Tuesday, November 9, 2010

It's An Entertaining Comic! Part 3: Weird Fantasy

by Peter Enfantino

No one even turned their head when EC Comics’ Moon Girl became A Moon...A Girl...Romance with its ninth issue in 1949 and, if we’re to believe William M. Gaines, EC’s publisher, not many more noticed when that title was dropped for the catchier Weird Fantasy in 1950. Moon Girl featured the title superheroine created by Sheldon Moldoff and written by Gardner Fox, while A Moon...A Girl... was stocked with love stories with titles like “I Was Jilted and Had No Desire to Live” (written by Al Feldstein), “I Thought I Loved My Boss” (art by Wally Wood), and “Hearts Along the Ski Trail” (also by Wood).

Moon Girl’s real claim to fame is that it featured EC’s first horror story, “Zombie Terror” in issue 5 (by Johnny Craig). So, lost in a sea of romance titles, A Moon...A Girl... gives way to EC’s first science fiction anthology title (well, technically it’s tied for first since the premiere issue of Weird Science appeared the same month).

WF didn’t exactly get off to an auspicious debut with a story called “Am I Man - Or Machine?” written and drawn by Al Feldstein (with a little co-authoring by Gaines), inspired by the disembodied brain stories that were the rage at the time (Curt Siodmak’s novel Donovan's Brain being the most famous example). Roger Harvey shows up at the door of his fiance Diane, who’s a little shocked to see him since he was killed in a car crash two years before. Roger explains that, though his body was killed in the accident, his brain was kept alive by two brilliant scientists in a jar of liquid. With amazing technologies, the two doctors manage to create a plastic body for Harvey’s brain (one that is, amazingly, so lifelike no one notices Harvey looks like a lifesize GI Joe doll) and teach him how to use it. When Roger finishes his story, Diane sighs and admits that two years was a long wait and she went off looking for love elsewhere. Though she’s married, she offers to dump her husband and run away with Roger. Realizing that he can’t give her the love she’ll need, he instead tells Diane that the whole story was an initiation prank and, one would think, heads off to find a window mannequin he can call his own. Of course, my warped brain wants to see the alternate ending where Roger takes Diane up on her offer and shows her just what this plastic body can do!

As you’ll see, writing synopsis’ for these stories is a little more work than those for Crime Suspenstories or Haunt of Fear (as I recall, I used the phrase “so he kills his wife” over 100 times in those first two articles), because these tales are more than just a decent idea with real nice art. These are stories populated by fascinating characters caught up in bewildering and deadly adventures. A major reason why the SF titles were not as popular as the horror line is that Weird Science and Weird Fantasy were very text heavy. They had to be. You can’t illustrate a theory like you can a rising corpse.

As in the pages of the horror titles, Gaines and Feldstein borrowed liberally from other sources (H. P. Lovecraft’s imaginary occult bible Necronomicon is featured in “The Black Arts” in the August 1950 issue), but for the first time, the other sources were alive and paying attention. When the two EC-men morphed the Ray Bradbury stories “Kaleidoscope” and “The Rocket Man” into the powerful morality play “Home to Stay” in the June 1952 issue, Bradbury semi-playfully sent EC a letter inquiring if the men had forgotten to send him his adaptation payment. Once the “oversight” had been corrected, Bradbury authorized his stories to be used in the EC titles. In all, 28 stories (including the two unauthorized) by Bradbury were adapted by EC (6 of which appeared in Weird Fantasy). Bradbury’s words seem to have brought out the best in EC’s artists (not that they were slouches otherwise), as evidenced by “The Million Year Picnic,” a “Martian Chronicles” story about the last human family left on Mars with fabulous art by John Severin and Will Elder.

One thing becomes crystal clear after reading a full run of this title: Wally Wood was to Weird Fantasy what “Ghastly” Graham Ingels was to the horror titles. He not only drew the lion’s share of stories, he also wrote a few of them. You’ll see his name pop up quite a few times in the next few pages.

Only Time Will Tell (#13, June 1950)
Art: Wally Wood/Story: Harry Harrison.

Steve Dorner is working on a time travel machine but just can’t seem to get it right. One day, a hole opens in his wall, a man steps through and asks Steve to accompany him through the portal to the future where he’s working on a similar gadget. Evidently, Steve knows something Mr. Future doesn’t. Steve helps the man and then ducks back through the portal, clutching half of the blueprint for Mr. Future’s machine. Having only half of the blueprint, Steve is only able to get his portal to semi-work. After decades of work, Steve finally cracks the code, but needs some assistance. Realizing that the only man who knows enough about the portal to help is himself, he steps into his time tunnel and goes back twenty years to enlist the aid of...Steve Dorner. When the big picture finally hits Steve, he’s left to ponder the circle he’s eternally trapped in. Fabulous time travel tale that raises lots of complicated and fun questions. As the scientist himself wonders about the half of the blueprint he has in his possession after twenty years:
“It matches perfectly with the half that was just left here. That means that the half of the blue print which my younger self just tore off and took back with him, and this half that I have here - which I took from myself twenty years ago - are the same piece. Therefore, I only managed to build this machine with the aid of the half of the diagram that I took from myself! But who originally drew the half that I stole, copied and later put in the drawer?”
Who indeed?

Harry Harrison, the author of “Only Time Will Tell,” later became a major force in science fiction, authoring hundreds of novels and short stories, including four very popular SF series: The Stainless Steel Rat, the Deathworld trilogy, Bill the Galactic Hero (a hilarious spoof of SF that later became a comic book series), and Eden (intelligent dinosaurs). Harrison also wrote Make Room, Make Room (1966), the basis for the film Soylent Green (1973).

Cosmic Ray Bomb Explosion (#14, August 1950)
Art: Al Feldstein/Story: Al Feldstein and Bill Gaines

Al Feldstein and Bill Gaines are brainstorming stories before the ominous deadline doom comes crashing down around them. When “trips to the moon” and “time machine” stories prove useless, Bill lays out his idea for a “cosmic ray bomb,” a device “thousands of times more devastating than an atomic bomb.” To the dismay of the scientists working on the weapon, the bomb is stolen and, while explaining as much to the Secretary of Defense, detonated over Washington. Boom! End of story, right? In the comic within the comic, that’s just how it ends, but Al and Bill soon find they’ve stumbled on something when they’re visited by F.B.I. agents who want to know just how the duo got ahold of classified info on the new “cosmic ray bomb!” As the two exit the building, chuckling about how wacky the situation is, we see a plane fly overhead and Washington is destroyed.

It’s evident from “Cosmic Ray Bomb Explosion” that the creators behind Weird Fantasy had a lot of fun spoofing themselves and the often outlandish science factoids they would invest their stories with.

The Last City (#16, December 1950)
Art: Al Feldstein/Story: Al Feldstein and Bill Gaines

Two visitors from Mars hover over what’s left of New York and tell the wild story of Professor Farley’s Electro-Magnetic Force-Field Generator. Years before, in an effort to stave off atomic annihilation, Professor Farley creates a machine that enables him to cover all of New York with a protective shield. Unfortunately, the gizmo proves to be too effective when the Professor attempts to turn it off and finds it’s permanent. With no way to ship in food, the inhabitants of new York die a slow, painful death. Ironically, the world becomes embroiled in World War III and the earth is left a smoldering pile of ashes, save for New York, whose skyscrapers live on under the indestructible force field. Ivat and Cugo, the two narrating Saturnites agree that New York should remain as a museum, a testament to what “earthmen had once...and destroyed.”

“The Last City” is no-hold-barred science fiction. Whereas other publishers (Atlas of the 1950s for instance) would have its protagonists devise a way to destroy the force field and rain happiness and relief down upon mankind, Gaines and Feldstein almost gleefully kill off an entire planet and leave only remnants for alien passersby. One panel stands out as particularly grim: two starving New Yorkers stand over a dying man; one says: “He’ll be dead, soon!” the other answers: “Light a fire!” Stephen King recently visited the theme of the covered city in Under the Dome.

The Mysterious Ray From Another Universe (#16, December 1950)
Art and Story: Harvey Kurtzman

It’s 1970 and everyone in the world is captivated, no, obsessed with television. Everyone, that is, except radio station magnate Norman Network. Norman can’t seem to get his head around why so many people find the tube fascinating. With his station revenues falling to an all-time low, Norman devises a plan to rid the world of TV. He hires a scientist to travel the world, in search of any disease that can be linked to television viewing. The scientist discovers that TV can lead to disintegration and, for a time, Norman wins his battle. It’s only in the end that Norman discovers that humans watch TV in order to disappear (literally) and he’s very soon the last man on earth (and without a TV, to boot). Prescient satire in the Kurtzman style. Could very easily have found a place in MAD Magazine a few years later.

The Enemies of the Colony (#8, July 1951)
Art and story: Wally Wood

On a distant planet, The Galactic Colonization Authority is on the verge of ridding itself of the dangerous Hydra-files, creatures with a taste for the G.C.A.’s favorite pets, the monkey-like Mokos (which reproduce faster than rabbits). After the final Hydra-file is eliminated, the G.C.A., to their dismay, find that the Mokos are actually carnivores and the larger monsters were keeping the population down. A wonderful alien story as only Wally Wood could illustrate (the Mokos have the trademark Woodian “popping eyes”). As strange as it may seem, the climax of “The Enemies of the Colony” is reminiscent of the famous scene in John Ford’s The Searchers where John Wayne and his “posse” are drawn away from the ranch only to realize they’ve set up the ranchers for an Indian raid.

The Mutants (#10, November 1951)
Art: Wally Wood/Story: Al Feldstein

The fallout from a Hydrogen bomb test create a race of mutants. “Normal America” rises up in fear to fight these passive mutants and eventually herd them onto a couple of spaceships. Soon after liftoff, it’s discovered that a meteor is hurtling towards Earth. The only possible way to divert the big rock is for one of the ships to fly straight into it. Should the mutants sacrifice themselves for the millions who shunned them or set off for another planet where they can find peace? Yes, there are the obvious McCarthy-esque trappings, but this is just terrific storytelling with plenty of pathos. Wally Wood once again demonstrates why he was the best science fiction artist who ever graced the EC titles. Strange that the mutants are held “off-camera” for three pages and when they’re finally revealed, it’s very matter-of-fact.

The End (#13, May 1952)
Art: Wally Wood/Story: Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein

A high power telescope reveals that a comet is hurtling towards Earth. Before it can collide with Earth, it disintegrates but the massive radiation leaves all life on our planet sterile. In another generation, all life will vanish. Two scientists are, luckily, working on a time travel machine and devise a plan to go back in time before the comet and transport virile men and women to the future where they can repopulate the planet. They build their gizmo on the site of what once was Grand Central Station, citing the large amounts of foot traffic as the main reason. Unfortunately for the two well-meaning geniuses, they find their portal is located inside the Men’s room!

A fun, ironic climax to another Wood masterpiece.

Home to Stay (#13, May 1952)
Art: Wally Wood/Story: Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein

A rocket pilot of the future continually promises his wife and son he’ll give up the interplanetary life but, like an addict, he can’t fight what he craves. Every couple years he comes home to see his growing son. One night the boy wishes on a falling star that his father will come back “home to stay,” not knowing the star is actually his father burning up in Earth’s atmosphere after a rocket mishap. Forget that this is the infamous “Bradbury plagiarism” story and experience a powerful tale with a tragic climax, the kind of experience you won’t get from any other 1950s comic company.

The Aliens (#17, January 1953)
Art: Al Williamson/Story: Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein

Three aliens are en route to Earth to warn us that Atomic power is not always a good thing when they witness the drawbacks for themselves. They watch as Earth is blown to bits and, curious about the civilization, land on a large part of the rubble. They come across an issue of Weird Fantasy #17 and discover that the third story is about three aliens en route to earth to warn us…
A funny parody of all the “time bends back on itself” tales found in EC’s sci-fi comics, helped along nicely by Al Williamson’s art and capped off with a rare last page splash. Spa Fon!

Zero Hour (#18, March 1953)
Art: Jack Kamen/Story: Ray Bradbury and Al Feldstein

Precocious seven year old Mink plays a new game called “Invasion” with the local kids. The tots are collecting household items, conversing with invisible pals, and spouting dialog like “Beam 4-9-7-A-B-X.” Mink’s mom gets worried that maybe there’s more to her daughter than just a very active imagination.

Ray Bradbury spins more magic with children (no writer could blend childhood and dark fantasy like Bradbury), the only drawback being the Jack Kamen art. While Kamen has his fans, I remain unimpressed with the standard “talking head” narrative. The artist’s payoff panel (the unveiling of the invaders) looks more suited to a ghost story than science fiction.
“Zero Hour” proved to be very lucrative for Ray Bradbury. In addition to the WF classic, the story was also adapted several times for radio (by Suspense, Escape, X Minus One, and Dimension X) and, in 1992, for Ray Bradbury Theater, a syndicated TV show that lasted 65 episodes (over 6 seasons), all revolving around Bradbury’s short stories.

The Million Year Picnic (#21, October 1953)
Art: John Severin and Will Elder/Story: Ray Bradbury and Al Feldstein

Powerful Bradbury “Martian Chronicle” tale of the last human family left on Mars shows just how good EC science fiction could get when the best writing collided with the best art. Resembles a Father Knows Best on Mars. Severin’s art as usual is fabulous and meshes perfectly with Elder’s inks .



The EC Library: Weird Fantasy. 4 hardcover volumes. (Russ Cochran, publisher. 1980). Reprinting of the entire series, with story-by-story notes and critique by Bill Spicer, John Benson, Mark Evanier and Doug Menville. Also features insightful interviews with Gaines and Feldstein.

Weird Fantasy (22 issues, EC Comics, June 1950-December 1953). (reprinted by Russ Cochran/Gemstone, January 1992-October 1998).

Hardcover, by John Clute and Peter Nicholls. (St. Martin’s Press, 1993)

FOUL PLAY: The Art and Artists of the Notorious 1950s EC Comics
Softcover, by Grant Geissman (Harper Design, 2005)

Originally published in 1950, a collection of 28 science fiction stories.

Hardcover, by Fred Von Bernewitz and Grant Geissman. (Gemstone/Fantagraphics, 2000)


Ultimate Tactical Warrior said...

You make the series sound pretty good Pete, but I think I'll stick with "Monsters Unleased," and "Where Monsters Dwell."

On a side note, I always wondered what it would have been like if the Twilight Zone had made an episode featuring the tyrant "Tim Boo Ba" and his watery demise.

Walker Martin said...

When I was 8 or 9 the EC comics were one of the first things that I collected. Unfortunately the horror titles gave me nightmares and one night I fell asleep with my stack of EC's safely tucked away in their box by my bed, and the next morning they were gone forever. That enemy of all rare comic books, The Mother, had thrown them away.

Fortunately I now have the EC Library plus the color reprint set and can follow along with Peter's commentary.

Peter Enfantino said...

In my little world, Monsters Unleashed, Where Monsters Dwell, and Weird Fantasy all co-exist together in the same long boxes. There's no sand kicked in that playground.

Ultimate Tactical Warrior said...

Fair enough, as long as Uncle EERIE has a note on him warning the uninformed that it's best to purchase his series chronologically. At least after the first issues.

Funny, a couple months ago I bought the first hard cover collection of Creepy and showed it to my brother. He asked what the difference was between the two magazines, and I was unsure except to tell him that EERIE just wasn't as good.

After reading your other article on the blog I remember why as a kid I felt burned buying some random issues that plunged me into the middle of some bizarre supernatural storyline. I gave up after a few purchases and saved my money for Marvel Two-In-One back issues. Reading your article kind of makes me wonder if I'd like to follow EERIE as a whole series.

Peter Enfantino said...

RE: reading the Eerie serials. Enter at your own peril. Eerie always felt like Creepy's dumping ground. Lousy stories or second-hand stories. There's a good portion of that swill in Creepy (especially those lean early 1970s and the fall from quality that hit all the warrens in the last few years they were around) but for my money, the best Warren was Creepy.