Ghosts and Girls of Fiction House! Ed. Michael Price
In the early history of comic books, Fiction House was well known for its “headlight comics,” so named for the focus on buxom half-dressed females. Though the publisher spanned various genres, including jungle stories, aviator adventure tales, and space opera, as the title implies, Ghosts and Girls of Fiction House!, edited by Michael Price, focuses on their supernatural stories, in particular a long-running series entitled “The Ghost Gallery by Drew Murdoch” (Murdoch is the private eye narrator, not the actual author), which ran for 126 issues before evolving into Ghost Comics in the 50s.
This volume opens with a very brief introduction by Craig Yoe, in which he recounts an early bonanza purchase of old comics as an adolescent — his first introduction to Fiction Houses’ Jumbo Comics. After recounting his purchase and discovery, he offers a quick few lines from famed anti-comic crusader Dr. Fredric Wertham about the Fiction House line of stories, none of which, you won’t be surprised to hear, were at all positive.
A second introduction delves much more into the history of Fiction House: how it came about, its place in the industry, a recounting of some of its better known writers and illustrators, including Will Eisner, and Bob Kane. This introduction, while informative, reads a bit choppy, and I wouldn’t have minded some more time spent here to offer up more full explanations/histories, smoother shifts, and a bit more cultural context, as when the introduction quotes Trina Robbins saying about Fiction Houses’ female characters: “[most] were strong beautiful, competent heroines. They were war nurses, aviatrixes, girl detectives, counterspies, and animal-skin-clad jungle queens, and they were in command.” The intro also touches upon the comic’s connection to the B-movie horror studios, runs through some of the artists, and touches upon some of the problematic portrayals thanks to the comics being written at a time “when ethnic stereotyping was a commonplace practice.” While the attempt to place said portrayals in context is both worthy and probably necessary, the phrase “affectionate condescension” is an unfortunate one I’d say (referring to the dialect of one of the black characters, which indeed is wince-inducing).
After a series of wonderfully lurid and colorful covers from the 50s by Maurice Whitman, the collection moves into the reprints of the old Ghost Gallery stories, running from page 17 to page 95.
The stories themselves are probably more interesting as historical artifacts than as compelling narratives. They tend to feel a bit repetitive after about halfway through, and the few at the end almost feel like after-thoughts or toss-offs by writers not getting paid very much, they’re so sketchy. The ghosts in the works are surprisingly substantive at times, able to interact with objects and people. Others use their spectral knowledge to gain vengeance on those who did them wrong or to otherwise seek justice. The mix of the private eye/noir genre with the ghost story one is interesting, with Murdoch getting called in by someone who knows he’s the “go-to guy” when it comes to investigating not just crimes but crimes with a potentially supernatural element to them. As mentioned, the ethnic portrayals (or regional ones, such as the moonshining/feuding hillbillies) are painful at times; luckily they don’t arise very often, one assumes thanks to the selection process.
The art is solid if conservative by today’s standards. Panels are generally symmetrical and roughly all the same size with characters and action tightly constrained. Characters are surprisingly static much of the time. Every now and then the illustrator will play around with a triangular panel, an asymmetrical slanted one, or one set somewhat askew, and these are a relief from the relative monotony otherwise. Things do liven up as the stories move forward artistically; I’m not sure whether that’s a result of the editing/selecting process or a chronological effect as the artists matured and became more experimental. Throughout though, the covers remained an artistic highlight.
I can’t say the stories or the art were particularly impressive or at all compelling, but I did enjoy the general “spirit” of them. And as historical documentation, both of the comic book art and of pop culture, Ghosts and Girls of Fiction House! is a nice record, even if I would have liked a bit more analysis in the intros.