Book Review: ‘The Horror! The Horror!: Comic Books the Government Didn’t Want You to Read!’

“The Horror! The Horror!” (Comic Books the Government Didn’t Want You to Read!) uncovers a rare treasury of some of the most important and neglected stories in American literature–the pre-Code horror comics of the 1950s. These outrageous comic book images, censored by Congress in an infamous televised U.S. Senate subcommittee investigating juvenile delinquency in 1954, have rarely been seen since they were first published–and are revealed once again in all of their eye-popping glory. Jim Trombetta, in his commentary and informative text, provides a detailed history and context for these stories and their creators, spinning a tale of horror and government censorship as scary as the stories themselves. Inside you can read Ryan Daley’s positive review of Jim Trombetta’s book that features an introduction by R.L. Stine.
Like most people, my knowledge of mid-century horror comics is limited to the handful of E.C. Comics reprints I was able to buy from my local comic book store during my teenage years. But E.C. represented an extremely skinny slice of the horror comics pie, something I learned after reading Jim Trombetta’s The Horror! The Horror!: Comic Books the Government Didn’t Want You to Read!.

Horror saw a powerful resurgence in the early 1950s. As Trombetta writes, “Of the eighty million comics that were released each month in the United States, a quarter were horror comics. From about 1950 to 1955, they were so popular that fifty to one hundred horror titles were released monthly.” And surprisingly: “E.C. only published 3 percent of the huge output of horror books that were available on the market.”

Trombetta’s enormous tome is a love letter to those long-forgotten horror comics of the early 50s, a joyously bulky, 300-page collection of covers, panels, and stories from the era, peppered with random pages of the author’s overly-analytical prose. In fact, Trombetta’s interpretation of the comics is easily the weakest aspect of the book, as he makes inhuman leaps of logic to assign symbolic connections to every sketch and color. In Trombetta’s world, almost all weapons in comics are automatically “phallic”, and any skeletons are frequently posited as possible rapists. Admittedly, he makes some interesting points, and his writing is nothing less than thought-provoking. But sometimes he comes across like a mad scientist horror freak spinning eccentric theories around a campfire at Comic-Con.

Though the psychobabble can be a detriment at times, Trombetta also goes to great lengths to lay out the cold hard facts. The Comics Code Authority put a bullet through the head of horror comics in 1954, essentially banning them nationwide. “Among it’s forty short declarations,” Trombetta writes, “the Code prohibited `scenes of excessive violence’ and the use of the words horror and terror in comic book titles.” You’ve got to be kidding me.

Whether you dig his style of writing or not, there’s no doubt that Trombetta has managed to collect an impressive array of banned comics from the 50s, most of which have which have rarely been republished, if at all, which will be the primary draw for comic book lovers. Featuring 16 stories and almost 200 covers, along with a variety of panels, The Horror! The Horror! is a steal at its current price. Some readers are probably aware of a similar book that was published this fall, Four Color Fear: Forgotten Horror Comics of the 1950s. In comparison ,Four Color Fear features about 40 stories and 32 covers. I guess it all depends on what you’re into. Trombetta’s book certainly deserves more stories, but I’ve got to say, a few of the Bernard Bailey covers really blew my mind.

4/5 Skulls