Museum peels back the covers on classic comic art

Vintage comic book pages

They stalked childhood nightmares, were confiscated by teachers by the boxload and provided punch lines that weren’t ready for prime time even before there was a prime time.

And now these classics of gore, alien invasions and “What, me worry?” will splatter the walls of the UO’s Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art in a collection of vintage comic art rarely seen in one place. “Aliens, Monsters, and Madmen: The Art of EC Comics” celebrates the achievements of the most artistically and politically daring American comic-book company of the 20th century: Bill Gaines’ “Entertaining Comics,” better known to fans around the world as EC.

Organized by English professor Ben Saunders, director of the UO comics studies minor, the exhibition is on view from May 14 to July 10. It opens with a free reception Friday, May 13, from 6 to 10 p.m. at the museum.

EC specialized in comic-book versions of popular genres — particularly crime, horror, war and science fiction — adapting the conventions of those styles to the comics medium.  With such legendary science fiction and horror titles as Weird Science and Tales from the Crypt, the creators at EC shaped the young imaginations of a generation of Americans. 

Writers such as Stephen King and R. L. Stine, filmmakers such as George Lucas, John Carpenter, George Romero and Stephen Spielberg, and musicians such as Jerry Garcia and Alice Cooper all cited EC as a formative influence on their own work. The company also broke new ground in the realm of satire as the publisher of MAD, an experimental humor comic that parodied the very stories that were elsewhere its stock in trade.

EC offered a controversial mix of sensationalism and social provocation, mixing titillating storylines and imagery with more overtly progressive material. Alongside comics about beautiful, alien insect-women who dine on unsuspecting human astronauts, for example, they also tackled subjects that other popular media of the era avoided, including racism, McCarthyism and the failures of the criminal justice system. 

As a result, the company attracted the disapproval of parents, politicians and moralists everywhere, and it was ultimately driven out of business as the result of a conservative “anti-comics” backlash. Only MAD survived by becoming a magazine in the mid-1950s; it remains in print today.

“EC comics and artwork now constitute highly valued collectibles,” Saunders said. “This exhibition is around key examples of the original production art — unique and rarely seen objects of extraordinarily detailed craftsmanship by some of the most influential comics artists of the 20th century.”

Drawn from some of the most important private collections in the county, the exhibition features more than 120 original pages (including several complete stories) by some of the most highly regarded American comic-book artists of the last century, including Johnny Craig, Reed Crandall, Jack Davis, Will Elder, Al Feldstein, Frank Frazetta, Graham Ingels, Bernie Krigstein, Harvey Kurtzman, Joe Orlando, Al Williamson, Wally Wood and Basil Wolverton. “Aliens, Monsters, and Madmen: The Art of EC Comics” also includes rare covers, splash pages, memorabilia and a selection of the rarest EC comics, such as MAD No. 1.

Among the original artwork on display are the complete stories of Kurtzman’s “Corpse on the Imjin,” Wood’s “My World” and “Three Dimensions,” Ingels’ “Horror We? How's Bayou?” Crandall's “Tough Cop,” Williamson's “Food For Thought,” Craig's “Rendezvous,” Krigstein and Elder's “Bringing Back Father” and Elder's “Howdy Dooit!"

At 1 p.m. Saturday, May 14, the public is invited to a collectors roundtable discussion with Glenn Bray, Grant Geissman, Roger Hill and Rob Reiner, moderated by Saunders.

Saunders curated the museum’s previous comics exhibitions, “Faster Than A Speeding Bullet: The Art of the Superhero” in 2009 and “Good-Grief!: A Selection of 50 Years of Original Art from Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts” in 2012.  

The roundtable is just one in a series of programs and special events that let visitors dig deeper into the EC vault. Visit the exhibition website for a full schedule of events.

“Aliens, Monsters, and Madmen: The Art of EC Comics” is sponsored by the Coeta and Donald Barker Changing Exhibitions Endowment; The Harold and Arlene Schnitzer CARE Foundation; a grant from the Oregon Arts Commission and the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency; Oregon Humanities Center’s Endowment for Public Outreach in the Arts, Sciences, and Humanities; Philip and Sandra Piele; UO comics and cartoon studies minor; UO College Scholars Program; and Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art members.