Wednesday, March 18, 2015

H.G. Wells and EC Comics


I spent some time flipping through a facsimile of the 1920 edition of H.G. Wells' Outline of History. It's fairly useless as a history book, but still interesting as a presentation of a certain archaic, yet academic, point of view. Wells defers to "expert" opinion, even when it conflicts with his own (which leads to a inclusion of Piltdown Man, even with the acknowledgement that the jawbone doesn't match the skull).

There are two beautiful essays in here. The chapter on natural selection is one of the best things I've read in the realm of science writing, elegantly presenting the simple idea of change over time. The other deals with the mis-understanding of the idea of races of man, pointing out that the arbitrary division of humans into three categories derives from the bible and not from scientific inquiry. For anthropology, there aren't pure and unchanging races, but general groups that often share each other's characteristics.

The largest problem with the book is that Wells follows a common error of this period: after presenting the possible "Aryan" ur-language group, he assumes that there was an actual Aryan people who were the ancestors of the 20th century's dominant Europeans. Everyone else then gets lumped into their typical stereotypes. Semitic people are good at commerce and Africans don't develop a real language. Oh, and the Japanese apparently use their feet to pick up objects as chimpanzees do.

There is also a weird assumption that all pre-historic peoples were strictly patriarchal, going so far as to mention local goddesses only in an aside about gods having wives just like men do. It's especially weird when looking at all the included illustrations of pre-historic art. There are an awful lot of sculpted women found at archaeological sites at this time, and they don't seem suppliant at all.


This is another entry into the world of books about EC Comics, not really a history of the company but more of a presentation of each individual artist. There's a chapter for every worker at EC (even giving colorist Marie Severin a few well-deserved pages) drawing from interviews in various fan magazines. There are some new art pieces caricaturing the old staff, and a good assortment of non-EC and personal art showing the range of each illustrator. And every talent presented has a story reprinted after their chapter.

As always, the artwork is astounding, and it isn't surprising to hear every artist express a love for drawing comics that kicked in when they were children. Upon reading the stories however, one sees how much of this talent was wasted on second-rate storytelling. It's fascinating to see how mainstream comic books haven't changed at all in over fifty years. Most of what is presented falls into the realm of fantasy revenge stories or "message" stories that hit the reader over the head with a moral. Outside of the Ray Bradbury adaptions, where his voice still comes through on the wordy EC pages, these comics would be nothing without their amazing illustrators. If there's a nostalgia here, it's one for a world where craftmanship held a priority, even for mediocre commercial art.

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