Monday, September 1, 2014

Star Spangled DC War Stories Part 35: April 1962

The DC War Comics 1959-1976
by Corporals Enfantino and Seabrook

Jerry Grandenetti
All American Men of War 90

"Wingmate of Doom!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Jerry Grandenetti

"The 24 Hour Ace!"
Story by Bob Haney
Art by Ross Andru and Mike Esposito

"Target Destroyed--Maybe!"
Story by Hank Chapman
Art by Ross Andru and Mike Esposito

Peter: When he was young, Johnny Cloud (then known to his friends as "White Cloud") was out playing with two brothers, Young Deer and Two-Talon, when tragedy struck. Young Deer, chasing his brother, attempted to jump across two high boulders and slipped. Though he tried to grab hold of Young Deer's hand, Johnny was unable to save him from the fatal fall. That day, Two-Talon swore Johnny owed him a life for letting his brother die. Now, years later, Johnny is amazed to see that Two-Talon has been assigned to his squadron. Seeing how well Two-Talon handles a fighter plane, Johnny makes him his wing man despite protests from his other men. Things don't go well, though, and Johnny has to use his plane as a shield for Two-Talon, necessitating an ejection. Two-Talon saves Johnny from capture by the Nazis and all is forgiven. Aside from the typical cop-out ending (Two-Talon actually tells Johnny he never would have killed him anyway!), "Wingmate of Doom" is an exciting, edge-of-your-seat adventure, with some interesting insight into Johnny's childhood. Sure, it's coincidental as hell that his buddy/enemy should turn up ready to join the squad but that's quickly forgotten. Johnny's flashback is poignant, a word I never thought I'd be using for a series that I've not yet gotten my teeth into. Those DC colorists sure loved coloring Native-Americans deep red.

Jack: This may be the best Johnny Cloud story yet! As a white man and a descendant of Texans, I felt a little twinge when Johnny compared a circle of Nazi planes surrounding his patrol to "the way my ancestors surrounded wagons crossing the prairie," but the more I think about this offhand remark, the more complicated it gets. Johnny is comparing his own ancestors to the Nazis he fights every day! In a sense, he has become more dedicated to his role as a soldier for the USA than to his heritage as a brave. The entire story hinges on his fear that Two-Talon will give priority to his heritage and to an old grudge than to his duty as a soldier, but in the end, Two-Talon does the right thing, at least from the perspective of the current situation. Was Bob Kanigher writing stories whose themes were deeper than they appeared on the surface? He certainly does that in the Sgt. Rock series, so I'm glad to see it here.

Peter: During World War I, a green American pilot tries to become "The 24 Hour Ace" by joining up with an experienced British pilot as his "observer." Trouble is, the American soon learns that "observing" means fighting. No matter how many times this Brit crashes his plane he walks away without a scratch. A very average tale.

Jack: In spite of the overabundance of British jargon ("You saved my hash!"), I really enjoyed this story, partly because it's set in WWI and we gets lots of pictures of biplanes and the like. Andru and Esposito are at the bottom of my list of DC war comics artists, but they rise to the occasion here, providing nice moonlit shots and staying away from the bug-eyed faces that mar so much of their work.

"Target Destroyed--Maybe!"
Peter: A pilot, desperately seeking to gain some legitimate kills, keeps getting "Target Destroyed-- Maybe" on his documents. Third time is the charm, though, as he uses his own plane to destroy an enemy bridge. There's no suspense to a story like this as you just know "Mr. Maybe" will become "Mr. Positive" by tale's-end.

Jack: Once again, we get an issue with three stories from three wars: WWI, WWII and Korea. It says so right on the cover. I like that they are all air-battle tales, since DC war artists seem particularly adept at drawing planes. I'm learning that the presence of MiGs must mean the story is taking place in the Korean War. The red stars on the planes also helped me figure that out.

Peter: Even though this issue's circulation statement reads:

The average number of copies of each issue of this publication sold or distributed through the mails or otherwise, to paid subscribers during the 12 months preceding the date shown above was: 205,000

I have to believe this is an average total number of copies sold of the title including newsstand sales. There was either a bit of hanky-panky going on down at the circulation office or the guys kept lousy numbers. This is the fourth of the five titles to report sales of 205,000. That seems a bit of a coincidence to me. I would have thought Our Army at War, with the iconic Sgt. Rock, would be outselling all the others two-to-one and yet it was the lone title with disparate numbers: 180,000 sales reported. How that happened is anyone's guess.

Jack: Our Army at War was the only title of the Big Five to come out monthly, at least at this point, so it was selling 360,000 copies to the other books' 205,000 copies every two months, wasn't it?

Joe Kubert
Our Army at War 117

"Snafu Squad!"
Story By Robert Kanigher
Art by Joe Kubert

"No-Ace Squadron!"
Story by Hank Chapman
Art by Jerry Grandenetti

"The Sarge Was a Mule!"
Story by Hank Chapman
Art by Jack Abel

Jack: After some initial fireworks involving an enemy tank and an enemy plane, Sgt. Rock and Ice Cream Soldier are sent on a reconnaissance mission and soon witness a jeep being destroyed by an enemy shell. A dying sergeant tells Rock that he is now charged with shepherding three soldiers who don't have what it takes. Rock and Ice Cream Soldier take the three soldiers along with them on their mission and, one by one, the soldiers surprise themselves and each other by rising to the occasion and giving their lives to save each other. When Rock reports what happens he realizes that he never knew the three men's names but, as their spirits look on from above, he says that they were real American soldiers. This is an outstanding example of the best that Kanigher and Kubert have to offer: an inspiring tale that makes the reader feel good to be an American.

Peter: Though quite a bit of this story is taken up with setting up the inevitable (the three losers will be winners within twelve and a half pages), it still manages to pack a wallop. I think Kanigher is being purposely vague about the health of those three mopes in order to ramp up the emotion. I suppose that portraying the trio as "spirits" in that last panel gives us a peek at the truth but then who knows with a brilliant writer like Bob?

Jack: Back in the Great War, Martin's dad was the unfortunate leader of the "No-Ace Squadron," the only flying force that failed to produce an ace. When WWII begins and Martin signs up for the air force, he is burdened with the task of erasing his father's shame, something he manages to do despite suffering temporary blindness after downing his fourth enemy plane. Guess whose voice guides him from the ground to destroy plane number five and land safely? Yep, it's dear old dad, unfit for flying but able to help out on the radio. I have no sympathy for these dumb stories about people who were ashamed of their war record and their kids who had to try to make up for it. Jerry Grandenetti draws nice planes, though.

Peter: Not having grown up in an era where your father pushed you into combat and told you to "make him proud," I always find it hard to relate to these stories of dads and their fighting sons. This one, in particular, stretches the waistband of credibility with its blind pilot and his safe landing. No complaints about Joltin' Jerry Grandenetti, who seems to have found his muse in this middle time between really bad war stories and really bad horror stories.

Jack: Private Smith is stuck with stubborn Millie the Mule, who lives up to her reputation by refusing to move when he is supposed to transfer ammo. When Smith and Millie encounter a pack of Nazis, they both earn their stripes, but while Smith is promoted to corporal, "The Sarge Was a Mule!" This is just silly, and it's not helped by the repeated "Hee-Haw"s that Millie utters.

Peter: And here I thought all the silly animal war stories were the responsibility of Bob Kanigher. There's not one thing I can recommend about this sequel to Francis Joins the WACs and, inexplicably, Sergeant Millie the Mule will return in a sequel in GI Combat #104 (March 1964). Those Nazis sure were bad shots.

Jerry Grandenetti
Our Fighting Forces 67

"Purple Heart for Pooch!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Irv Novick

"The Sitting Duck's Last Stand!"
Story by Hank Chapman
Art by Jack Abel

"Dogtag Hero!"
Story by Bob Haney
Art by Jerry Grandenetti

Jack: A combat injury results in a “Purple Heart for Pooch!” Although Gunner and Sarge’s Marine force holds 10% of the little island in the South Pacific, the other 90% is held by the Japanese, lead by the infamous practical joker, Colonel Hakawa. He releases balloons filled with TNT to float over the marines, then sends walking trees loaded with TNT and machine guns. Soon, Gunner and Pooch intercept a remote-controlled enemy sub, but Gunner realizes it is also laced with TNT and uses it to blow up a Japanese patrol boat. Gunner and Pooch are captured by Col Hakawa and Gunner, whose hands are badly burned and bandaged from pushing the hot sub, has to find his way back to base, trailed by Hakawa and his men. Gunner can’t pull the trigger of his gun but he and Pooch manage to toss a grenade and stop the enemy. Pooch is injured and receives a medal. A practical-joking Japanese colonel? That’s the last thing this series needs. At least Irv Novick drew this story—I prefer him to Grandenetti.

Peter: I've officially run out of synonyms for "stupid" and "awful" thanks to this series (a strip, I hasten to add, that will survive another 27 installments, so I'd best get myself a new thesaurus) so I'll just say "Purple Heart for Pooch" wasn't my cup of tea. As if the Gunner, Sarge and Pooch show wasn't inane enough, now we add the "practical joker," Colonel Hakawa! (don't forget the exclamation point). I assume Irv Novick had never met a Japanese soldier in his life so he went to Bob Kanigher for penciling advice and BK said, "Just make them look funny like Jerry Lewis!" Can you imagine the fury in BK when Hogan's Heroes debuted on national TV and he wasn't approached to write for the show?

Jack: When a shiny tank rolls into a battle zone, the G.I.s on the ground laugh at it because they think it’s too clean and neat to have seen battle. They don’t realize the importance of keeping a tank in good shape so it works well when it has to. This tank rolls into a muddy tank trap and it looks like it’s “The Sitting Duck’s Last Stand!” until the tank blows away an enemy tank and plane and then is able to roll out of the hole when the crashing plane opens up a ditch that drains some of the mud from the tank trap. Jack Abel seems to have dashed this one off quickly because it’s not his best work.

Peter: A genuinely interesting question (how do you dig a tank out of a bottomless pit of mud) is answered in a very far-fetched manner but I still thought it intriguing enough to recommend. You're in an armed fortress, surrounded by the enemy, but you can't use your big gun because it will sink you further. That's pretty scary.

Jack: A doomed company retreats from a hopeless position as a lone G.I. covers their retreat. The faceless soldier is shot and killed and his rifle and helmet are left to mark where he fell. When the Nazi tank passes by on its way to track down the company, the dead soldier rises and single-handedly guns down the tank before falling back to the ground and leaving no trace of his heroism when his company passes by again. Hold it a minute! This may be the best story I’ve read yet in the DC war comics! I may have to reevaluate my opinion of Jerry Grandenetti. This shows a heavy Will Eisner influence in both art and story. We never see the face of the soldier nor do we learn anything about him. Just tremendous!

Peter: The kind of story DC will fill the pages of Weird War Tales with, a decade forward, "Dogtag Hero" wins Best Story of the Month (and an automatic place somewhere in the Top Ten of 1962) for not falling back on the usual explanation ("well, our hero was only grazed by the huge explosion all around him and, so, was able to rise and fight once again") and, instead, leaving the reader to wonder what really happened. We never see the guardian angel's face, he never says a word. Could this really be some reanimated corpse, driven to return from the "other side" to save his comrades? The panels of the "dog tag hero" rising up, using his rifle as a support, are incredibly powerful, with Grandenetti showing once again that he could rein in the cartoony aspects of his artwork when the subject demanded. Bravo, Bob and Jerry!

"Dogtag Hero!"


Thursday, August 28, 2014

Voices in the Dark: The Horrors of Dark Fantasy (1941-1942), Part One

by Jose Cruz

Old time radio.

The term doesn’t necessarily engender interest upon hearing it. The modifier “old time” is, of course, what turns people away. When we associate it with other things, “old time” could just as well be replaced with “outdated,” “outmoded,” or “obsolete.” This is a shame, as the broader, more appropriate and dynamic definition of the genre—“radio drama”—speaks more closely to the heights that the medium could achieve when it was at its best. And, more often than not, it truly was great.

It seems ironic then, and a little sad too, that a brand of entertainment that offered such a wealth of genre material (covering everything from space adventures to police procedurals and all that was in between) has not really received the type of enthused, dedicated coverage that other contemporaneous amusements like pulp magazines have garnered since its heyday. The milestones of radio drama—Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” broadcast, children fare like Little Orphan Annie, and even spooky programmers like Inner Sanctum Mysteries and its memorable creaking door—have permeated into popular culture at large but, for the most part, “old time radio” and its smaller shows have been shelved away in the archives of time.

But not really. For many shows are in fact currently available free to the masses, thanks to the efforts of such stalwart facilities as the Internet Archive. One of these programs is Dark Fantasy, a title all but unknown save to the most fervent fans of aural terrors. A grassroots effort that was produced in Oklahoma City on station WKY in 1941, Dark Fantasy was picked up for national syndication by the NBC Red network fairly early in its run.

The scripts penned by head writer George M. Hamaker (who, under the nom de plume of Scott Bishop, wrote extensively for the pulps and, allegedly, other shows such as The Mysterious Traveler and The Sealed Book) were thrilling and moody playlets that involved such treasured horror tropes as ghostly vengeance, time travel, werewolves, mad doctors, and trees that strangled people.

(For more information on the show’s history, I encourage you to refer to Karl Schadow’s diligently researched account at the Metropolitan Washington Old Time Radio Club.)

What surprises the listener most about Dark Fantasy is not only the fact that 27 of its 31 broadcasted episodes are readily available (a rare thing in the annals of radio drama), but that the show maintained a fairly sustained level of quality and ingenuity throughout its all-too-brief run. With a dedicated staff of technicians and actors who typically performed double-duties in the studio, Dark Fantasy was able to conjure up delightful nightmares during its midnight time slot with nothing but the wavering tones of a Kilgen organ, the cry of a howling wind… and voices in the dark.

This humble project is meant to review, in multiple parts, the stories that made Dark Fantasy an equal contender in the realm of radio horror and as a means to ensure that this program may never meet the unjust grave of oblivion.

1. The Man Who Came Back
Original Broadcast: November 14, 1941

Cast: Ben Morris (Keith Granger), Eleanor Naylor Caughron (Sylvia), Fred Wayne (Casey), Muir Hite (Captain Sullivan), Murillo Schofield (Cab Driver), and Eugene Francis as ‘The Man Who Came Back.’

The wail of police sirens brings us to the mansion of Keith Granger, a millionaire whose death has brought a premature end to the masquerade that he was hosting. One of the officers on the scene, Casey, hones in on a particularly mysterious fellow in black costume and domino mask who tries to elude the crowd of gawkers. The masked man speaks cryptically of the incident and, when pressed by Casey to remove his mask, the partier responds ominously “It may be better, my friend, that you didn't see my mug” to use Casey’s colorfully tough Irish copper vocabulary.

The man then begins to narrate the tale of Philip Blake, playwright husband of Sylvia, a woman whom Granger had been seeing on the side. After Philip finds a key to Granger’s apartment adorned with his and Sylvia’s initials inside her purse (So much for discretion!), Philip confronts him with his accusations but gets the raw end of the deal when Granger pulls a gun on him. The playboy says that he’ll easily play the self-defense angle and, right after Blake has the chance to swear vengeance from beyond the grave—“I’ll be back, Grange, even if I have to fight all the demons in Hell to do it!”—Granger plants one right between the scribbler’s eyes.

Sure enough Granger is deemed as having acted in the right by the courts and, though Sylvia warns she might tell the truth to the police, she’s quickly curbed when Keith tells her she’s an accomplice for corroborating his story. Granger then fancies himself scot-free. That is until he hears Blake’s voice echoing his own verdict of the smiling murderer: Guilty!

Soon Blake is manifesting himself in a more “physical” manner. The ring Keith buys for Sylvia turns out to be Blake’s own initialed jewelry, the very same one he was buried with. And when Keith takes a cab that no one else could possibly have entered, a bodiless voice sardonically jeers at hearing his destination “Excellent. That’s where I’m going…”   

In order to bring his spirits up (and keep the bad ones away), Keith holds a masquerade ball at his place. But even this revelry is disturbed by the presence of a man—one garbed in black and a domino mask, naturally—who leads Keith to a darkened room where a piano plays a ghostly tune of its own a-chord and Keith’s gun awaits him. Blake’s phantom voice tells Granger that the gun just has one bullet in the chamber. “But that is enough…” the spirit chides. And everything that has happened certainly has been enough—for Granger.

Back in the present, Casey presses for the storyteller to reveal himself. The man asks if Casey remembers how Philip Blake was shot between the eyes. “That doesn’t make a very pretty sight,” he says. Just as Casey retrieves his captain to instill some order in the weirdo’s heart, they find that the man has vanished into thin air… only leaving a small pool of blood in the exact spot he was standing.

Existing records indicate that “The Man Who Came Back” was likely the show WKY used as an audition for their new supernatural program. It initially aired on October 28, just in time for Halloween and eager to usurp the terror throne of the recently-ended Lights Out. In many ways the episode feels like a try-out for what was to come. The old “murdered-spouse-rights-the-scales-of-justice” saw wasn’t new even by 1941 standards.

Dark Fantasy might have come from humble beginnings, but it certainly speaks to the professionalism inherent in the acting, technical direction, and script that not one second of the story ever seems boring or tepid. “The Man Who Came Back” may be pretty tame stuff with its drops of blood and unearthly voices, but Bishop’s radio play is a slick number, moving unfussily from one event to the next until it reaches its completely expected but well-handled conclusion.

Bishop’s dialogue, both naturalistic and descriptive as necessitated by the medium, flows and almost seems underwritten while remaining perfectly potent. Granger’s response to Blake’s accusations, paired with Ben Morris’ calm delivery, is punchy in its simplicity: “No, I don’t deny. You’re wife has been here. Often.”
Straightforward and full of promise, “The Man Who Came Back” is certainly enough to make sure listeners come back for more.

2. **The Soul of Shan Hai Huan** LOST
Original Broadcast: November 28, 1941

3. The Thing from the Sea
Original Broadcast: December 5, 1941

Cast: Eleanor Naylor Caughron (Judith Johnston), Ben Morris (Phillip Hayward), Fred Wayne (Johnston Sr.), Eugene Francis (Ned), Georgianna Cook (Lana), and Daryl McAllister (Buul, ‘The Thing from the Sea’).

A reporter gives the skinny on an interesting tidbit to be buried in the front page to his editor: a Hollywood couple, Phillip Hayward and Judith Johnston, along with her filmmaker father and the crew of their yacht, the Dolphin, have disappeared along with their vessel off the coast of New Zealand. Could their research into Johnston Sr.’s new movie concerning arcane legends of the ocean and the strange creatures that dwell within it have lead the group into some choppy waters?

Of course it has.

After the ship’s motors conk out and the yacht drifts for a few days, everyone starts fearing the worst. Especially the elder Johnston, who thinks that the ship might have been stopped by supernatural forces. Phillip poo-poos the director, saying that the auteur of “eight-reel clambakes” is just acting overly superstitious. Phillip has considerably less snark when Judith awakens moaning in terror from a dream, one in which she was confronted by a mermaid who was not only centuries old, but also intent on taking over Judith’s body.

Bishop shows a real flair for eccentric imaginings when he has Judith describe the sea maiden thusly:

“She had long hair, green and slimy like seaweed. Her teeth were brilliant red. They were long and pointed. She kept staring at me with her little, beady eyes. They were horrible, for she had no eyelids. She never blinked once. She just stared and stared.”

Definitely not Ariel from The Little Mermaid.

Suddenly the Dolphin starts speeding ahead for destinations unknown. But the motors are still dead and there is no wind in the air. What could be propelling the ship forward? Further intrigue is added when first mate Ned spots a mysterious figure at the helm. This is no normal sailor, but some kind of awful sea monster who sports “long, narrow fingers with webs between them.” “And no fingernails!” gasps Johnston, as if that’s the deal-breaker on the helmsman’s humanity.

But the crew has bigger problems (literally), as a tremendous tidal wave makes its advance upon the boat. The crew takes cover and when they emerge they see the formation of a veritable continent in the distance that could not have possibly been there before. Johnston realizes that the tidal wave was caused by an underwater disturbance, one that brought to the surface what had long been buried. For the steaming, seaweed-strewn land is in fact the fabled city of Ebaan, told to have been ruled by Emperor Buul and Empress Lana before the city was sent into the ocean by Buul in a power-driven madness. It is prophesied that the spirits of the Ebaanites will reclaim their original bodies and take over the world. Or something like that.

Descending into the shallow water and journeying to the island, Johnston and Phillip are shocked to find that the body of their own Captain Webb (!) has been possessed by none other than Buul himself, intent on getting back to his former shell in the “vacuum-like” temple where he stored it for a rainy day. There to block his path is Judith, now controlled by the spirit of Empress Lana who knows all too well Buul’s habit of blowing things up. She accompanies the group into the temple with a mind to stop her crazy husband from further destruction.

Once in the temple (where Johnston’s unfortunate muttering of the word “vacuum” sounds like a request to Phillip to look at “the glass rectum,” adding unsettling meaning to his earlier comment that the island is the “most evil-smelling place I was ever in!”), Buul and Lana regain their scaly Ebaan bodies. Buul then reveals himself for the natural jerk that he is before Lana shoots him down. She then beseeches the humans to flee and, showing that the fate of the island is better restored into her hands, she blows Ebaan up in a shower of fire and lets it sink back into the sea.

Maritime horror isn’t always an easy sell, and unfortunately “The Thing from the Sea” shows some of its weaker points, especially as an entry in the ‘Atlantis-restored’ sub-sub-genre. Bishop falls prey to the traps this kind of endeavor involves, namely the prolonged explanation involved in detailing the lost city/continent’s background and denizens that ends up taking up 90% of the narrative and leaving very few compelling events for us to enjoy. I think of the story from the first issue of Creepy, “H2O World,” in regards to this type of tale: a history lesson with a mere whiff of the monstrous wrapped up in the veneer of a horror story. “The Thing from the Sea” is better than that, but not by too much.

Still, it’s worth a listen if only for the howl-inducing “master plan” of Buul: if the emperor was really set on blowing up the joint, why would he seal the bodies of the entire citizenry in a crypt with the intention of returning one day in the future to reclaim the earth? Did he just want a change of scenery or a couple of centuries to cool off his wet head?

All the unnecessary complexities and bits of lame dialogue (“I will rule Ebaan!” Buul challenges his interfering wife) makes this episode seem more juvenile than it should be, but even “The Thing from the Sea” isn’t enough to sink one’s opinion of the show.

4. The Demon Tree

Original Broadcast: December 12, 1941

Cast: Eleanor Naylor Caughron (Clara), Ben Morris (Humphries), Garland Moss (Danvers), and Murillo Schofield (Crane).

In a country inn near the Barlow Forest in England, a group of friends sit playing cards trying to idle away the hours of a boring vacation from London. Crane suggests taking a nature walk to take in the scenery. Humphries, Danvers, and Clara acquiesce. But Humphries recalls a strange anecdote related to him by the clerk concerning the Barlow Forest. Despite the place’s serene and breath-taking sights, few people have taken the journey into the woods. And those who did were never seen at tea-time again.

Crane and Danvers initially jeer at the moody Humphries, but he then produces a newspaper clipping from 1857 detailing the bizarre death of a local earl who was found wrapped up in the branches of a tree, apparently strangled by the mighty oak. Regional legend has it that a witch cursed the descendants of the Wakefield clan who persecuted her and, in a novel move that Martha Stewart probably wouldn’t endorse, smeared an acorn with her blood and grew from it a giant tree to act as executioner of her undying will.

After contemplating that he may in fact be an extended family member of the Wakefields, Crane decides to go ahead with his initial plan anyway. The rest of the gang is game, save for Humphries who can’t help but wonder “Wouldn’t it be odd if the whole thing were true?”

Though the forest’s entrance at first appears to be too thick with foliage to enter, Danvers finds a footpath and they make their way in. Immediately they feel an unnatural chill in the air, one completely at odds with the mid-afternoon, summertime weather. Danvers is particularly disturbed by it, saying “It’s a different kind of cold. The kind that creeps up your spine when… when some evil comes over you.”

Apt description, Danvers old chum, for just straight ahead the group spots a tree that looks like “a human giant” and one that appears to almost move. When Crane touches the bark, he notes that it feels “warm and smooth and soft” like skin, and not in the good way. (There’s a humorous exchange when the group touches the queer tree all together and, when they invite Humphries to join in, he gives a deadpan “No thanks.”) For Humphries knows that the strange thing is none other than the Demon Tree of Barlow Forest! *Cue organ sting*

Too busy feeling up the witch’s familiar, the group realizes too late that the forest has become almost impenetrably dark and that they’ve lost their way. Trying to find a way out, Crane feels a branch caress his face while in an empty clearing and, finally realizing this probably isn’t the best place for the target of supernatural revenge to be hanging around, he beats a quick path the hell out of there. “Now he’s in for it,” chimes Danvers, showing yet again his aptitude for timing. Seconds later, Crane lets out a banshee shriek of death. “Sounds like he’s being strangled!” Humphries cries.

The fact that Humphries can recognize this specific kind of scream goes uncommented on, perhaps for the better.

The group quickly finds Crane’s remains, his throat marked with hand-like imprints and green staining as if from smeared leaves. An eerie moment passes when the trio realizes it’s actually the same spot they initially discovered the tree… but the tree is gone. Rustling through the brush, Carol fancies them all lost marionettes, to which Humphries asks “Controlled by what strange puppeteer?” Humphries gets in a real funk here, saying that the swift darkness that overtook the forest “Reminded me of how a corpse must feel when the lid is placed over him.” Danvers starts to get fed up with his friend’s morbid talk, so he trades in his companion’s emotional quagmire for a literal one when he falls into some quicksand.

Humphries and Clara try to rescue their screeching friend by extending a pole to him, but the blasted demon tree is there to bat Danvers away with its branches before he finally drowns. Surprisingly, Humphries and Clara manage to find the light at the end of the brambled tunnel and escape the forest and its horrors.

Or do they? Both of the survivors have a nagging feeling that their dilemma isn’t over yet. Entering Humphries’ room at the inn, they see how right they are. A demonic branch awaits them on the bed, ready to finish what it started. They try to escape, Humphries suggesting they take the elevator instead of just running down the stairs. Bad thing that the lift’s gate has been left ajar, as it gives the branch ample opportunity to slither over and push Clara down the elevator shaft. The conclusion is pure comic book. As the tendril monster advances, Humphries can only cry out what is happening to him: “The tree! The demon tree! It’s choking me! Aaaagh!”

With its fourth episode, Dark Fantasy hits its first home run right out of the woods. While “The Man Who Came Back” was a classic (if just-slightly-stale) chiller well-told and “The Thing from the Sea” was ambitious but muddled, “The Demon Tree” is pure pulpy fun drenched in atmosphere. Bishop utilizes the fabled “Strangling Tree of Nannau Woods” to spine-chilling effect, recalling such fantastic literary mainstays as the Fighting Trees from L. Frank Baum’s Oz books to the crushing guard at Hogwarts in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.

As silly as the idea of an ambulatory tree might seem to be (which it is at times, like with the pathetic-sounding swats it takes at the drowning Danvers and the whacked-out finale), the play manages to be truly eerie in its depiction of the infernal weed. A great magazine-cover-moment occurs when the three friends spot the tremendous tree walking in the distance, glowing with a mad phosphorescence like the Baskerville hound, Crane’s broken body tucked up in the crook of its knobby arm. The organ score is also put to wonderful use, augmenting scenes like the touching of the tree and the heroes’ weary journey with great tension.

And if there’s one thing “The Demon Tree” delivers on, it’s the suspense. This may not be white-knuckle adventure, but the performers give it the goods, with Moss and Schofield particularly excelling at their sumptuous screams and ravings. If you think of old time radio as a staid and hoary venture, let Schofield’s death-cry put a few hairs on your chest!

5. Men Call Me Mad
Original Broadcast: December 19, 1941

Cast: Ben Morris (Charles), Eleanor Naylor Caughron (Princess Elena), Fred Wayne (King Londolier), Murillo Schofield (Dr. West), Muir Hite (Dr. Smith), Daryl McAllister (Specialist).

Charles is a scientist, and he has gathered two of his peers, Doctors Smith and West, to witness a most startling discovery that he has made. Using a special stock of color film, Charles has taken a series of magnified shots of a moonbeam and, with each advancing slide that he displays to his awestruck audience he reveals an entire, hidden world existing within the ray of lunar light. Charles marvels over what he calls “My world within a moonbeam,” a planet that is marked with startling hues of color like the “leaves of brilliant scarlet,” “sun of dazzling blue,” “vivid orange streams,” and a man riding an undescribed “strange animal.”

The trio of lab coats are all duly bowled over, the concept of “worlds within worlds” (and our own Earth possibly being one such plane of existence) almost too much to handle in one sitting. So Charles throws them another curveball: he plans to journey to the land of moonshine himself! He proposes to do this by entering a ten-inch glass igloo that he will shine the moonlight on, making a veritable chamber that he can use to physically “enter” the beam. (Don’t ask me cause I don’t get it either.)

When asked by Smith how he supposes he could enter such a tiny structure, Charles tells him that he has concocted, for all intents and purposes, a shrinking potion made from radium. Charles assures his comrades that he has tested the formula on animals and says that even his clothes will conveniently downsize as well, as he found out when a test dog and its collar both minimized to board game player-size. Which is probably better for him, because if Charles didn’t already look crazy, he certainly wouldn’t be pulling in any more supporters as a six-inch naked guy.

Once the potion is imbibed, Charles becomes temporarily blind and “a strange weakness” comes over him (rather a nice description for the shrinking sensation). His dutiful friends place his ever-decreasing body before the igloo. As the mini-Charles reaches his cosmic destination, old Smith thinks aloud “I wonder what he’ll discover…”

Entering the igloo, Charles is transported to the moonbeam world. He marvels at the colorful landscape and is suddenly accosted by a beautiful alien woman. She explains that she is Princess Elena and he is in the gardens of her father, King Londolier, who rules over their entire realm with “kindness and justness.” Charles explains that he is a citizen of the United States and describes its relation to Elena’s world. She’s fairly unsurprised, as the scientists of her world had long ago discovered the presence of other dimensions but had not found the means to traverse among them.

But Elena warns Charles that all is not happiness and light in her world: a horrible plague has risen up and is killing thousands of moonlings every day. She beseeches him to leave, but Charles presses on, eager to help the citizens of Landolier’s kingdom. The old monarch sees their situation as hopeless, but relents when Charles requests to examine his stricken son. But to the scientist’s amazement, the plague that they are suffering from is nothing but typhoid. Ecstatic, Charles has vaccinations made up and gets the kingdom’s death toll down to nil.

Charles is seen as a god in the eyes of the people, but something else in the eyes of Elena, and soon a mutual affection has developed between human boy and moon girl (no relation to E. C. Comics). The princess asks Charles to say, but he feels his discovery is too great to keep from Earth and promises to return to his beloved after he has told his story to the masses.

Back on Earth, West and Smith wait expectantly for their friend’s return, either a sign that time works very differently in the moonbeam or that Charles has great friends who would stick around in the same room for five months for him to come back. Charles takes his radium capsule and grows back to normal size, filling in his friends on his amazing discoveries. Charles then drops a bombshell on the assembly (and us): he explains that his greedy sister is desperate to get her claws into some oil property that the siblings share, even going so far as to lodge accusations that he is mentally unbalanced and unfit to manage the holdings. Charles is to be examined by a group of analysts the following day and asks his pals to be there and back up his fantastic tale as a means of demonstrating his capability. Surprisingly, they agree.

Needless to say, when you try to prove your sanity with a story that you shrunk yourself down to the size of an atom and saved an alien planet from a bad case of the flu as opposed to telling the doctors, well, anything else, your odds of coming out looking like the most brilliant person in the room are pretty slim. Sure enough, the examiners try to tell Charles very calmly and very quietly that he should probably start packing his chemistry set away for the prescribed sanitarium vacation.

But where are West and Smith, the ones who saw the whole unbelievable affair with their own impartial, scientific eyes? As a handily-timed phone call to one of the examiners reveals, West and Smith have died in a car accident on the way to testify for their good friend, which goes to prove that no matter how many worlds there may be in existence, God likes to laugh in all of them. Though Charles laments in his padded cell that now “men call me mad” and that there is no escape from this hell, he hears Elena’s voice calling out to him from the ether. “No escape?” he says. “But of course. The moonbeam!”

If “The Thing from the Sea” stumbled from putting too much in, “Men Call Me Mad” underwhelms because it feels as if something’s missing. The descriptions of the moon world are imaginative enough—though they’re really just limited to psychedelic colors—but one wishes a little more time was taken to make the moon land sound alien.

Dark Fantasy has proven to be a bit reticent with the special audio effects, either for artistic or budgetary reasons, and concepts like the shining glass igloo and the grand majesty of Londolier’s kingdom invite all kinds of unconventional music and foley stunts to really sell the otherworldliness of the place. But the scenes in the magical moonbeam sound exactly like what they really are: people standing around in a circle talking.

Clearly owing to Fitz James O’ Brien’s short story “The Diamond Lens” (1858), Bishop’s script shoots for a sense of wonder and romance but falls just short of its goal. The passionate dialogue spoken by Charles and Elena just before he departs is particularly dusty:

“Elena, my darling. Is it wrong to say I love you?”

“Is it wrong for the stars to shine? Or the flowers to bloom?”

If one sums this up simply to the “antiquity” of the medium, I suggest you listen to any one of the plays penned by Bishop’s contemporary Wyllis Cooper for his program Quiet, Please to hear how love scenes could take on air of genuine darkness and mystical eroticism without resorting to these greeting card niceties.

Though the entire device of Charles’ villainous sister and the resulting deaths of West and Smith feels completely shoehorned in solely for the purpose of giving a reason for Charles to be found insane, the ambiguous ending does leave matters off on a tantalizingly uncertain note. Does Charles hear the voice of his alien mistress calling out to him from within the stars, or just from inside the depths of his own disturbed mind?

You can listen to these episodes and more at this fabulous site!


Monday, August 25, 2014

Do You Dare Enter? Part Thirty-Four: March 1973

The DC Mystery Anthologies 1968-1976
by Peter Enfantino and
Jack Seabrook

Nick Cardy
Unexpected 145

"Grave of Glass"
Story by George Kashdan
Art by Abe Ocampo

"Maniac at Large"
Story by Carl Wessler
Art by Ralph Reese

"Newton Northrup's New Brain!"
Story by Carl Wessler
Art by Sid Greene and Frank Giacoia

Jack: Brutish middle-aged Arnold strangles his elderly, wheelchair-bound wife Lillian and buries her under her own prize tomatoes in a "Grave of Glass" inside her own greenhouse. Arnold thinks Lillian's hot young nurse, Pamela, will return his affection but when she spurns him he locks her in the greenhouse. That evening, after she begs him to let her out, he whips up a tasty dinner using some of the very plants his late wife cultivated. After he chokes and dies, the coroner reveals that he ate poison mushrooms, which the late Lillian had been growing for the state agricultural college.

"Grave of Glass"
Peter: This is one of those stories so bland and indistinct it's hard to find words to describe it. Well, bland and indistinct are good, I guess. Kashdan's script is not horrible but it's not good; Ocampo's art is serviceable, it gets the job done without challenging or surprising the reader (actually, Abe's depiction of Arnold is probably as sleazy and sweaty as the CCA would allow at the time). Its foundation is among the oldest cliches in the horror story so there's nothing radical to point out. Let's move on then.

Jack: Is Judd Donner, held in an insane asylum and known as "The Choker" for how he supposedly killed his victims, really a "Maniac at Large" after he escapes from the bughouse? Private eye Oswald Gibbs is determined to find out and claim the $5000 reward. He follows Judd's elderly sister home and discovers Judd and his two sisters hiding in a sub-basement. Unfortunately for Oswald, Judd merely holds the victims while his sisters do the choking--which is not necessary this time, since Oswald drops dead from fright. I can't decide if Ralph Reese's art is really cool or really awkward!

Peter: The only thing of interest I pulled from "Maniac at Large" is that, in 1972, psychiatrists could still refer to their clients as "maniacs." That's something I guess. Oh, and thanks to the unseen horror host for explaining the story's climax to us right after we saw the whole thing with our own eyes. Ralph Reese is so much better than this.

"Maniac at Large"

Jack: Nora Worley is the strong-willed boss's daughter and, at the advanced age of 28, she decides that she wants to marry his meek bookkeeper, Newton Northrup, certain that she can make a man out of him. Things don't go so well after the wedding, and Newton is a big disappointment. Nora happens on the idea of a brain transplant, but after she arranges "Newton Northrup's New Brain," she discovers that the brain used to belong to a homicidal maniac. Wessler has written a dreadful story and the art is bottom of the barrel to match. What happened to Sid Greene? Ten or fifteen years before this he was one of the folks responsible for bringing superhero comics back from the dead. Though the comic credits him as the artist, the GCD says inks were by Giacoia, so maybe we can blame that old punching bag, Frank.

"Newton Northrup's New Brain!"

Peter: An incredibly stupid story closes yet another bad issue of Unexpected. So, no one knew that the guy who was to get the brain swap was an escaped lunatic? No interviews before such a dangerous and ground-breaking experiment? Unexpected is a comic book, you're supposed to cut it some slack and enjoy the fanciful treks, but plot devices as inane as this tend to stick in your craw for the duration.

Jack: Say, Peter, what can you tell us about the 1973 circulation report for Unexpected?

Peter: The always-fascinating circulation figures pop up in a couple of titles this month. Unexpected was selling 168,430 copies on average during the year 1972 while The House of Mystery bettered that a bit with 175,134. In comparison, DC's Stable Studs, Superman and Batman were selling 317,990 and 185,283 respectively. Hard to believe Batman, once the best-selling comic book in America (1966 and 1967, with nearly 900,000 copies a month!) had dropped down to near-equal numbers with the lowly mystery books. Oh and, over at Marvel, The Amazing Spider-Man was moving 288,379 a month.

Mike Kaluta
The House of Mystery 212

"Ever After"
Story Uncredited
Art by John Calnan and Murphy Anderson

"Oh, Mom! Oh, Dad! You've Sent Me Away
 to Summer Camp... And I'm So Sad!"
Story by Michael Fleisher and Maxene Fabe
Art by Alex Nino

"Halfway to Hell"
Story by Jack Oleck
Art by Ruben Yandoc

Peter: American gigolo Warren desperately wants Cheryl's millions and, now that her father is dead, he's escalating his plan. Out for a fast ride in his sports car, Warren misses a hairpin turn and he and Cheryl slide off a cliff to their deaths. Or so Warren thinks until he wakes up in the company of some very strange people at Cheryl's house. When he tells her he wants to leave, Cheryl tells him he's not going anywhere and soon he discovers that's true. There's an invisible barrier around the house and Cheryl has fangs. In both story and art, "Ever After" is just about unbeatable... for #1 on the Worst of the Year list. Calnan and Anderson team up to produce art amazingly bland and lifeless. Perhaps the most important question would be: what the hell is that ending all about? We never see Cheryl's father. She's got an invisible wall around her house. She's a vampire. Right, how could I not have connected the dots? This would have been a good time for one of those afterword expositories Cain usually gives us.

"Ever After"

Jack: For much of the story, Cheryl is pretty darn cute for someone whom Warren describes as a "square broad" whose "face and figure" bug him. The story does take some turns that make no sense but you have to admit that Murphy Anderson's inks improve John Calnan's pencils over what we've seen Calnan do on his own.

Peter: Stuck at summer camp and stuck in a wheelchair are double doses of dread for little Richie, especially when he meets the rest of the kids at the camp. When one of the boys drowns in the lake, Richie is told the boy was drowned by one of the counselors. The next day, Richie witnesses another boy pull a switchblade on one of the men. Has the entire world gone insane? When our little mop top happens upon a cache of axes, knives and kerosene, Timmy, the only boy in the camp who is kind to Richie, explains that the entire camp is actually a front for outer space aliens who intend to kidnap the boys and take them to their own world for experiments. The boys are planning to kill all the counselors. Not believing a word of it, Richie tells his favorite counselor, Mr. Ressler, all about the plot and is then chased by the enraged mob of pre-teen campers. Richie manages to escape to Ressler's office where he spies an alien monster, now having doffed his Mr. Ressler disguise, reporting to his superiors. Richie hangs on as the entire camp lifts off into space. Fabulously stylized Nino art and a wonderful Bradbury-esque story by future superstar Michael Fleisher. "Oh Mom!... " has a very wordy script (at times, the words threaten to envelope the panel completely) but the story never lags or hits the wrong notes. Are these kids homicidal lunatics or on the doorstep to interstellar travel? You never know until the last few panels. Disney could have done wonders with this on their Sunday television show. Seriously though, I thought this was how all summer camps were.

"Oh, Mom! Oh, Dad!..."

Jack: This was so close to a great story, but the ending was a dud. Nino's art is fantastic and the idea of a group of little kids murdering their counselors is wonderfully sick, but the "surprise" that the counselors were really aliens was no surprise to me. I was really hoping for a better ending but it didn't happen. The title is a takeoff on Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feeling So Sad, a black comedy that played on the New York stage in 1962 and was made into a movie in 1967. It had nothing to do with summer camp.

Peter: Eddie Walker is a vicious, slimy rat who does really nasty things to good people. After pulling one of his jobs, stealing a grandmother's food money, Eddie takes a bullet and awakens aboard a strange train, surrounded by very pale people. It doesn't take a genius to figure out he's "Halfway to Hell" but Eddie isn't going to be peaceful on this journey. Grabbing a little girl as a hostage, he forces the conductor to tell him how to get off. "Just jump" says the man, and Eddie does. When he lands, he's back on earth in his body, paralyzed for life in a hospital bed. Jack Oleck's obviously taking a cue from Robert Bloch's classic "That Hell-Bound Train" but adding riffs of his own quite nicely. Eddie Walker may be the stereotypical hood, looking out for number one and sneering at the cries of mercy from his victims, but the upside is that we find out half way through the story that this is a hell-bound train. We don't have to wade through six pages for a finale we saw coming the whole way, instead we get a legitimately surprising climax. Yandoc suffers from the same malady as some of the other Filipino artists: the guy can't draw human faces. Crowd shots, backgrounds, detail, all nice. Close-ups not so.

Jack: Easily the best story in this issue, even if it doesn't have the best art, "Halfway to Hell" held my interest and I did not guess the ending. If only we could match the best stories with the best artists!

Peter: The circulation statement published this issue shows that House of Mystery was selling an average of 175,134 copies per month in 1972.

Berni Wrightson
The House of Secrets 106

"The Curse of Harappa"
Story by Maxene Fabe
Art by Ruben Yandoc

"The Island of No Return"
Story by John Albano
Art by Alex Nino

"This Will Kill You"
Story by Jack Oleck
Art by Alfredo Alcala

Peter: When Frank O'Connor was a boy he watched his superstitious mother avoid walking under a ladder and get run over by a truck. Now he devotes his entire life to eradicating superstition throughout the world. In the Far East, he hears rumors of "The Curse of Harappa," a village that hides a dangerous secret: a woman known as "the Bride of Death." One look at this woman will capture a man's heart and, before long, he will dig his own grave. Laughing at the old wives' tales, Frank spends weeks searching for Harappa and, when he finally finds it, he discovers the rumors are true. The woman sitting atop her throne is the most beautiful he's ever seen. Frank becomes obsessed and begs the girl to marry him but then keeps her captive, jealous of the affectionate looks she gives other men. One night, "The Bride" announces she's leaving and Frank follows her to a rendezvous with another man. In a rage, Frank murders both and then begins digging their grave. When he's finished, he's a bit taken aback by two observers: his wife and her lover. Shaken, he steps back into the open pit, effectively having dug his own grave. Yandoc still has his problems with faces, especially those of his male characters, but the guy definitely knows his way around a woman's anatomy. I find it hard to believe that anyone would spend their life traveling the world, debunking myths but then, I guess we'd be shy a few DC mystery stories if we stuck to realism.

"The Curse of Harappa"

Jack: Immediately on finishing this story, I clicked over to YouTube and put on Dr. Hook's classic, "When You're In Love With a Beautiful Woman." The lyrics fit this story perfectly! Holy smoke, you're not kidding about Rubeny's way with the lady's anatomy. She looks quite a bit like the dame on the cover, and Berni Wrightson gives us his own take on Ms. 36-C on the splash page. Maxene Fabe is writing some pretty good stories lately, isn't she?

Peter: The captain of a shipwrecked yacht lies dying in a hospital bed but before he expires he tells the police and a newspaper reporter a fantastic tale. The captain had skippered a boat owned by a millionaire couple, The Craxtons, and a couple of their close friends. When a terrible storm sank the boat, the five were lucky to make it to a small deserted island, where they quickly made huts. That night, the captain awakened to find the Craxtons, now vampires, feeding on their friends. Rather than face a nasty death, the captain swam out to sea where he was rescued. Fascinated by the tale, the reporter convinces his editor there may be a story behind all the scary nonsense and he hires a pilot to fly him out to "The Island of No Return." Once there, the men split up to search the island. When the pilot finds a fish on the beach with two small holes and drained of blood (!), he goes in search of the reporter, only to find him being drained by the Craxtons. As the pilot hoofs it back to the plane, the Craxtons smile and hope a few people believe his wild story so they'll have more guests. Not a bad story (in fact, I quite enjoyed the conversation between cop and reporter that opened the tale, moreso than the "scary stuff") but there are a few (pretty large) holes and a few liberties taken with the vampire legend. Vampires can't swim and they don't hang out on the beach to work on their tans, but the Craxtons do. The biggest question I have that's not answered is: was this the grand scheme of the Craxtons, to end up stranded on this island? Far-fetched (are they able to summon storms as well?), yes, but, taken with the rest of the fancies put forth, I just thought I'd ask. As usual, I have nothing but praise for Nino's art. That last panel, where Abel puts an Alfred Hitchcock Presents bow around the package by reassuring us that the Craxtons wouldn't be feasting for very long since the U.S. Air Force had just targeted their island for H-Bomb testing, is really dopey and only serves to let the air out of a nice, nasty climax.

"The Island of No Return"
Jack: More vampires, but with Alex Nino at the top of his game, who cares? This is a pretty original story, and I liked the weird touch of the fish drained of blood. Think about it--if you were a vampire stuck on a desert island, what would you do? Suck the blood from whatever you could find! I thought Abel's concluding remarks were funny--weird, but funny. I also liked Nino's half-page splash with the giant-sized Abel looking like something Jerry Robinson would have drawn looming over the story's characters.

Peter: Practical jokesters Pete and Dolly have their favorite mark, poor simple-minded Charlie, who works in the town's funeral parlor. When old man Hanley dies, Pete comes up with the best prank of his career: he tells Charlie that Hanley was a vampire and then dresses up as the old man, taking his place in his coffin. When Pete begins his eerie howling, Charlie enters the room and, seeing Dolly, knows he must protect the pretty girl with his handy wooden stake. "This Will Kill You" has far from the most original script (it's a combination of Robert Arthur's "The Jokester" and Robert Bloch's "The Living Dead") but its charm and great art make up for its predictability. Pete and Dolly are one nasty couple! Why the DC mystery writers were zeroing in on practical joker storylines in 1973 is itself a mystery.

"This Will Kill You"

Jack: This one is a dud, despite the quality art, which is far from Alcala's best work. Vampires, vampires, vampires! Way to pound a theme into the ground, DC. By the way, for a couple living in 1900, they sure are hip talkers: "It, baby--is an idea!" Pete says at one point. I can't really see the point of setting this story in 1900. House of Secrets blew away House of Mystery this month, even though both comics continue the trend we've seen in the DC horror line of art being much better than story.

Nick Cardy
The Witching Hour 29

"It's Your Funeral!"
Story Uncredited
Art Uncredited

"To Perish by the Sword"
Story by Murray Boltinoff
Art by E.R. Cruz

"A Time to Live--A Time to Die!"
Story by Bill Dennehy (Murray Boltinoff)
Art by Jerry Grandenetti

Jack: Ray Karns is a murderer on the run after escaping from prison. He finds himself by the docks and steals a solar ship from a crate labeled "Todd Museum of Natural History." When he sails off, he passes through a strange fog and emerges in Ancient Egypt, though he doesn't realize it. He is treated as a welcome guest and the Pharaoh's daughter agrees to marry him, but when the time comes for the wedding ceremony Ray learns that "It's Your Funeral!" He is killed so that he can join the rest of the dead. Over 2000 years later, the solar ship, which had been missing since Ray stole it, suddenly turns up in the museum's Egypt exhibit, complete with a deceased Ray at the helm. Despite the groovy lingo that Cynthia uses to narrate this story, I thought it was pretty good, but then I'm a sucker for anything involving Ancient Egypt.

The Gil Kane of the Philippines!
Peter: So I, like, totally thought the set-up was like, totally, with it, man, but the punchline was dead, daddy-o, dead! I love how Ray Karns, dumbest con in the world, thinks "Hmmm, I must have taken a little nap and woke up in Egypt. Hey, it happens!" Very rarely do we come across a story that we can find no credits for either writer or artist but this would be one of them. There's a flash of Gil Kane in a shaded nose but that has to be an homage. Unfortunately, I'm no expert on DC artists but I'd guess he's of Filipino origin ("Duh!" says the peanut gallery) and I wouldn't mind seeing more of his work.

Jack: Famous bullfighter Luis Domingo is about to retire and wed the lovely Carmelita the next day. His beloved is afraid that he will die in his last fight, but he goes through with it and emerges victorious. After the battle, he tosses aside his sword, cape and hat and rushes to embrace his fiancee, but he trips over his own cape and learns what it means "To Perish By the Sword." Solid art by E.R. Cruz enlivens this rather straightforward tale of a bullfighter who is graceful in the ring but clumsy when he shouldn't be.

Peter: Fabulous art and an ironic twist ending make this a winner for me. E.R. Cruz is fast ascending the ladder of top-tier DC mystery artists. His five-panel bull-fighting sequence is nicely choreographed and, since we really have no idea where this story will go, generates mucho suspenso!

Jack: Ever since young Nicholas Croft disappeared three years ago, his father has been angry and his mother's health has been failing. Now, Croft Senior has a plan--he has a boy of about his son's age brought home to soothe his wife in her last days. The boy has lost his memory and believes he's the missing lad. The tenant farmers on Croft's property hate their cruel master, so one of them tells young Nicholas that he must kill his father. Nicholas obliges during a hunting trip in the fog, but then he surprises the tenant farmer by turning into a demon and disappearing. The police find the farmer holding the rifle and babbling about a young man who is no longer there. "A Time to Live--A Time to Die!" seems to be making sense at first but loses its thread somewhere toward the end and ends up making about as much sense as Jerry G's usual, awful art.

Mordred's baby picture
Peter: Here's another one of those really frustrating stories that makes you think the writer switched gears halfway through the story. At the very least Boltinoff could have had one of those dopey "Here's what happened and why" expositories delivered in the final panel. I'm just thankful it's Jack who had to write the synopsis to this loser.

Jack: By the way, that great Nick Cardy cover has absolutely nothing to do with any of the stories in this issue, which is unusual. The covers usually illustrate a scene from one of the stories, or thereabouts.

Nick Cardy
Ghosts 13

"The Nightmare in the Sandbox!"
Story by Leo Dorfman
Art by Bob Brown

"Voice of Vengeance"
Story by Carl Wessler
Art by John Calnan

"Have Tomb, Will Travel"
Story by George Kashdan
Art by Gerry Talaoc

"Hell is One Mile High"
Story by Bill Dennehy (Murray Boltinoff)
Art by Nestor Redondo

Jack: Dr. Allan Jonas moved his family to Haiti to help the people improve their farming techniques, and what does he get in return? "The Nightmare in the Sandbox!" occurs when an angry witch doctor curses his childrens' sandbox! Evil Baron Samedi tries to yank the kids into the sand and succeeds in pulling the family dog under, so Dr. Jonas hires a competing witch doctor to throw a curse. The bad witch doctor ends up getting dragged under the sand and the kids avoid the sandbox forever after. At least this story makes sense and has a beginning, middle and end. Bob Brown's art is above average for him. That's about all I can say!

Peter: When I saw the dog on the cover I naturally assumed we were talking about a different kind of "Nightmare" in the sandbox but, no, Leo Dorfman resorts to the laugh-out-loud concept of a voodoo-cursed sandbox. Knowing he may have something fatal to his children (and little doggy) in his backyard, Dr. Jonas naturally takes steps to rid himself of the box (or at the very least, cover the damn thing), right? Nope. And if you're a voodoo medicine man, do you tempt fate by walking through the very item you cursed? Supremely dopey!

Jack: The people of a little Italian village wait anxiously for the annual visit of Signor Giovanni and his marionettes. During the show, the puppets tell secrets of the local folk--some nice, like a wedding engagement, and some not so nice, like Signor Gardella, head of the local bank, stealing his depositor's money. Late that night, Gardella strangles Giovanni enough to destroy his voice but spare his life. Yet the next evening, who is providing the voice of the marionettes as they tell of Gardella's evil deed? It's not Giovanni's son, whose bus arrives too late, so it must be the "Voice of Vengeance." How many times will we have to endure the character whose bus arrives too late?

Peter: More pulpy nonsense from Carl Wessler. Why in the world would crooked banker Gardella leave the puppeteer alive after strangling him within an inch of his life? They do have paper and pen in Italy, don't they? And leave it to Wessler to end the story with the creaky old "sorry I'm late, I couldn't man the puppets because the bridge was washed out!"

Jack: Patsy Coyne's killer has the dead man's body placed in a wrecked auto, which is then crushed into a small cube by an auto wrecker. The killer keeps hearing Coyne's laughter, even after the car and his body have been crushed. The killer takes a vacation and the crushed car is recycled into a new sports car, which is coincidentally bought by the killer, who once again hears the laughter and dies in a car crash. "Have Tomb, Will Travel" is the umpteenth version of "The Tell-Tale Heart," but I do like Talaoc's art.

Peter: A silly bit of fluff but certainly more enjoyable than the first two stories (although my sides are still aching from "the sandbox nightmare"), if only because of Gerry Talaoc's distinctive art style.

Jack: Near the end of WWII, a couple of GIs struggle through the Black Forest. Bill is helping Jim, who is badly wounded, and they climb a high hill to a castle, only to discover that "Hell is One Mile High." Bill leaves Jim there and Jim soon meets an ex-Nazi and his beautiful daughter who live in the castle. The Nazi plans to kill Jim but his daughter helps Jim escape and gives him her ring as a souvenir. Jim makes it back to his unit and they come upon the castle the next day, but now it is ruined and uninhabited. Jim makes it to a field hospital, where doctors fail to save his life and a nurse removes a ring from his finger. I'm always happy for any work by Nestor Redondo, but this story is all over the place. Is the war over or not? Jim and Bill say no, but the Baron tells Jim that it is. As usual, I'm confused. One good thing--maybe Redondo will draw some war comics?

Peter: The premise is an old one but "Hell is One Mile High" actually works in some tweaks that make the story involving right up to its disastrously abrupt climax. Was the ring on Jim's finger in the final panel supposed to be a twist? Why would it be when his fellow GI, Bill, acknowledged its presence? Regardless, this is a classic compared to most of the stories published in Ghosts. Savor it. And savor Nestor Redondo's exquisite art as well.

Alfredo Alcala
Secrets of Sinister House 10

"Castle Curse"
Story by Steve Skeates
Art by Alfredo Alcala

"The Cards Never Lie!"
Story Uncredited
Art by Gerry Talaoc

"Losing His Head!
Story Uncredited
Art by Larry Hama, Neal Adams and Rich Buckler

Peter: A peasant farmer learns that he has inherited a castle and a title from an uncle he didn't even know. Once he and his wife move, however, he learns that he has also inherited a "Castle Curse." Soon after arriving, the newly minted royalty begins to have blackouts and women are murdered in the village by a werewolf. His wife, fearful she'll become a victim of the werewolf, begs him to give up his title so that they can return to their farm. Scoffing at his wife's fears and handing her a gun loaded with silver bullets, the man buries himself in the castle library, where he finds a manuscript which backs up the story of the curse. As he heads up to his bedroom, he becomes a werewolf and launches himself at his terrified wife. She shoots the werewolf and, once the creature regains the form of her husband, shoots herself. A patchwork of so many other curse/inheritance/werewolf stories, "Castle Curse" is a beautifully illustrated piece of fluff. Not one original word could be found in my reading of the story so this must have been a case of Steve Skeates fighting a deadline. The other strange aspect of "Castle Curse" is that there is no attempt to convince the reader that the werewolf is anyone else than the  main protagonist (this despite the fact that the werewolf is shown in tattered garments and "The Man"--he is never given a name--wakes up refreshed and perma-pressed). As much as I love Alcala's work, his werewolf looks like The Fantastic Mr. Fox!

"The Fantastic Mr..." um "Castle Curse"

Jack: Not one of Alcala's better efforts, "Castle Curse" plods along from start to finish with nary a surprising moment. Won't these people ever learn that it's a bad idea to scoff at a curse when you're in a horror comic? I will say that the page-long wordless sequence of the werewolf's first kill is nicely done.

Peter: When mobster Stab Digby is told by a dying fortune teller that the King of Spades or a tall, dark man, will be his murderer, he rubs out anyone who fits the bill. His chief rival, Tommy Flannigan, is a blonde so he escapes the machine guns but when the two decide to merge their businesses Stab takes a ride to Tommy's nightclub and discovers Flannigan's trademark is... The King of Spades! Digby has his new partner ventilated and then takes over the club but dies in an explosion. In the afterlife, Stab meets up with the fortune teller and has cross words with her, insisting he wiped out all the kings of spades. The old woman shows him his body in the rubble of the nightclub, surrounded by the club's marquee, the King of Spades, and assures him that "The Cards Never Lie!" A crafty, humorous little slip of a tale, with an ingenious last panel. Talaoc's art just gets better and better. This is the second "mobsters go to a fortune teller" story we've had in just the last few months, which leads me to believe that the DC mystery office had a chalkboard with all the possible scenarios on them. Luckily (uncredited) got this assignment.

"The Cards Never Lie"

Jack: I'll go out on a limb and credit this story to editor E. Nelson Bridwell, since it is more of a gangster story than a horror tale. The sudden appearance of the ghosts at the end was jarring and didn't work for me, but I'm right there with you on appreciating the artwork.

Peter: Every night, The Great Claymore, a carnival ventriloquist, plays to packed houses. Watching from a distance is hunchbacked Onappo, who has a certain fondness for Claymore's assistant, the gorgeous Esmeralda. Attempting to impress the girl with ventriloquism skills, Onappo asks Claymore for some tips, only to be rebuffed rudely. Esmeralda decides she's a free spirit and can love anyone so she becomes friends with the hunchback but, one night, Onappo overhears an argument between the girl and Claymore and the word "pity" is used more than once. Slipping a gasket in his brain, the scorned lover decides money is much more desirable than a woman anyway and so breaks into Claymore's wagon to steal his "box of secrets." Claymore discovers Onappo and a fight ensues, with Claymore taking a nasty blow to the head. The hunchback watches in awe as Claymore's head shatters, revealing that the man was actually the dummy in the act. Opening the "box of secrets," Onappo is attacked by a creature that latches onto his head and, very soon after, the carnival welcomes The Great Onappo to its stage. There's an obvious bit of homage to The Hunchback of Notre Dame in "Losing His Head" but a there's also a whole lot of hazy stuff going on in the story. Is Esmeralda leading her new friend on? What is the thing in the box? Does this mean that Onappo has a ceramic head now? Since she's up on stage at the climax, Esmeralda must know what's going on so is she ceramic as well? Why didn't the artist paint a light bulb over Onappo's head when he declares, "Well, if I can't have love, I can at least have money!"? All these very good questions shall remain unanswered but I'll give "Losing His Head" a thumbs-up anyway for its grisly and creepy climax.

"Losing His Head"

Jack: I didn't get it at all. Is Onappo a hollow dummy at the end? How did Claymore walk and talk if he was a hollow guy with a ceramic head? It makes no sense. I wasn't impressed by the art. This looks like one of those apocryphal stories where Neal Adams stopped by the DC offices one day and polished up a few panels here and there on this story. Some of the faces are obviously his work but overall the art is pretty blah. I vaguely recall Larry Hama from mid-'70s comics but that's all I remember. I liked his work on Iron Fist and the Atlas comics.

"Losing His Head"

Peter: A note on the art of "Losing His Head!": GCD, an essential tool we could not do this blog without, will list questionable credits at times (that is, credits with a question mark). It may be wrong, but we ignore the question marked artists and writers and only credit those which the GCD has listed as confirmed (Since when?--Jack). For instance, Larry Hama is listed as a possible artist on "Losing His Head!" and Adams and Buckler are confirmed as inkers. You can definitely see traces of Adams and Buckler but I'm not an expert on Hama's work so we'll err on the side of caution.

Jack: Wikipedia says Hama was a Crusty Bunker, so I think the credit is believable.