Originally posted at Pencil Panel Page.
In the late 1940s and 1950s, the Entertaining Comics Group was well known for resolving conflict through a rather distinctive kind of retributive justice in its horror, suspense, and crime titles. Devious characters who set out to hide their iniquity always seem to fall prey to the elaborate traps that they had designed for others, whether it was inadvertently ingesting their own poison or tripping their own explosives. As EC publisher Bill Gaines explained it, “You broil live lobsters; you end up getting broiled alive… we did have this kind of morality that somebody got back what they gave.” (Which is exactly what happens to the sadistic restaurant owner in “Half-Baked!” from the Feb/Mar 1954 issue of Tales From the Crypt.)
I am curious, though, as to what happens when this storytelling strategy intersects with another peculiar and incredibly grim feature of EC’s revenge narratives, that of spousal dismemberment. I’ve been coming across story after story in which men and women, often wronged and abused, end up literally cutting their spouses to pieces. In a crime story called “The Neat Job!” from the Feb/Mar 1952 issue of Shock SuspenStories, for instance, a wife discovers too late that her new husband is a “fiend for neatness” who constantly inspects the way she cleans and organizes, even going so far as to keep checklists of the number of pills in each medicine bottle. When the homicide detectives arrive, the shaken woman points to a wall of jars lined up in the basement, each precisely labeled with parts of her husband’s corpse: Liver 1, Gallbladder 1, Teeth 32, Heart 1… “Yeah, lady!” one detective exclaims, “You certainly did a neat job!”
In another story that appeared later that same year called “Well Traveled!”, a husband with a passion for model trains is being taken advantage of by a selfish wife who uses all his money for her own cross-country excursions. After she takes two months of his savings for another one of her trips, a neighbor stops by to find the husband in his basement insanely cackling, “Now Bessie’s ridin’ my railroad!” Below him the model trains roll furiously around the track with “gory cargo” stuffed in each boxcar. There are other examples, including the story that is based on Johnny Craig’s infamous “severed head” cover from the April/May 1954 issue of Crime SuspenStories in which an adulterous husband tries to hide his dead wife by burying her body parts in his backyard.
Of all the gruesome ways in which EC Comics “separated” husbands and wives, a strong case can be made that stories like “The Neat Job!” and “Well-Traveled!” strike at the sense of order and control that was purported to be the hallmark of white suburban middle-class family structures in the 1950s amid the turmoil of military conflict, civil rights demonstrations, and an expanding culture of consumption. But working through the retributive logic of EC’s “broiled lobster” morality, I wonder if there isn’t something more to the spectacle of dismemberment that reflects upon the nature of the crimes being committed between spouses. Might this trend point to some deeper psychological fragmentation? The splintering of social and religious marital bonds? A desire to further compartmentalize the body amid the isolation of the modern American home?
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An archive of my online writing on comics, literature, and culture. (Illustration above by Seth!)