50 Girls 50

50 Girls 50 front cover

Seattle publisher Fantagraphics are currently reprinting
EC’s hugely influential line of comics from the 1950’s –
this is the third volume in their EC Comics Library

50 Girls 50 and other stories
illustrated by Al Williamson

Between 1950 and 1956 EC Comics enjoyed an almost unparalleled run of success publishing a range of groundbreaking horror, science fiction, war and crime comics whose influence can still be felt to this day. Anthology titles like Tales from the Crypt, Weird Science, Two-Fisted Tales and Crime SuspenStories proved hugely popular and EC quickly gained a reputation as a publisher of top quality, entertaining comics. To help create such a diverse selection of titles publisher Bill Gaines and editor Al Feldstein called upon the capabilities of possibly the most diverse and talented collection of artists ever assembled in the industry. Concentrating on one artist per volume Fantagraphics are currently reprinting EC’s back catalogue with 50 Girls 50 showcasing the work of Al Williamson.

At first glance the combination of Williamson and EC doesn’t seem an obvious or winning one. On the one hand there was EC Comics, whose range of noir twist-in-the-tale stories reflected the cynicism of a post-war, and increasingly paranoid America struggling to adjust to the birth of the new atomic age. On the other there was Williamson, whose work demonstrated a streak of heroic romanticism combined with a meticulous, almost delicate, art style and who cited renowned artists Alex Raymond (creator of Flash Gordon) and Hal Foster (Prince Valiant) as major influences as well as illustrators Franklin Booth and JC Coll. And at 21 years old Williamson was one of the youngest and least experienced artists to work at EC. But against all expectations he thrived at the company, honing his skills over a four year period and emerging as one of the industry’s most exciting and talented artists.

However, Williamson’s method of working was unusual and he often produced his work in partnership with other artists. Most comic book artists work in conjunction with an Inker – the artist draws in pencil and passes his work over to an Inker for embellishment – a tried and trusted formula that’s practiced industry-wide. Williamson went a step further and utilised the talents of a group of fellow artists, who were both his friends and peers. The mainstays of this group consisted of Roy G. Krenkel, Frank Frazetta and Angelo Torres  – or The Fleagle Gang as they were labelled by fellow artist Harvey Kurtzman – and they worked as a tight-knit unit with each artist playing to his particular strengths. Although Williamson was adept at drafting figures he disliked drawing backgrounds or machinery and so handed those chores over to Krenkel, who clearly relished those assignments. Williamson was also apprehensive of inking so utilised Frazetta and Torres to embellish and, where necessary, improve his work. Today, in the era of ‘superstar artists’, this practice of working is almost unheard of but back in the early days of the comic book industry, where deadlines were often incredibly tight, this type of collaboration wasn’t so uncommon. All the members of The Fleagle Gang appeared to be in almost perfect harmony with each other and often it’s difficult to spot where one artist’s work ends and another begins.

As with most of EC’s output the quality of the stories themselves fluctuates from tale to tale. Most of the 34 stories included in this volume (comprising nearly all of Williamson’s work for EC) were originally printed in EC’s science-fiction comics (Weird Fantasy and Weird Science) and were written by Gaines and Feldstein. The bulk of the stories work well, with By George!, 50 Girls 50 and the three Ray Bradbury adaptions (The One Who Waits, I, Rocket and The Sound of Thunder) amongst the best. Sadly Gaines and Feldstein’s obsession with twist endings often trips them up and stories such as Space-Borne! and Snap Ending!, despite being beautifully rendered by Williamson and friends, are all but ruined by their silly ‘shock’ endings. And many of the stories suffer from overwriting, a common trait of Gaines and Feldstein’s stories.

50 Girls 50 inside pages

All of the stories included in 50 Girls 50 are reprinted in chronological order, a nice touch that allows the reader to follow Williamson’s growth as an artist culminating in the final, and best realised story in the volume: Food For Thought. Written by Jack Oleck and drawn by Williamson and Krenkel, the story is as bravura a piece of comic book storytelling as you’re ever likely to read. Krenkel’s stunningly detailed and evocative opening panel immediately grabs the reader’s attention (so impressive was this opening image that original EC colourist Marie Severin left most of the page untouched so as not to lessen its impact), while Williamson’s beautiful figure drawing, initiative panel design and use of photo reference combine to make the story a visual delight. I’m sorely tempted to say that this story is worth the price of this collection alone but that might give the impression that the rest of the book isn’t up to snuff – let’s just say that the best is definitely saved for last.

As with the other volumes in this series the stories are bookended by essays and biographies on the artist as well as text commentaries on the tales themselves. The book also includes three extra stories drawn by Krenkel, Frazetta and Torres (the only solo stories the three contributed to EC) and a Williamson drawn story for a proposed, then cancelled, 3D comic.

In previous reviews I’ve made a point of highlighting the superb quality of printing and reproduction found in the EC Comics Library, and while the books look as lush as this I’ll continue to do so. For an artist like Williamson, who utilised such delicate line work and who relied so heavily on Craftint (treated art paper that revealed a crosshatched or dotted effect when a chemical was applied), poor printing would be a real impediment for anyone trying to fully appreciate his work. I’m happy to say that his work has never looked better and Fantagraphics are to be congratulated for the continuing high quality of these volumes.

Williamson’s relationship with EC came to an end when pressure from the newly formed Comics Code Authority forced Gaines to close all but one of his titles in 1956. He found work with other comic book publishers before settling down to spend the remainder of his career working on newspaper strips and, ironically, as an inker for other artists. Towards the end of his career he tended to downplay the influence of his EC work, writing off his earlier work as overrated. But it’s his work during that four year period that endures and still retains the power to delight and mesmerise. After reading this comprehensive collection it’s easy to see why.

50 Girls 50
Publishing by Fantagraphics, March 2013, 280 pages
ISBN-10: 1606995774

50 Girls 50 back cover