A Fanzine Editor’s 60-Year Love Affair with 1950s Comics

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There’s this comic-book story about space aliens who try to save our planet from self-annihilation. But they arrive too late: We’d already destroyed ourselves in an atomic war. They land their rocket ship on a chunk of a devastated earth and discover a science-fiction comic book amid the rubble. It contains a story about aliens who look exactly like them, who try to save the earth but arrive too late, and who discover a comic book. And on the last page they see a picture of themselves looking at a picture of themselves, looking, etc., ad infinitum. And one of the aliens exclaims, “Squa tront!” which is extraterrestrial-speak for “Holy shit!”

Al Williamson: art

Squa Tront is also the name of a fanzine that pays homage to 1950s-era EC Comics, a publisher that emerged in the 1940s. The fact that the fanzine is still published almost half a century after its inception is a tribute to the amazement and wonder the EC line evoked in its young readers, and to the deep devotion it inspired. One look at Weird Fantasy #17 proves that this wasn’t normal funny pages fare, especially in 1953. Adults had barely come to terms with nuclear weaponry, and yet the publisher had already released the aforementioned “The Aliens,” EC’s mind-bending, meta-narrative morality fable for kids. That issue also contained three other dramatically downbeat tales, including an adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s apocalyptic “There Will Come Soft Rains.”

Wally Wood: art

Besides sci-fi, EC Comics’s themes included horror, crime, war, and most innovatively, satire, as in the original Mad magazine. Among the gallery of its accomplished artists were Harvey Kurtzman, Will Elder, Frank Frazetta, and Wally Wood, who I recently featured here at Imprint. And Squa Tront has set itself out to explore every facet of EC’s history, through stimulating, in-depth journalism, scholarly analyses, critiques, bios, interviews, and, of course, illustrations. Under the supervision of its current editor, John Benson, it has established a high standard for fanzine professionalism, in both literary content and production values.

The following is the first of my two-part coverage of Benson, who’s been writing about comics since 1956. The interview with Bernard Krigstein, one of EC’s most exceptionally talented artists, that Benson and Bhob Stewart conducted in 1962 has been called “…the most extensive, penetrating, and intelligent consideration of the sequential art form done up to that time, perhaps even to the present day.” The focus of my discussion with Benson is on Squa Tront #13, released earlier this month.

You’ll find part two, a look at John’s other work, including “The Sincerest Form of Parody,” a new collection of the best Mad-inspired satirical comics of the 1950s, here.

Harvey Kurtzman: art

DOOLEY: You’ve been involved with EC fandom from its earliest days, close to 60 years ago; how have you sustained your interest over the decades?

BENSON: I’d say my interest has been intermittent at best. But I find it fascinating that there is so much information to be gleaned about this limited subject, and it’s a lot of fun to mine it, such as the little piece in Squa Tront #13 about the variation in the number of days the various EC titles were on display on the newsstands, and all the internal clues in the comics themselves that support this data. I have to admit that this is really obscure and inconsequential, but it has a certain attraction to me.

Other unearthed information, such as in Roger Hill’s Basil Wolverton piece, is more significant, if you think that Kurtzman’s Mad was culturally important, as I do. Hill reveals that Kurtzman, when he wanted Wolverton art for a single panel in Mad #9, almost didn’t contact Wolverton at all, hoping to use the Lena the Hyena drawing that Wolverton had previously done for Li’l Abner, and that when Wolverton gave Kurtzman two drawings for that one panel, it inspired Kurtzman to use the second one for a cover. That cover, a parody of Life, marked a dramatic turning point for Kurtzman and Mad, the point at which he realized he could do anything in Mad, and not be limited to the classic comic book format. I think it’s fascinating that this wasn’t known until now, and also a little amazing that all the documentation still exists to unravel the details. In the context of Mad‘s influence on popular culture, the details in this piece are not inconsequential. They’re actually rather significant.

But really, as far as Squa Tront goes, what sustains my interest most is probably my love of print media and the pleasure of creating a physical package.

Lena the Hyena; Basil Wolverton: art

Jack Davis and Basil Wolverton: art

Basil Wolverton and Jack Davis: art

How did you become involved with Squa Tront?

I had no connection with the first four issues, which Jerry Weist edited, from 1967 to 1970. Later, I asked him if I could revive it, starting with issue #5 in 1974. He was still “publisher” for issues #5 and #6, choosing the printer for issue #5 and handling the distribution for those two issues. Other than that, the only editorial continuity between his issues and mine is that Roger Hill has contributed to every issue from the first one.

I prepared issues #6 through #9 all the way through to the negative stage, stripping half-tone negatives into the line negatives, etc. In 1983, after five issues, I stopped because it was just too much effort, and my unrelated professional life had become more demanding. Issue #9 was a hundred pages and a massive amount of work. All those issues were self-published, which meant that I put up the money, and for that last issue it was a huge amount. Squa Tront was never designed to turn a profit, and it was really foolhardy to make such a financial investment, with the possibility of loss but no profit.

Also, the distribution system was changing. For example, Bud Plant had stopped being a distributor, and he had been very helpful and trustworthy. That 100-page issue was intentionally a finale of sorts, but was not really announced as such. In 2002, I had more time and decided to get all the old, unpublished material off my shelf. And others also had material, mostly also old, but a few new items, too.

Self publishing had been a nightmare, dealing with printers and distributors and so on, and a key factor in Squa Tront‘s revival is that Fantagraphics, which has the organization to deal with these things, agreed to publish it. They’ve been wonderful, giving me complete freedom, and bringing out an issue without delay whenever I finish one.

Above: pages from Squa Tront #13; Howard Nostrand: art

The latest Squa Tront assumes a good deal of foreknowledge of previous issues as well as of EC Comics itself.

Guilty as charged. But to some extent any specialty magazine caters to the initiated.

If you have no interest in Harvey Kurtzman and his Mad, you may not be very interested in the rather convoluted process by which Wolverton’s art came to appear on the cover of Mad #11.

Well, okay, I admit to sailing straight into the Howard Nostrand interview without any introductory material, but immediately following the interview there’s a lot of Nostrand art that should enlighten, in the best way possible, those unfamiliar with his work.

There are a few references to previous issues, but they’re really mostly addenda items, I think, and they can stand or fall on their own in terms of interest.

How did you get access to Jack Davis’s Boondocker cartoons, which haven’t been seen since the 1940s?

Someone stationed in Guam at the time cut them out and put them in a scrapbook. Recently the scrapbook was put up on eBay where it was acquired by Grant Geissman, who offered to loan it for reproduction in Squa Tront. Grant has been helpful in other ways, too. The strips weren’t dated or we would have dated them. The scrapbook was a mess and Paul Baresh of Fantagraphics did a nice job of making them presentable.

And what are your plans for Squa Tront #14?

My plan is to sit down someday soon and catalog the material and ideas for features that I have on hand and see how it adds up. If they can appropriately appear elsewhere, I may go that route. But another issue is certainly possible.