read entire issues of Harvey Publications' horror titles, it is difficult to access their quality. It would seem that they would often have a high degree of quality, as such men as Lee Elias (best known for his work on The Black Cat), Bob Powell (best known for his work on Blackhawk),  and Howard Nostrand (who  illustrated several classic Western titles) all worked on them. That having been said, Oddball Comics describes the art in the story "Heartline" from Chamber of Chills as #23 "poorly drawn," and I must say I have been less than impressed with some of the covers I have seen for Harvey's horror titles (particularly Witches Tales).

Unfortunately for Harvey Publications and every other comic book publisher in the early Fifties, moral watchdogs had begun targeting comic books for what they considered objectionable content as early as 1947. By the years of 1953 and 1954 there was a full scale moral panic centred on the content of the average comic book. As hard as it is to believe now, some communities even burned comic books! Perhaps the most outspoken critic of the comic book industry was Dr. Fredric Wertham, a liberal leaning psychiatrist. Dr. Fredric Wertham had targeted comic books as early as 1948, and it was in 1954 that his book Seduction of the Innocent was published. Although written by a respected psychiatrist, Seduction of the Innocent was filled with a priori assumptions, ad hoc hypotheseis, several instances in which Wertham interprets things out of context, and several instances in which he jumps to conclusions. Regardless, the book galvanised much of the public against comic books.

It should not be surprising that Harvey's horror titles are mentioned by Wertham in Seduction of the Innocent. Black Cat Mystery was mentioned twice in the book, once on pages 270 to 271 and again on pages 386 to 388. Chamber of Chills was surprisingly mentioned only once, on page 389. Of course, Black Cat Mystery and Chamber of Chills were not the only Harvey comic books mentioned in Seduction of the Innocent, although the other references to Harvey comic books may have to be taken with a grain of salt. One of the comic books which Dr. Wertham mentions is Harvey Library #1, April 1952, which featured the story "Teen-Age Dope Slaves." Here it seems possible that Dr. Wertham was simply overreacting to the rather exploitive cover of the magazine, which features a teenager begging for a shot from syringe apparently containing "dope" and the rather sensationalistic title. "Teen-Age Dope Slaves" was actually a reprint of a story that had ran for a few weeks in the newspaper strip Rex Morgan M.D. It is doubtful that it would have been considered objectionable to most people at the time, especially as it was an anti-drug story! An illustration from First Love Illustrated #35, December 1953 also appears in Seduction of the Innocent.

 The moral panic over comic books, stirred into a frenzy by Dr. Fredric Wertham and other comic book critics, would result in a Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency hearing, chaired by Senator Estes Kefauver, took place on April 21, April 22, and June 4, 1954. Even though there was no real threat of government censorship, comic book publishers banded together to form the Comics Code Authority, a self regulatory body that would oversee the content of comic books, in October 1954. The original Comics Code was so strict that it banned the words "horror," "terror," and "crime" from the titles of comic books, as well as portrayals of vampires, werewolves, and the walking dead. Not only did the Comics Code put an end to such titles as Harvey's own Tomb of Terror, E.C. Comics' Vault of Horror, and Lev Gleason's Crime Does Not Pay, but many comic book publishers would shut down entirely in the years following implementation of the Comics Code.

Alfred Harvey, whose horror titles were even more extreme than those published by E,C., would not be one of them. Alfred Harvey opposed the Code on principle and remained an outspoken critic of it for years afterwards, but he complied with it nonetheless. It is for that reason that  Chamber of Chills became Chamber of Clues, concentrating on more traditional mysteries, in February 1955. It folded after only two issues. Tomb of Terror became a science fiction magazine Thrills of Tomorrow in December 1954, lasting for four more issues. Witches Tales became the rather oddly titled Witches Western Tales in January 1955 and lasted for only one more issue. Black Cat Mystery would continue as a more traditional mystery magazine until July 1959, whereupon it switched to a Western format. In July 1960 it underwent another format change to become Black Cat Mystic. With the Silver Age well underway and superheroes once more popular, The Black Cat returned her own magazine in October 1962. It lasted two more issues before it was cancelled in March 1963.

While Harvey's horror titles would not survive after the implementation of the Comics Code and changes in formats, Harvey Publications would thrive into the Eighties,  almost entirely due to the company's practice of licensing characters. It was in 1948 that Paramount first licensed Famous Studios, animated characters such as Little Audrey, Casper the Friendly Ghost, Baby Huey, and so on to comic book publisher St. John. It was in 1952 that Harvey Publications, anxious for success in the children's humour market, received the licence for the Famous Studios' characters. Harvey Publications picked up Little Audrey with issue #25, June 1952. They picked up Casper the Friendly Ghost with #7 in December 1952. Eventually Harvey would publish nearly every character featured in the Famous Studios shorts except for Popeye (who as a newspaper strip character was owned by Kings Features Syndicate). Harvey's titles based on the Famous Studios characters would prove so popular that in 1959 they bought the characters and the shorts outright from the studio. Harvey Comics would even produce new shorts under the heading of Harveytoons.

Harvey Comics would also create its own humour characters. Richie Rich first appeared in Little Dot #1, September 1953. Harvey would go onto create other new characters such as Wendy the Good Little Witch, Hot Stuff the Little Devil (who surprisingly raised no objections from Christian Fundamentalists), and Spooky the Tuff Little Ghost. Along with Sad Sack and the Famous Studios characters, these characters lasted until Harvey Comics ceased publication in the Eighties.

Harvey would attempt other sorts of comic books over the years. In the Sixites Harvey launched an imprint they called Harvey Thriller. This included a new superhero line with characters created by Joe Simon (Piranha, Jigsaw, Spyman, and others), as well as their own originals (Beeman, Man in Black, and so on). They also revived Warfront and received the rights to publish The Spirit. Launched in October 1965, the line would be gone by March 1967.

Supported by their children's humour titles, Harvey Comics continued publishing until 1982, when the market for such titles was virtually non-existent. In 1989 Harvey Comics (except for The Black Cat and Sad Sack, who were retained by the Harvey family) was sold to HMH Communications, which renamed itself Harvey Comics Entertainment. Harvey Comics Entertainment would sell its properties and the rights to the Harvey name to Classic Media.

It was in the early Fifties that Harvey Comics first entered the children's comic book market by licensing the Famous Studio characters. It would be the licensing of these characters that would allow the company to survive the implementation of the Comics Code when many other publishers failed. By the late Sixites many comic book readers had no idea that Harvey Comics was not always a purveyor of wholesome entertainment for children. There was a time, from 1951 to 1954, that Harvey Publications published some of the most violent, most gruesome horror comic books ever to appear on newsstands. Their turnaround from one of the most notorious publishers of horror comic books to a company derided for their wholesome and even bland children's titles was one of the most remarkable in comic book history.

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