‘EC Comics: Race, Shock, & Social Protest’ Author Qiana Whitted: The Conskipper Interview

More has been written about EC Comics than nearly every other comic book company that has ever existed. The vast majority of these examinations focus on the influence of their horror comics line on popular culture and/or the resulting hearings that led to the demise of the company and the creation of the self-censoring Comics Code Authority.

Just when you thought there was nothing else to shine a light on in the dusty tombs of EC Comics, writer and professor Qiana Whitted decided to examine the significance of EC Comics commentaries on race, culture, and social issues of the day. Whitted’s Eisner Award winning EC Comics: Race, Shock, and Social Protest opened up the conversation about these subjects and she continued the conversation with us in this exclusive Conskipper interview.

Where did the idea for an examination of how EC Comics dealt with social issues and ethical/moral thinking originate for you?

Qiana Whitted: Earlier in my academic career, my research and teaching in African American literature and comic books seemed to run on two parallel tracks. Some of the writers that I cherish the most – Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, Gwendolyn Brooks, and James Baldwin – were particularly active in the 1950s, so it was a special thrill to discover the message stories from EC that were published around the same time. Stories like “The Guilty” or “Blood Brothers” from Shock SuspenStories were grappling with similar issues through visual narrative, framed by a different set of conventions, readerly expectations, and storytelling strategies. Exploring these strategies is what my book is about.

How were you personally introduced to the medium of comics and where did your interest in the critical analysis of the medium come from? 

Whitted: I read funny animal comics and newspaper strips when I was a kid, and I loved MAD before I even knew what an EC comic was. I didn’t really start reading comic books regularly until around the time that Image debuted in the early 1990s. Horror and fantasy comics were always my favorite. I started teaching comics at the University of South Carolina in 2005 along with my other courses on African American and southern literature, and my interest in doing more research in comics studies developed from there. Prior to my work on EC, I’ve written about the intersections of race and history in Swamp Thing, about blues history and aesthetics in graphic novels, and even about the numerous comics depictions of Emmett Till.

Were you surprised by how modern the critiques of society were in EC’s comics of the day?

Whitted: Absolutely, I was surprised! But when I first read these stories, I didn’t know as much about how other companies had attempted to relay similar messages in their comics with much less success. Fawcett, National, Dell, as well as smaller comics publishers cautiously experimented with stories that discussed racism or featured African Americans beyond the caricatures of humor strips and jungle comics. But while these titles often ran on a limited basis and were not as profitable, EC found a way to make social and political critique a part of their formula across a variety of genres.

Much has been written about EC’s horror comics.  Did you find any of the same themes and messages in their horror stories? Sci-fi?

Whitted: EC’s distinctive approach to justice and retribution originated with their horror and crime comics, since as publisher Bill Gaines used to say “the EC way was [the culprit] got it the same way he gave it.” The horror titles did not address racial discrimination and other social issues in the same way that the shock comics did, but even in the monster stories, you see the same questioning of social norms and an awareness that modern isolationism and xenophobia are deeply rooted in an irrational fear of the Other. These themes became even more pronounced in EC’s science fiction comics, where the aliens and interplanetary dangers indirectly commented on contemporary issues like religion and racism in stories like “He Walked Among Us”, “The Teacher From Mars” or “Close Shave.”

If you could pick out one particular comic that would surprise a modern American in terms of the progressive nature of the narrative, which one would it be?

Whitted: “Judgment Day!” is the story that really surprises readers who are new to EC and of course, I think there are incredible and innovative things happening in that comic. But one story that I think would surprise even EC fans today is “Perimeter!” from Frontline Combat #15, one of the only EC titles to feature an African American on the cover. The comic was written and illustrated by Wallace Wood and it follows the internal conflict of a racially-integrated platoon in Korea. The story was not out of place in Harvey Kurtzman’s EC war titles, but Wood takes a small but significant step further than other stories by featuring an African American soldier as one of the main characters who speaks up for himself and plays a pivotal role in the plot.

How do you find that modern comic books address some of these issues?  

Whitted: The last two decades bear a lot of compelling similarities with the efforts of the comic industry in the late 1940s and 1950s. When I recall the spike in popularity of genres that dealt with race in science fiction, horror, and fantasy back then, I think about the success of Bitter Root, LaGuardia, Bitch Planet, and the graphic adaptations of Kindred and Parable of the Sower today. Biographical and historical comics like the March trilogy are engaging audiences of all ages in ways once attempted by the Jackie Robinson and Negro Heroes titles after WWII. But unlike this earlier period, it’s great to see comics bypass traditional networks of distribution to find national audiences through independent presses and crowdfunding sites. I’m also really excited by the comics that Ebony Flowers, Whit Taylor, Bianca Xunise and other black women creators are producing. Some are directly addressing urgent social and political issues, others are simply capturing everyday life and relationships.

 Future projects? 

Whitted: In addition to working as editor of Inks: The Journal of the Comics Studies Society, I’m currently putting together a collection of essays on blackness in early American comics with a group of incredible scholars.

EC Comics: Race, Shock, & Social Protest is currently available online and at finer book stores and comic shops everywhere.

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