The Burbach Tells You to Shut Up!

Editor John Benson on the Legacy of EC Comics and the New Issue of the Extraordinary Fan Magazine Squa Tront

Bill Gaines (l) and Harvey Kurtzman (r) in the EC offices

Squa Tront is dedicated to the relatively brief but enormously influential output of EC Comics. Through interviews, rare sketches and artwork, corporate ephemera, and panel discussions, Squa Tront (which takes its name from two words often uttered by aliens in EC’s comics) pays tribute to the writers and artists behind titles like Tales from the Crypt, Weird Science, Frontline Combat, and Mad. Although Squa Tront has its roots in EC fandom, its meticulous editorial focus has long since moved the magazine much closer to scholarship. May saw the release of its 13th issue in 45 years.

The brainchild of Jerry Weist (who, beginning at age 18, edited the first four issues), Squa Tront has been overseen by John Benson since 1974. Benson’s career as a prolific comics editor and anthologist dates from 1956. Since then, he has contributed to The Comics Journal, Graphic Story Magazine, Hoohah!, and Ron Goulart’s Encylcopedia of American Comics. More recently, Benson edited two books on romance comics, and his anthology, The Sincerest Form of Parody, a collection of stories from Mad-imitators of the 1950s, has just been released.

Starting this fall, Fantagraphics will be issuing collected EC editions organized by artist; the first round is slated to include books dedicated to the work of EC editor and artist Harvey Kurtzman, and artists Wally Wood, Jack Davis, and Al Williamson. Squa Tront 13 contains commentary from the late Kurtzman on Howard Nostrand, and rare material on Davis, including a collection of comics he did while serving in the Navy just after World War II. The issue also contains a reconstruction of Nostrand’s never-released Flip 3, and an article about art by Basil Wolverton.

Benson answered my questions about Squa Tront and the forthcoming EC reprints via email.

Casey Burchby:The first issue of Squa Tront was published in 1967. Are you surprised at all that issue 13 is about to roll out over forty years later?

John Benson: I wasn’t connected with Squa Tront until issue 5 in 1974. I guess I’m not too surprised that I produced nine issues between then and now. If I had produced forty issues during that time, that would be amazing. In 1983, after [issue 9], I stopped because it was just too much effort, and I had gotten a more demanding day job.

Issue 9 was 100 pages and a huge amount of work. All those issues were self-published, which also meant a significant financial investment. I wish I could put my finger on the details, but issue 9 cost a mint, and I had calculated that if I sold a certain number of copies in direct mail (I think it was 100), a certain number to large distributors at deep discount, and a certain number direct to retailers at a smaller discount I would just break even.

Fortunately, my calculations were about on the nose. Later, a major distributor sent in a significant reorder (I think 50 copies of this $12 book) and I sent it COD. Somehow the distributor was able to change the address on the check so that it became “lost in the mail.”

Eventually he sent a replacement but a few days later he was out of business and the check was no good. This experience, combined with other factors, made the prospect of doing another issue very uninviting. The 100-page issue was intentionally a finale of sorts, but I never announced that it was the last issue.

In 2002, things had changed. I was on my way to retirement, so I had the time. I also had a lot of unpublished material, especially interviews, on my shelf that I wanted to finally get published. Last, and perhaps most important, Fantagraphics agreed to publish Squa Tront, so I no longer had to worry about all the hassles of printing and distribution. They have been wonderful, giving me complete freedom, and bringing out an issue without delay whenever I finish one. So in the last ten years I’ve produced another four issues.

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CB: Can you describe the beginnings of your own obsession with EC Comics?

JB: I never had an obsession with EC comics. It’s fair to say that I was obsessed with Mad from the time my cousin showed me the first four issues in spring 1953 until Kurtzman left the magazine [1956]. It was Mad comics that drove my eventual broader interest in comics, leading me to the other ECs and to contacts with other fans.

Actually, I should say that my greatest interest has always been movies, especially the pre-Code era (Hollywood through June 1934) and world cinema through the sixties.

CB: You comment in issue 12 that you and your editorial team are still sifting through older material, and indeed issue 13 contains an interview with Howard Nostrand from 1983, for example. Can you describe the editorial methodology behind the relatively long gestation period of each issue?

JB: Is there methodology in procrastination? It’s easier to interview someone than to transcribe and publish that interview.

After issue 9, I offered to let Bill Spicer do an issue, though I retained the right to do more issues myself. Bill and I then engaged in a contest to see who could procrastinate longer, and Bill won, because I was the one who finally published another issue after about 20 years. Some of the material that Bill had gathered for his issue appears in issue 12. The interview that Jim Vadeboncoeur, Jr., did with John Severin in issue 11 appeared 25 years late because I promised Jim I’d publish it, and then sat on it all that time.

CB: What are the strengths and weaknesses of past EC reprints? How will the Fantagraphics volumes differ?

JB: When I refer to the comics, I use the [Russ] Cochran slip-cased volumes. I have them simply because they came out first, I contributed notes to most of them, and I got them free. I don’t have any of the reprints since then. I thought that the color in the latest “EC Archives” series was pretty bad, at least in the book that I saw – not appropriate for comics of that era. I think the reprints in the newsprint-comics format were probably the best. But was that series complete?

The Fantagraphics series will be produced with quality and taste, I’m sure. Hopefully, with a different distribution set-up, going into bookstores, they may also reach a new audience.

Being as there have been so many reprints, it makes sense to do it another way if you’re going to do it still another time. In that spirit, I have to agree that collecting the stories by artist allows one to see the material in a different way. But the creators, editor-writers Kurtzman and [Al] Feldstein, conceived the material as comic books. That is, they thought of the final work as a four-color, four-story, 32-page comic book. Both these editors worked to provide a variety of stories, both [in terms of] content and art, within that package. Particularly with Kurtzman, if you break up this package, you are not presenting the work as it was intended. Feldstein matched lively artists against quiet ones, and running a book of just [Jack] Kamen or [George] Evans stories defeats that concept.

Also – and, to me, quite importantly – presenting the material by artist emphasizes the artist’s contribution, something that to my mind is hardly needed, since comics fans have always been overly interested in the art to the detriment of the writing. Time and space limit further comment, but I can say that [Fantagraphics co-founder] Gary Groth and I have had some lively discussions on this subject.

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CB: You put out a more general interest comics magazine called Panels in the early ’80s. How many issues did that run and why was it relatively short-lived?

JB: It ran two issues, in 1979 and 1981, 32 pages each. One featured an interview with Carl Barks, the other with Eisner. I also ran an essay on Jesse Marsh, written by Alex Toth. Toth wrote in a unique style, and his manuscript was in his distinctive lettering, but it was not intended for reproduction.  It had cross-outs and an inconsistent margin width, and it needed a few corrections. So we took a copy of his manuscript and cut it up, sometimes word by word, and re-laid it out to get it in shape for publication and still retain Toth’s lettering. It was a great article and I think we presented it the best way possible.

Also, I wrote an essay on Kurtzman’s war comics that I really liked. Another thing I did was sit down with Jules Feiffer with a run of The Spirit, and he tried to identify (to the best of his recollection) which stories he wrote.

I discontinued Panels largely for the same reasons I stopped Squa Tront around the same time. At that time, other general interest comics magazines started coming out. A few years ago, someone who’d seen them recently took me to task for featuring Eisner and Barks rather than more adventurous fare. But when I published those issues there had been relatively little published about those two.

I got three quite interesting articles by others for the third issue, including another piece by Alex Toth, but I just wasn’t interested enough to invest the effort of editing, and particularly publishing, a general interest magazine.

CB: Will there be a fourteenth issue of Squa Tront?

JB: At this point I don’t know, but it’s certainly possible. Sometime soon I will sit down and catalog the material I have on hand and see how it adds up – and also think about where else it might appropriately appear. Perhaps the main reason for the revival of Squa Tront was that I (and others) had unpublished material of interest on the shelf. There is still a bit more, but not a lot. There are also some articles I want to write, but I have less tolerance for writing now and may never get to them.

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