Ed Catto: Geek Culture’s Panic Attack
As I watched Fox’s Lucifer the other night, I uttered my all-too common refrain “Oh, that’s from a comic book.” Even I am amazed how often I recite it. The frequency with which we all say that simple phrase is proof that Geek Culture is thriving in 2016.
But in many ways Geek Culture never went away, it’s just that the momentum driving pop culture has gained so much visible traction in the last few years. This week I’m turning back the clock to 1954 to take a look at something that seems unique, but actually isn’t unique at all. I’d like to focus on comic that was a copy of another wildly popular comic. But therein lies the charm. Amazingly, its publication resulted in a ban from the state of Massachusetts, a police raid and an arrest.
Panic was EC’s other parody comic and it’s now collected in Dark Horse’s EC Archives: Panic Volume 1. Panic was created to backdraft its “older brother” MAD. Al Feldstein edited this comic for publisher Bill Gaines. With unusual candor, but with the smart mouth satire we’ve since come to expect, the first issue’s editorial proudly proclaimed, “Frankly, no one asked us for a companion magazine to MAD. The only reason we are publishing Panic is because MAD is selling well.”
In marketing, companies often strategically create fighter brands. When I was in brand management at Nabisco, most of our brands were category leaders, but not all. Cheese Nips, for example, was an imitation of Sunshine’s Cheez-It. Nabisco also developed a vanilla version of OREO called Cookie Time, an imitator brand, in order to keep other companies from making their own vanilla OREO.
And you might know that in fact, Hydrox was the original sandwich cookie and OREO was the imitator.
Panic took great delight in the fact that it was a copycat of MAD. In fact, in issue #4, Panic ran a hilarious house ad, showcasing ‘research’ as a doctor proclaims that of the eight brands tested, Panic is the best imitator of MAD.
Through the lens of today, it’s also fascinating to see how on target Panic’s 1950s parodies can be. The movie satires, now be appropriate for the TCM crowd (I’ll admit it – I watch a lot of old movies), still have a biting and suspicious edge. In the How to Marry A Millionaire satire (Panic retitled it You Too Can Hook a Zillionaire). Writer Al Feldstein and artist Wally Wood begin their story with a peek inside a Hollywood movie studio conference. In the opening scenes, movie executives are planning the movie based on pandering to the female and male demographics. (Doesn’t Hollywood call them “quadrants” today?)
The other striking thing about this Panic collection is that so much of the art is just gorgeous. In particular, the great Wally Wood’s timeless artwork shines as he captures celebrity likenesses, provides a sense of visual humor and renders beauty amongst absurdity.
Panic only lasted twelve issues. But during that time, it managed to seriously ruffle some feathers. The provocative Christmas parody from the debut issue caused the state of Massachusetts to ban the comic. The whole story is a smirkingly grisly little fable, but it was placing a “Just Divorced” sign on St. Nick’s sleigh that sent righteous censors into a tizzy.
It didn’t’ stop there. Issue #1’s hard-boiled send-up of Mickey Spillane’s best-selling (at the time) detective, Mike Hammer, called The Gun is My Jury, was punctuated with a gender-bending transvestite surprise. This led to outrage and ultimately a series of events including an office raid by the NYC police and an arrest.
But the best reason to spend some time with Panic is that it’s fun. If you’re brave enough to be drinking milk while reading these tales, I guarantee you’ll snort some through your nose at one point or another.
Issues 1-6 are collected in Dark Horse’s EC Archives: Panic Volume 1 on sale since January 27th and priced at $49.99. Ask your local comic shop or bookstore to reserve one for you!