Sunday, December 1, 2013

Review- THE VAULT OF HORROR ANNUAL VOL. 4

THE VAULT OF HORROR ANNUAL VOL. 4 (Gemstone, 1997; Softcover)
Collects The Vault of Horror Nos. 27-31 (cover dates October/November, 1952- June/July, 1953)
Writers: Al Feldstein, Bill Gaines, Ray Bradbury, and Johnny Craig.
Artists: Johnny Craig, Jack Davis, George Evans, Graham Ingels, Jack Kamen, and Joe Orlando.

I feel silly reviewing these EC Comics because I sound like a broken record, but I am going to say it again anyhow. EC Comics are the greatest comic books from the Golden Age of Comics, and are among the greatest comic books ever made, period. Easily the best Horror comics ever made. The Walking Dead will never be held in higher regard than EC, babe.
They really upped the ante at this stage of the game, with the stories become edgier while retaining the sophistication and artistic elegance found in earlier EC's. Some of these stories are still disturbing by 2013 standards, and I can only imagine how frightening they must have been in a pre-Psycho, pre-modern Horror movie Mayberry world.
I will list my favorite story from each issue. My favorite from #27 would have to be Strictly From Hunger!, a story about a man dying from cancer who gets a witch to hex him so that he won't die. Needless to say the witch kept her end of the bargain. #28's winner among the winners is For How The Bell Tolls! This George Evans penciled treat is about a Royal Bell Ringer, and the young boy who became his apprentice. For 34 years the apprentice waited and waited and waited for the Royal Bell Ringer to grow old and step down, giving him a change to fulfill his lifelong desire and become the new Royal Bell Ringer. I won't give away anything, suffice it to say that the apprentice finally gets his wish.
#29's Let's Play Poison! is a Ray Bradbury story about a teacher (Mr. Howard) who hates children, believing them to be monstrosities of some sort. He catches the kids playing Poison on his sidewalk, jumping over cracks because they claim that they are tombstones. When Mr. Howard goes outside to ask them why they are playing this, they explain it to him and tell him that the name stamped on the concrete is the name of the person buried there. When the city is ripping up his sidewalk to install new drain pipes he loses his mind with all of the noise. The children push ol' Mr. Howard too far, and let's just say that he finds out the truth about the game the hard way.
It's tough to pick a favorite from issue 30, but after some careful consideration I give the prize to Ghastly Graham Ingels' masterwork, Notes To You! People in a small town start getting letters, first a man stating that his wife is cheating on him, then an employer gets one accusing an employee of embezzlement, and finally, the townsfolk all get letters stating that the local bank is using their funds unwisely and are in danger of going belly up, resulting in everyone making a mad dash for everyone to withdraw all of their money. The poison pen notes are all the work of one man, a bitter and cantankerous fella who, in the finest of EC ironic twist endings, gets his.
The best story in this entire book also gets props for possibly being my favorite EC story in my marathon thus far. Graham Ingels is an absolute master, with his artwork being a creepy crawly Gothic affair. No photoshop back then, just pure craftsmanship. One Good Turn is one of the most f-ed stories that I have ever read, and I love it. Jennifer, a sweet looking elderly lady, comes home. She calls to her husband, Edwin, who has been paralyzed and bed ridden for the past eight months, and tells him about her day. She proceeds to tell him how happy she is now that she's helping people by making them happy. She recounts how she made a bum happy...by stabbing him. How she made a lady that she met at the park whose husband had left her happy...by bashing her head in with a rock. How she made a blind man selling pencils happy...by pushing him out into traffic. Yes kiddies, Jennifer is quite insane! She reminisced as she got into bed with Edwin after her long day about how sad he was four months ago when he was laying there unable to move, tears streaking down his cheek as she recounted the events of her day, so she made him happy by making him hot chocolate...laced with cyanide! She is disturbed in the middle of this story by a knock at the door. I've spoiled a fair amount of this story but will save the classic EC twist ending for you.
These comics look great because of the artwork of course, but one of the things that have helped them age well is the mechanical Leroy pantograph lettering device used to letter the caption boxes and word balloons. These sets were used in technical writing and were a tool used in drafting. I priced them out, and you can get a vintage set for under $20. Tempting...I'd prefer a computer font that was compatible with Windows. Hell, I'd even use it as my o-fish-al blog font if I could. 
The Vault Keeper says there's only 24 shopping days 'til Christmas!
While I am thrilled that Fantagraphics is re-releasing these in artist centric collections and Dark Horse is continuing on with the EC Archives, I rest easy knowing that I own all of the New Trend and New Direction titles in these Annuals. I ordered all of them in one fell swoop from Russ Cochran nearly two years ago and they arrived in a big crate on my front porch. Opening it was like opening the treasure of the Ark of the Covenant or something. I have been reading them slowly, savoring them, content in the knowledge that nothing but greatness awaits me as I bounce back and forth between the various titles. I will of course continue picking up the EC Archives as they are released but these Annuals are my insurance policy.
Junk Food For Thought rating: 5 out of 5.
The OCD zone- If you do not know what an EC Annual is, then pull up a chair and I'll give you the skinny on these great books. Gemstone overprinted their single issue reprints in the '90s with an eye toward selling their own back issues. They re-purposed this overstock by gluing 5 entire issues into a cardstock cover. While this is not technically a trade paperback (it has no ISBN), it is squarebound and has the title on the spine. Close enough for Rock and Roll in my book.
These EC Annuals can be ordered directly from Russ Cochran at his site for a paltry $7.50 each. You can't find a better entertainment value for that price anywhere.
DVD-style Extras included in this book: None.
Linework restoration rating: 5 out of 5. William Gaines kept the original artwork, or filmed it, and so what you have here are superb presentations of this material with no line dropouts.
Color restoration rating: 5 out of 5. The color palette is entirely faithful to the original issues with the exceptions of the covers. Marie Severin recolored them all for the EC Library sets, and those same versions are found here. Some of the blacks on the interior pages look weak, but that is the result of the water based inks used in the 1990s.
Paper rating: 3.5 out of 5. The comics themselves are printed on the mando/heavy pulp paper of the day, while the covers are presented on the original slick cover stock. Some folks prefer this comic book feeling paper. I prefer paper with a little more heft. Your mileage may vary.
Binding rating: 4.5 out of 5. The glued binding is over 15 years old and has nary a creak when you flip through it.
Cardstock cover coating rating: 4 out of 5. There isn't much in the way of coating, but this book has a nice thick cover and a fair amount of flex.


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