On May 25, erectile 1950, pills a packed Chicago streetcar missed a signal and plowed straight into a tanker truck hauling eight thousand gallons of gasoline. Thirty-two people were killed in the resulting inferno, pilule and America’s Most Popular Magazine was there to chronicle the tragedy in grisly detail…
…providing your definition of “grisly” is “the stuff of raw nightmares writ both prosaic and real.”
For all of its polemics on behalf of Christian rectitude (Roman Catholic variety) and public morals (“American servicemen using cuss words? Where did James Jones get such a crazy idea?”), LIFE was not above running hardcore necroporn under the guise of hard-hitting journalism. From dead GIs lying alongside some dusty Korean highway to the mangled corpse (complete with bloody drag marks) of a five year old boy who wandered into highway traffic, what bled might not have led but it did find a prominent place inbetween the ad for this year’s offerings from Chrysler and a finger-wagging editorial about the need for universal conscription.
There’s a notion among the more mythstruck members of fandom that the graphic content within EC titles and other horror/crime funnybooks of that era represented atypical currents aimed at freaking the norms. The truth is that the genre’s aesthetics were not terribly far removed from a sense of morbidity which had been ubiquitous since the dawn of World War II, and was chronicled in light-hearted features about Pacific Theater vets mailing their families (or sweethearts) the skulls of Japanese soldiers as well as photographic documentation of what went down in places such as Auschwitz and Hiroshima.
EC’s mistake was pushing things to the limit even as a broad (conscious and subconscious) countermovement struggled to aggressively impose a sense of “normalcy” upon post-war society.
“Forget the nightmares about riding out a heavy cloud of flak in a B-24′s belly turret over Cologne; check out this amazing new gas-powered lawnmower! What, you’re having a hard time adjusting to being a housewife after years of making good money in a shipyard? Let me set you up with some of these newfangled antidepressants!”
The need to reassert control over “the kids” was a key component of this social engineering program, as it was commonly assumed that they’d “gone rowdy” while the parents were distracted by wartime duties. Remember, the congressional hearings over funnybook content were merely a minor sideshow in a larger debate about the (hyper-exaggerated) problem of juvenile delinquency. While LIFE had the pull and the respectability to run graphic before-and-after shots of a suicidal window jumper in a “family” magazine, funnybooks were an easy target — especially where certain publishers were more than willing to help freeze out a successful rival.
Even though funnybooks were made safe for banality (for a time, at least), the depictions of real-life horrors continued unabated and well-within reach of curious tykes. In fact, one of my earliest brushes with existential trauma sprung from my parents’ hardcover copy of The Best of LIFE, in the form of a photo of a Vietnamese woman sobbing over the corpse of a relative encased in a heat-swollen, fly-blown plastic bodybag.
Recommended listening: Pneumania – Exhibition (from a 1979 split single)
On display for your edification and enjoyment, a rather crude composition of fexvox proto-goth most significant for comprising the A-side of UK Decay’s first release. (They also poached the band’s guitarist.)
Viewed by the dark cognoscenti as little more than a historic footnote, it is not without some rough charm in its own right.