Friday, December 18, 2009

Creatures Were Stirring: the noir art (and Christmas nightmare) of Johnny Craig

As a seasonal equivalent to my Halloween post saluting the gruesomely talented Graham “Ghastly” Ingels, I would like to extend a Yuletide tip of the Santa hat to one of E.C’s other two wonderful “lead” horror artists (the third of course being Jack Davis), the deeply, deeply noir Johnny Craig.

Craig’s work is probably the single best comic book corollary to the film noir cycle, because he went from being an artist who perfectly captured the mid to late-1940s guys-with-guns and sexy-gals style of illustration (a style also possessed by E.C. stalwart Jack Kamen), and then, much like the noir cycle, he went crazy stylistically and storywise as the 1950s came to stay. He began working on E.C.’s “normal” comics before the “New Trend” of horror, sci-fi, and “suspenstories” came in. His work for Crime Patrol and War Against Crime is striking but often workmanlike, and although his style is eye-catching, it is the equivalent of a fairly decent but not exceptional late 1940s film noir. As soon as he became the lead artist for Crime Suspenstories and the “official” artist alter-ego for the “Vault Keeper” in The Vault of Horror in the early Fifties, he began to move in earnest from straight suspense to psychological and supernatural horror.

The much-discussed “crispness” of Craig’s work (the result of him being a painstakingly slow artist) remained throughout his tenure at E.C., but his work became really deranged as the months went along. His Crime Does Not Pay-ish artwork became skewed and pop-Expressionist, in the way that the great Fifties film noirs did — think Kiss Me Deadly as opposed to The Blue Dahlia. Craig was also one of the only E.C. artists besides Harvey Kurtzman who wrote his own stories, while the others worked from tales written by Al Feldstein and Bill Gaines. Here, too, he progressed from being a fairly procedural yarnspinner — his early Vault stories are indeed visual delights but seem to have none of the “kick” of the Feldstein-Gaines stories, until he finally let his subconscious take over and sent his characters into a noir hell. To illustrate this, I would point you to Vault 31 (actually issue #20, and given that number in the full reprint series issued in the Nineties), where he delivers an eight-page nightmare that is structured like a short story by Cornell Woolrich, but one of the later, more deranged Woolrich tales (the ones he wrote in the 1960s when he was holed up inside his apartment all day). It can be found here (thanks to the original uploader, whoever he may be — the .cbr file can be extracted in the free RAR extractor).

Craig’s covers also went from being perfectly serviceable drawings of characters in peril to really extreme illos of nasty-ass situations. Here is a full gallery of Craig’s Vault covers and another gallery of his Crime Suspenstories covers found on the great Golden Age Comic Book Stories blog (the title isn’t exactly accurate — there are many, many posts about Golden Age movies, as well as classic cartoon art and lurid paperback covers!).

My personal favorite Craig cover is one that predates Clive Barker's "Midnight Meat Train" story by several decades and also has the advantage of getting all the details right....

The three most famous Craig covers are below, and it’s pretty obvious why they raised eyebrows back in the early 1950s. The dismembered head cover is famous for being used as an exhibit of comics at their most lurid during the Kefauver hearing on juvenile deliquency, and the bullet-through-brain and meat cleaver ones — well, they're decades before their time, and indeed one full decade before H.G. Lewis’s groundbreaking gorefest Blood Feast, which played as kitsch even on its first release, while the E.C. stories still read as very pungent nightmares….

A very thorough piece by Mark Evanier on Craig's life before and after E.C. can be found here. But why am I paying tribute to Craig at this time? Well, he was the writer of, and the artist for, the single greatest E.C. Christmas tale, “… And All Through the House…” Most folks know the story through its inclusion in the 1972 movie Tales from the Crypt, where Joan Collins is the guilty Mum boarding up her house to keep out sicko psycho Santa.

Here, however, is the original Johnny Craig tale, from Vault 35, and it is a wonderfully creepy bit of work. Click here to download the issue (again, thanks to the original uploader, who put up scans of the 1950s originals!).

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