Over the past few months, I have delved into the EC Comics’ back vault, mainly looking at the more realistic Shock SuspenStories. A couple of weeks ago, Blair Davis tweeted about an Al Feldstein and Joe Orlando story from Weird Fantasy #18 entitled “Judgement Day” from 1953. Davis’s tweet read, “Comics+politics=’Judgement Day.’ If you haven’t read this 1953 tale from EC Comics’ Weird Fantasy #18 condemning racism, segregation and hatred, it is still powerfully relevant. . .” I tracked down the story and read it.
While Wallace Wood and Feldstein’s stories in Shock SuspenStories veered more towards realism, “Judgement Day” is clearly a science fiction story. As I read the story, I could not help but think about Robert K. Martin’s definition of the gothic when he states that the gothic “is most often a politically conservative form that gives expression to the anxieties of a class threatened with violent dissolution.” Science fiction can be viewed in a similar manner, as a reaction, in part, to the Cold War and fears over Communism. Martin continues, though, by noting that the gothic can also give voice to the voiceless and push back against the class in power. Again, I would argue that science fiction can do the same thing, as “Judgement Day” clearly shows.
“Judgement Day” focuses on Tarlton, a representative from “Earth Colonization.” Tarlton visits Cybrinia, “the planet of mechanical life,” to see if they are ready for “inclusion in earth’s great galactic republic.” Initially, the story made me think about the use of assimilation and uplift as a pathway towards political recognition in America. This, of course, occurred with Indigenous people in the 1800s, specifically the Cherokee, and we see it with African American communities in the late 1800s onward. While this was the initial thought, as the story progressed, the message became clearer.
An orange robot serves as Tarlton’s guide throughout Cybrinia. The guide drives Tarlton around in a car that “operates by means of an internal combustion engine,” and Tarlton appears impressed. They roll through the streets as a crowd of orange robots wave and cheer. On their tour, the pair stop at an assembly plant, and Tarlton asks to go inside. Upon entering, Tarlton notices that the plant only employs orange workers and assembles orange robots. He asks, “What about the blue robots. . . ?” His guide replies, “Oh, we. . . we make only orange robots here. The blue robots, well . . . I’ll take you to their plant later. . . ” The guide’s apprehension, and the use of “their,” others the blue robots from the orange.
Tarlton tells the guide to continue, and they see the assembly of each robot’s skeleton, internal units, and shells. The guide tells Tarlton that once a robot gets assembled he goes to “the ‘educator,’ where his mechanical brain is charged with all knowledge available to our society.” After that, he becomes “a member of that society,” and after working on the assembly line for a while, “he is free to follow his choice of endeavor.” Essentially, the orange robot has the opportunity to fulfill the American Dream and become anything he wants to be. However, the same cannot be said for the blue robots.
To see the blue robots, the guide tells Tarlton that he must “go over to Blue Town. . . on the South side of the city.” Just as in the Jim Crow South or the urban North, the orange and blue robots exist in separate and unequal spheres. Waiting for the bus, we see the pair standing at a bus stop with an “orange” and “blue” bench. Tarlton asks his guide if they “differentiate between blue robots and orange robots,” and the guide informs him, “Of course! Otherwise there’d be trouble! Have to keep them in their place, you know.” Again, we see the use of “their.” This time, however, the guide expresses a latent fear, based on fantasy, that the blue robots are inferior and will cause trouble if they interact with the orange robots. This is the same fear fantasy that Feldstein and Wood confront in their Shock SuspenStories.
On the bus, Tarlton’s guide moves them to the front, saying that orange robots sit in the front and blue robots sit in the back. They pass a recharging station that only recharges orange robots, and when they arrive in Blue Town, the “buildings no longer shined.” At the assembly plant, the guide tells Tarlton to go in alone, but Tarlton asks, “Have you even been in the blue plant?” The guide says no, and he convinces the guide to come in with him.
Inside the plant, the blue robot assembly worker walks Tarlton and the guide through the exact same assembly process that occurs at the orange robot plant. Tarlton points out to the guide that everything, except for the shell, is the same. A blue robot then tells Tarlton, “The sheathings make that difference to the orange robots.” The sheathing, as the blue robot continues, “limits us to menial jobs. . . sends us to the rear of mobile-buses. . .places us in different recharging stations. . . forces us to live in a special section of the city. . . ” The sheathing leads to Jim Crow, housing segregation, voting restrictions, and countless other oppressive strictures based solely on the color of a robot’s shell. Importantly, Feldstein and Orlando do not limit their discussion to the South; they point out the racist strictures that affect the entire nation.
The new blue robot gets placed into a “blue” educator, just like the orange robot; however, this educator does not have “the advantages of the ‘orange’ educator,” and the blue robot does have the chance, after working on the assembly line, to “follow his choice of endeavor.” Tarlton confronts his orange robot guide and asks, “The ‘educator’ is the parents and the relatives and the environment and the school all rolled into one, eh?” Tarlton then proceeds to point out the segregation, to which his orange guide replies, “You are lecturing me as though all of this were my fault, Tarlton! This existed long before I was made! What can I do about it? I am only one robot!” The guide echoes countless individuals who argue that they did not create the racist system they inhabit, yet they benefit from it and perpetuate it.
At this, Tarlton begins to leave, and he tells his guide, “Cybrinia is not ready to join the great galactic republic.” The guide then asks, “Is there any hope, Tarlton? For us?” Tarlton informs his orange guide that there is hope because the citizens of earth went through the same thing. As he boards his ship, he tells his guide, My friend, for a while, on Earth, it looked like there was no hope! But when mankind on Earth learned to live together, real progress first began. The universe was suddenly ours.”
Flying away from Cybrinia, Tarlton removes his helmet to revel his face. The narration reads, “And inside the ship, the man removed his space helmet and shook his head, and the instrument lights made the beads of perspiration on his dark skin twinkle like distant stars.” As a Black man, Tarlton knows the indignation and racism created from learned experience. He knows how treating someone differently solely based on skin color is inexcusable.
What “Judgement Day” does is take discussions that occur in everything from Solomon Northup to Ernest Gaines and transplant them into a science fiction setting. It highlights the absurdity of subjugating and oppressing individuals based on the color of their skin. It highlights the ways that education and nurture instruct and inform the lives of individuals. It highlights the fact that even though these systems have existed and continue to exist it does not mean that they need to continue.
Readers picked up on the message that Feldstein and Orlando conveyed through “Judgement Day.” One reader wrote to the editors, “The horribly accurate picture of the human race is drawn with bold, unmistakable strokes. It is a yarn that first convinces you of its believability, and then begins to tell you the truth about yourself in just as believable terms.” That is what good literature does. It causes the reader to turn inward and reflect on his or her own positions.
I know I did not go in to too much detail about the real-life correlations that correspond to “Judgement Day.” The links above will take you to other posts and sites and discuss these items. I’m planning to do some more posts on some other EC Comics soon, so stay tuned. What are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments below. Make sure to follow me on Twitter @silaslapham.