While Entertaining Comics, most often referred to as EC, featured some of the best writers and artists in the comic book industry then and even today, there are a few that stood out from the rest. One of them is Johnny Craig. Today, he is most famous for his crime and horror comics, but he also did westerns and even romance. His only problem was that he was known to be slow and meticulous, which prompted the caricature Marie Severin did of him that I photographed at ALIENS, MONSTERS, AND MADMEN: THE ART OF EC COMICS exhibit and used as the photo for this blog. This isn’t a terrible thing though as he always, eventually, delivered quality work in his clean uncluttered style that remains immediately recognizable. Additionally recognizable, whatever the genre, were his iconic sweat droplets, dashingly handsome men, and glamorous women. The women especially shared many similar features making them a primary means of identification when looking at his work. That said, as gorgeous as his comics could be, they could also be truly gruesome. He is known for his explorations of madness and a preference to make the reader anticipate the impending doom his characters were to face instead of directly showing it. For better or worse, Johnny Craig will always be strongly connected to EC. One major reason is that he worked at EC longer than any other artist in the company. He often both wrote and drew his comics and he also drew all 29 covers of Vault of Horror making him the only artist to draw a complete run of a New Trend title. Those covers were not the only covers he drew either. This cover work leads us to another big reason that his name is synonymous with EC that is not so great.
It seems that one cannot talk about EC without at least a brief mention of the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency. In 1954, there was a huge anti-comics backlash that finally came to a head and EC was right in the thick of it with its more adult content and themes. The reason that Johnny Craig often gets a specific mention is that it was his cover for Crime SuspenStories #22 that, in many ways, the entire proceeding hinged on. The cover featured a man with a bloody ax holding a woman’s head, which has been severed from her body. The point at which her head had been severed is not visible on either the head or the body, but there was famously a little bit of blood coming from her mouth. Compared to some horror comics, it was almost tame.
As such, Bill Gaines, who was well past the point of exhaustion by this time, defended the cover and said it was in good taste for what it was. This proved to be a huge miscalculation and the moment became the linchpin of EC’s downfall. When EC closed most of its doors, Craig more or less ended his career in comics and moved on to advertising. MAD was the only surviving piece of EC and the major reason it survived was the fact that it had become a magazine in the mid-1950s. Interestingly, it was this unrelated magazine that led me to my discovery of Craig in my teen years.
MAD was an experimental humor comic that often focused on parodying popular culture. My stepfather was a big fan and I remember loving his Spy vs Spy book. One day, he started up a conversation about how it was actually a parody of Cold War era political ideologies and it totally blew my mind. This conversation prompted the first time that I remember close reading a comic to look for the deeper meanings therein. I couldn’t get enough of it! This led me to search out more works like this and when I found Johnny Craig’s horror stories I fell in love. While many of his works contain a sense of poetic justice, social commentary is not always present; however, when it is there, it was simply masterful.
One of my favorite Johnny Craig stories is The Vault of Horror’s “A Stitch in Time.” This story takes on the sweatshops that were unfortunately common at the start of the urbanization of New York City. It contains all the things that make a Craig story including the recognizable female faces with drops of sweat pouring down their faces, the way that he would let the reader’s imagination fill in certain graphic details, and situations that cannot be relegated to just hyperbole. Another fascinating aspect in the story is the way that he describes the conditions as slavery and then draws the woman experiencing a mental break much like the pre-Ramoreo zombies he loved to draw.
The story features ten women jammed together in a dingy, foul-smelling loft located in the factory district working fourteen hours a day six days a week with “dangerously obsolete sewing machines.” And dangerous they are. When one of the machines literally shatters and damages a seamstress’ hand bad enough that she can no longer do her sewing work, her “employer” becomes outraged. He even takes the price of repairs out of her salary, which is only six dollars a week. Even worse, instead of taking her to the hospital, he sends her to the “scrap box” to sort out bits of thread that had been thrown there for re-use. The broken woman quickly snaps and he kicks her out for it. Things get worse from there and this causes the other women to finally rise up against his cruelty. The fiery ending, presumedly caused by one of malfunctioning sewing machines, is gruesome even for Craig, but the revenge the girls get is quite apt and satisfying. This is a perfect example of Craig at his best. Much of his horror is grounded in real life situations and desires, which makes it even scarier. In fact, aside from the grisly actions of the women who were finally pushed too far, something similar did happen in real life. In 1911, a particularly deadly fire dubbed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire occurred in New York City. The fire killed mostly female garment workers. Interestingly enough, Craig claims that he never heard of the incident until years after he wrote the story. Another related tidbit is that 1911 just happens to be a notable year for me because it is also the year that Gardner Fox was born.
Without my love of Johnny Craig, I may not be writing a biography on Gardner Fox because it was my spotting of a Craig comic in the Gardner Fox Collection that made me wonder what other treasures might be waiting there. While I was already very excited to see the archive the first time I had the opportunity, I admit I only knew of Fox’s DC work and fantasy novels at that point. When I walked into the room set up for our viewing, I saw the expected superhero comics covering several tables, but stopped short when I saw True and Terrific Saddle Justice #4. I am not the biggest fan of westerns, but I knew a Johnny Craig cover when I saw one. I excitedly took down detailed notes about it connecting the way his style functioned within the genre he was working with. For example, on page nine of the story titled “The Lady who Rode with Death,” I wrote about how the circular panel containing the death of yet another man keeps this moment at the forefront of our minds by breaking the traditional format of the page. I also commented on how much bleeding was on the page with the horses, dust, and even the woman herself invading the circle and the surrounding panels. While the notes themselves are not too out of the ordinary, my handwriting betrays just how excited I was. This was not just a Johnny Craig comic. It was a comic that was once owned by Gardner fracking Fox! I knew at this point that I had to find another excuse to get into the archive. When a class on archives popped up on the list in my Master’s program, I jumped at the chance and the rest is history.
When I first seriously considered writing a blog, I asked the Twitterverse what type of content they would like to see. The two most popular answers were artist spotlights and things I really cared about. Johnny Craig definitely fits both categories. While Johnny Craig may no longer be my favorite EC artist (that honor now belongs to Wallace Wood), he will always have a place in my heart. Furthermore, no other artist captures my path into comics scholarship quite so perfectly.
Craig, Johnny, Al Feldstein, and Ray Bradbury. Fall Guy for Murder And Other Stories Illustrated by Johnny Craig. Fantagraphics Books. 2013.