The death of Al Feldstein is a major cultural event. His sensibility, if not his work itself, helped inspire me to become a journalist and then a lawyer. While Mad Magazine was a wonderful achievement, the bigger story is Feldstein’s socially conscious and horrifying writing for Shock Suspenstories and the other EC “New Trend” titles in the early 1950s. These comics, almost all written by Feldstein and many of them illustrated in his familiar, emotionally-present, almost childlike lines, went for the jugular. At a time when such things were seldom discussed, ECs presented stories of drug abuse, suicide, rape, police brutality, KKK violence, anti-semitism and — over and over again — racism.
Two of the very best Shocks hang on the wall of my office: the one at left describes (in a mode that straddles the line between stereotype and icon) a teenager’s descent into heroin addiction, delusion, violent crime and patricide. The cover is an unforgettable drawing by Feldstein.
The other is the story of a false rape confession beat out of a stranger with the bad luck to pass through a small town. The shock comes at the end when we learn who the real culprit it. That cover, by George Evans, illustrates the old, unsubtle technique for extracting unrecorded “confessions” that continues to cast a shadow on my cases today.
The lashback against Feldstein’s work, clearly aimed at adults and young adults, led to the end of a vibrant, uncensored comic book culture and the beginning of a more restrained one. Repulsive horror stories in EC comics — many of which were pure gross-out with no redeeming qualities — provoked a scathing book-length expose by psychiatrist Fred Wertham called “Seduction of the Innocent” (I see it as a guide to what’s worth reading in 1950s comics; comics mentioned in it fetch higher prices from collectorts), congressional hearings on the evil effects of comics, and, ultimately the self-censors known as the Comics Code Authority. What came next was the Silver Age, subtler books with more superheroes and more character development, minus the direct social commentary and extreme violence. I leave you with a description of the story I think tipped the balance, and ended the EC era: in a revenge plot, a baseball team dismembers a rival and uses the body parts as equipment: a leg for a bat, a head for a ball, intestines for … you get the idea. I don’t know if Feldstein came up with that one (he probably did) but his influence and effect on the culture will never, ever be forgotten. RIP.