By Tegan O’Neil

On the twenty-first day of April in the year 1954 William C. Gaines testified before the United States Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency, convened for a special session in New York City. The subject at hand was comic books, specifically the notoriously gruesome crime and horror comics that rose to prominence in the United States in the aftermath of the Second World War. Gaines was the owner and publisher of EC Comics, godfather to the likes of Tales from the Crypt and Shock SuspenStories. He was also at that moment crashing hard from amphetamine withdrawal.

Gaines really wasn’t supposed to be a comic book publisher, is the thing. He only was on account of his dad having died in 1947, in a boat accident. The elder Max Gaines had founded All-American Publications. All-American merged with National in 1946. National eventually became DC. Max Gaines sold his shares and split after the merger, with only the rights to Picture Stories from the Bible under his arm to start a new company called Educational Comics. Whatever had been the plans for his company and his Bible stories, they vanished when his son took the reins. Educational became Entertaining in short order. Bill Gaines launched EC proper in 1949, and within five years he was being dragged in front of the United States Senate to defend the content of his magazines. 

By the way, do you happen to know how old Gaines was when he was dragged before Congress? Thirty-two. One can only imagine it was all downhill from there. 

And that’s why American comics evolved the way they did. A long time ago there was a brief moral panic based on poor social science and lazy reporting. A cartel of publishers used the cover of said moral panic to put the hurt on a handful of other publishers who had been lapping the field on account of their lurid and sensationalistic content. Gaines found himself left out in the cold while the Comics Magazine Association of America – the industry organization founded by said cartel in the wake of the hearings – enforced a draconian censorship regime across the industry. The new Comics Code hurt the publishers of Superman and Archie not at all. (Of all the major publishers only Dell never wore the code, a decision made under the sound logic that the Disney license held all the imprimatur needed.) In any event, the result was that every comic book character in the country sang from the same hymnal for decades – all save Donald Duck, who answered to a higher power. 

Now, the postscript is the important part here: Gaines tried to fix his business to adhere to the new content guidelines that emerged from the period surrounding the hearings. Produced a line of significantly less sensationalistic thriller books with stirring names like M.D. and Psychoanalysis. Whether or not Gaines last attempt would have worked, EC’s New Direction was scuttled almost before it began. Gaines was driven out of the comic book business after the cartel told wholesalers not to sell Gaines’ books. So what did he do? That’s the brilliant part: he moved over a couple inches. That’s all. 

EC’s sole surviving property was the deathless Mad, created by Harvey Kurtzman at the height of the company’s popularity (and left by Kurtzman after Gaines refused to give Kurtzman an ownership stake in the book). Gaines changed the color comic to a black & white magazine with issue #24, a decision made initially to entice Kurtzman to stay. In a stroke all the problems that had plagued EC during its heyday as a comic book publisher more or less evaporated, at least in terms of the existential struggle that consumed the company’s previous incarnation. The magazines were always still stocked next to the comic books, though. Some newsstands even just jammed the magazine-proportioned Mad into the comic-sized spaces of the wire racks, leastwise when I was a kid. It was a comic book in every way except for the one way that mattered, i.e., it was no longer in direct competition with the cartel that had pushed him out of the comic book business. He escaped the draconian content restrictions of the Code entirely. You could draw an exit wound in Mad.   

What does that have to do with anything? Perhaps a more pointed contrast: Dennis the Menace debuted in American newspapers on 12 March 1951, whereas Dennis the Menace also debuted in British comic books on 17 March 1951. Two different Dennises, two very different threat levels. One of them is a menace only in the sense that all naturally curious and imaginative children were considered threats to the commonweal in 1951. Dennis Mitchell hails from a town so anodyne they had to be sued to stop conversion therapy against Episcopalians. The British version on the contrary looks quite spicy indeed. I wouldn’t know, my newsagent stopped carrying The Beano when I told him this was the United States in 2021 and we no longer had newsstands or newsagents. 

If you asked me to define the historical differences between the American and British system of making comic books, I would probably begin by saying that American comic book creators and publishers alike fought for decades to win freedom from punishing content restrictions imposed at the height of a conservative moral panic when a cartel used its leverage to impose onerous restrictions on competitors. In response to these hard caps on content and genre the industry was forced to expand laterally, exploring deeper veins of melodrama, character development, and fantastic imagery – all stuff that wouldn’t run afoul of censors. The Marvel books of the 1960s developed the way they did as a creative response to multiple forms of restriction. 

In Britain, however, you could just go ahead and publish Shako. No one was going to stop you. Just fucking do it. 

British comics had different restraints. They may not have had the Code but they often had to tell a complete story within a ludicrously small amount of space, sometimes as little as five pages. American creators often struggle to fill twenty-one pages and British creators often struggle to cut down to seven. I appreciate the density. Decompression and the devaluation of narrative captions both have sapped much of the density and vitality from American comic books. There’s a lot of energy in a single page of Shako. Events occur at a fair clip. Themes can’t be teased or nuanced, it’s the way of the sledgehammer or nowt

Shako was created by Pat Mills and Juan Arancio, and first appeared in the twentieth issue – er, “Prog,” sorry, fan-addicts – of 2000 AD. Mills of course needs no introduction as cocreator of Marshal Law, as well as a few other characters of note. Arancio is an Argentinian artist who apparently did little work in the world of English language comics but instead became a respected fine artist in his native country.  His website lists a career’s worth of accomplishments but so far as I can tell not a single mention of Shako or 2000 AD. 

Arancio’s Shako appears both a textbook accurate illustration of his species as well as an expressive character in his own right. The bear is capable of rage and violence but also joy and humor – albeit humor of a bloody kind only polar bears might find funny. Even as the bear spends the entire running time of the story laying down a truly impressive body count, he’s never not a sympathetic figure. Strips with nonverbal protagonists are a delicate tightrope, non-humorous animal strips doubly so. Figuring out how bears move and walk and hunt isn’t easy, the idea of translating that animalistic body language into recognizable emotions without succumbing to caricature one of the most difficult tasks an artist could have. Arancio sets a good pace. 

After the first entries Arancio is succeeded in turn by three more artists, Ramon Sola, Dodderio, and Cesar Lopez-Vera. They all follow Arancio’s design, more or less, though Arancio’s exacting eye for nature gives away to a looser line and more dynamic sense of composition. As the story proceeds the violence becomes more intense and expressionistic. Sola’s Shako is more a horror than Arancio’s, the precise feathering of the bear’s fur superseded by wide jagged swaths of black representing swinging claws and streams of blood.  

Return with me then to that fateful day in April 1954, with Bill Gaines facing down Subcommittee Chief Council Herbert Beaser in the defense of his livelihood, his business, and his art: 

Beaser: Is the sole test of what you would put into your magazine whether it sells? Is there any limit you can think of that you would not put in a magazine because you thought a child should not see or read about it?

Gaines: No, I wouldn’t say that there is any limit for the reason you outlined. My only limits are the bounds of good taste, what I consider good taste.

Beaser: Then you think a child cannot in any way, in any way, shape, or manner, be hurt by anything that a child reads or sees?

Gaines: I don’t believe so.

Beaser: There would be no limit actually to what you put in the magazines?

Gaines: Only within the bounds of good taste.

That swift wet swatting sound you heard was the lurid being slapped out of American comics by the United States government at the behest of a nation’s worried parents. Gaines proved to be the single worst ambassador the medium has ever had: a negative image of Stan Lee avant le lettre, a white-knuckle drug fiend openly proud about selling snuff mags to children. 

And this was the stick they beat us with. The advancement of the form in the United States was hobbled by restrictions which almost necessitated the production of bowdlerized pablum by formula. The medium became stuck developmentally at the moment of trauma: the sensationalistic horror and crime books of the early 50s became lionized beyond perspective, martyred objects in the comics discourse of my youth. It’s hard to see them with fresh eyes, the actual continuously obscured by that dang ol’ chimera of memory. 

The artists who came up against the mainstream in the generation after the fall of EC took it as axiomatic that since the federal government had cracked down on the lurid and the lewd then the lurid and the lewd was thereby the most highly exalted horizon of expression to which the medium could aspire. The Comics Code had done its job well. Anyone who actually wanted to draw blood & guts and all that good stuff in the decades following the Senate inquiry had to go underground. Now, did the fixation on transgression as a kind of political activism hamper the first generation of underground cartoonists?

You can see the torsion of those contradictions at their most pointed in Spain Rodriguez’s Trashman. Published in various outlets from the late 60s through to the mid 80s, the character’s adventures are as close as America came at this point to something resembling the animating spirit of Shako. One of a handful of superheroes produced by the underground comix scene, Trashman was an agent of the Sixth International, an anarchist organization dedicated to fighting fascist governments in the near future of the United States. As you can probably surmise Trashman was an explicitly leftist hero fighting a very violent crusade, and the stories were likewise filled with pretty much everything else you couldn’t do on the newsstands: explicit sex, language, social commentary, in addition of course to the heaping handfuls of incidental misogyny and racial caricature endemic to almost all of the first generation undergrounds. 

But that’s where the lurid in America went, and what it became. There were no limits on what cartoonists could do without the Code, but also little focus – trenchant and profound social commentary regularly bumped elbows with regressive sexual politics. Anyway, in case you were wondering why the American underground tradition harbored such a strong reactionary streak, that’s why. The mainstream allowed for neither explicit politics or sex, no frank discussion of religion, forbade drug use, generally kept the use of obvious slurs to a minimum. You could do all those things in Zap, and sure enough the people making Zap wanted to draw all those things more or less indiscriminately. Everything you couldn’t do in Dell Four Color was all in the same bucket, for better or for worse. For decades every criticism of content, valid or no, was seen as blatant Werthamism and worthy of unremitting pushback. 

Of course war comics still sold on American newsstands in 1977, the annus mirabilis of Star Wars, the Sex Pistols, and Shako. DC still had Sgt. Rock then, alongside G.I. Combat, Men at War, and Weird War Tales.  War comics occupied a slightly elevated status during the 1950s and 60s, for a number of reasons. For one, a lot of good creators had firsthand experience of recent wars and deep respect for the business of soldiering. Accordingly a higher standard of production was maintained for many of the books, especially at DC. For another, the genre had emerged relatively unscathed from the market carnage of the 1950s. This country has always loved good old fashioned American killing, and long regarded an excess of violence in the service of God and country a necessary vice. Somehow cartoonish jingoism heaped over deceptively sanitized carnage didn’t violate the Code – an oversight I am sure! Used to be parents could grab a handful of comics to keep the kids shut up on the three hour car ride to the cemetery, confident in the certainty their values could never be challenged by any publication dedicated to the exaltation of war. Now kids have devices to broadcast the military propaganda into their brains on long rides. 

It’s not that you can’t see a story like Shako seeing print in America. On the contrary, it’s easy to see precisely how they would have done it at any point from the 50s through to Shako’s day. There’d be characters with sympathetic backstories, possibly a flashback to something poignant that happened during the war – a vow to or from a dying comrade, etc. There’d be a romance in the background, something with a fetching orderly at the base – maybe someone Shako almost kills but ultimately doesn’t because even in his fury he senses the essential purity and goodness of white American femininity. The United States would unambiguously be the good guys trying to keep the bear from falling into the wrong hands. I promise you Shako wouldn’t kill anyone, only in past-tense dialogue. And thirty years later there’d be a Black Label label series about the poor CIA men having PTSD from that time they destroyed half the Arctic trying to kill a bear. 

Though you may be shocked and dismayed to hear it the United States is very good at normalizing military propaganda. I’ve written before – and probably will again – on the miracle of Larry Hama’s G.I. Joe, a tie-in comic to a toy line that British readers might better recognize as Action Jack, I think. Action something. Action Men? Fighty Mans? Anyway. Point is, to see that Hama was actually developing a careful and nuanced critique of post-Vietnam American foreign policy still required spending a lot of money on Hasbro war toy merchandise over the course of about a decade. That’s how they getcha!

So we’re left with the spectacle of Shako, a comic that could really only have been the product of a very singular comics tradition. America was stunted, you see, not just because of the content restrictions placed on the mainstream of the form by the Code but by the subsequent overreaction from artists and critics who lionized EC. British comics faced plenty of restrictions, too, but as mentioned above the restrictions that jump out to me at a remove are ones of format.

The British market likes anthologies filled with serials and short stories – a whole market built on the model of Marvel Comics Presents! Strange but true. They didn’t have color features until relatively recently. The writers and artists were therefore all used to dealing with economy. They didn’t have a lot of space and they didn’t have a big palette. That’s why the panels are smaller and the layouts cramped, especially next to their more lackadaisical American cousins, and especially next to their practically stately Japanese relations. One seven page installment of Shako has enough plot for a feature-length issue of Weird War Tales and probably a whole tankoban of Love Hina

That’s why British writers of the old school wrote such dense comics when they came to America in the 80s and 90s. Pouring the same amount of story as contained in your average seven-page 2000 AD feature into the vessel of a twenty-one page American comic book still produces considerable overflow.  

But within those restrictions? I’m not an expert in the least. Perhaps the bulk of censorious impulse may have gone into keeping a watchful eye out for sex, as there’s little of that on display here, nor really the early Dredd. I’m sure there’s plenty to be written on the subject of censorship in British comics. All I can see from this Olympian remove is that they very clearly never had a Bill Gaines with whom to flog nervous parents, or if they did it didn’t take. In America Shako would most likely have proved too intense even for the black & white magazines Marvel published during the period, which bypassed the Code just as did Mad. Maybe something vaguely like it could have seen print in a Warren mag, admittedly, but probably with more unnecessary nuance and extraneous style. Possibly also more babes, though. Americans as a rule usually like to have babes in things.

Both the United States and British comics industries paid like shit during the 70s, and the tradeoff for little remuneration was in both instances a significant amount of creative freedom within a set of fixed and arbitrary parameters. Marvel had more pages and full color, lots of space to develop pacing and characterization, and to play around with double page spreads and collage. There was even a bit of toned-down psychedelia in the mix. British creators of a certain age will conversely often relate the joy of first seeing American comic books filled with eye-melting color and double-page spreads, which often crossed the pond as ballast in ships.  

But take even the most barbed commentary ever published in a Marvel book – say, the first Secret Empire saga in Captain America. It’s a wild story by most standards, climaxing as it does with Cap witnessing the off-panel suicide of Richard Nixon, but hopelessly naive and euphemistic next to even the tamest Dredd. Different tradeoffs create different incentives. Grass is always greener.

Observe then the spectacle of the bear – the only bear ever so honored with a slot on the kill list of the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States of America. An unwitting thief of American government property. A genuine enemy of the state. Who is this bear? Why, he is a freedom fighter. He opposes the American imperialist incursion into his habitat, his home and country. He fights for his people, his family – brutally murdered on panel – and his way of life. The villains of the piece are unambiguous: we are the villains. And by “we” I mean the people in whose name those villainous actions are committed, the citizens of the United States of America.

Because that’s the problem, when you get down to it. Shako knows the score. He’s a 2000 AD serial from the magazine’s first year – about as rough and tumble and electric as comics get – and he’s pulling more reality in his wake than you can find in all but an infinitesimal percentage of our own media – our own American media, that is. Even the fiercest criticism has to come wrapped in a velvet glove or its rejected out of hand. But make the velvet too soft and the only people who see iron underneath will be those who already know. 

What is Shako but the embodiment of nemesis? Our traditions reiterate the same imperative across many cultures: vengeance while sometimes necessary also necessarily destroys its agents. The decision to take up arms in the name of vengeance, even if completely warranted, is still in one act the seed of the agent’s demise. Shako exists outside the invisible boundaries of national contest, he has no stake in the war between the Americans and their Soviet foes. No stake that they have not given him, that is. What after all is revenge but the return of a gift ungiven? 

He is an animal, he is nature – his intercession in human life resemble nothing so much as the thunderbolt of the divine. But he is also still mortal, and still an animal. Even as he defends his home he is corrupted by the act. He learns to kill not as an animal but as a man, with conscious aforethought and great relish. The vessel of divine wrath can never be saved from the flames, ultimately only the flames can retake him. (He is however not killed by a thunderbolt but a missile launcher – same difference to the bear, one supposes.)

Death is only granted after the beast has scoured the area of Americans. The only people who emerge relatively unharmed from the exchange are the native Inuit. I’m certain the illustrations aren’t that accurate, but aside from the dated use of “Eskimo” the natives are treated as more or less the only decent people in the whole tableau. They’re not particularly happy about their backyard being turned into a new front in the Cold War, as you might imagine. The Russians only come in for one installment, somehow portrayed even more oafish and repellent than the Americans. 

Now, this is where you’re probably thinking back and realizing I left something out earlier. Something kind of important. It wasn’t just as clean, you see, as the cartel that ran the industry in the 50s running Gaines out of business by refusing to stock his magazines, no. He stuck it out for a bit. The New Direction titles were all submitted to the Comics Code, beginning with the second issues. It was the only way they could be sold, providing they could be sold in the first place. 

But that wasn’t the specific reason Gaines left off publishing comics. The inciting incident actually came in the form of Incredible Science Fiction #33, in 1956. Incredible had been Weird Science-Fantasy for the first thirty issues, and changed the name with the final four to comply with the Code remit against magazines containing the word “Weird” in the title. (To give you an idea of just how specifically the Code was tailored to hurt specific publishers. Incidentally, they had loosened restriction on Weird books and other horror titles by the early 70s – Weird War Tales launched in 1971.) 

Incredible Science Fiction kept going for a few issues with Code-friendly sci-fi stories, including select reprints from the pre-Code line. Issue #33 reprinted “Judgment Day!” by Al Feldstein and Joe Orlando, a relatively characteristic offering from the company’s sci-fi line that had originally seen print in Weird Fantasy #18. Like many EC stories its essentially a morality play, a brief yarn about unseen astronauts visiting faraway worlds. An astronaut, seen only through the outline of their strange spacesuit, observes a planet of robots riven by arbitrary race prejudice. He determines that the planet cannot be admitted to the peaceful company of the Galactic Republic until these problems are resolved. At the very end of the story the unseen astronaut finally removes his helmet and we see in place of this unknown alien the face of a human being – more specifically, a black human being.

That didn’t pass the Code. They wanted the guy changed to white. Gaines went to war with the Code and won, after a succession of screaming matches over the telephone. Incredible Science Fiction #33 would however be the last comic book EC ever published. Gaines didn’t need to stick around for the purposes of collecting additional punishment. He had proved his point. 

So you see, that’s why I couldn’t get Gaines out of my head, all through Shako. I couldn’t stop hearing that exchange, between Gaines and Senator Kefauver. You know, it’s the one right after the previous dialogue I included, with Chief Council Beaser. Kefauver takes over for a whack at the piñata. 

Sen. Kefauver: Here is your May issue. This seems to be a man with a bloody ax holding a woman’s head up which has been severed from her body. Do you think that’s in good taste?

Gaines: Yes sir, I do — for the cover of a horror comic. A cover in bad taste, for example, might be defined as holding her head a little higher so that blood could be seen dripping from it and moving the body a little further over so that the neck of the body could be seen to be bloody.

Kefauver: You’ve got blood coming out of her mouth.

Maybe Bill Gaines shouldn’t have been putting pictures of dismembered heads on the covers of comic books. Perhaps an overreach, at least from a business perspective. Would I want a very young child reading Tales from the Crypt? Perhaps not. But if they did, the worst they’d get on top of a nightmare or two would be some kind of gruesome morality play about grisly justice meted past the reach of the law. Because when you sit down and read them, you see EC Comics really weren’t very subtle. At all. They were short stories, no continuing characters, dense art in small panels that came with the lettering already finished before the artist began. Not a lot of space to work, absolutely no premium placed on nuance. 

Say what you will about Gaines he was neither a coward nor a hypocrite. The EC line was sensationalistic and often gratuitous but also consistently moralistic in a way that is often obscured in the retelling. The Crypt Keeper is not narrating your story because you did everything right. Kurtzman’s war comics were defined by their often outright condemnation of the subject. Mad all by itself proved to be the single richest vein of anti-authority humor available to the mainstream for generations – leastwise in America – a seemingly silly package wrapped around staunchly progressive institutional politics. For perhaps the entirety of its run the most consistently anti-capitalist mag on the stands, right under everyone’s nose.

At least until they started running ads and got color.

Do you think that’s in good taste? 

Shako could never have seen print in America, you see, not because anyone would have even bothered to read the story to see the critique of the military industrial complex, but because it wouldn’t even have gotten out of the gate with pictures of a bear eating people. Do the people deserve to be eaten? Have they perhaps done something to earn the bear’s disapprobation? Well, that doesn’t matter. We would never know because we’d never get past the blood and guts. 

Not like Shako isn’t a bloody story – I mean, illustrating the opening chapters was apparently traumatic enough to inspire the artist to completely erase every trace of professional connection to the British comics industry. But the blood is American blood, mostly. The head of the American attempt to kill Shako is a cold chunk of tallow named Jake Falmuth. In the opening pages it looks like Falmuth might be set up as a kind of Ahab to Shako’s Moby Dick. He loses a limb in the doing and everything. But like almost every other human in the book he is more or less Shako’s plaything up until the moment he is finally dead. Falmuth’s death isn’t quite as ignominious as the guy who tries to hide himself in a walrus corpse in order to surprise Shako, but in fairness that’s probably the funniest bit in the book. Americans aren’t just the villains here, you see, they’re dumb villains. 

The misanthropy that fuels Shako book and character is an impulse born of great weary disgust, a disgust I think Gaines would have recognized intimately. This profound disgust is born from the certain knowledge that there is under the heaven of god no revenge great enough for the ruin man has visited upon this world, its creatures and people alike. Now, I am no vessel for great revenge, certainly no felony transgressor of divine prerogative. Neither I suspect are you. Talk is cheap. It’s not given us to deliver the judgement of the gods, or woe betide us. What else but hubris drives a man to revenge? 

Shako is merely close enough to god that it takes a while for hubris to catch up with him.

Anyway. I don’t think Gaines thought most of what passed for entertainment in this country was in particularly good taste. At least to judge by the people he hired to produce Mad and the attitudes they regularly expressed regarding the military industrial complex, as well as all other forms of social control including capitalism and religion. Shako only ran for fifteen installments before heading to that great ice cap in the sky, alongside the, uh, ice caps. Made a big enough splash in a short time to have caught my attention from all the way across the Atlantic. He sure did kill a lot of people. They fucked around and they found out. Bill Gaines would have loved Shako. 

So, anyway, a rhetorical question to leave you: two ten year olds, one British and one American, meet in early 1978 while traveling in a foreign land. Each of them carries a thick stack of comics from their respective homes. The two kids trade. The American has a well-thumbed pile of late 70s Kirby – Eternals, Captain America. They’ve got early Claremont X-Men, maybe the very first Byrne issues. Howard the Duck. Batman Family. Levitz Legion, if the kid’s a real nerd. Ditko Shade or Mike Grell Warlord maybe to round out the pile. The Brit on the other hand merely has a half-year’s worth of Progs. They like Dredd the most but the bear’s good too.  

Which kid do you think comes off better from the trade? More to the point, who do you think they think got the better deal? I would never bet against the one that had the bear eating a whole bunch of army guys.   

 

2000AD Prog 20 “Shako”
Script: Pat Mills and John Wagner
Art: Juan Arancio

Letterer: Jack Potter

 

This strange essay exists for one reason: Steve asked me to write it. That’s all. He probably expected something short and funny on the subject, and truth be told at the outset I did too. But turns out there was more meat on Shako’s bones than I accounted for, and the planned pithy one-off quickly became something more resembling a chapter of a book. Which it will some day be.
I wrote this essay out of respect for Steve and respect for this site. I’m grateful to him for printing it and to you for reading it. He’s been a supporter of my work for a long time so I’m happy to stop by and contribute something. Who knows if I might return some day? Perhaps someone will ask me about my favorite X-Man. I bet you’re dying to know who it is.

 

Tegan O’Neil has been writing about comics for almost two decades. She’s written for The Comics Journal and the Onion’s AV Club, both of which won Eisners during the periods of her employment. Additionally she’s written about ten or eleven books of both criticism and fiction, depending on how you count. Her personal blog The Hurting has ran intermittently but doggedly since 2004. That’s where she’s serializing her current project, Oh, What a Rogue, a book-length examination of the best X-Man. The first few chapters are already up. You can also find Tegan on Twitter here!

 

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