Four Color Fear: delightful horror comics from the pre-Code era

Fantagraphics' collection Four Color Fear: Forgotten Horror Comics of the 1950s, edited by Greg Sadowski, is a wonderfully creepy hurtle through the exuberant, cheerfully gross and icky horror comics that prevailed in the golden, pre-Comics-Code era. Four Color Fear focuses on the B-list comics, the non-EC titles that most of us have never seen in reprint before, and features hand-picked gems that range from outright psychedelia to gothic grossburgers full of shambling zombies, flying heads, puckered walls of human-devouring flesh, bogeys, creepies, crawlies and madness.

Most of these are morality plays of some kind, but they feature funny lessons -- stories where the wronged wreak terrible, poetic vengeance on the wicked and walk away scott free; as well as plenty of tales in which the wicked get their comeuppance and everyone involved is punished alongside of them. There is exposition in plenty, and lots of the sort of surprise ending that Damon Knight called "Jar of Tang stories" ("For you see, we are all living in a jar of Tang!").

Whatever the merits or demerits of the story, the art is brilliant: indistinct piles of slimy viscera, purple-green zombies, skull-faced vampires and demons, Satan in a dozen guises, witches and occult symbols, creatures from the eleven hells of the darkest mythos of the human spirit. This is the stuff that's drawn me like a moth to a flame for as long as I can remember, the Basil Wolverton-y, Big Daddy Roth-y, Marc Davis-y, Elvira-y spookhouse stuff that makes no apologies for its exploitative nature (Fantagraphics has a great Flickr set of images from the book, and I've put some of my favorites after the jump).

And if you need some scholarship with your atavistic thrills, have no fear: the fascinating endnotes that close the book are filled with sharp analysis and great context for these forgotten treasures.

Four Color Fear: Forgotten Horror Comics of the 1950s


  1. The last year has been solid gold for horror comic collections. I think Four-Color Fear might be the one with my favourite strip in, where some couple’s friend convinces them they’ve killed him and he’s returned from the grave, so they feel obliged to let him live in their house, where he’s brilliantly obnoxious – basically a Rodney Dangerfield character in a corpse suit. Of course he ends up being ‘exorcised’ (the solution paralyses him) and buried alive, ha ha! But it’s the scenes where he just basically jerks them around that make it so great – grossing them out by cooking them horrible dinners, smoking cigars and so on.

    Anyway, the whole book is brilliant whether this story is in it or not. If not it might be in The Horror! The Horror!, which I believe has also been featured on BB and is just as great.

    1. It’s in there. It’s called “The Corpse that Came to Dinner.” Also not to be missed: 10 Cent Plague–a prose overview of horror comics and The Horror, The Horror– a collection similar to Four Color Fear. THTH is better designed and has more covers, but FCF has more actual stories.

  2. If the third and fourth images do not depict Basil Wolverton art, I’ll eat my hat! (Hmm. Not the third one actually, but it is Wolvertonian. The fourth one for sure. Also I’m not wearing a hat.)

  3. This is the best compilation of 1950’s non-EC horror stories yet done. Most of the stories are well-chosen, both for art and story. The restoration work (fixing off-register color, correcting drop-outs, etc.) is superb, especially considering these were mostly the cheesiest companies printing the cheapest way possible.”THTH” is a worthy tome, too- it does have many more covers, but the author’s psycho-babble makes it almost unreadable. Hope there’s a FCF Volume 2 some day, focusing on the REALLY gory/outre stuff. Not enough decapitation for my tastes…

  4. Mad magazine dumped their comic format mostly to avoid the comics code out of principle more than anything else. The sophomoric humor presented by Mad wouldn’t really set off the censors, they just didn’t want to take a chance. The magazine format became quite vital after that, culminating in the 80’s with Eerie, Epic Illustrated and (I hate to say it) to a lesser extent, Heavy Metal. Epic wasn’t supposed to be sold to minors, but we could still buy cigarettes back then, so clerks never really paid attention one way or the other. Ah, for the days when the government didn’t feel the need to interfere in a person choosing his or her own path to hell.

  5. Actually MAD had several run-ins with the censors: Issue 5 was “banned in Boston” and received low distribution due to its violent cover, their parody of “A Night Before Christmas” was targeted, and MAD (not the horror books) was targeted and investigated by the FBI (the file was released and is out there on the internet somewhere)There are other instances I can’t recall off the top of my head. Part of the reason it became a mag was Kurtzman’s desire to get out of the comic book slums and be a accepted as a *serious* humorist.

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