The High Cost of Dying and Other Stories (Fantagraphics Books)

A collection of twist-filled EC Comics classics, all masterfully illustrated by Reed Crandall.

162 pgs., B&W; $29.99

(W: various; A: Reed Crandall)

Reed Crandall was a master illustrator who is probably best remembered today for his work done for EC Comics. He was particularly noted for his detailed, lifelike penciling, allowing him to create worlds and characters capturing the spirit of each story. I have a soft spot in my heart for comics of the shocking variety, no doubt the result of a misspent youth which included reading far too many horror comics in the local drugstore (I wouldn’t have dared to bring them home), so this new Fantagraphics collection of Crandall’s work is just up my alley. That just goes to show you that some kids never grow up, and perhaps also that good storytelling never goes out of style.

The High Cost of Dying and Other Stories includes 21 stories illustrated by Crandall and written by a variety of authors, including William M. Gaines, Al Feldstein, Otto Binder, and Ray Bradbury (EC Comics did not publish writer credits, but the editors of this volume did their best to track them down from whatever information was available). Most of the stories are about six pages long and tell a complete narrative, often with a twist ending. There’s lots of action, sometimes with a criminal or sci-fi flavor, and sometimes with more of a boy’s own adventure story vibe.

highcostofdyingThe first story, “Carrion Death!”, is a fine example of Crandall’s ability to serve the story while also creating art interesting enough to savor for its own sake. “Carrion Death!” begins in media res, with an  unnamed man dying of thirst in the desert. Vultures circle overhead, casting their shadows on his prostrate form, one of many nice details in Crandall’s art for this comic. This main character is drawn as a handsome and well-muscled guy who remains defiant even in the face of almost certain death, while his backstory is supplied in a few action-packed frames. It turns out our hero is more of an antihero, a bank robber who was captured after a high-speed chase and handcuffed to the arresting patrolman for safekeeping. Things get worse from there. Crandall uses a variety of approaches in this strip—close-ups, long shots, realistic, impressionistic—and the main character is very carefully placed within the first frame, in order to obscure a crucial fact about his dilemma. The main character’s mental and physical deterioration over the course of the story is clearly reflected in Crandall’s art, which also includes plenty of gross-out details that will please your inner 10-year-old boy.

While there is certainly a commonality of style among Crandall’s work in this volume, he also shows his range in working with stories of different types. For instance, the futuristic “The Silent Towns,” adapted from a story by Ray Bradbury, creates a sleek and shiny world for a story set on Mars. “The High Cost of Dying,” one of the many horror comics in this volume, includes both backgrounds and characters that convince you that the story is taking place in 19th-century Paris. Female characters don’t feature in many of these stories (consider their original target market!), but when they do, as in “In Each and Every Package,” Crandall tends to draw them as voluptuous—a convention still observed in much comics art today.

The High Cost of Dying and Other Stories includes four extras, all of which are informative: an essay on the history of EC Comics by Ted White, a biographical essay about Crandall by S. C. Ringgenberg, brief biographical notes about the other contributors to this volume, and an essay about Crandall’s art by Bill Mason. You can see a preview of this book on the Fantagraphics web page.  | Sarah Boslaugh

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