Sunday, December 19, 2010

Interplanetary Episode

by Larry Rapchak

In retrospect, I am very thankful that I never encountered any EC comics when I was a kid; I was way too impressionable, and would have probably ended up in kiddie therapy had I come across Ingels, Davis, Craig, etc from the early 50's. Luckily, I was too young to have seen them first-hand, for by the time I reached comic book age, things were well into the Comics Code era.

My parents were not really disposed towards filling my 9-year old mind with monsters, aliens, etc, but for some unknown reason, they began bringing home comics—3 per week, every Friday morning—in late 1959. Harmless stuff: House of Mystery, World's Finest, Challengers of the Unknown.... standard DC fare. Occasionally a pre-super hero Marvel—the great Kirby Giant Monster cover stories with the brilliant Ditko fantasy in the back. And I handled it all with no problem.

But on Friday, January 29th, 1960, I hit a wall. A free day from my Catholic school's 3rd-grade regimen, my siblings and I were looking forward to a fun, relaxing 3-day weekend. My mother made her usual Friday morning trip to the local Kroger's, where she randomly chose 3 comics from the store's carousel. I remember sitting at the kitchen table, TV on, preparing to eat lunch, as my brother and sister and I passed the new comics around for a quick look. One of the new trio was Detective Comics #277 (the silly "The Jigsaw Creature from Outer Space"), the 2nd one I can't remember, and the third a title that was new to us: ACG's Forbidden Worlds #86, with a not-too-interesting Schaffenberger cover showing an army machine-gunner fighting off a flying saucer against a bright yellow sky. I paged through it quickly....standard stuff of the day: friendly aliens who help humans, a tale of a nerdy guy who goes back to prehistoric times and becomes a hero, etc.... and then I came face to face with the splash panel of the issue's final story, and without really realizing why, I froze. Here's what I saw:


Years later I discovered that the creator of this bizarre image was named Kenneth Landau, a seemingly run-of-the-mill guy from the early 50's pre-code era whose rather sketchy, scratchy work managed to convey a sinister, troubling sort of caricature for lack of a better word which still strikes me as very creepy in an odd way... like a bad dream that haunts you in a way that's difficult to describe.

This story, with the oddly-generic title "Interplanetary Episode" begins at its ending, actually.... with the fiery destruction of Earth, but then begins to flashback in a rather somber, moralistic way. Here's the third panel, the funereal, Catholic-style calm warning me not to continue to read on:


But, I was lost....and as I made my way through the story, I felt this creeping, crawling, debilitating sense of dread begin to grip me (this is not hyperbole). For here was a tale of a rural, hick town with its own pathetic village idiot, a clownish, teenaged scarecrow of a guy named Simon, who was routinely tormented by the crude, low-brow inhabitants of Miller's Gap, Kansas. Ultimately, we meet a scouting group of incredibly bizarre aliens...whose own planet is nearing destruction (thus necessitating--guess what?--- their take-over of another inhabitable planet). But, despite this threadbare plot device, there is a neat twist; for these aliens, despite their hideous appearance, are basically benevolent, and refuse to destroy the inhabitants of another planet...as long as said inhabitants exhibit a modest level of intelligence.
Kenneth Landau's amazingly repugnant alien (they each have four arms, too).
So guess what tiny, backwoods town the aliens land in, and guess WHO happens to be wandering around in the middle of the night and gets himself captured and examined as a representative specimen of the human race in order for the aliens to decide whether or not to obliterate Earth's population? It's a terrific story, which could easily stand on its own as a sophisticated, in-depth critique of the nature of humanity, the sort of thing that the Outer Limits would do so well. If only Joe Stefano and friends had come across this tale in 1963....

Anyway, the young Larry Rapchak was pretty much traumatized for the next few weeks after discovering this story; a real lost cause emotionally. But, even back then, I was puzzled by the stark difference between this story and all of the other Comics Code stuff we were then reading. How was this story allowed to appear in print under the stringent guidelines of the Code in early 1960?? It was far more dark and disturbing--driven home by the peculiar decayed look of Landau's characters—than anything that was being printed at the time. It continues to haunt me to this day.

16 years later, in May 1976, I came face-to-face with the story again when I found a copy of Forbidden Worlds #86 in a little Philadelphia used comic shop. What a reunion! I could look upon the story at last without experiencing that queasy, gnawing feeling that had almost sent me over the edge on 1/29/60.* And thus I filed my new-found copy of the comic away in my collection.

[*And how do I recall the exact date of the event so clearly? Easy. That same night, my mother, brother and I decided, against my better judgment, to check out the Twilight Zone, where we were treated to the network premiere of The Fever, with Everett Sloane and the marauding slot machine. I recall actually feeling as if I were in some sort of drug-induced stupor as I say down to watch, so upset was I from the effect of "Interplanetary Episode"; the TZ episode thus delivered the emotional coup de grace that finished off this traumatizing day].

BUT, MORE RECENTLY, THE FACTS SURROUNDING "Interplanetary Episode" HAVE BECOME MORE INTRIGUING.

To Be Continued!

3 comments:

Walker Martin said...

Unlike Larry Rapchak, I did encounter EC comics a the age of nine and it marred me for life. They are still marring me as I write these words. So since "Interplanetary Episode" is not an EC story, I thought I'd be safe and I went ahead and read both the pre code and post code versions. Hah! The marring goes on! I'll be interested in reading the next installment to see if there are clues as to how this story survived in the post code world. What a rotten kid...

Jack Seabrook said...

I was excited to see an article by Larry after having enjoyed his Thriller comments. And about an obscure comic book! It's funny how one story can stay with you. I still can't forget a comic book story I read many years ago where a kid loves spiders, scorpions, etc., and his evil father makes him get rid of them. The dad kills the kid and then takes his nice bed by a window, not realizing that all of the creatures were hidden under the covers. That story still bothers me!

Peter Enfantino said...

Sounds like another good theme for a Bare Bones article by Jack Seabrook!