Science Fiction Art of the 1950s: Comics, Film, TV

10 Dec

I came across two DC compilations on my comic book shelf, “The Greatest 1950s Stories Ever Told” and “Mystery in Space,” and started reading them and was pleasantly surprised at how good the artwork is in most of the stories, especially those from the 1950s and especially the science fiction stories. I decided to compare them to the sci-fi comics from EC’s line of 1950s titles, Weird Science and Weird Fantasy. And then I was intrigued enough to dig out my DVD copies of various 1950s color science fiction films and, where possible, get screen grabs to share as individual frames of science fiction art. I also remembered the “Tomorrowland” segments shown on the Disneyland TV show in the 1950s and their imaginative scenes of future explorations of the moon and Mars. And then I came across a book in my files, Fantastic Science Fiction Art 1926-1954, edited by Lester Del Rey, which reprints covers of science fiction magazines. What a treasure trove.


I’ve always been a huge fan of the EC line of comics from the 1950s that included Tales from the Crypt, Vault of Horror, Shock SuspenStories and the sci-fi titles mentioned above. They specialized in grim, adult stories with twist endings, depicted with extraordinarily detailed, evocative and often lurid artwork and laden with long, descriptive passages and lots of dialogue. The artists included such legendary names of comic book art as Wally Wood, Al Williamson, Joe Orlando, Bernie Krigstein, Reed Crandall, Jack Davis, and Johnny Craig. The stories were invariably written by the company’s editor, Al Feldstein, and publisher, William M. Gaines. They often read like short stories accompanied by illustrations, an analogy strengthened by their occasional adaptations of actual short stories by the likes of Ray Bradbury and Guy de Maupassant, among others.

But in reading the DC sci-fi stories for the first time and comparing them with EC’s counterparts, I was struck by how much easier my aging eyes were able to process the DC stories while having a harder time with the small print, heavy blocks of text and abundance of detail in the EC stories.



Compare a title page from DC:

…with one from EC:

Beautiful artwork by Al Williamson in this one, to be sure, but crammed with detail and harder to process.

Here’s another EC title page by Williamson that achieves a somewhat better balance:

Here’s another DC title page, with artwork by Frank Frazetta, who later became famous painting covers for paperback editions of Tarzan, Conan the Barbarian and John Carter of Mars:

And a page from the comic, to show more of Frazetta’s artwork:

And here’s an EC title page that’s closer to the norm:

I was reminded why DC comics were the first comics I read and the ones that dominated my comic reading for the first six years of my public schooling, before I discovered Marvel Comics in the Sixth Grade. The art strikes me as much more cinematic than the EC comics, with movement and action driving the storytelling, rather than the text and dialogue coming first and the artwork having to get squeezed in.

The Knights of the Galaxy: “The Day the World Melted” (1952), art by Carmine Infantino:

Captain Comet: “Devil’s Island in Space” (1953), art by Murphy Anderson:

Even when there is a lot of dialogue in a DC comic, the images in each panel serve a specific dramatic point, as in this page from “Counterfeit Earth” (1956), with art by Joe Kubert, where we see, in successive panels, the alien opponents, the heroes looking back at Earth, the sleek rocketship in flight, a TV studio broadcasting a message to the aliens, and a mature authority figure from Earth issuing an ultimatum.

Or this page from the tale of Space Cabby, “The Robinson Crusoe of Space” (1955), art by Gil Kane, which offers a very pleasing balance of text and cinematic image (and looks forward to Luc Besson’s THE FIFTH ELEMENT, 1997):

Look at these pages from “Lights, Camera—Invasion!,” art by Murphy Anderson, which shows the hero, Captain Comet, participating in a television adaptation of the famous “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast, only to have it interrupted by actual Martian invaders with their own idea of how it should end.

Interestingly, this tale appeared in print a few months before the release of George Pal’s THE WAR OF THE WORLDS (1953), the first film adaptation of H.G. Wells’ famous novel.

“The Mad Planet” (1954), with art by Virgil Finlay, is actually the one DC story that reminds me of an EC page:

And here are three covers, 1952-54, from Startling Stories, a science fiction magazine that was published from 1939-1955:

There were a number of color science fiction films in the 1950s that dealt with space travel and alien invasion. With the ability to create matte paintings and painted backdrops and design large studio sets and expertly crafted miniatures, Hollywood filmmakers could bring to the big screen the kinds of images comic book artists had to fit into panels on a page.

The first such film was George Pal’s production of DESTINATION MOON (1950), a fairly straightforward, unsensational depiction of what the first manned expedition to the moon would look like, notable for having significant input from science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein, who served as co-screenwriter, and architect-artist Chesley Bonestell, who was famed for his paintings of astronomical art. It was the first Hollywood film to show men from Earth landing on the moon.

One of my favorites is Lesley Selander’s FLIGHT TO MARS (1951), the first live-action color Hollywood film to show a crew from Earth landing on another planet.

When the crew first makes contact with the inhabitants of Mars, it’s obvious that the astronauts from DESTINATION MOON eventually made it there, since the Martians are wearing their cast-off space suits!

The Martians turn out to be humans, just like us, and have learned English from picking up Earth’s radio broadcasts. While the film is low-budget and shot in the cheaper color process of Cinecolor, its focus on the set décor of the underground Martian city and Martian costume design and the cozy relationship between the Earth men and the gorgeous Martian women, despite the Martian ruling council’s secret plot to use the Earth rocket ship to spark an invasion of Earth, make this quite unique among the sci-fi films of the 1950s and a precursor of future sci-fi films showing romance between Earth men and other-planetary women and evil designs by alien rulers.

Some nice matte paintings are employed:

I especially like this shot which looks like an image from a 1930s b&w serial suddenly discovered to be in color:

This shot of the Earth crew in their cockpit is similar to an image from a later EC comic story drawn by Wally Wood:

And a poster featuring a suggestive interaction that was never in the film:

In 1953, there were two color films showing the Martian invasion of Earth. William Cameron Menzies’ INVADERS FROM MARS was released first, which made it the first color Hollywood film to depict non-human aliens.

George Pal’s THE WAR OF THE WORLDS was an updated adaptation of H.G. Wells’ famous novel and focused on southern California as it suffers an invasion by Martian fighting craft seeking to destroy human civilization. It was the first Hollywood film to show a large-scale alien attack on Earth in graphic, apocalyptic detail.

THIS ISLAND EARTH (1955)  was the first color Hollywood film to visit a planet outside the solar system when Earth scientists are abducted by scientists from Metaluna seeking help in saving their planet from destruction. It had some of the most memorable and dramatic images from 1950s color sci-fi as the Earth scientists are thrust into a sprawling underground city under alien attack.

This mutant android servant of the Metalunans is a particularly menacing alien creature and somewhat iconic in ‘50s sci-fi imagery:

The gold standard remains, of course, FORBIDDEN PLANET (1956), the first color sci-fi film of the 1950s to have a substantial budget, much of which went to production design and special effects, which were of a much higher order than we’d seen prior to this film. Produced by MGM, it also managed to cast a star of greater magnitude than had been seen in a science fiction film up to this point in MGM stalwart Walter Pidgeon, “Mr. Miniver” himself. Rounding out the star cast were Anne Francis and newcomer Leslie Nielsen. The plot, based in some part on Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” involves a trip by an Earth crew to Altair-4, far outside our own solar system, to investigate the disappearance of a previous expedition. They find Dr. Morbius (Pidgeon), the sole survivor of that expedition, and his grown daughter, Altaira (Francis), and learn from Morbius of the Krell, a long-dead race of non-human beings on the planet, and the advanced technology they left behind. Which makes this the first Hollywood film to actually explore a non-human alien race on another planet, although we never actually see the Krell and never learn what they looked like. Not only do we see the calm, seemingly placid surface of a planet that shows no signs of habitation other than Morbius’s modernistic ranch house residence, but Morbius takes the Earth officers underground to show them the throbbing, pulsating engines of the Krell civilization, still operating at full power after millions of years. Only gradually do we learn the sinister side effects of this technology on Morbius.

QUEEN OF OUTER SPACE (1958) uses the costumes from FORBIDDEN PLANET and cheap gaudy sets to take us to a fanciful version of Venus where Earth astronauts finds an all-female civilization ruled by a tyrannical masked queen. As in FLIGHT TO MARS, the emphasis is on the costumes and interior décor, with extra helpings of hairstyles and make-up. Arguably Zsa Zsa Gabor’s greatest film and one of the few (only?) in which she had the lead role.

I haven’t seen this in many years, but I remember liking it a lot when I did.

There were not many color science fiction TV shows in the 1950s. I only know of two: Science Fiction Theatre (1955) and Disneyland’s Tomorrowland episodes. Science Fiction Theatre, only the first season of which was in color, tended to offer well-known veteran actors in prosaic settings: labs, academic offices, military installations, so there wasn’t much call for true sci-fi imagery. It’s a good show, but it didn’t contribute much to the realm of sci-fi art. Here’s a sampling:

“Conversation with an Ape”:

“Marked Danger”:

“Barrier of Silence”:

“The Stones Began to Move”:

Tomorrowland is quite another matter. I already dealt with these shows at length in Disney’s Tomorrowland: A Source of Science Fiction Art (August 19, 2012), but some of the images from them are among the best examples of what I’m trying to show here.

Man and the Moon (1955):

Mars and Beyond (1957):

Finally, in Japan, Ishiro Honda and his special effects director, Eiji Tsuburaya, created some of the best Japanese science fiction films of all time in the 1950s and ’60s. Two of them definitely merit inclusion here, THE MYSTERIANS (1957) and BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE (1959), but I’m just going to tease you with a couple of images from each and save the rest for a future piece on Honda.



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