POVonline

Not that any of us needs any more bad news in our lives at the moment, but...

Johnny Craig, who was one of the keystone creators of the classic EC Comics, passed away last week at the age of 75.  He was one of the most popular artists in the EC stable, particularly for his drawings of sexy women but also for his ability to create quiet, mounting terror in his stories.

Born in 1926, he came to comics some time around 1940.  An aspiring artist, he would hang around the local candy store, where they sold sweets, sodas and magazines, and paw through the comic book rack.  The store's proprietor had a son who was a commercial art student and, one day, he mentioned that he'd heard of a comic book artist who was looking for an assistant.

The artist was Harry Lampert, who was then working for M.C. Gaines, co-owner of All-American Comics, a "sister" company to DC that would later be absorbed by them.  All-American published Flash Comics, Green Lantern and Wonder Woman, among other titles, and Lampert worked on staff there.  He had drawn the first Flash story and was illustrating a strip called The King when Craig applied and was hired.  His initial salary was one dollar a week.

"My job was to keep Harry's studio and files in order, to rule the panel borders and to do the lettering," he once told an interviewer.  "Eventually, Harry let me ink a few backgrounds and fill in black areas."  This arrangement — part-time, while Craig attended school — lasted until Lampert went into the army in 1941, at which time the editor at All-American, Sheldon Mayer, took it upon himself to keep the young man salaried and occupied.

Mostly, this consisted of lettering — including work on Mayer's own, brilliant creation, Scribbly — but Craig was also easing his way into illustrating comics.  "I wasn't good enough to draw for them," he explained.  "But [Mayer] kept encouraging me, giving me little art correction and production jobs.  He kept telling me I'd soon be good enough that he could give me a story to handle."

That had not quite happened in 1943 when Craig went into military service.  When he was discharged in 1946, he married and applied for employment at M.C. Gaines's current operation, which was called Educational Comics.  He was immediately hired to labor in the art department, doing lettering and correcting artwork, and was there to watch Educational Comics turn into Entertaining Comics.

Maxwell Charles Gaines was killed in a boating accident in 1947.  His son, Bill, took over the company and continued the transformation his father had begun, segueing from "uplifting, educational" funnybooks to those that sold.  The younger Gaines soon hired Al Feldstein as his main editor and the three men — Bill Gaines, Feldstein and Craig — formed the nucleus as the line turned towards crime and horror comics.

Soon, Craig was drawing and occasionally writing stories. His first comic work outside the art department appears to have been on covers for Moon Girl in 1947.  Then he began doing the insides, sometimes collaborating with Feldstein on stories signed by "F.C. Aljohn."  During this time, he did a handful of assignments for other publishers, including A.C.G., Fox and Lev Gleason, but always considered EC his "home."

As Bill Gaines developed his three best-selling horror comics — Vault of Horror, Tales from the Crypt and The Haunt of Fear — Craig became an important contributor.  He could most often be found under the Vault of Horror logo and he designed its creepy host, the Vault Keeper.  Late in the run, he took over as the comic's editor and, around the same time, gave the Vault Keeper a comely assistant, Drusilla.  (Once, asked if Drusilla had been added to correct the mistaken impression that the Vault Keeper was a woman, Craig explained, "No, I think it was just an excuse for me to draw a sexy lady on the first page.")

Craig also lent his own face to the EC horror hosts.  In 1951, the company sold "actual photos" of the Vault Keeper, the Crypt Keeper and the Old Witch — created by having Feldstein apply the make-up and Craig serve as model.  The proceeds from selling the pictures through the comics' letter pages put one of Bill Gaines's office boys through college.

From all accounts, Johnny Craig was a slow, meticulous craftsman.  "Jack Davis was our fastest artist and Johnny was our slowest," Bill Gaines once recalled.  "This was not to say Johnny also wasn't our best, or one of our best, but we couldn't always get a story out of him for every book and I regretted when we had to go to press without a Craig story in there somewhere."

Craig once explained his problem: "I had no formal art training...no art training in any real sense.  I learned to draw by trial-and-error, and I continued to work the same way.  I was never satisfied by the first version I did, or the second, and often not the third.  I'd draw things over and over, roughing them out, correcting them until I got them close to the way I wanted.  I usually wasn't satisfied with what I ended up handing in, either, but I had to hand something in."

It was frustrating for the EC crew and for Craig himself, but readers loved his work, especially his covers.  "He did some of our best covers," Gaines recalled.  "Including the infamous severed head cover, which may be the most famous cover ever in comics, and certainly the only one ever to be the focus of an inquiry before the United States Senate."

What Gaines was referring to was the scene on Crime SuspenStories #22.  Drawn by Craig, it depicted an ax murderer looming over the body of a woman, holding a bloody ax in one hand and her amputated skull in the other.  When the publisher testified before a Senate committee investigating links between juvenile crime and comic books, Gaines wound up defending the cover to Senator Estes Kefauver who asked, "Do you think that's in good taste?"

Gaines's reply — "Yes, sir, I do, for the cover of a horror comic" — became the key sound-bite from the hearings.  It was quoted extensively as an example of the company's (and industry's) supposed moral bankruptcy.

There were two elements of irony in having such an exchange over that particular cover.  One was that the illustration, as published, had been toned-down from what Craig had originally drawn.  The other was that it was an unusual departure for the artist.  Johnny Craig generally drew the cleanest, free-from-gore horror comics EC published, achieving the desired uneasiness in the reader via personality and plot.

Some consider his masterpiece to be, "...And All Through the House," which ran in Vault of Horror #35.  In this story (which, like most of his EC contributions, Craig wrote as well as drew), a woman kills her husband on Christmas Eve, then attempts to hide the body before her young daughter can spot it.  As was usually but not always the case in EC books, the murderess meets her own gruesome end.

What is especially impressive — and indicative of Craig's superb sense of story and pace — was that the tale was and remains thoroughly chilling, despite its lack of visible carnage.  The first murder occurs largely "off-camera" and the story ends before the killer suffers her own grisly fate.  Craig left it all to the readers' speculations after skillfully aiming them in the proper directions.  (In 1972, when the movie Tales from the Crypt adapted EC horror stories, "...And All Through the House" kicked off the festivities, featuring Joan Collins as the woman.)

When the EC crime and horror comics were cancelled due to distributor pressure, Craig contributed to their successors — the "New Direction" line and then to the equally short-lived attempt to move into black-and-white "Picto-Fiction" magazines.  For the former, he spearheaded Extra, a comic about newspaper reporters that lasted only five memorable issues.

Finally, Gaines was forced to cancel all his publications except for Mad, and Craig — who didn't fit with the humor publication — decided the time had come to get out of comics.  He did a few freelance jobs for other publishers before connecting with an advertising agency in Pennsylvania.

"I worked for them for seven, maybe eight years," he recalled.  "Things went very well — they offered me a vice-presidency — but I never felt like I belonged.  One of the many problems was that I rarely got to draw anything.  I spent all my time on the phone or in meetings, supervising other artists.  When there was the chance for me to draw something, the deadline was always too tight.  I still wasn't very fast and I had to assign the job to someone else.  I've always hated deadlines."

In the early sixties, Craig returned to comics, freelancing for Unknown Worlds and other A.C.G. comics.  This prompted Archie Goodwin, who was editing Creepy and Eerie for Warren, to track him down.  "Archie was very good to me," Craig recalled.  "He was writing most of the scripts, so I was embarrassed to ask him if I could write my own, which was how I felt I'd do my best work.  He said that was fine."

By this time, Craig was also freelancing in advertising but, to keep his clients from knowing he was dabbling in comics, most of his work for A.C.G. and Warren was signed, "Jay Taycee."  The moniker was derived from his own full name — John Thomas Alexis Craig.  By any name, the work was excellent, but Craig's efforts to work for the "big two" — DC and Marvel — were not as successful.

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.

In 1968, when Archie Goodwin moved over to work for Marvel, he and the editors attempted to establish Craig as the new Iron Man artist.  The feature, then drawn by Gene Colan, was appearing in a 10-pages-per-month slot in Tales of Suspense, but was slated to spin-off into its own comic in the foreseeable future.

Craig was indoctrinated by inking Colan's pencils but, when the monthly Iron Man comic began and Craig attempted to take over its pencilling with #2, no one was happy.  Johnny could not cope with the deadlines and Stan Lee did not feel he had the "Marvel flair."  After a few issues, George Tuska was brought in to pencil the strip, and Craig returned to inking, on that book and others.

The following year, when Marvel launched two "ghost" comics, some there felt they'd found a place to better utilize the skills of Johnny Craig.  He wrote and drew a story for Tower of Shadows #1 but, again, Stan did not feel the result looked like a Marvel comic.  As with Craig's one DC job, the work was retouched so thoroughly — in this case, by John Romita — that no trace of the original artist's style remained.

"He was just inking after that," Archie Goodwin recalled.  "Every so often, we'd try having him pencil an Iron Man or something but it never worked out.  He couldn't draw super-heroes the way they wanted and he couldn't hit the deadlines of a monthly book."

Finally, in the mid-seventies, Marvel began finding non-super-hero, non-monthly assignments for Craig to draw and soon after, he moved over to DC and contributed to their anthology titles.  Said Goodwin, "I don't know how he ever made a living in comics.  His work was so good, but every page took him forever."

By the early eighties, Craig was no longer even trying to make a living in comics.  The rise of EC fandom brought him a flood of offers to do illustrations and paintings and, eager to experiment with different media, he seized on the opportunity.  He spent the rest of his life enjoying his semi-retirement, declining invitations to comic conventions and filling those commissions.

Some were re-creations of old EC covers.  Most were original scenes using the EC horror hosts — Drusilla, especially.  And some were even totally removed from the world of comics — portraits, scenes of horses or pastoral settings, etc.  All were undertaken with one explicit condition: No deadlines.  If you wanted him to do a painting, he'd do it...but at his own pace, no matter how long it took.  Most who ordered artwork on this basis appear to have been very pleased with what they — eventually — received.

Grant Geissman, who co-authored the recent (and excellent) volume on EC history, Tales of Terror, says of Craig...

He was an incredibly kind and considerate soul, and I admired him greatly both as an artist and as a person. He was of enormous help to Fred von Bernewitz and myself in our work on the book, devoting a considerable amount of his time in attempting to confirm his art and story credits.

Johnny had done numerous commissioned oil paintings for his fans over the years, and he put the same energy and focus into these private commissions that he put into his "professional" work. Always gracious and ever humble, he once wrote to me in a letter about one of these commissions that "The painting has turned out better than expected. And I always enjoy the doing."

As a long time admirer of Johnny's work, it was both comforting and tantalizing to me to think that there could always be one more Johnny Craig painting, but alas there will now be no more to come.

There will, alas, be no more Johnny Craig work of any kind — and it is perhaps worthy to note that there was never that much to begin with.  In a career that spanned roughly four decades, Mr. Craig favored us with fewer than 150 stories, most of them no longer than 7 or 8 pages.

That such a relatively small body of work has been so influential and well-remembered is testimony to his skill.  He was an enormous favorite of virtually everyone who encountered his wonderful, unassuming imagination.

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