A mere comic book in 1950, today Tales From the Crypt and its Crypt Keeper are trademarks whose value exceeds their initial medium, much as Disney's Mickey Mouse surpasses the value of his cartoons. And if Mickey means amiable family entertainment, the Crypt Keeper signifies a particular kind of horror tale: one combining brevity, gore, black humor, and moral irony.
Tales From the Crypt is also a multimedia property. Digby Diehl touches most bases along its history, beginning with the origin of comic books, a marriage between newspaper comic strips and pulp fiction. In 1896, Richard F. Outcault created The Yellow Kid, a comedic strip of cartoons about…a yellow kid (allowing its publisher to showcase a newly invented, bright yellow ink, a favorite practice of tabloid yellow journalists). Until the late 1920’s, all cartoon strips were comedic — hence, a comic strip.
In 1933, Max Gaines conceived of reprinting comic strips into pulp books, making him the Father of the Comic Book. In 1945, his partners at Action Comics bought him out and he founded Educational Comics, publishing titles such as Picture Stories From the Bible and Bouncy Bunny in the Friendly Forest. He died in a 1947 boating accident, saving a child's life while perhaps sacrificing his own.
Bill Gaines grew up hating and avoiding comics because they had represented Max, a critical and demanding father. Now Bill's mother insisted that he run EC. He did, changing EC from Educational to Entertaining Comics, and hiring Al Feldstein to draw an Archie clone, Going Steady With Peggy. But Bill soon dropped the idea of cloning successful trends, a standard publishing practice then (and now?), and created what he called his New Trend titles.
The history of EC's New Trend horror and crime comics (Tales From the Crypt, Vault of Horror, Haunt of Fear, Crime SuspenStories, Shock SuspenStories) informs much of Diehl's book, but there is much else. We read of Weird Science and Weird Fantasy, Bill's sci-fi comics tolerated out of love since they never achieved the success of their horror siblings; the GhouLunatics (Crypt Keeper, Vault Keeper, Old Witch); Harvey Kurtzman's distaste for horror, his meticulous attention to military detail in his beloved EC war comics (Two-Fisted Tales, Frontline Combat), and his creation of, and defection from, MAD; EC's plagiarism of Ray Bradbury's "What The Dog Dragged In," leading to a long, congenial working relationship with Bradbury (but who later requested that his name not be put on covers, as he worried that being adapted by the comics hurt his authorial reputation); and the cloning of the New Trend, so that by 1953, about 150 competing horror titles were being published, today mostly forgotten.