For the first several years that I read and collected comic books, I had only the vaguest notion that there ever been a publisher called EC Comics. I didn’t know that, before the advent of the Comics Code Authority, there had once thrived a skillfully-executed line of horror, crime, science fiction, and war comics that were, beyond their other attributes, much more graphic than anything one would ever find on the spinner racks of the mid-to-late ’60s. You see, the Code was established in 1954, and EC’s last comic book was published shortly thereafter, in early 1956 — while I wasn’t born until 1957. And though by 1966 I was a regular reader of Mad magazine, I had no clue that Mad was in fact the sole survivor of EC’s line, converted to a magazine format in 1955 to evade the Code’s strictures.* All of which I offer by way of explaining that if the 70th issue of DC Comics’ The Brave and the Bold had included creator credits (which it didn’t), I would not have recognized the name of the book’s penciller, the great EC Comics artist, Johnny Craig.
John Thomas Alexis Craig, born 1926, worked briefly for DC Comics’ forerunner All-American Comics in the early ’40s before being drafted to serve in World War II. Following the war’s end he did some freelance work for different companies, but ultimately found a professional home at EC, where he created the work that would establish his lasting reputation. Among the company’s other regular artists, Craig distinguished himself by his clean, crisp, restrained style; he was also unusual among his talented peers in that he wrote as well as drew many of his stories, and his tales seem to demonstrate the influence of hard-boiled crime fiction and the related cinematic genre of film noir in both script and visuals.
Craig regularly contributed covers as well as stories for the EC titles The Vault of Horror and Crime SuspenStories (the former of which he also eventually came to edit), and it’s one of those covers which, for better or worse, probably stands as his single most iconic illustration. The cover of Crime SuspenStories #22 (shown at right) became notorious when it was exhibited during the 1954 Senate hearings on comic books. and EC’s publisher, William Gaines, was asked if he thought the cover was “in good taste”. As the New York Times reported the next day, Gaines responded: “Yes sir, I do — for the cover of a horror comic.” The public reaction to Gaines’ testimony is widely credited with helping clear the way for the soon-to-follow establishment of the Comics Code Authority, and the subsequent decline, and ultimate demise, of EC’s line of comics. A number of comics fans and historians have pointed out the irony of this, noting that Johnny Craig was one of the more restrained of the company’s horror artists — one who preferred to evoke fear by focusing on the anticipation of or reaction to a violent event, rather than depicting the gruesome act itself. (As John R. Parker recently noted in a piece for Comics Alliance, the most frightening thing about Craig’s Crime SuspenStories #22 cover may well be what you can’t see — the axe-murderer’s face.)
Not long after the cancellation of EC’s last comic titles, Craig moved into the advertising field, where he was apparently quite successful, but wasn’t able to spend as much time drawing as he’d like. He returned to comics (at least part-time) in the early ’60s, working first for American Comics Group, then for Warren Publishing; and then, in 1967, he completed a single assignment for DC. That assignment was the pencil art for “Canceled: 2 Super Heroes!”, a story written by Bob Haney, which appeared in The Brave and the Bold #70 — the subject of today’s blog post.
In 1967, he applied at DC. Recalling the excellence of his EC stories, editor George Kashdan gave him an issue of The Brave and the Bold to draw — a Batman/Hawkman team-up. Craig handed the job in weeks late, whereupon his art was deemed too subdued, even for the relatively-staid DC super-hero comics of the time. Before publication (in issue #70), the pages were heavily retouched and revised as to expunge any trace of Johnny Craig’s style.
Was Craig’s pencil art extensively reworked, as the usually-reliable Evanier asserts? If so, then by who? The issue’s cover was pencilled by Carmine Infantino and inked by Joe Giella (and in fact, their signatures on the cover are the only actual creator credits published in the book itself) — but, although Infantino did do the occasional interior art job for Brave and the Bold, these pages don’t show many (if any) indicators of his distinctive style, to my eye at least; and Giella, as best as I can determine, only inked covers for Kashdan on BatB.
What about the story’s inker? As already noted, the book didn’t carry any credits beyond the cover, but both the Grand Comics Database and Mike’s Amazing World identify the tale’s ink artist as Charles “Chuck” Cuidera — like Craig, a veteran comics illustrator, who’s probably best remembered today as the co-creator and original artist of the aviation feature “Blackhawk” in Military Comics, back in the early ’40s. After Cuidera (also like Craig, as well as many other comics professionals of the era) entered the service, “Blackhawk” passed into the hands of Reed Crandall, who would eventually become identified with it. (Crandall would also, quite coincidentally, join Johnny Craig a few years later as a mainstay of EC’s legendary stable of artists.) Following his return to civilian life, Cuidera went back to work at Quality Comics, inking first Crandall and then Dick Dillin on “Blackhawk” as well as contributing to other features — until Quality folded up shop in 1956, selling “Blackhawk” and many of its other intellectual properties to DC. Along with several of his fellow Quality creators, Cuidera made the jump to DC, where he would work steadily for the next twelve years — mostly on the Blackhawk title, but eventually branching into other comics which, like Blackhawk, were edited by George Kashdan — such as The Brave and the Bold. Though issue #70 appears to be the first issue of BatB that Cuidera worked on, he was a well-known quantity from Kashdan’s perspective, and could well have been enlisted by the editor to do whatever retouching of Craig’s artwork was deemed necessary.
Based on the available facts, I believe that Chuck Cuidera is the most likely candidate for the less-than-glorious distinction of having revised the pencilled art in BatB #70 “to expunge any trace of Johnny Craig’s style”, to use Mark Evanier’s words. There’s no way to know that for certain, however — and unless new information comes forward, most of us will probably never know the truth of the matter.
But what about the story that Craig, Cuidera, and possibly other hands contributed their time and talents to illustrate? Well, it’s another team-up tale featuring Batman, by the series’ regular writer, Bob Haney. Like most of Haney’s Batman-starring tales of the time, the Caped Crusader dominates the action, with his co-star (Hawkman, in this instance) playing a supporting role. And like the two Haney Brave and the Bold stories we’ve most recently examined (#68 and #69, to be precise), the story finds Haney pretty much fully embracing the “camp” aesthetic typified by the then-popular Batman television show.
The villain of the piece is the Collector — no, not that one. This Collector is Balthazar T. Balthazar, a wealthy Gothamite obsessed with collecting the most unique and valuable items in the world. During a party at his “modest little seventy-room mansion”, Balthazar offers to show his bored guests a room they’ve never seen before:
Balthazar is planning to collect the secret identities of superheroes, you see — and although he hasn’t actually acquired any yet, he promises his guests that he’s quickly zeroing in on his “crown jewel”: the identity of Batman. Later, after showing his skeptical guests the door, the Collector heads for his home computer (which, since this is 1966, fills a whole room):
Balthazar spins the dials of the computer’s console, asking it his million-dollar question, and a few moments later:
(“Holy circuits!” The computer has apparently been programmed with scripts from the Batman TV series, as well as all the other data sources mentioned above by Balthazar.)
The first phase of the Collector’s “Operation Proof Positive” is actually a pretty intricate and ingenious affair, as Balthazar enlists the aid of a local crime boss, Nick Cathcart, to stage a break-in at the Medical Arts Building. Batman, who’s cruising aimlessly around Gotham in the Batmobile (“real bored”, he tells us, since Robin’s off on a case with the Teen Titans), hears the police alert and speeds to the scene. He’s a little nonplussed when he arrives and finds the door to his own doctor’s office standing open, but when he finds no sign of burglary or anything else untoward anywhere in the building, he chalks it up to a false alarm and returns to his patrol. What he doesn’t realize is that while he was in his doctor’s office, one of Cathcart’s hoods surreptitiously took an X-ray of him using the physician’s fluoroscope, and is taking that as well as a copy of Bruce Wayne’s X-rays pilfered from the doctor’s files back to Balthazar — who will find the costumed crime-fighter’s and the rich playboy’s scans to b a perfect match.
The coin given to Batman by the “blind mendicant” — who is actually Balthazar T. Balthazar in disguise, of course — contains a tracking device, which will later allow the Collector to follow the Caped Crusader’s movements all over town as he responds to a rash of crimes committed by members of Cathcart’s gang:
After spending most of the night catching crooks, Batman heads back home to stately Wayne Manor to get a little rest — unaware, of course, that Balthazar has tracked him there, and that the villain now believes he has incontrovertible proof that Batman is Bruce Wayne:
Batman immediately takes off again in the Batmobile, and is once again tracked by the Collector — who wonders why the Caped Crusader is ignoring the police alert and heading for the Astorbilt Hotel instead:
(Yes, we’re finally meeting Batman’s co-star, Carter “Hawkman” Hall — a mere thirteen pages into our twenty-four page story.)
After leaving the Halls, Batman puts the next piece of his plan in play; resuming the role of Bruce Wayne, he calls a press conference at Wayne Manor to announce that he’s enlisted the help of Batman against some criminals who’ve threatened to kill him if he doesn’t pay them blackmail:
Now wondering if Batman is in fact not Bruce Wayne, but Carter Hall, Balthazar follows the Halls to the Gotham Museum, after first calling Cathcart to set up a robbery at the same location.
Soon thereafter, in the middle of Carter’s speech, one of Cathcart’s men attempts to steal an ancient Chinese chariot. Carter slips away to change into his other identity, unaware that he’s being shadowed by the Collector:
Carter Hall — both Batman and Hawkman? Sure, why not? But the Collector has to be sure — so, he arranges for another heist, this one involving a rooftop helipad. Balthazar expects either Hawkman or Batman to intervene, but is momentarily flummoxed when they both show up. He’s prepared for this eventuality, however, and manages to dose both heroes with a fast-acting truth serum. But then, when he asks Batman for the real name of the man wearing the Hawkman costume, Batman tells him that it’s Bruce Wayne. Similarly, Hawkman claims that the man in the Batman cape and cowl is really Carter Hall. While Balthazar tries to make sense of this development, the two costumed heroes, under the influence of the Collector’s powerful drug, turn on each other — bringing us to another rendering of the dramatic scene depicted on the comic’s cover (and based on the positioning of the two heroic figures, I’d lay odds that Carmine Infantino’s cover came first):
Batman and Hawkman battle across the Gotham skyline until they finally come crashing down right in front of the Astrobilt Hotel, unmasking each other in the process — and yes, it is Carter Hall under Batman’s cowl, and Bruce Wayne behind Hawkman’s beak. Luckily, Shiera Hall rushes out the hotel door to call their names and bring them back to their senses before they’re seen:
Yeah, if only! Meanwhile, Balthazar T. Balthazar returns to his mansion, only to have Nick Cathcart show up unexpectedly. Nick has overheard the Collector reveal the heroes’ identities and threatens his erstwhile client with a gun, saying he’ll reveal them to the whole world unless Balthazar pays him a whole lot more money. Balthazar pulls a gun of his own, but before either man can shoot, Batman and Hawkman arrive on the scene; having figured out off-panel that they might be able to locate the Collector by tailing Cathcart, they’ve followed Nick directly to Balthazar’s mansion.
And that’s all, folks! The good guys (and gal, if you count Shiera, who didn’t even get to dress out as Hawkgirl during the adventure, and had her given “Earth” name consistently misspelled, besides) triumph, and the bad guys are safely put away behind bars in striped pajamas.
All said and done, it’s a pretty mediocre issue of The Brave and the Bold, with scripter Haney indulging his silliest impulses (take that “second-third-seven story building” business in the panel about eight scans above, for example) — because, hey, this is camp! This approach could be successful, at least partially, given the right additional ingredients; BatB #68’s “Alias the Bat-Hulk” still kind of works, even fifty years later, because Batman’s co-star in the story, Metamorpho, fits in well with a more whimsical tone, as does Mike Sekowsky’s sometimes goofy artwork. “Canceled: 2 Super Heroes!”, on the other hand, features the more straightforward heroics of Hawkman, as well as some pretty bland art by Craig and Cuidera (and whoever else may have labored on the book), and doesn’t work nearly as well.
But getting back to the question posed earlier — does the published art, as we have it, display absolutely no evidence whatsoever of Johnny Craig’s style? Were all such traces indeed “expunged”? In the end, I’m going to have to leave that for others with more artistic expertise than myself to determine. I’m pretty certain, however, that it’s not work that most fans would rank as among the most distinguished of Johnny Craig’s career (or Cuidera’s, for that matter).
Following his negative experience at DC in 1966, Craig turned to the company’s main rival, Marvel Comics, where he had somewhat better luck. Again according to Mark Evanier’s account, Archie Goodwin, who’d worked with Craig at Warren, helped Craig land an assignment on the Iron Man feature Goodwin was by then writing for Marvel. Originally inking over Gene Colan‘s pencils, Craig transitioned to full art chores (pencils and inks) with Iron Man #2 (June, 1968); apparently, however, editor Stan Lee didn’t think Craig had the “Marvel flair”, and after issue #4, Craig was back on inks only (this time over George Tuska). Craig did do the full art for one more issue, #14 (an issue which, as it happens, I purchased new off the stands in the spring of 1969, which means there’s a good chance I’ll have more to say about it in this blog a year or so hence — for now, however, you can check out the the cover at right).
Craig hung in as the more-or-less regular inker on Iron Man through #28, also turning in two more pencilling jobs, for #24 and #25, which he didn’t ink himself. He also did some inking on Nick Fury, Daredevil, and Sub-Mariner during this time, but his last full art job at Marvel was in the first issue of Tower of Shadows — a horror anthology on the model of EC’s classic titles — for a story which he also wrote. Once again, however, Stan Lee was unsatisfied with his style, and Craig’s art was reportedly once again heavily reworked, just as it had been in Brave and the Bold #70, though this time by Marvel mainstay John Romita.
Johnny Craig’s last original work for Marvel appeared in 1970. About eight years later, his name started turning up in comics credits again — surprisingly enough, in DC’s books. This time, Craig worked on stories for DC’s horror anthologies, contributing complete pencilled and inked art, but not writing — and his relationship with the company seemed to fare better this time than it had in 1966. The closest he ever came again to superheroes was a “Tales of Gotham City” back-up story in Detective Comics #488 (November 1979) — a story in which Gotham’s guardian, Batman, never appears.
Craig’s last work for DC, and probably his last mainstream comics work, was published in 1982, in the 300th issue of House of Mystery. Afterwards, he seems to have found that he could use his time and skills just as (or even more) profitably working on paintings and other commissions for fans — such as the one at left, a self-portrait that references that classic, infamous cover for Crime SuspenStories #22 as well as two EC “horror-host” characters closely associated with him: the Vault-Keeper, and Craig’s own creation, Drusilla.
Johnny Craig passed away in 2001. He was posthumously inducted into the Will Eisner Award Hall of Fame in 2005.
This post is being published on December 22, 2016, so I’d like to close by sharing a full-page “public service announcement” that ran in DC’s comics published fifty years ago, including Brave and the Bold #70. Some of the wording is a little dated, and I can’t verify the accuracy of the translations — but it seems to me that the sentiment is as timely as it’s ever been:
*Apparently there were some black-and-white paperback reprints of EC horror, crime, and science fiction classics released by Ballantine Books from 1964 through 1966, which might have in fact given me such a clue, but I don’t recall ever seeing any of them.