Friday, March 02, 2007

Lee Elias at Harvey: Babes, Bullets and Blechh!

Time and time again, we read that the comic book industry had a tough time in the 50s. The advent of the Comics Code Authority coupled with new distraction for youngster such as television made it tough for many companies to find an audience (RIP EC, Quality and Fawcett).

The downside to all of this doom and gloom talk is that many companies were producing comics of a quality that hadn’t been seen to that point and haven’t been seen since. Much of this is due to the amazing roster of talented artists who worked in the industry during the decade. The EC bullpen is certainly the most (in)famous, which superstars such as Craig, Ingels, Cradall and Davis. It could be argued that the Atlas bullpen was just as strong featuring Joe Maneely, Russ Heath, John Romita and Don Heck. Some people may think that DC produced mainly bland comics in the 50s but anyone who has ever read ‘Greatest Comics of the 50s’ has be amazed by the artwork by Frank Frazetta, Ruben Moreira and Alex Toth.

One company that is almost always forgotten in all of these discussions is today best known for friendly ghosts and rich kids with huge heads. I’m talking about Harvey, folks. For my money, Harvey produced some of the finest comics from the late 40s to the late 50s. They may not be known for superheroes, but they published many excellent titles in the Horror, Romance and War genres. Harvey had its own bullpen of fine artists and although they may not be as well known as those who worked for EC or Atlas, they are worth spotlighting. It almost impossible to pick up a Harvey book from this period and not be impressed by the artwork. You’re likely to come across work by such greats as Bob Powell, Rudy Palais and the artist featured in this blog entry: Lee Elias.

Lee Elias may be best know to many fans as the guy who worked on some wacky DC characters (like Ultra the Multi-Alien), or whose name pops up in the occasional oddball Marvel title of the 70s (see Human Fly). Elias actually has one of the longer curriculum vitaes in comicdom. A quick search on the GCD shows that Elias’ first work pops up in the early 40s on Fiction House titles such as Wings, Rangers and Planet Comics. Elias really began making his mark as the lead artist on Black Cat.

Black Cat had been around for years, making appearances in Pocket Comics and Speed Comics. Her adventures were great (drawn by Powell and Joe Kubert, among others) but the stories were brief and hamstrung by WW2 patriotism. In her solo title (still a fairly novel idea that a female superhero could headline a book), she was infused with a mixture of style and energy by Elias’ wonderful artwork. Like so many of his generation, the influence of Milt Caniff is undeniable, but Elias seems to add an extra level of excitement, as his figures seem to be in constant motion. The Black Cat artwork featured here is a good example of what Elias brought to the time; it was exciting and yet elegant.

Of course, with superheroes going out of vogue towards the end of the Golden Age, artists needed to find work in other genres. Luckily for Elias, his skill set was adaptable to almost any genre. Check out the romance page I’ve included here. We’ve got a typical yarn about a girl who falls in love with a rich guy only to find out he’s so rich. Elias is able to work wonders considering his artwork is threatened by the text throughout the story. It’s incredible to see how he manages to squeeze some dancing, a drive in the country and a moonlit paddle into a single panel.

To help serve as a counterbalance to its countless romance titles, Harvey also published a myriad of war books. These are often ultra-violent and not terribly sympathetic to the Communist cause. From time to time, though, a story would be told on a smaller scale - a ‘one man’s war’ type of tale. Lee Elias excelled at these, as he was able to bring both quiet and chaos into a story. Check out the original art war page I’ve included here (I tracked down some online images, thinking that his lovely work would really shine in black & white). It is a tale told simply, yet effectively. There is a real sense of danger and dread here.

To cap off this short discussion of Lee Elias’ work for Harvey, how can I possible leave out the horror stuff. Sure, EC horror books are the most famous – they have been reprinted endlessly and have spawned a TV series, but many of the most famous, and graphic, images from the horror genre actually come from Harvey titles, many of them drawn by Lee Elias. Face Melting Cover? Elias. Exploding Face Cover? Elias. Branding Cover? Elias. The list goes on and on. For some reason, this gentleman who drew such lovely romance stories could also draw the most disturbing covers imaginable. I’ve including my favourite here. For my money, no other horror cover from the 50s comes close to this one in terms of making your skin crawl. Ugh, Rats! Blechh!!

So that a quick look at one of comicdom’s often overlooked creators. Golden Age Harvey books are a relative bargain when compared to those by Timely/Atlas, DC or EC so I urge you to check them out.

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