Monday, May 21, 2018

Star Spangled DC War Stories Issue 130: September 1972

The DC War Comics
by Corporals Enfantino and Seabrook

Star Spangled War Stories 164

"Remittance Man!"
Story by Bob Haney
Art by Dan Spiegle

"White Devil . . .Yellow Devil!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Alex Toth

Peter: "On a wild jungle island . . . (in) the South Pacific," evil Japanese Colonel Tanaka searches for the "Remittance Man!," a brave civilian who's hidden himself in a cave and is transmitting important info to the Allies. Tanaka discovers the location of the cave and has it bombed. Thinking no one could survive the explosion, Tanaka congratulates himself on a job well done and  informs his higher-ups that they are free to send ships through an important waterway. Meanwhile, in Washington, the Unknown Soldier accepts orders to impersonate the dead remittance man and deliver one last important message. When messages are intercepted by the Japanese, Tanaka flips his lid and sets traps all over the island for our undercover hero. US is too smart for these dopey soldiers and, with the help of the real remittance man (who wasn't dead but just buried under tons of rubble), the important radio transmission is sent and Tanaka and his men are eliminated. "Remittance Man!" isn't a great story but it holds the interest and, more importantly, Dan Spiegle's art looks a heck of a lot better here than in the previous issue. I question why the Unknown Soldier feels the need to don a disguise to hide in a cave from the Japanese. Why not do the job with or without bandages? Since no one even knew who the remittance man was or what he looked like, who's going to recognize our hero sans a get-up?

"Remittance Man!"

"White Devil . . . Yellow Devil!"
Toshiro has been taught by his commander that the Americans are the white devils, monsters who do not kill for honor but for "souvenirs." While on a patrol, Toshiro is jumped by an American soldier, who holds up just before plunging a knife into his heart. The G.I. is taken aback by Toshiro's youth and promises to tend to his wounds after he's escorted him back to a prison camp. One of Toshiro's comrades sneaks up behind the G.I. and kills him. Later that night, Toshiro buries the G.I. but is shot and killed. A simple synopsis does not do justice to this nicely-written and gorgeously-illustrated war tale, one that sees Big Bob shake off the dust and get down to business for the first time in a long time. Toth's stark visuals are one-of-a-kind and instantly recognizable; his art tells so much more of the story than the captions and word balloons can hope to. "White Devil . . . Yellow Devil!" is an installment in a new series of vignettes under the heading, "Bob Kanigher's Gallery of War" and, if the first tale is any indication, we're in for some good reading.

More Toth!

Jack: I wonder if Col. Tanaka knows Col. Hakawa, that practical joker of the Pacific Theater? No matter, Haney and Spiegle give us a decent story that doesn't get very exciting but isn't bad, either. The Kanigher/Toth tale fits well into the late Vietnam-era mood of 1972 DC War Comics in that it shows the point of view of soldiers from both sides and demonstrates acts of mercy and cruelty. Toth does nice work with a wordless sequence and muted colors suggesting night action.

Our Army at War 249

"The Luck of Easy!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Russ Heath

"Wing Man"
Story and Art by Wally Wood

Jack: As they make their way through Italy, Rock and Easy Co. meet an Italian peasant who pulls his very pregnant wife in a cart, intent on having her deliver their baby at the farm home from which they fled when the Nazis came. Easy Co. is going the same direction, so they accompany the couple, wiping out Nazis along the way. When they arrive at the farm, the men of Easy Co. must hold off approaching Nazi soldiers as the couple wait inside their small home for the baby to arrive. Rock single-handedly returns a live potato masher and wipes out the enemy just as the baby is born.

"The Luck of Easy!" is a dull entry in the Easy Co. series, with little to generate excitement in story or art. There is virtually no suspense created and the plot moves from one battle to another until Rock executes his usual heroics at the end to save the day.

"The Luck of Easy!"

"Wing Man"
During WWII, the fliers of the R.A.F. are shooting down enemy planes left and right, but "Wing Man" Archie Pyke does not have a single German kill to his name. He is very good at sticking to his leader plane and protecting it, but he laments the fact that he never gets to shoot anyone down himself. Finally, he shoots a jet out of the sky in order to protect his leader, finally proving his mettle.

It's such a pleasure to see Wally Wood back drawing war comics after all these years that I can forgive the fact that his story is a bit perfunctory. His DC work in the '70s never reached the heights of his EC work in the '50s, but he's still one of the all-time greats in my book.

Peter: I'd have never pegged Wally Wood as the man responsible for "Wing Man," but then this was nearly two decades after his stint at EC and styles change.Woody still has the chops, even in the script-writing department; "Wing Man" is a bit deeper than the usual gung-ho pilot filler tale. Our hero manages to save the day through dumb luck rather than a last-second elevation of skills; that's a refreshing change of pace. The Rock tale is an amiable piece of fluff with a beautiful coat of Heath paint to make it shine.

G.I. Combat 155

"The Long Journey"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Sam Glanzman

"Ashcan Alley!"
Story by Bob Haney
Art by Joe Kubert
(Reprinted from Star Spangled War Stories #67, March 1958)

Peter: Stuck in icy Russia, the men of the Jeb Stuart must depend on the help of a few friendly Commies to get their hides back to the front in one piece. Trouble is, the ghostly General who has given his name to his descendant and to the Haunted Tank has already told Commander Jeb that they won't make it back in one piece! After a particularly nasty village battle, in which they befriend a one-armed Russian freedom fighter named Gorki, the boys find that the only way they'll make it back home is by hiding the tank. They dismantle the Jeb and transport her, via horse and wagon, back to the front. A direct sequel to last issue's adventure (a facet of the "recent" installments of some of these series I'm digging--now let's get Rock in line, Big Bob!), "The Long Journey" is a decent page-turner with plenty of action and pathos. Maybe I'm getting used to it, but Sam Glanzman's art isn't as annoying as it's been in the past. Sure, his G.I.s have a few too many freckles, but I can live with that.

"The Long Journey"

A navy frogman finds that dodging mines and enemy subs in "Ashcan Alley!" is a little more difficult than avoiding bowling balls (seriously!) back home. I like these underwater adventures as they mix things up a bit and take us away from the same ol' battlefield drama. Problem is, so many of these are just the same ol' underwater pinball, where one frogman manages to outwit the entire German sea force and come out the other end with all limbs intact. Our hero this time out sidesteps mines, E-boats, depth charges, torpedoes, and a particularly soft Nazi flipperman. At least it's got the Kubert sheen.

"Ashcan Alley!"

Jack: It's not bad enough to suffer through 14 pages of Sam Glanzman's attempt to draw the Haunted Tank, but do we have to read Bob Kanigher's attempt to mimic Russians trying to speak English? "No time bury dead" is one of the choice sentences, making the Russian peasants sound like the Frankenstein monster. The backup story looks much better, with smooth Kubert art but, as Peter points out, you read one frogman story, you've read 'em all. Bob Haney uses the term "ashcan alley" seven times, including the title, but it felt more like seventy.

Next Week . . .
The Final Crime!

Monday, May 14, 2018

EC Comics! It's An Entertaining Comic! Issue 57

The EC Reign Month by Month 1950-1956
 57: February/March 1955, Part I

Tales from the Crypt #46

"Upon Reflection" ★★
Story by Carl Wessler
Art by Jack Davis

"Blind Alleys" ★★★★
Story by William Gaines and Al Feldstein
Art by George Evans

"Success Story" ★★
Story by Carl Wessler
Art by Joe Orlando

"Tatter Up!" ★★ 1/2
Story by Carl Wessler
Art by Graham Ingels

A werewolf is terrorizing Plainsville, but the townsfolk have not been watching any Lon Chaney Jr. movies lately and Mayor Hanson has to explain to them that silver bullets are required to rid the community of the foul fiend. When the next full moon comes around, everyone is ready. Mayor Hanson inspects his own house (?) and fires when he sees the werewolf, not realizing he's looking in a mirror. The rest of the rifle-toting townsfolk storm in and finish the mayor off.

Jack, you needed to hide the mayor's face better!
("Upon Reflection")
"Upon Reflection," the first story in Crypt of Terror #1, as the Crypt-Keeper calls it, is nothing new, and has all the hallmarks of a tired Carl Wessler script. The villagers complain to the mayor, blah blah blah, and in the end the mayor turns out to be the werewolf. I saw it coming a mile away. Unfortunately, Jack Davis was too lazy to draw the mayor from an angle that obscured his face, and when he's looking in the mirror he still looks human.

Gunner Grunwald is the director of a home for the blind, but the residents are the least of his concerns. In fact, he has let the home fall into ruin while enriching himself. The poor blind people suffer with rats, roaches, and rancid food while Gunner lives in luxury. No wonder he bought a vicious guard dog named Brutus to protect himself! Finally, enough is enough, and the blind revolt. First they capture Brutus and lock him in a basement room. Then they capture Gunner and lock him in a room next door to Brutus. For the next three days, they hammer and saw, building something mysterious while the dog goes crazy with hunger.

Peter gets dressed for another day at work.
("Blind Alleys")
Finally, Gunner is set free, only to walk into a maze whose wooden walls are lined with razor blades. No problem, thinks he, I'll just walk slowly and carefully and watch my step. But then, Brutus is released, and Gunner has to run for his life. And if that's not bad enough--the blind folks turn out the lights.

"Blind Alleys" is one of those EC stories I've been waiting for ever since we started this blog and, I'm happy to say, it doesn't disappoint on re-reading 40 or so years later. I remember it from the Big Book and from the movie, and it's no accident that it's a Gaines/Feldstein script rather than a Wessler script. Evans is the perfect choice to illustrate it and the last line is unforgettable: "And then some idiot turned out the lights!" This is one of the best revenge tales EC ever published and it belongs in the all-time top ten list of EC stories.

Recently married to a hot blonde, Elmer Preston can't believe his luck when her parents announce that they're giving the young couple $1000 as a down payment on a new house. Things are going well until Mom and Dad arrive on the doorstep and say they're broke and want to move in. It goes from bad to worse as they demand more and more from poor Elmer and soon even his wife joins in the never-ending litany of nagging and haranguing about why Elmer can't get ahead in the world. The poor sap finally snaps and cuts off their heads. When the police come and he tells his story, they marvel at the severed heads arranged in platters on the dining room table.

Got ahead... oh wait, *now* I get it!
("Success Story")
The high I got from the previous story was short-lived, as we're immediately brought back to Earth with another Wessler tale that goes from A to B to C with no surprises. "Success Story" is one of the most uninspired revenge tales we've read. Orlando's art is not appealing either, and the best I can say for this tepid tale is that they don't shy away from the ending, as things get pretty grisly with the cleaver attack and the heads on display.

Why would handsome, young Tony Barrett marry an old hag like Fanny Ogden? For her money, of course! A stranger told Tony that Fanny has $100 grand stashed away in her house and he's determined to find it. As the months go by, he is more and more repulsed by his wife, who spends much of her time gathering up rags to sell to the ragman who stops by on a daily basis. Tony finally has enough and murders his wife, burying her body in the basement. The ragman keeps coming and, when Tony runs out of rags to give him, the tattered fellow heads down to the basement and wants the clothes from Fanny's corpse. It turns out he was Fanny's lover but knew she needed a strong, young man for a husband, not a ragman.

Ghastly tries his best but this story is yet another retread of an old EC theme and the surprise ending makes no sense. "Tatter Up!" features the strange ragman who keeps coming to the door; since this is a Wessler story, you know he'll figure in the big finish. But what the heck? A man made out of rags? I don't get it. I liked DC's 1970s Ragman better.--Jack

Ragman... oh wait, *now* I get it!
("Tatter Up!")
Peter: Tales from the Crypt #46 is a milestone for several reasons, the most obvious being that it's the last horror comic EC ever published. Interestingly enough, #46 was originally assembled to be the premiere issue of a fourth horror title, The Crypt of Terror, before the horsemen of the Senate apocalypse rode into town; the intros were not even changed as Bill Gaines was in such a rush to get this thing out the door. It's also the last time we'll see Graham Ingels sign his name, "Ghastly" (from here on out, it's simply "Graham"). The final important note on my checklist belongs to "Blind Alleys," which is the last of the Amicus adaptations we'll get to on this journey. I have to say that I prefer the filmed version (found in Tales from the Crypt) to the original. The character of Gunner Grunwald (Major William Rogers in the film, played nicely by Nigel Patrick) in the comic version is a mean-spirited, sadistic sumbitch, almost laughably so, while screenwriter Milt Subotsky's take on the asylum director is more "human" (while retaining the penny-pinching side of the character), avoiding such silliness as tripping or dumping buckets of water on the heads of his charges. Subotsky gets it: you don't have to go Jerry Lewis on your audience to get them to hate this guy. Having said that, I still like the original quite a bit and it's certainly helped along by George Evans's art and that classic final line. "Success Story" is the perfect tale to serve up to someone if you want to show them what was going wrong with the line, dredging up bad plots and twists endlessly. "A-head! A-head!" Get it? Yeah, I got it halfway through the story when you pounded me over the head with it. "Upon Reflection" is also short on surprises (except, perhaps, the sight of a werewolf in a blue suit and cape). Funny that only Elwood Hanson's reflection looks like a werewolf! So what about that final Ghastly goodie? Ugh! "Tatter Up!" is yet another variation on the young man courting the rich old ugly woman, this time capped by a nonsensical climax (if the guy's made of rags and his hands are "soft and stringy-like," then how is he supposed to strangle Tony?).

Two-Fisted Tales #41

"Code of Honor!" ★★★ 1/2
Story and Art by John Severin

"Mau Mau!" ★★
Story Uncredited
Art by Bernie Krigstein

"Carl Akeley!" ★★★
Story and Art by Wally Wood

"Yellow!" ★★★ 1/2
Story and Art by George Evans

Stephen Ashley has made quite a name for himself among the South Carolina social elite but it's not necessarily for the good. Ashley is a marksman and takes advantage of his skill whenever a disagreement arises; the arrogant young man  issues challenges to duel as frequently as some change their bedsheets. His proclivity for "murder" (as some have called Ashley's hobby) has chased him from South Carolina to the friendlier streets of New Orleans, where Ashley seems to have gotten away from his bad habits. But a night out and a pretty maiden lead Stephen down that road one time too many. He challenges a Frenchman to a duel and discovers too late that, in New Orleans, the weapon of choice is the sword and Stephen's opposite is the deadliest swordsman in all of France! Though "Code of Honor!" is only six pages long, it's a fabulously constructed little gem, with a protagonist you can't wait to see run through and a nicely delivered surprise climax. Even faced with using a weapon unfamiliar to him, Stephen Ashley is such an egotistical SOB that he's completely confident he'll get the job done. Writer Severin's dialogue is rich with nuance and sounds so real, as in the exchange between Ashley and his latest prey, a pacifist named Brian, who has been asked his honest opinion of Ashley's reputation and delivers an honest answer, a conversation that dooms the innocent Brian:

Just some of John Severin's deep dialogue
from "Code of Honor!"
Ashley: Since there is no tribunal to do justice to a deeply wronged individual . . . must he then tamely submit to insult and disgrace or should he not resort to the first law of nature . . . of self-preservation?
Brian: Self-preservation? To me it is murder!
Ashley: Then sir, you are saying that I am a murderer?
Brian: Well . . . yes! I reckon I am!

Though the GCD lists John Severin as his own inker, I think he had some help; his lines are a little softer and rounder than usual (still great work). This here's the best story we've had in Two-Fisted since Harvey headed for MADder pastures.

Jungle picture director Merrill Quantock arrives in Nairobi to film his most exciting and authentic documentary yet, a study of the "Mau Mau!" tribe. To aid him. Quantock hires only the best, including big game hunter McBan and Mau Mau expert, Limuru. Once in the jungle, McBan hires a native named Hinga, who seems to be a whiz at fixing anything mechanical, but Limuru and Quantock believe Hinga to be a Mau Mau in disguise. The cameras roll and Limuru provides several natives for "set dressing," but it's soon revealed that it's Limuru, and not Hinga, that is the Mau Mau! Most everything Bernie Krigstein works on is a page-turner, but "Mau Mau!" is curiously dull and confusing. The twist is predictable and the secondary character of McBan doesn't serve much of a purpose other than to stand off to the side and look grim. Krigstein's work is cartoony (a la the similarly jungle-set stinker, "Numbskull," from Haunt #28) and far from the experimental style he excels at.

"Mau Mau!"

"Carl Akeley!" is an interesting and beautifully illustrated docu-drama about the noted early 20th-century taxidermist and adventurer who fought wild animals and lived to tell the tales (and then was struck down, ironically, by a malaria-carrying mosquito). As with many of Harvey's "lectures" in the early days of Two-Fisted, "Carl Akeley!" enlightens those of us who are ignorant in the ways of history and the men who shaped that history. Wally's work, especially the bull elephant sequence, is nothing short of thrilling. A change of pace in that there is not one line of dialogue, with the story being told only in captions and images.

World War I pilot Bill Stone is "Yellow!" and, at first, he couldn't care less if everyone knows it. But when comrade Curry makes a comment about one of the pilots being a coward, it raises Stone's hackles and he becomes an ace. After a particularly grueling mission wherein he saves Curry's bacon, Stone confronts his ally with the news that Curry's comment about cowardice turned Stone's entire demeanor around. Curry shocks Stone by confessing that he was actually talking about himself being the weak link!

The respected 24-issue run of Two-Fisted Tales comes to an end with "Yellow!," a well-written and nicely-illustrated tale that delivers quite the punch with its final line of dialogue.  It's a tribute to George Evans's story-telling abilities that the strength of "Yellow!" lies not in its aerial battles but in its quieter moments back at the base with the pilots and their rituals and fears. "Yellow!" is the perfect coming attraction for the debut of next month's "New Direction" title, Aces High, a comic that will prominently feature the talents of George Evans and carry on the spirit of TFT. --Peter

Jack: I found Kurtzman's editorial heartfelt and thought it interesting to read that so much research went into these stories. While I liked Severin's story, it seemed overly talky and oddly lacking in action and suspense, with an abrupt finish. Krigstein's story features some of his most straightforward art but the narrative is unengaging. Wood does excellent technical work but the story is kind of dry, like something from a Gold Key comic or the Sunday funnies page. Evans saves the best for last, as his rich air battle work lifts an excellent story into the air.

Weird Science-Fantasy #27

"Adaptability" ★★★★
Story by Otto Binder
Art by Wally Wood

"Close Shave" ★★★★
Story by Otto Binder
Art by Reed Crandall

"4th Degree" ★★
Story by William Gaines and Al Feldstein
Art by Jack Kamen

"I, Robot" ★★★
Story by Otto Binder
Art by Joe Orlando

For over 900 years, a giant ship has hurtled through space. It contains 556 men, women, and children--all that remains of the human race since Earth became uninhabitable. They have survived all these centuries in an environment where all of their needs are met by carefully tended machines. Now, as they approach the Earth-like planet of Procyon-5, excitement mounts at the prospect of finally living normal lives in the open air. The ship lands and the young people pour out of it, but the older ones are afraid to leave the safe environment that they have known for so long. Very soon, the young folks find that life in the real world can be uncomfortable and frightening, and they head back to the safety of the ship and blast off back into space.

A nice sequence by Wally Wood.

"Adaptability" is a fine science fiction tale that is made even better by gorgeous art by Wally Wood. Wood could draw any kind of story, but somehow the science fiction and fantasy ones seem to have piqued his interest and made him work harder to craft one brilliant page after another.

"Close Shave"
In the 25th century, handsome Jay Ellison tells his fiance, Vida Orkney, that he is unworthy of her hand in marriage. She thinks back to how they met, when he saved her from being run over by a speeding car, and how they fell in love, as she witnessed his brave acts of standing up to bullies in public. In this future society, Ganymedes are covered with fur and persecuted. Some have been engaging in a particularly "Close Shave" and passing as humans. Jay admits to Vida that he's a Ganymede and has been shaving down and hiding his true self from his beloved. She laughs and tells him she's also a Ganymede, so they can be wed. Later, when she's alone, she realizes that she must destroy the picture of her human parents so he never finds out she's lying.

Otto Binder writes some very wordy comic book stories, doesn't he? This and the one before it take a bit of time to read but are worth it. Reed Crandall is a superb comic artist and this story progresses nicely through its twists and turns until the final revelation. I like the depictions of the hairy Ganymedes, too.

A decent panel from our favorite punching bag.
("4th Degree")
In the year 2039, Val Draper is a romantic among humans who are devoted to the state. His girlfriend, scientist Andrea Coles, has invented a time machine and he convinces her to send him back to 1954, before the Atomic War destroyed all countries and the people were enslaved by the world government. Having heard enough, the doctor from 1954 reveals that there is no time machine and Val is still in 2039, where he was tricked into giving testimony against himself. He is taken outside and shot. Inside, Andrea reads one of his forbidden books from the past and weeps over the thought of a world where love existed.

Bill Gaines was surely smarting from the comic book witch hunt when he wrote this tract, which is overly preachy and lacks subtlety. For Gaines, the world of 1954, where people could not speak as freely as they could ten years before, was heading toward the world of 2039, as depicted in this story. He was right, of course, but the story is a dud and Kamen's art doesn't help.

Adam Link, a robot built and trained by Dr. Link, writes his memoirs, recalling how he was first given life and how he learned and retained knowledge. When Dr. Link is killed in a lab accident, the robot is blamed and hunted, much like the Frankenstein monster. In the end, he chooses to switch himself off rather than harm any humans.

"I, Robot"
Eando Binder's classic science fiction story, "I, Robot," is brought to life by Al Feldstein and Joe Orlando. Orlando's tendency to draw unpleasant or ugly humans is tamped down here by the need to draw the old scientist and the robot for most of the story's length. I enjoyed it and would like to have seen more pulp classics adapted by EC's staff.--Jack

Peter: I liked "Adaptability" a lot but think Otto should have ended it with the young folk having a hard time adapting to the new atmosphere and racing back to the ship like spoiled children (some things never change, do they); no need to throw germs and icky stuff in there as well. The hand is certainly heavy in "Close Shave" (I thought for sure that, in Vida's list of intolerances--"witch hunts . . . anti-semitism . . . racial intolerance . . ."--we'd get "Senate subcommittees," but no!) but the final panel double-twist is pretty clever. What's this? The return of Gaines and Feldstein? Time to celebrate? Hardly. "4th Degree" is a cliched snooze with perfectly matched art. Why does the "government" go to such extremes to fool Draper when all they had to do was execute him? I've never cared for Adam Link, in any of his incarnations, be it prose, comic, or TV show, and this version of "I, Robot" (the first adaptation, I believe) is no exception. There will be three adaptations over the next three issues, all illustrated by Joe Orlando. An interesting footnote (certainly more interesting than the story itself) is that Binder and Orlando re-teamed in the mid-1960s for a series of Link stories published in Warren's Creepy.

MAD #20

"Katchandhammer Kids!" ★★★ 1/2
Story by Harvey Kurtzman
Art by Will Elder

"Sound Effects!" ★★★ 1/2
Story by Harvey Kurtzman
Art by Wally Wood

"Paul Revere's Ride!" ★
Poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Adapted by Harvey Kurtzman
Art by Jack Davis

"Cowboy!" ★★
Story by Harvey Kurtzman
Art by Jack Davis

Hans and Feetz, the so-called “Katchandhammer Kids”, are not unlike any other German child, fitted with a lust for violence and causeless retribution. Their target of choice is the buffoon Kapitan, who falls to prey to all manner of their intricate MacGyver-meets-Home Alone antics and deathtraps, including the use of a cat, a dog, a mule, an uncorked champagne bottle, and strategically-placed garbage to perpetuate the illusion that the Kapitan is a stinking drunk to an esteemed guest. The Kapitan responds in kind by whaling the ever-loving hell out of the two terrors, much to the chagrin of the Inspektor, who warns the Kapitan that brute force will only lead to more deviltry on the part of the kinder. Years later, it turns out the Inspektor’s words have rung true: now young men, Hans and Feetz have grown into a pair of honest-to-goodness cutthroat criminals!

We're two wild and crazy guys!
("Katchandhammer Kids!")

Like a number of comic strip parodies from previous issues of MAD, I’m not familiar with the source material here, but then again just as before that foreknowledge isn’t really necessary as Kurtzman and Elder are operating on their own bizarro wavelength here. My opinion of “Katchandhammer Kids” falls somewhere in the middle of Peter’s and Jack’s evaluations: I appreciate the gonzo and anything-goes nature of the humor—the chicken fat quotient runs especially high here—but the faux German dialect becomes a slog to get through at certain points and at times shortchanges the comedic punch. Overall, I certainly feel more cultured for having read it, though I suspect that that’s not really the effect the boys were going for.

"Sound Effects!"
Hey, kids! Dontcha just love those big ol’ gobbledy-gook “Sound Effects” that you find in your funny books? So striking and bold and all over the damn place! You hardly need any narrative exposition or dialogue to tell a story when you got sound effects on your side! And that’s just what Kurtzman and Wally Wood set out to do here, to rib-tickling effect. There’s really no way to synopsize this little bit of winking meta-humor; the glee lies in the reading. Suffice to say that the duo uses the boilerplate template of a detective noir to incorporate all manner of onomatopoeia and aural cues, whether they’re of the familiar variety (THUNK, BLAM, etc.) or of the never-knew-that-was-a-sound variety (BLEED, CRAWL, etc.). Only in MAD could one find a story like this, willing to break free from the mold EC had set for itself and just take part in some light anarchic goofery.

Hey, kids! Dontcha just love those long, boring poems your teachers force you to recite and suffer through in English class? Wouldn’t it be great if those poems were set to illustrations that could be considered humorous only by the broadest definition? Then have we got the funny book story for you! I can only imagine that Harvey Kurtzman kept returning to these poetry parodies because they were easy enough to use in order to fill out some six-page real estate; *none* of them have been up to the comedic standards of his other work, and they’ve *always* been the low point of whatever issue they appeared in. The same is true for “Paul Revere’s Ride”, which finds Jack Davis being forced presumably at musket-point to draw some “hilarious” panels of a pint-sized Revere chasing after his horse and stealing some chickens. I would’ve preferred that they just ran the original unabridged poem instead!

Oh man, here comes the milk out of my nose again!
("Paul Revere's Ride!")

Cowboys… helluva group of mythic American figures, ain’t they? Well myths are exactly what they are, as the final story so aptly (and repeatedly) tells us. Peter puts it pretty aptly down below; Kurtzman is ever-accurate with his historical facts, as always, but there just isn’t a lot of comedic mileage to be had from those facts, at least not in the way they’re presented here. The tale follows a similar “This is how we see it / this is how it really is” template as other MAD entries like “Book… Movie,” but the comparisons made in “Cowboy”, seeing as how they’re rooted in history, come across more as mildly horrifying than hysterical (“Cowboys would actually be lynched for that kind of behavior… HAR HAR HAR!”). It’s an oddball albeit generally inoffensive note to leave the issue on, and poor Jack Davis is left with the fuzzy end of the lollipop again.--Jose

Peter: "Katchandhammer" is the latest KurtzElder classic, a strip so blatantly goofy it almost defies description. You keep waiting for the faux-German accents to drop off but, no, the lunacy continues right through the final panel (with even the page numbers getting in on the act). The intricately plotted gags are hilarious; KurtzElder's success at aping these strips is insanely funny. The same cannot be said about the rest of the issue ("Cowboy!" is spot-on with its dissection of the myths but that doesn't make it funny), which is about as funny as putting on the evening news. Still, if KurtzElder can keep their train moving down the tracks, that guarantees at least a handful of guffaws every issue.

Jack: As I slogged through these four stories, I began to wonder if there's much benefit to re-reading Mad 63 years after it was first published. You do have to hand it to Kurtzman for having the nerve to write that whole first story in pidgin German, but that doesn't make it fun to read. The cover is brilliant and I could see bored kids poring over every "German" word balloon in class, but do we have to as well? "Sound Effects!" was my favorite story this time out, both for the Wood art and the private eye theme. It struck me that it's not that different from one of those 2018 comics with little dialogue or narration. The last two stories are more Jack Davis than I can handle in a single sitting. Neither one is funny, and Kurtzman is leaning awfully hard on the theme of comparing artifice to reality.

 Was für seltsame Unsinnigkeiten diese sein?
Ich muss lachen mein Arsch ab!
("Katchandhammer Kids!")

Next Week in
Star Spangled #130 . . .
Just how good is Alex Toth?

Thursday, May 10, 2018

The Hitchcock Project-Stanley Ellin Part Three: Specialty of the House [5.12]

by Jack Seabrook

Stanley Ellin's first story, "The Specialty of the House," is his most famous. Published in the May 1948 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, it begins as a man named Laffler takes his employee Costain to dinner at Sbirro's, a restaurant housed in the basement of an unassuming brownstone. They are welcomed into a small dining room that is lit by gas jets, where no women are allowed and where an East Indian waiter serves them. Laffler is disappointed to learn that the special is not being offered tonight, and Costain is surprised to learn that every diner is served the same dish, prepared by a single chef. Laffler has never seen the inside of the kitchen but is obsessed with it.

"The Specialty of the House"
was first published here
The meal is superb but the rules are strict: no condiments, tobacco, alcohol, or any drink besides water are allowed. Laffler explains that Sbirro's is for the true gourmet. The meat is delicious but Laffler tells Costain that it is nothing like the special: Lamb Amirstan, from a rare flock of sheep on the border between Afghanistan and Russia. The dish is not often served and no notice is given. Most of the patrons are regulars and the restaurant is a well-kept secret.

Costain begins to accompany Laffler to Sbirro's on a regular basis and his profile at work improves as he puts on weight. Two weeks after his first visit to Sbirro's, the special is served, though one of the regular diners is missing. Costain meets Sbirro for the first time when the owner visits Laffler's table and explains that his restaurant is not a private club but rather is open to the public, since he only wants people to eat and enjoy his food. Pointing out a portrait that hangs on the wall, Sbirro explains that it portrays one man who was allowed into the kitchen. Costain recognizes the man as a famous writer who disappeared in Mexico, and he and Laffler savor their Lamb Amirstan.

The next evening, on the way to dinner at Sbirro's, Laffler and Costain encounter their waiter being choked by a drunken sailor who accuses the waiter of having tried to rob him. Laffler attacks the sailor and he and Costain subdue him, leading the waiter to tell Laffler that he owes him his life. Sitting down to dinner at Sbirro's, Laffler informs Costain that he is off to South America on a surprise tour of inspection for an unknown duration and that he is leaving tonight. The waiter that he saved warns Laffler never to go into the kitchen and Sbirro appears and tells Laffler that the chef flew into a rage when he heard there might be a guest in his domain. Sbirro invites Laffler into the kitchen alone and Costain gets up to leave. The last thing he sees is Laffler being led into the kitchen by Sbirro.

Robert Morley as Laffler
"The Specialty of the House" is a well-written story that is subtle in its menace, where the final events are only implied but are terribly clear in their implications. The parallels to ancient practices and religious rites are evident throughout the tale. Like a church, Sbirro's has "'refused to compromise'" and seems not to have changed in "'half a century.'" Costain remarks to Laffler early in the story that "'you make it sound more like a cathedral than a restaurant.'" Comparisons of humans and animals are also evident, as Laffler is described as having "large, cowlike eyes." The entrance to Sbirro's has an "ancient pull-bell," and the restaurant is lit by gas jets, not modern electricity. No women are allowed and only one meal is served, much like Communion in the Catholic Church.

The kitchen at Sbirro's is off limits to patrons (parishioners), like the Holy of Holies in the Jerusalem temple and, like a religion, there are strict rules prohibiting alcohol, tobacco, and women. Laffler comments that the restaurant "'represents man at the apex of his civilization,'" yet it also seems like something retained from ancient times. When Costain tries the meat for the first time, his consumption of the dish is described in animalistic terms:  he notes "the peculiarly flat, yet soul-satisfying ooze of blood which the pressure of his jaws forced from the half-raw interior," he is "ferociously hungry for another piece," and he must prevent himself from "wolfing [it] down."

Kenneth Haigh as Costain
The owner and his staff are exotic and the signature dish, Lamb Amirstan, is from a foreign land. Laffler calls Sbirro's a "'warm haven in a coldy insane world,'" much as a churchgoer might view the inside of a church. In a sense, Costain is like a new convert to a religion; he is "hypnotized" by Sbirro's words. Continuing the theme of restaurant as temple, Laffler refers to the kitchen as the "'sanctum sanctorum'" (a/k/a the Holy of Holies, or innermost room in the temple, where only the high priest could enter once a year, on the Day of Atonement) and when Costain takes a bite of Lamb Amirstan he exclaims, "'Good God!'" as if he has just taken a Communion wafer that has been transformed by the priest into the Body of Christ.

Costain comments that "'It is as impossible . . . for the uninitiated to conceive the delights of lamb Amirstan as for mortal man to look into his own soul,'" causing Sbirro to reply, "'perhaps you have just had a glimpse into your soul.'" Costain says that "'I should hardly like to build my church on lamb en casserole,'" which is meant as a humorous remark but which recalls Jesus' statement about Peter being the Rock upon which he will build his church. Sbirro, continuing the same theme, suggests that Costain turn his "'thoughts a little to the significance of the Lamb in religion.'" Stanley Ellis could not be much clearer at this point in the story; Sbirro is referring to the sacrificial lamb, whose life is taken as payment for the sins of others. At the end of the story, Laffler will be the next lamb to be sacrificed.

Spivy as Spirro
Laffler himself recognizes the parallels between food and religion, stating that "'Lamb Amirstan is a ritual with [Sbirro]; get him started and he'll be back at you a dozen times worse than a priest making a conversion.'" After the sailor attacks the waiter, Laffler says that the sailor's drunken and violent condition is due to "'Plain atavistic savagery'" but he quickly uses the same term to explain his and Costain's reason for enjoying the consumption of meat: "'because our atavistic selves cry for release.'" Atavism describes the return of an ancestral trait lost through evolution over generations; in a sense, the sailor's attack and the diners' enjoyment of meat both hearken back to the actions of primitive man. Laffler compliments Sbirro for bending "'all his efforts to the satisfaction of our innate nature without resultant harm to some innocent bystander,'" not realizing that he himself will soon be harmed to satisfy the appetites of his fellow diners.

In the end, the East Indian waiter believes he owes his life to Laffler and warns him in a particularly significant way, telling him "'By the body and blood of your God . . . do not go in the kitchen . . .'" As Sbirro leads Laffler into the Holy of Holies, Costain glances back, much like Lot's wife looking back at Sodom. Costain sees the lamb being led to the slaughter but fortunately he is not turned into a pillar of salt, since condiments are not permitted at Sbirro's.

"The Specialty of the House" has clear religious parallels but is also a thoroughly entertaining story with hidden treats. The famous writer who disappeared in Mexico is surely meant to recall Ambrose Bierce, who disappeared in that country in 1914 while observing the revolution. Ellis has a bit of fun here by suggesting that the author did not really make it south of the border but rather was an earlier victim of Sbirro, served to diners on the eve of the first world war. Near the end of the story, Costain makes a comment that he intends as humorous but which is unintentionally prescient: "'think of that ferocious chef waiting to get his cleaver on you.'"

George Keymas as Paul, the waiter
In 1959, when the decision was made to adapt Ellin's story for Alfred Hitchcock Presents, the writer assigned to the task had a challenging job ahead of him. In his introduction to a 1979 collection of his mystery short stories, Ellin wrote that, when he wrote this one, he had "an idea for a story so outrageous that even as I was putting it down on paper I knew it was destined for oblivion." He was certainly wrong about the fate of his tale, but he was not wrong about its outrageous premise. The teleplay for "Specialty of the House" (the definite article has been removed from the title) is credited to Victor Wolfson and Bernard C. Shoenfeld, suggesting that there was some difficulty in translating the story to the small screen that required two writers to work on the teleplay. The show that they crafted benefits from strong performances by the actors and from the creative mind of director Robert Stevens.

The shows opens with two establishing shots. It is night, and the camera pans across a river with a bridge in the distance; we see a highway with many cars speeding by alongside the river. I suspect the city is New York, though this is never explicitly stated (late in the episode, Costain says that he is going to dictate a memo to London, so the setting is not London). The shot dissolves to a fog-shrouded dock, then to a sidewalk, where we see Laffler and Costain hurrying to dinner. Among the many minor alterations from story to screen is the fact that in the TV version, Sbirro's is a private club, not a public eatery, and in the credits at the end of the show, Sbirro's name is spelled "Spirro."

Cyril Delevanti as the diner who says, "No salt!"
Not surprisingly, the religious parallels of Ellin's story are toned down considerably for TV, though a few comments survive: Costain tells Laffler, right before their first experience at Spirro's, that "'You make me feel as if we're going into a temple, not a restaurant,'" to which Laffler replies, "'In a sense, we are.'" Inside the club, the writers of the teleplay use dialogue and interaction between Laffler, Costain, and the other diners to make points that are made through narrative in the story. An Asian diner named Long Fong Ho says he comes three times a year from Singapore "'just to eat here'" and a diner at another table overhears Costain complain about the soup needing salt and exclaims, "'No salt! No salt! Keep the palate pure!'" The key dish, known as Lamb Amirstan in the story, becomes "Lamb Armistan" the first time it is mentioned, and later "Lamb Armistran."

Wolfson and Schoenfeld open up the story by having a few scenes at the office of "Laffler & Co.--Importers/Exporters," where Laffler and Costain interact with the only other employee in sight, a secretary named Miss Hinkle. Costain is shown to be a liar when he breaks a date with Miss Hinkle by saying that Laffler wants to go over accounts with him; in reality, he is accompanying his boss to dinner at Spirro's. The source of Lamb Armistran is said to be a plateau on the boundary of Uganda, perhaps because mentions of Russia were unpopular at the height of the Cold War. Another religious parallel is made when Laffler tells Costain that one of his two obsessions is to "'see the kitchens where these miracles are performed.'" Finally, and perhaps most surprisingly, the dramatic rise that ends the first act comes after Costain asks Laffler of Spirro, "'What sort of a fellow is he?'" Spirro's hand appears on Laffler's shoulder and the camera pans up to reveal a stout woman, rather than a man. This is doubly surprising to those familiar with the story, in which women are banned from the restaurant--now, the owner is a woman! Unlike Ellin's story, Spirro gives notice of the special dish and says, "'I think we shall be having the specialty of the house very soon, my friend.'"

Bettye Ackerman as Miss Hinkle
After the break, we return to see Spirro sitting at a piano, having just finished playing a song and basking in applause from the assembled diners. This is very different portrayal of the restaurant's owner than that in the story, where Sbirro's only concern is to serve food that makes people happy. Costain approaches Spirro and asks if he might become a member; she is impressed by his manners and modesty and Laffler compares her to a religious figure, calling her "'the high priestess of our kitchen.'" This leads to an interesting addition to the religious theme, one not found in Ellin's story, as Spirro says that "'The only dish I prepare personally is the Lamb Armistran. I've been preparing it now for three days.'" Of course, the traditional time between the death and resurrection of Jesus was three days, and the writers of the teleplay seem to be making a subtle comparison here that suggests that the murder of the missing diner and his return as a fine dish parallel the resurrection in the New Testament. When Spirro leaves the dining room, there is a fleeting glimpse of a painting of Mary and the Baby Jesus on the wall.

In another change from the story, Spirro says that "'the specialty shall be ready'" the next night; in Ellin's original, it was always served with no advance notice. The atavistic behavior of the diners when presented with the meat is suggested by Laffler's anger with Costain the following night, when he does not want to share the Lamb Armistran with his employee and thus refuses to let him into the restaurant. Unexpectedly, Spirro comes to the door and lets Costain in herself. After dinner, the scene shifts back to the office, where Laffler shows Costain files in preparation for leaving on his trip. This time, Laffler's statement is prescient, as he remarks that "'I want to have time to enjoy my last meal at Spirro's. Well, my last meal for a few weeks.'"

Lee Turnbull as the chef
The events that follow take a different approach than in the short story. Costain stays behind at the office as Laffler rushes to dine at Spirro's. Taking a seat behind Laffler's desk, he takes a telephone call from Spirro and tells her, "'No, I haven't forgotten.'" Forgotten what? Is Costain aware of what goes on in Spirro's kitchen and is he complicit in Laffler's murder? The answer is not certain. Laffler stops the attack on the waiter by himself and enters the club alone. Soon after that, Costain arrives and hands a wrapped package to Spirro--presumably, the package is what she called him at the office to remind him to bring. Laffler petulantly complains to Spirro and she invites him into the kitchen to address his complaint. The waiter tries to stop Laffler at the kitchen door but Laffler ignores him and enters the kitchen, which is never seen in the short story. In the TV show, Laffler takes time to examine the large, elaborate kitchen in the presence of Spirro, who tells him that the chef is waiting for him. She leads Laffler into a large meat locker, where the chef awaits, holding a large meat cleaver. Spirro shuts the door, grinning ear to ear.

Costain then enters the dining room and Spirro unwraps the package, which contains a framed photograph of Laffler. She hangs it on the wall, in line with many other portraits, and comments "'How well he looks there among our other absent friends.'" Spirro then confirms that the specialty of the house will soon be served and the episode ends, having made Laffler's fate much clearer than it was in the short story but leaving the viewer wondering what Costain's role in the proceedings was and how much he knew about what was going to happen to his boss.

Charles Wagenheim as Henlein
Giving a wonderful performance as Laffler is Robert Morley (1908-1992), an English actor whose girth fits the role perfectly. He started acting on stage in the late 1920s and moved to film in 1935; among his memorable film roles were as Katherine Hepburn's missionary brother in The African Queen (1951) and as the critic who is forced to eat his dogs in Theatre of Blood (1973). Morley turned down a knighthood in 1975 and, unfortunately, this was his only appearance on the Hitchcock TV show.

His employee, Costain, is portrayed by Kenneth Haigh (1931-2018), who was also seen in the Hitchcock-directed episode, "Banquo's Chair." Some of the shots in this episode recall shots in that one, especially in the way Haigh's face is lit. He was on screen from 1954 to 2002 and also appeared on The Twilight Zone and Thriller; he made a splash on stage in 1956 when he starred in John Osborne's Look Back in Anger.

The rather frightening character of Spirro is played by an actress credited only as Spivy (1906-1971). Born Bertha Levine in Brooklyn and known professionally as Spivy, she began her career as a nightclub singer in the 1930s and ran a club in Manhattan called Spivy's Roof from 1940 to 1951. "The Specialty of the House" was her first screen role; she would appear on TV and film occasionally until 1967.

In smaller roles:
  • George Keymas (1925-2008) as Paul, the waiter; he had many small parts on TV from 1952 to 1976 and is best remembered as the Leader in the "Eye of the Beholder" episode of The Twilight Zone; his menacing image is beamed on screen throughout the hospital as he advocates for conformity.
  • Bettye Ackerman (1924-2006) as Miss Hinkle, the secretary; she had a recurring role on Ben Casey from 1961 to 1966 and was on screen from 1953 to 1991. She was married for many years to the much older actor Sam Jaffe and also appeared in an episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.
  • Charles Wagenheim (1896-1979) as Henlein, another diner; he was on screen from 1929 to 1979 and played the assassin in Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent (1940). His life ended when he was murdered in his Hollywood apartment.
  • Tetsu Komai (1894-1970) as Long Fong Ho, the Asian diner; he was born in Japan and emigrated to the United States in 1907. He was on screen from 1925 to 1964 and his family was held in a Japanese internment camp during World War Two. He appeared in Island of Lost Souls (1932) and one other episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
  • Lee Turnbull makes a fleeting appearance as the chef with the meat cleaver; he has few credits and was on screen from 1951 to 1961.
  • Cyril Delevanti (1887-1975) makes an uncredited appearance as the diner who tells Costain, "No salt!" He was on screen from 1931 to 1974 and appeared in three Hitchcock episodes, including "The Derelicts."
Tetsu Komai as Long Fong Ho
Robert Stevens (1920-1989), the director, worked in television from 1948 to 1987 and directed 44 episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and five episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. He won an Emmy for "The Glass Eye." He also directed 105 episodes of Suspense in the early 1950s.

Victor Wolfson (1909-1990), one of the two writers credited with the teleplay, was a playwright who also wrote books. He wrote for TV from 1951 to 1960, including teleplays for Suspense. He penned an episode of Janet Dean, Registered Nurse, the show that Alfred Hitchcock Presents producer Joan Harrison produced right before the Hitchcock show began, and he wrote six episodes of the Hitchcock series, including "The Orderly World of Mr. Appleby," also based on a short story by Stanley Ellin.

The other writer credited with the teleplay is Bernard C. Schoenfeld (1907-1980), who wrote for film and TV from 1944 to 1975 and who wrote the screenplay for Phantom Lady  (1944), which was produced by Joan Harrison. Among the sixteen episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents that he wrote was "A Night with the Boys."

Laffler first enters the kitchen
"The Specialty of the House" was adapted for the 1980s Alfred Hitchcock Presents series and broadcast on March 21, 1987; from summaries in print and online it appears that the story was much different. The short story was also adapted twice for BBC Radio: first, on April 13, 1974, for the series The Price of Fear (with Vincent Price) and later, on March 20, 1988, for the series, Fear on Four.

Read Stanley Ellin's story online here or watch the Alfred Hitchcock Presents version here. Listen to the radio adaptations here and here. The 1959 Hitchcock episode is available on DVD here. The 1987 version is not available on DVD or online, but a short clip is here and it is in Spanish here. Read the Genre Snaps take on this episode here.

Ellin, Stanley. “Introduction.” The Specialty of the House, Mysterious Press, 1979.
Ellin, Stanley. “The Specialty of the House.” The Specialty of the House, Mysterious Press, 1979.
The FictionMags Index,
Galactic Central,
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. OTR Pub., 2001.
“Specialty of the House.” Alfred Hitchcock Presents, season 5, episode 12, CBS, 13 Dec. 1959.
Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 30 Apr. 2018,

In two weeks: The Day of the Bullet, starring Barry Gordon!