Zero Hour And Other Stories graphic novel review

Fantagraphics offer up another compendium of EC Comics sci-fi shorts, but do they hold up?

Before the company’s implosion in the wake of Seduction Of The Innocent‘s moral witch hunt, EC filled the newsstands with thrilling titles whose diverse subject matter – horror, science fiction, romance, humour – belied a handful of constants, namely the firm hand on the tiller of boss Bill Gaines, editors Harvey Kurtzman and Al Feldstein, and the pristine artwork of one of the most talented pools of artists in this often overlooked age of comics.

While the likes of Wally Wood, Joe Orlando John Severin and Frank Frazetta later found work at the Big Two or in Hollywood, many quietly slipped under the radar when the age of the anthology gave way to the age of the superhero. Jack Kamen, who died in 2008, was one of those incredible creators who left comics behind when EC was declawed.

EC’s adventures into sci-fi had begun by plagiarising veteran author Ray Bradbury, but by 1953, they were doing so with the author’s blessing. Though the Bradbury adaptations in Weird Science and Weird Fantasy (and Weird Science-Fantasy!) compiled in Zero Hour And Other Stories are only three out of 20, they set the tone of the book perfectly.

All bitter ironies and pyrrhic victories, these short sharp future fables come with the same wicked, often blackly comic sting in their tail as EC’s better-known horror titles and Jack Kamen proves his status immediately with dizzying detail – faces forever contorted in horror or shock, eyes wide with desperation, and clothes hanging slack with sweat as events unravel.

The artist cut his teeth on romance comics before EC had him drawing cutting teeth in the likes of Tales From The Crypt, and his skill at beautiful dames, lovelorn lab assistants and hen-pecking housewives was abused to its full.

Even within Zero Hour’s glorious selection box of rogue robots, shrinking serums and suspended animation, forbidden or unrequited romance is rarely far from the page, giving Kamen plenty of room to draw Fifties pin-ups in peril.

Although the sexism is obviously a product of the era– patronising, perhaps, but hardly malicious – that the problem hasn’t exactly gone away over half a century later might make it difficult to see past EC’s depiction of women and appreciate that his depiction of men – faithless husbands, lustful loners and abusive elders – isn’t hugely flattering either, despite their privileged status.

While this says a great deal about the gender politics playing out in the background while these strips were put together, it says as much about perceptions of immorality too. The constant sense of ‘be careful what you wish for’ (usually what they wish for is women) that hovers over each conclusion tethers the button-down values of Fifties America like an anchor made of picket fences.

A wonderful compendium and a fascinating glimpse into a society that perhaps hasn’t changed as much as we’d like, Zero Hour And Other Stories is also a workman-like masterpiece in elegant storytelling-to-order from an artist and a set of writers at the pinnacle.