115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

The Meat and the Humanity: Holocaust Motifs and Modes of Retribution in EC Comics

Steve Rosenstein, New York City College of Technology, CUNY

In the 1950s, EC Comics provided one of the great extended examinations of post-Holocaust trauma.  This paper examines how writer/editor Al Feldstein and his staff used unstinting displays of gore and putrefaction to express the boundless nature of infinite trauma and the unavoidable corruption of those seeking adequate revenge.

Proposal: 

Inherent in the graphic literature of the Holocaust is the challenge for writers to depict varieties of bodily desecration so severe as to require readers to recalibrate their capacity for belief.  Within the diversity of authorial voices, there is a prevalent commonality that has been little explored in critical studies: how graphic storytellers aestheticized the debasement of Holocaust victims via metaphorical strategies founded in the American pre-Code horror comics of the 1950s.  One of the more varied and extensive treatments of this form of storytelling is found in various titles published by Entertaining Comics (EC) under the supervision of chief writer and editor Al Feldstein.  Unstinting in their use of gore and putrefaction, EC provided one of the great extended examinations of post-Holocaust trauma, with stories displaying a bizarre, insistent sort of wish-fulfillment, adhering to what Holocaust testimonies traditionally lack: causal elements, empowered victims, justice served, and perhaps most importantly, a sense of closure, that some kind of sense can be made of an nonsensical catastrophe.  My paper will show that a powerful subtext in the work of Feldstein, et al., is that the Holocaust not only justified, but necessitated, new parameters for extreme graphic storytelling, and that the work of the EC stable helped to establish the burgeoning belief, carried forward in to all modes of literature, that subtlety would actually betray the true nature of the Holocaust.

Support for my thesis will come from an examination of key stories, and especially their final panels, that recall the methods that led to the garish mutilations relayed by Holocaust eyewitnesses, appropriated and inverted by Feldstein et al. to be utilized as forces against “evil”, rather than as a result of it.  In “Grounds for Horror,” a malevolent butcher who locks his stepson in a dark closet for punishment is put, by some unseen force that befriends the boy, through a meat grinder.  In “‘Tain’t the Meat, It’s the Humanity,” a butcher turned war profiteer sells poisoned meat, inadvertently killing several people, including his son; his wife suffers a psychotic break, dismembers the butcher and arranges his body parts in his shop’s display case.  In “Foul Play,” a pitcher kills an opposing team’s star player in order to win a baseball game; the opposing team subsequently kills and dismembers the pitcher and plays a game using the body parts as equipment (head as ball, leg as bat, intestines as baselines, etc.).  In all of these examples, Nazi methodology – extraordinary abuse resulting in shocking deaths and outlandish physical defilement – is subverted, caricatured, and often employed against perpetrators in a way similar to their own devising. Both comically extravagant and strangely melancholy, the EC stories examine the manifestation of both infinite trauma and the unavoidable corruption of those seeking adequate revenge who are reduced by circumstance to finding it only in the methods of the evildoers.