EXCESS HOLLYWOOD: EXHUMING THE DEAD WITH DIRECTOR CHIP SELBY

Chip Selby is the man behind the excellent documentary Tales From the Crypt: From Comic Books to Television, a fascinating look at EC Comics, the 1950s comic book publishing company that challenged the status quo and took great delight in telling graphic tales of terror that kept kids awake at night. The documentary touches on an important part of America’s history, but one that few people outside the comic book realm and free speech advocacy circles know about. With that in mind, I decided to interview Selby in order to generate interest in a film that should appeal to anyone who cares about artistic freedom and censorship.

“I was born in 1962,” explains Selby, “and grew up loving both movies and comic books.” Selby was a kid during a time when Marvel Comics ruled the spinner racks, and his diet of reading material naturally included “The Amazing Spider-Man” and “Fantastic Four.” When he hit the teen years, however, something happened that changed his life.

“When I was thirteen years old, I saw the movie ‘Jaws’ and knew right then that I wanted to be a filmmaker. I was just amazed at the way Steven Spielberg put that movie together, the way each frame was composed.” Selby put his dreams into motion and went to the University of Maryland to study filmmaking and television. He received his bachelor’s degree and then entered graduate school, where he became interested in that pillar of American history that is the assassination of President Kennedy.

“For my Master’s Thesis,” Selby says, “I made a fifty-minute documentary on the subject. The program was called ‘Reasonable Doubt’ and turned out so well that I was able to sell it to A&E, at that time one of the few cable networks, in 1988. It ran on A&E and The History Channel for the next ten years.”

Selby and his wife then moved to Los Angeles, where he worked on a feature documentary called “Incident at Oglala” and then later got a job as a segment producer on “Unsolved Mysteries.” He soon found himself directing and producing his own documentaries again, and did another one on the Kennedy assassination called “The Warren Commission.” The EC documentary came soon after this, but to understand how that happened, one has to know how Selby grew to love the comic company.

“One day when I was nine years old,” Selby explains, “my grandmother took me to the library. On the shelves I saw this great big book, ‘Horror Comics of the 1950’s.’ I opened it and read the first story, which was about a man who kills his wife and stuffs her body down their new garbage disposal. But the disposal was incorrectly connected, and the first time the husband turns on the faucet in the kitchen, this bloody mess pours out into the sink to the shock of the husband and his poker buddies. My first reaction was, ‘Wow! That is cool!’ I became and instant EC fan.” In 1999, after he had finished his documentary on the Warren Commission, the idea for the EC film presented itself.

“I was talking to a friend who said a producer he knew was trying to do a show on the history of comic books. That project never happened,” says Selby, “but it got me thinking, ‘Now that would be a fun documentary to make.’ Then it hit me: Why not do a show about EC and the horror comic controversy in the 1950s? It was such a terrific and dramatic story; it seemed like a no-brainer. In hindsight, it’s hard to believe someone else didn’t do it before me.”

The “horror comic controversy,” as Selby likes to call it, is a dark time in America’s history. Free speech junkies and comic book historians know the story far too well. Comic books were being targeted in the print media as bad influences on children. People like Dr. Wertham (one of the most outspoken of the critics) used their faulty logic skills to surmise that comics led to juvenile delinquency. It didn’t matter that almost every child in the country read comic books, they were still responsible for turning children into little criminals.

When the U.S. Senate held hearings into this, EC publisher William Gaines went before the committee to testify and defend his books. Instead of vindication, he was crucified. “EC collector and historian Grant Geissman,” Selby says, “noted that by volunteering to testify before the Kefauver Committee, Gaines focused all the negativity on himself and EC Comics.”

That wasn’t the only reason EC was singled out, though. The company tackled many social and political issues, as well. One topic it covered in several different stories was racism … a hot button issue at the time. EC’s critics actually accused the company of fostering racism in its stories, a claim that Selby notes “could not have been further from the truth.”

The outcome of these hearings was an industry-imposed code of what could and could not be included in comic books. Oddly enough, the code seemed specifically targeted at EC, and as a result, the company found it harder and harder to get its comics on the racks as distributors and vendors didn’t want to carry them. This code has only recently been all but abandoned by comic book publishers, a move that Selby finds a bit ironic.

“I was rather amused when I read a few years ago that the industry was abandoning the comics code,” Selby explains. “Not only was it completely outdated (of course many would argue it was outdated when it was adopted), but the publishers realized their industry was dying and the only way to resuscitate it was to drop the code and allow comics to be as controversial (or perhaps adult) as possible in hopes of recapturing readers.”

Selby goes on to explain, “Obviously, the code hurt comic books in the short term. I think the period 1955-1960 would be considered by most people to be the dark ages of comic books.” When asked if the code has led adults to consider comics to be kid’s stuff for all these years (while other countries treat them as a viable adult art form), Selby says, “I think they were considered children’s fare from their inception in 1933. Of course, it was only those people who never read a comic book that looked down on the medium. Those of us who read them, as kids and adults, recognized that comic books, like ‘kiddie’ movies of today like ‘Finding Nemo’ and ‘The Incredibles,’ worked on many different levels.”

The combination of the hearings and the code destroyed EC’s comics, but the company still lives on in the form of movies, television shows and other merchandising. One thing it doesn’t do, however, is publish the very thing that made it the entity it is today. Should EC go back to its roots now that the door is wide open and the attacks that were leveled at comics have moved on to rap music and video games? Selby has conflicting thoughts on the matter.

“That’s a tough one. One of the things that makes EC so special is the fact that there are so few of them.” He goes on to explain that Gaines always felt the “horror trend in comics” would someday “fade just like all the other trends.” Selby feels that “it’s perhaps best that we have just this limited run” of EC comic books because had they “slowly faded away, the quality would have no doubt eventually diminished as well” like it has with other things that have overstayed their welcome.

“At the same time,” Selby continues, “I can see the argument for resurrecting EC and doing sort of an updated version of EC-style stories. New writers could bring their own perspective and ideas and would no doubt create some incredibly compelling stories using the main EC theme of comeuppance.”

Selby’s documentary also features interviews with some of the masters of American horror, who were influenced by what they read in EC’s pages. Selby his has own ideas of why these comics influenced people like filmmakers George Romero and John Carpenter, and writers like Stephen King. “First of all,” he says of the comic books, “they are some of the most beautifully drawn comics in the history of the medium.” Artists like Jack Davis, Wally Wood, Al Williamson (who later did the Marvel adaptation of “The Empire Strikes Back”), Frank Frazetta and others contributed to EC’s output. “And many of the EC artists were also film buffs, so their work had a cinematic quality to it.” One filmmaker who realized this was none other than Romero.

“Romero noted that you had to have a pretty big budget to recreate the kind of framing and lighting that a comic book artist can create,” Selby recalls. “But he credited EC with having a tremendous influence on his visual style, and that influence is most apparent in his first film, ‘Night of the Living Dead,’ which had a very tiny budget.” Carpenter was also influenced by the comics, but in a different way.

“As for horror themes,” Selby explains, “John Carpenter told me that EC stories taught him one of the codes of the horror genre: that evil forces must be vanquished, or at least put at bay at the end. Of course, Carpenter himself broke this code quite famously at the end of ‘Halloween.’ But EC’s theme of comeuppance, where the bad guys get it in the end, is apparent in most horror films.” Selby and Carpenter both seem to agree that Carpenter’s “The Fog” had the “most direct connection with EC, with the walking dead returning for their revenge.”

Selby’s documentary obviously appeals to comic book fans, but there is an aspect of it that will appeal to almost anyone interested in the conflicts between government and artists of any sort. “The story of the horror comics controversy and the implied threat of censorship by the government is also quite relevant today,” Selby says, “especially in light of the FCC’s efforts to dictate what kinds of TV and radio programming are ‘decent.’ In a way, it’s 1954 all over again.”

This is perhaps the most important lesson to be taken from Selby’s extraordinary documentary. Comic books may not be the monster they once were, but that chill is still in the air. It’s apparent in every Super Bowl half-time show now, and whenever Howard Stern opens his mouth. It’s the government saying, “Censor yourselves, or we’ll do it for you.” “Tales From the Crypt: From Comic Books to Television” is the perfect example of what happens when an industry caves in to these demands. The lesson is obvious, but have we learned?

Selby’s DVD will soon be available in mainstream outlets, and information on it can be found at www.cryptdvd.com.

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Posted on June 9, 2005 in Features by
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