Thursday, September 30, 2010

Sharpshooter Part Three!!!

Welcome to the third in a series of four articles exploring the sick and twisted world of Johnny Rock, the Sharpshooter! If you missed Peter's second installment of The Sharpshooter, you can read it here.

#8: No Quarter Given (July 1974)

Heading into Virginia, Rock finds corruption in the Navy spearheaded by, you guessed it, the Mafia. Drugs, booze, and other bounty heading into the local piers are given free passage thanks to the steel grip of one Joey “Niente” Barbagallo. Niente has something on several of the ranking officers (usually photos of the men in compromising positions) and their accountants. Enter the beautiful teenaged Mimi Nieholtz, a stripper forced into prostitution by Barbagallo. Mimi’s father sits rotting in prison, a victim of a set-up perpetrated by Barbagallo, and Mimi finds a sympathetic ear in the volcanic Johnny Rock. Together, the two mow down thousands in their search for truth, justice and outstanding porno clubs.

The worst of the early Sharps, No Quarter is devoid of any style, good writing (it’s our nameless “Magellan” author again), or an original plot. Rock’s adventure this time out is a patchwork of his earlier exploits. The only wrinkle added is that not only is Rock a cold-blooded, mass-murderer, he’s also into jailbait with several sex scenes with little Mimi as evidence.


#9: Stiletto (August 1974)

As I was reading Stiletto, the ninth jaw-dropping chapter of Johnny Rock’s descent into genocide, the Leisure formula finally became crystal clear to me (bear with me, I’m slow sometimes). It’s obvious now that what the publisher was doing was farming these books out to several writers (perhaps three) at a time and publishing the damn things as they got them, with no thought to continuity.

This would explain why Mimi, the “one person in the world that Rock truly loved” from No Quarter Given, is nowhere to be found and instead we welcome back the long lost Iris Toscano (introduced way back in the Rock’s premiere). The mercurial Mimi probably wouldn’t be that happy if she overheard Rock say to Iris: “Nothing is going to get in the way of the thing we two have for each other.”

As for the plot this time: Johnny decides to take on two mighty tasks: destroy the one million gallons of illegal gasoline stashed on Tony Famollini’s farm and break up the distribution of machine guns by a rival Don across town. Rock’s got his hands full, so he visits his Uncle Vito to convince the older man that a life of murder and mayhem is much better than the humdrum of a happy marriage, job and household. Uncle Vito initially resists, but by the end of the cheery conversation, Vito’s wife has been shot dead by Mafia scum on the hunt for Johnny Rock. Uncle has a change of heart and joins the team.
Unfortunately, for Iris, the trio soon becomes a duo:
Iris screamed but her screams were cut short by several well placed rounds. One eyeball popped out with the pressure of tunneling bullets. Blood spurted from her mouth. Several teeth flew from the cavern her mouth had become, followed by chips of naked bone. One slug tore off her right ear and spattered her dark hair with bright blood. More blood gushed from her nostrils, ears, and eyes. She fell forward, struck the back of the front seat and slipped to the floor.
Vito and Rock escape the ambush that kills Iris, but Johnny misses Iris so much that he wonders if it’s all worth it:
“…it saddens me to think that the last time I was here, Iris was with me. And now I’m here alone. It feels strange."
“Cheer up. I know it’ll be hard at first…You were there and saw her die in a most horrible way…At first you’ll suffer. Then one day you’ll sit up and see the sun and say, hey, it’s a beautiful day. That’s the way it should be. You’re young. This is your time. Enjoy it to the full!”
With Stiletto, Dr Phil has once more been reinstated as Leisure’s Moral Compass. We read heartfelt emotion like the above or the passage in which Rock convinces Vito they should not kill a wounded Mafioso because it wouldn’t be morally right (but butchering unarmed hookers somehow makes the grade). To his credit, Vito looks sideways at Rock and, speaking for the reader, gives him a “What the Fuck?”

Stilleto has some of the earliest product placement I’ve encountered. Johnny doesn’t just smoke cigarettes, he smokes Kent 100s (whose company just happens to advertise in the Leisure men’s adventure books) In fact, the single most enjoyable paragraph in a sea of crap is when, returning from mowing down hundreds of Mafia pigs, Rock unwinds in his hotel room, not with Scotch, not with a beer, but with “a glass of chilled Boone’s Farm Apple Wine.”

To take one more swing at this dog, it’s way too long (about 50 pages more than the usual Sharpshooter), but that may be due to all the flashbacks. Well, you say, that’s for the readers just tuning into the Rock’s big blow. No, these flashbacks happen throughout the book and refer to incidents within the same novel (Vito pauses, during a fight involving cannons, to remind Rock, in minute detail, about an incident that happened fifty pages before). Maybe Leisure suddenly started paying by the word?


#10: Hit Man (November 1974)

The Rock gets back from a well-deserved vacation to find a month-old letter waiting for him. The letter is from Mike Reid, an old buddy who’d saved Rocetti’s life back in his Green Beret days, now a successful businessman under pressure from the Mob. Having read of Johnny’s exploits in a true crime magazine, he begs John to come to Los Angeles to help. When John gets there, Reid tells him that it was all a mistake and that he had jumped the gun writing to him. John smells a rat and investigates, discovering that Reid’s wife Ginny and daughter Nancy have been kidnapped by one of the two local dons in an attempt to force the man to sign over his laundering business to the Mob.

The two men plan to rescue the girls family by playing the two rival syndicates against each other. While Rock is making his daring rescue attempt, Reid is kidnapped and tortured until he gives up the plan. Rock makes good his rescue and getaway but, after dropping the girls off at the airport, is unprepared for a big surprise. Turns out Ginny is just as bloodthirsty and maniacal as Rock and wants in on any revenge Johnny has planned.

Perhaps forgetting his previous adventures, Rock informs Ginny that “this will be the first time I have ever used somebody else in a raid,” and trains the woman in the use of several weapons not commonly found in the kitchen. The raid goes off without a hitch and several dozen more Mob employees are laid to waste. Ginny discovers (after killing twenty of the bad guys) that murder ain’t her bag and heads back to motherhood, leaving Rock to ponder “which town next?”

Not a lot of excitement here (but at least it’s a nice compacted bore at 156 pages) and, again, the continuity between novels is non-existent (Uncle Vito is nowhere to be seen), but there is that dialogue:
(While Rock is arming Ginny to the gills just before they hit the Mafia compound)
“Jesus,” she whispered, “I feel like a Christmas tree.” “Shut up,” he explained.

#11: Triggerman (January 1975)

After two years in the can, Mafia Don Ricardo Tattilo is released, swearing death to Johnny Rock. Coincidentally, the Rock (aka, according to this version of "Bruno Rossi,” Magellan and Philip Rock), tired of Mafia Dons being released early for good behavior, is waiting for Tattilo. Rock sets up shop in a hotel located right behind Tattilo’s den of iniquity, an old Quaker’s building where the Don can manage his drug and prostitution business. In an amusing subplot, Johnny Rock discovers a treehouse located between his hotel and the Quaker building. Rock makes the fort his dumping ground for dead mafia goons. Author Rossi literally spends chapters describing how Johnny can shimmy down the rope, blow off a henchman’s face with his Beretta, carry the corpse back up the tree, and stack him with his fellow thugs like cords of wood.
Triggerman isn’t the worst written of the Rock sagas, but it is the most boring. What’s more, the cover copy promises: “The mob’s top killer thought he could handle Johnny Rock.” Sounds like a different book than the one I read.

Want great writing? How about these examples:
Almost daily these Mafia leeches’ names could be found in the newspapers, in magazine accounts of their notoriety that almost amounted to hero worship by the countless thousands of readers who fed hungrily on tidbits of information unearthed by police reporters and assignment writers who diligently followed the pursuits of the Cosa Nostra. He returned from the refrigerator with a cold beer. He sat at a small table that faced the two windows overlooking the street. He removed his 9mm Beretta Parabellum from its holster under his left armpit. He placed the gun on the table. He stared at it a long, long time as he sipped from the can.
And my personal favorite, a new description of what a firearm sounds like:
He emptied all eight shots in the Beretta’s magazine into the three bodies, the eight successive “whoofs” of the Luger-type automatic sounding like one long fart!

The Sharpshooter will return...

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Warren Done The Marvel Way: The Serial Eerie Part 2 (of 2)

A dissection of the serials that ran in Warren Publishing's Eerie comic magazine. This is Part 2 of 2. You can find the first part here.

COFFIN (#61, 67, 68, 70)
W: Budd Lewis / A: Jose Ortiz

A stagecoach in 1880s Arizona is ambushed by Indians and all aboard (save a rifle salesman) are killed. Stumbling across an encampment of Indian women and children, the salesman slaughters the entire tribe. A hunting party from the tribe captures the white man, stakes him to an anthill and leaves him to die. The torture doesn’t quite do the job though and in no time the man is wandering the desert, minus an eye and some skin (in a design clearly “borrowed” from the old AIP monster flick, War of the Collosal Beast). We come to find out that the man (who will soon be known as “Coffin,” probably because everyone who sees him remarks that he should be in a coffin) has been cursed by the surviving member of the slaughtered tribe to wander the Earth until he can “learn to live and respect life.” Only then will the curse be lifted. Coffin shambles through a few unmemorable stories before finally being put to rest by the Indians.

DR. ARCHAEUS (#54, 55, 56, 57, 58, 60, 61)
W: Gerry Boudreau / A: Isidro Mones

Alistair Archaeus is found guilty of murder and hanged until dead. Or so it’s believed. Archaeus actually gets up and walks away from the gallows after the dirty deed is done. There’s no explanation for this miracle (nor is one given for how the medical examiner might have forgotten about the dead man), but Archaeus plans to use his second life for revenge. If his plans come to fruition, all twelve jurors who convicted him will die in bizarre and horrid fashion (patterned after, are you ready for this, “The Twelve Days of Christmas”). If you think this sounds just a bit familiar, you’re right. The other guy’s name was Phibes. In fact, Archaeus’ second chapter, “The Quest of the Golden Dove” not only continues the pilfering of The Abominable Dr. Phibes, it takes its’ setting and most of its’ plotline from the film’s sequel, Dr. Phibes Rises Again (all that’s missing, in fact, is the character of Phibes’ wife). The 4th chapter is a howler, containing the murder of Sir Robert Cawling-Byrd IV (“4 Calling Birds”). Even though the series lasted a respectable seven chapters, the wrap-up is rushed and unsatisfactory when Archaeus hangs himself rather than be caught by a bounty hunter.

CHILD (#57, 58, 60)
W: Greg Potter / A: Rich Corben

“Child” was, in a nutshell, Greg Potter’s take on Frankenstein. A scientist, mourning the death of his wife, creates a living being out of the body of a huge man (think THE INCREDIBLE HULK) and the head of a small boy (now think of a tiny head atop that HULK).

IT (#56, 57, 73)
W: Carl Wessler / A: Enrique Badia-Romero, Josep Gual

Interestingly enough, this character actually got his start in Creepy (#53) as the title character in a Tom Sutton story. It is a rotting corpse that rises from its grave whenever there’s a disturbance at the family mansion, It crawls from the grave, strangles some bad guys, and heads back for his home (it’s never really explained how he gets back in to his coffin and then covers it with dirt), like some low-rent Jason Voorhees. This mini-series would have fit in very well over at Warren’s competitor, Skywald, with its nonsensical writing and muddy art.

THE HACKER (#57, 65, 67)
W: Steve Skeates / A: Tom Sutton, Alex Toth

A faceless entity stalks London backstreets, dismembering his victims and building a human puzzle. The first entry, complete with typically bizarre Tom Sutton art, is a solid horror story, but the follow-up is another animal altogether. Writer Steve Skeates seems to have forgotten what the first chapter was all about and makes the killer’s motives more culinary than puzzling.

APOCALYPSE (#62, 63, 64, 65)
W: Budd Lewis / A: Jose Ortiz

One story each for the four horsemen: War, Famine, Plague, and Death. All of the entries were created by writer Budd Lewis and artist Jose Ortiz, but you’d never know that from the wildly varied degree of success of the stories. Of the four, War and Famine fare the best, while Plague is brought down by dreadful dialogue and a meandering storyline that eventually winds up nowhere.

DAX (#39, 40, 41, 43, 44, 45, 46, 47, 48, 49, 50, 52)
Writer and Artist: Esteban Maroto

Esteban Maroto’s long-running epic series about a swordsman, cursed to walk the Earth after unleashing a plague on mankind. The series begins as something more than just another “Barbarian strip,” but eventually becomes just that. Dax wanders from one faux Eden to the next, enjoying the fruits of supple maidens who obviously don’t dress for the cold. Maroto swings from beautiful, Virgil Finlay-esque scenes to pin-ups of nude women with flowered headdresses and boa constrictor necklaces.

EL CID (#65, 66, 70, 71)
W: Budd Lewis, Bill DuBay, Gerry Boudreau, Jeff Rovin / A: Gonzalo Mayo

Lewis and Mayo transform the 11th Century El Cid of Spain into something akin to Ray Harryhausen’s Jason and the Argonauts. The king travels (much like Maroto’s DAX) from one indistinguishable panel to the next, each looking like some Playboy-inspired rock video. The real problem here (as in so many of the “historical” Eerie series is that the writer becomes so enamored of his own purple prose, he forgets to write something the reader will enjoy.

PETER HYPNOS (#72, 73, 76)
Writer and Artist: Jose Bea

Peter Hypnos is an imaginative boy who discovers a factory that turns out rat head and horse head people. In his second adventure, Peter is shrunken to microscopic size and, through a series of missteps, is swallowed by a drunkard and eventually crapped out (!) into a land of Monty Python cutouts and badly drawn insects. Once Peter makes it home to tell his mother the fantastic story, she won’t believe him. Life isn’t easy for comicdom’s youngest LSD addict. Nearly a decade after the heyday of Yellow Submarine and Peter Max, writer/artist Jose Bea can’t summon up the same charm. I’m sure the horse head factory is located somewhere on Penny Lane.

W: Bill DuBay / A: Jose Ortiz

Jedediah Pan owns two wrist bands that can summon demons. In the first and third chapters, the tone is decidedly downbeat and sadistic while in the second (and best of the trilogy), writer Bill DuBay manages to find his own funny bone through all the gloom. Dr. Perry Bottles is victimized by six Mexican bandits, led by the vicious Frito (yep, Frito’s banditos!), until he’s rescued by Jedediah and his three demons. One of the rare times in Eerie series history when a story elicits intentional laughs. Jedediah gives one of his wristbands to son Jeremiah so that no one can steal both bands. Jeremiah learns to call the demons just like dad and, eventually, the two team up for several adventures.
Years later, the demons and the bracelets (sans Jed and Jer) made appearances in Vampirella #92 and 93.

FREAKS (#72, 73, 75)
W: Doug Moench, Budd Lewis / A: Leopoldo Sanchez

While the first two segments of this obvious “homage” to Tod Browning’s controversial 1932 film of the same name (reviled on its release and seldom seen until decades later) are both uninspired and unreadable, the finale is something altogether different. Nothing outside of the aforementioned Werewolf/Mummy saga in the Eerie canon is as outré and loony as the climactic chapter of “freaks.” After the exploits of the first two chapters, the Freaks band is narrowed to three, led by the charismatic gargoyle Dramulo (diapered very much like one of Marvel’s bottom-tier villains, Dragon-Man). The freaks come across a band of hooded old men who force the trio to accompany them to their town, held in the grip of fear by Kaler, a two-foot ogre who is kept in a jar and controls the townspeople psychically. The four hooded gentlemen bring the diminutive Shrek fresh meat and he, ostensibly, keeps his cool. Kaler orders the freaks to mate with captured women so that he can dine on their progeny or, as Saler so eloquently says: “Either you will make pregnant these women with your warped seed or you’ll die screaming among your own guts.”

Despite the fact that the three former carnival attractions haven’t seen much action lately, they politely decline and easily smash little Saler to smithereens (just before biting the big one, Saler exclaims: “Nooo! You puking mutant! I’ll take care of you!”).

This story is proof that Bill DuBay and Budd Lewis (the two primary writers of the Eerie series) kept one eye on their typewriters and the other squarely on the Marvel monster comics.

In the second chapter of “Freaks,” two boys search for the freaks’ wagon. One of these boys has the power of “random mental sensitivity” (don’t ask me for a definition). In a very confusing intro to Moonweavers Chapter One: “Deliver the Child,” writer Budd Lewis informs us that the “mentally sensitive” boy grows up to have a “gifted” son of his own. The second generation teams up with another boy in town and they use their powers to explore the unknown. In their first adventure, the boys discover that kindly Mr. Diggers (from down at the hardware store) is in reality an evil magician who’s conjuring up a demon to protect his infant daughter. The Moonweavers foul up their first case though when they interrupt the spell and the demon’s hands are severed. The monster doesn’t take kindly to this imposition and exacts his revenge in a surprisingly brutal fashion.

THE PEA GREEN BOAT (#79, 80, 82,85)
W: Budd Lewis / A: Leopoldo Sanchez

Al Green (The Owl) and Eric Plusenkat (The Pussycat) sail the seven seas in their Pea Green Boat searching for food and civilization after a nuclear holocaust. The first chapter is a nice set-up but the other stories are meandering and don’t further the story at all.

DARKLON THE MYSTIC (#76, 79, 80, 84, 100)
Writer and Artist: Jim Starlin

Of all the Eerie series, this one – Jim Starlin’s homage to Steve Ditko’s Dr. Strange (at least, I think it’s an homage) – is the most out of place. “Darklon” cries out for Marvel Premiere of the mid-1970s. Darklon is Little Lord Fauntleroy to his father’s King Conan . Embarrassed by his son’s lack of manhood, the king adopts another young man and gives him the keys to the kingdom, only to be betrayed and imprisoned by the traitor. Darklon seeks out the “Nameless One” and sells his soul for the chance to free his father and slay the traitor. The strip is fairly well-written but the art is a far cry from Warlock and Captain Marvel, the series Starlin would make cult favorites at Marvel. Years later, Starlin would work Darklon into the "Warlock"mythos. Pacific Comics published a color reprinting of the Warren “Darklon” series in 1983.

W: Jim Stenstrum / A: Jose Ortiz

15 years after the “Holy Cost” that destroyed most of civilization, poor Hard John just wants to live peacefully in Kansas. Unfortunately for John, the religious wars that brought Armageddon don’t seem to be over. Fortunately for John, he’s got a stockload of armed nukes just ready to fly. A continuation of “An Angel Shy of Hell” which originally appeared over in Creepy #68, Hard John succeeds where other similar Eerie series (such as “The Pea Green Boat”) fail because writer Jim Stenstrum is able to inject liberal doses of political humor without that humor coming off as simply silly (aside from the intelligent orangutan, of course).

GAFFER (#83, 85, 87, 92)
W: Roger McKenzie / A: Leo Duranona

The saga of Gaff, a poor black man who possesses a gift for gambling and uses that gift against the devil to earn three wishes. With his first wish, he helps an aging boxer fight off Death. Wish two goes to helping an accused witch (who’s actually carrying an alien’s baby!). By the far, the strongest chapter of “Gaffer” is “Final Wish,” wherein we’re whisked to (ostensibly) the brink of Armageddon. Some natural disaster has caused near-freezing temperatures and the super powers, rather than gathering together their scientific brains for a solution, fight over frozen tundras. Gaffer’s final wish is for peace on earth and, compliments of a nuclear bomb, he gets it.

MOONSHADOW (#91, 92, 93)
W: Bob Toomey / A: Jose Ortiz

Moonshadow is an assassin who wins a wager with Death but comes out on the short end of the deal. Like many of the shorter-lived series, “Moonshadow” is nothing more than a short story padded to three times its size. Thematically, I found it very similar to Stephen King’s “Dark Tower” series, though much less successful.

ABLEMAR JONES (#92, 93, 95)
W: Bill DuBay / A: Alex Nino

Ablemar Jones and his pal Stanley are two with-it hepcats from the ghetto who manage to stumble into science fiction scenarios. Any semblance of story is lost in Alex Nino’s muddled (sometimes unpanelled) art. Nino would become the poster child for Warren’s porno/sci-fi magazine 1984, which polluted newsstands in early 1978.

After three installments, “Ablemar” was discontinued, but later rematerialized for one final chapter in Creepy #128, with art by Luis Bermejo.

HONOR AND BLOOD (#93, 94, 98)
W: Nick Cuti / A: Leo Duranona

The chronicles of the “unholy unions between man and vampire.” Astoundingly bad in every way, “Honor and Blood” is not 'nearly unreadable' (a phrase I admit I use quite a lot) it is in fact, unreadable. One can’t lay all the blame on the artist this time for the lack of focus. Nick Cuti’s scripts jump this way and that and follow no cohesion known to man.

THE HORIZON SEEKERS (#99, 100, 101, 102, 103, 104, 105, 107)
W: Leo Duranona, Cary Bates / A: Leo Duranona

Yet another variation on the “Apocalyptic wanderers.” This time, Allison and Jesse are nomads bouncing from danger to danger, fighting cannibalistic babes, giant cockroaches, and power-mad dictators. In the best chapter, “The Damned and the Dead,” the duo (now joined up with an old man named Merlin) must contend with a swarming horde of creatures who devour everything in their path and answer to a huge queen.

SAMURAI (#103, 105, 108, 109, 111)
W: Larry Hama / A: Val Mayerik

Warren Publishing dares to go where they’d not gone before: Kung Fu. Missing the bandwagon by a good five years, writer and artist nonetheless contribute a fine bit of action drama. “The Young Master, son of the venerable Old Master” must defeat Do-Shin, the greatest Archer in the land to learn the ways of the Ninja. Once he defeats Do-Shin, it’s off to defeat other titans of sword and bow. A few years after the final chapter of “Samurai,” Mayerik, who was skilled at the Martial Arts, and Hama (who had written some Iron Fists over at Marvel) would resurrect the character for a short-lived series called Young Master at NCG, a small-press comics house.

Set aside that there’s no way this series should be carried in a magazine titled Eerie (did Marvel reject it for their Deadly Hands of Kung Fu zine?), it’s still one of the best strips that Warren ran in the late 1970s. Unlike some of the Kung Fu comics of the time, the fighting scenes don’t derail the story or characters.

THE TRESPASSER (#103, 104, 105)
W: Don McGregor / A: Paul Gulacy

Dr. Ward Cavanaugh is called out to the Cope Mansion to tend to a sick child. What Cavanaugh finds when he arrives is a (literally) decaying family. Toxic waste buried decades before under the house has infected Cope, his wife, and their newborn child. Cavanugh finds himself locked up in the basement by the crazed Cope.

Writer Don McGregor must have watched all the Roger Corman/Edgar Allan Poe/Vincent Price flicks in one sitting for inspiration before putting pen to paper for this three-parter (right down to the burning mansion as a fade-out). Paul Gulacy populates “The Trespasser” with well-known faces: one of Cope’s early victims is clearly Kevin McCarthy (from Invasion of the Body Snatchers), Cope is Lee Van Cleef, and Cavanaugh looks more like James Coburn than Coburn’s own vanity shots.

BEASTWORLD (#104, 105, 107, 108, 109, 110)
W: Bruce Jones / A: Pablo Marcos

Tyler Callwell and the voluptuous Monica Benchly travel to a distant planet to meet up with an old college pal of Callwell’s. Once Callwell meets Peter Thomas, he discovers that the man is actually obsessed with Callwell and his He-Man exploits. Kidnapping Monica (and leaving Callwell with Thomas’ wife, Ruth), Peter ventures out into the wilderness, claiming he is the better of the two men. Not one to pass up an adventure, Callwell sets out to find Thomas and Monica. Along the way, the two couples encounter giant beetles, giant spiders, floods, and lots of mate-swapping.

If most Eerie series had a counterpart over at Marvel, “Beastworld”’s would be “Killraven,” a strip “inspired” by H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds which ran for a while in Amazing Adventures. Killraven, though, never had the “package” that artist Marcos endows Callwell with, and most of the Marvel heroines kept some clothing on. Bruce Jones pokes fun at all the sf/comic clichés (at least I hope it’s a satire!) and the reader will enjoy the ride.

There were several strips with continuing characters that only lasted one or two installments. While I don’t consider two chapters to constitute a serial, I thought I’d mention a few of them all the same.

THE BUTCHER (#62, 64)
W: Bill DuBay / A: Richard Corben

Bill DuBay’s nod to the violent men’s adventure series so prevalent at the time in the paperback world. The Executioner and The Destroyer paved the way for The Penetrator and The Death Merchant and ultimately DuBay’s “Butcher.” The series hook is that the title character is a priest, called to the bedside of a dying Mafioso to hear the Don’s last confession, shot, disfigured and left for dead by a trio of hitmen. He seeks his vengeance dressed in a garb very reminiscent of The Shadow. Both chapters were illustrated by Rich Corben, always a plus.

W: Al Milgrom, Bill DuBay / A: Esteban Maroto, Rudy Nebres

Poor Marvin kills himself because no one cares about him. When he is resuscitated as a swamp monster, everyone wants a piece of him. Marv finds no peace until a girl is accidentally shot and resurrected in the swamp as Girl-Thing.

Like Marvin itself, the story is made up of several well-known ingredients: the girl (see: the blind hermit from Bride of Frankenstein), the toxic agents that create Marvin (see: Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster), and of course, Marvin (see The Heap, Swamp Thing and Man-Thing). Poor Marvin didn’t even get respect from the editors of Eerie. It would be a full 80 issues until we saw the muck man again.

THE PIE (#64, 72)
W: Bill DuBay / A: Alex Toth, Luis Bermejo

A Maine family finds a shipwrecked alien they dub “The Pie” and proceed to make him one of the family, despite the protestations of neighbors. When the protests turn to violence, Pie does his best impersonation of Gort (the destructive robot from the classic 1950s The Day the Earth Stood Still). The second installment is nothing more than a rewrite of the first.

W: Steve Skeates / A: Leopoldo Sanchez

Yet another re-imagining of the Frankenstein Monster, not a very original one (if a “re-imagining” can be deemed original in the first place, I guess), that lasted only two issues but ended on such an abrupt note (leaving plot threads and characters dangling) that it almost seems assured there were to be further chapters before the plug was mercifully pulled.

W: Bruce Jones / A: Rich Corben

Bruce Jones’ variation on (or homage to) Ray Bradbury’s classic short story, "A Sound of Thunder." With the aid of a weird science fiction gizmo, a woman can (mentally) teleport into the prehistoric age. When an accident occurs, she is stuck and her ex-beau must make the same journey to bring her back. Once he gets there though, he decides he wants to create a new Eden with his love. In my opinion, Bruce Jones was the best storyteller Warren ever showcased.


A frozen smile across his face. His left hand replaced by a meat cleaver. Stalking the streets, killing anyone who has the misfortune to cross his path.

Sound like a slasher movie? You’re not that far off the mark.

Written by J. R. Cochran and illustrated by Tom Sutton, “The Disenfranchised” was the best 10 pages ever to appear in Eerie. Maybe the best story in a Warren Magazine period. When the story opens, we see a lone figure, wearing a topcoat and a frozen smile, ala The Joker, strolling through a slum on a windy night. We come to find out, through flashbacks, that the ghoulish nomad is Harold Olsen, searching for someone who done him wrong years ago. He was once a happy kid, helping his father run the butcher shop, until “the big guys” (the supermarkets) came and took it all away. Slipping a gasket, Harold chops his hand off and replaces it with a cleaver. After the shop closes, Harold’s father dies and leaves the young man to fend for himself. This does not go well.

Writer Cochran tapped into the phobia that America was going through in the mid-70s (and goes through to this day): the downsizing of Mom-And-Pop and the Corporate takeover of the U.S. When the “little market down the street” closed up, it took America’s values with it, leaving behind unemployment and ghettoes. Ironically, I first bought Eerie #39 in 1972 at a soda fountain. That shop’s a Starbuck’s now.

On the cover of #39, the usually reliable Ken Kelly portrays Harold as the offspring of a lizard and a Yeti. It’s a sharp enough painting but it doesn’t do justice to Harold the way Tom Sutton does. Sutton (who died in 2002) had a way of turning the most mundane subjects Lovecraftian. His work for Charlton in the 1970s, in particular, was a high point for horror comics. Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees pale in comparison to the frightening image of Harold Olsen approaching the reader with his razor blade smile and killer left hook.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Warren Done The Marvel Way: The Serial Eerie Part 1 (of 2)

James Warren was no fool. He had made his fortune in the publishing world by anticipating (or riding on) waves of popularity. His Famous Monsters of Filmland was selling thousands of copies a month to pre-teens hell-bent on discovering the secrets of Ray Harryhausen’s Ymir or William Castle’s Scent-O-Vision. Another demographic had eaten up the first handful of issues of Creepy: illustrated horror fans who pined for the glory days of EC, gone a decade before. Naturally, when Creepy became a sizable hit, Warren did what any other publishing mogul would do: he expanded his empire.

The legend goes that a rival publisher planned to put out an illustrated horror magazine titled Eerie. In an effort to block this event, Warren published an “ashcan” edition of a new magazine coincidentally also entitled Eerie. Made up of three stories that were about to appear in Creepy (not reprints as has been reported widely since), and published in an edition of 200 copies that were to be disposed of immediately, the “ashcan” was printed solely to copyright the title Eerie before anyone else could.

So, if the old EC formula works in one title, it should work in another, correct? Well, not quite. Eerie, from the very beginning, seemed more of a dumping ground for sub-par rejects of Creepy, even though the same artists and writers traveled between the two titles. Eerie sputtered along for several years as the third best-selling title (and then fourth once Vampirella came along).

As I stated at the beginning of this article: James Warren was no fool. He knew something had to change.

Way back in the dark ages, circa 1973, Warren Publishing, at the time still champion of the horror newsstand, was attacked by the nefarious offices of Marvel Comics. Not a verbal battle (at least not a public one), the two publishers were duking it out at the suddenly robust magazine stand. Stan Lee, then head honcho of Marvel, had noticed that Warren’s zines were doing quite well and maybe, just maybe, it was time for Marvel to grab a chunk of that pie. Since the Comics Code didn’t apply to magazines, Lee’s writers and artists could throw in a dash of sex and violence never seen in the regular four color titles. So when it was time to enter this new market, Lee didn’t merely dip his toes, he went for the big swim. New titles appeared almost monthly: Dracula Lives, Monsters Unleashed, Tales of the Zombie, Haunt of Horror, Vampire Tales, and the supreme insult to Jim Warren: Monsters of the Movies, a Famous Monsters impostor that was actually better than its predecessor.

Though these titles were aimed to flood the market and take a percentage from Warren, these were fairly good titles (offering material such as the Monsters Unleashed “Man-Thing” and “Frankenstein” series and the Dracula Lives! adaptation of the Stoker novel by Roy Thomas) and obviously some readers were discovering that Marvel could very well replace Warren. For nearly a decade, Warren’s titles were at the forefront of uncensored illustrated horror, primarily because they were the only ones out there. Marvel’s first magazine, released in 1970, was Savage Tales, starring Ka-Zar and a certain barbarian who was just then getting wide exposure through reprint paperbacks. Savage Tales (and a two-shot series starring Spider-Man) tested the waters, but it wasn’t until a couple years later that the floodgates opened.

Anyway, let me get back to Warren, who was more than a little pissed-off at Stan (I remember reading an interview in Rolling Stone with Warren where he pretty much hinted at his desire to see Stan Lee’s steaming entrails outside of their natural habitat). Ol’ JW knew that if he didn’t try something real quick, Uncle Creepy, Cousin Eerie, and Vampirella (whose title was launched in 1969) might be standing in an unemployment line in no time. So, he sent down word from his throne high atop Warren Mountain that things were gonna change. One of the things that changed was Eerie.

Ironically, Warren’s new idea was to beat Stan at his own game: convert Eerie into a showcase for genre characters. This was a radical idea and fans stood up and took notice (at least the four of us who were left did). But…

Marvel had populated its new line with characters that had already become familiar to their four-color audience: Lilith, Daughter of Dracula, The Frankenstein Monster, Dracula, Man-Thing, Wendigo, and Morbius. Now, Warren, in a supreme act of vengeance “borrowed” several of Marvel’s characters to fill up the pages of Eerie: Dax (see Conan), The Werewolf (by Night), The (Living) Mummy, (Tomb of) Dracula, Marvin the Dead-Thing (Man-Thing).

Unfortunately, there wasn’t much cohesion or originality at the variety show known as Eerie. Many different acts joined under one roof, but a hodgepodge of not very good material kept the title from being anything more than mediocre. One-dimensional beings trapped in cardboard worlds doing uninteresting things. Writers like Bill Dubay and Budd Lewis seemed more interested in coming up with bizarre titles than good stories. Series such as OOGIE AND THE JUNKERS, SPOOK AND CRACKERMEYER, and HARD JOHN’S NUCLEAR HIT PARADE conjure up Bruce Springsteen’s early work rather than stories designed to chill the spine. A decade later, the British Warrior gave a glimpse of what Eerie could have been.

Once the series bandwagon began rolling, there wasn’t much room for stand-alone horror stories but, occasionally, Eerie would slot in a few one-offs. Unfortunately, as with the early days of the title, most of these stories were badly written and hastily drawn with only the occasional memorable gem. The pendulum of quality in Eerie is perfectly illustrated by two stories in #60: the exemplary “Nightfall,” a beautifully illustrated Bill Dubay/Berni Wrightson collaboration (this would have fit comfortably in the pages of DC’s House of Mystery title) and the bad-Martian romance of the cover story, “The Manhunters,” ripped from the pages of EC’s sci-fi titles (complete with a serviceable but unexciting art job by EC veteran Wally Wood).

The following is an attempt to make some sense of some of the nonsense that filled those black and white pages. I’ve paid more attention to the longer running series but I’ll mention in passing some of the rest.

Those wanting to read more about the Eerie series are encouraged to check out the website “Warren Universe” for an enormous amount of intriguing commentary and information.

DRACULA (#46, 47, 48)
Writer: Bill Dubay / Artists: Tom Sutton, Rich Buckler

This series picks up the storyline involving Dracula that first appeared in the pages of Vampirella. The vampire king finds himself in the Barbary Coast, feeding off drunken sailors and generally biding his time. There he’s attacked by a beautiful girl and the crazy witch who accompanies her. The duo has been preying on the lusts of the local sailors. The young one lures them and the old one does the dirty work. When they unknowingly pick Dracula as their latest victim, he converts them both to bloodsuckers. A meandering mess, the storyline ends when the sailing vessel Dracula has boarded is sloughed by monster waves. The date is April 18, 1906, and San Francisco is destroyed by a massive earthquake. Inexplicably, Bill Dubay ends his saga by killing Dracula in the quake, even though there is no mention of his death in the second installment. In fact, he appears rather chipper.

In the third (and final) chapter, Dracula, wounded and fleeing from a vampire hunter, is taken in and nursed by a kind, beautiful, and perpetually naked deaf girl. The Count does his best to resist feeding on the Good Samaritan, but eventually his craving becomes too much and he takes trips to the nearest town for some late night snacks. After bedding the fair maiden, Dracula realizes he won’t be able to control his hunger for long and he wings it back to his castle. The girl (now pregnant with the vampire’s child) manages to find Castle Dracula with the help of a kindly “fortune-teller.” When the girl confronts Dracula, he’s with another woman. The dialog “It’s not what you think” takes on new meaning when a woman’s facing down a man who’s torn out the throat of that other woman! Disgusted by the truth about her lover, the girl hurls herself off the castle balcony to the rocks below. Apparently, vampires are excellent midwives as Drac delivers his son from the broken body of the child’s mother. This proves to be his undoing when the son grows to manhood and tracks down his father to put an end to the curse of Dracula.

CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF (#48,49,50,52,53,54,56)
W: Al Milgrom / A: Rich Buckler, Bill DuBay, Martin Salvador
THE MUMMY (#48,49,50,52,53,54,61,62,63)
W: Steve Skeates / A: Jaime Brocal-Remohi, Joaquin Blazquez

Steve Skeates’ “The Mummy” was introduced in #48, in a typically (for this series) slapdash and incomprehensible tale called “The Mummy…and an End,” wherein we are introduced to Jerome Curry – a greedy and power-hungry guy, we’re told – who finds an ancient amulet that allows him to transfer himself into the body of a mummy. Why he’d want to do this, I haven’t a clue. But this body allows him to shamble around Cairo and strangle beautiful women. Why he’d want to do this, I haven’t a clue. Each story has the same set-up: A little about what happened in the stories preceding, The Mummy strangles a few people, and then he shambles off. Along the way, he manages to lose the amulet, which entraps him in the Mummy’s body until he can find it.

Skeates’ amazing plotlines are little more than sketches. The Mummy becomes something of a horrific Fugitive in that he wanders from town to town, meeting a ghoul, Mr. Hyde, and a demon in three successive issues. Each of these creatures are: A/ introduced, B/ battled, C/ dispatched, and D/ forgotten, in that order. The Mummy never travels from Point A to Point B, he simply stays at Point A. Unlike Alan Moore’s “Swamp Thing,” which shares some common ground with Skeates’ Mummy (man trapped in body of creature walking around, etc.), there is no feeling of a story being told, no resolutions, only questions.

But wait. It gets better!

Running at the same time in Eerie was Al Milgrom’s equally wacky “Curse of the Werewolf” series. This series differed in one very important way from Marvel’s two four-color werewolf titles (Werewolf By Night and Creatures on the Loose’s Man-Wolf) in that Arthur Lemming, like Jerome Curry, wasn’t constrained by the Comics Code and took advantage of that fact every chance he could. In the first installment, he’s afflicted with the Curse of the Werewolf and eventually murders his own pre-teen daughter. Since he has no recollection of any of his transformations, he naturally pins the blame squarely on the shoulders of his adulterous wife, Angela, and heads off for the high country. There he meets a friendly band of sympathetic gypsies, falls in love with one of their womenfolk, and for good measure slaughters every one of them! As she lay dying, the head gypsy slaps Lemming with the Curse of Memory. This fills Arty’s head with all kinds of distress but, as he muses, it at least reminds him that his wife is about to burned at the stake by the constable for being a witch. Having an incredible change of heart, he heads back to his hometown (Dwarves Bay) and rescues his wife just as she’s getting the torch. As the final segment comes to a close, the reconciled lovebirds agree that their bad times are behind them and that nothing but joy awaits them in the future. Then Arty turns back into the werewolf and kills Angela. End of story. Well, sorta.

At this point, Al Milgrom dropped the Werewolf series, ostensibly to move on to bigger (but not necessarily better) things at Marvel, and Mummy-man Steve Skeates picked up the reins. In the best comics idea since Fatman, the Human Flying Saucer, he combined the two series and created The Were-Mummy!

Unselfishly cutting his paycheck in half for his art, Skeates gave birth to what should have gone down as one of those outlandish series that everyone talks about (and thirty five years later analyzes), but nobody actually reads. Why it didn’t achieve that notoriety is beyond me. It’s got all the elements.

Arthur Lemming is tricked by a band of gypsys into transferring his soul and mind into a mummy they just happen to have along for the ride (not our friend Jerome Curry, but another mummy). After his soul-transference, of course, he becomes the were-mummy, goes berserk, and kills all the gypsys, sparing one old man long enough for him to plead for his life:
“P-Please…I can st-still help you! Th-there is an amulet…the amulet of power! It is spoken of in many Egyptian texts! I’m sure we can find the right reference…even a picture of it! I’ve heard reports that the amulet is in America somewhere!”
Word about this fabulous bauble has gotten around, I guess. Even between series.

Anyway, the were-mummy is ambushed by the henchmen of an old wizard, and the human body of Arthur Lemming is stolen. The wiz wants to transfer his essence into the youthful body of Lemming, but is foiled by his own twisted troll-servant, William Bensin Throgmore, who steals Lemming’s body for himself!

Eventually, mummy meets mummy in a “Battle of Bandaged Beasts,” (Skeates’ title, not mine) and Bill Throgmore the troll goes on to lecherous fun in the body of Lemming, frequenting cathouses and killing innocent bystanders without remorse. Hot on his trail, Lemming catches up with Throgmore and performs another of those twisted ancient rituals (which everyone seems to know), stealing back his own body and trapping Throgmore in the mummy.

OK, scorecard time:
  1. Jerome Curry transfers his mind and soul into a mummy.
  2. Arthur Lemming turns into a werewolf.
  3. Werewolf into Mummy.
  4. Troll into Arthur Lemming.
  5. Lemming into Mummy.
  6. Throgmore into Mummy.
  7. Lemming into Lemming.

Got that? The series gets loonier and loonier each chapter. Skeates saves the ultimate lunacy for the final chapter, appropriately entitled “Insanity.” We are suddenly transported to 1975 (the rest of the series took place at the “turn of the century”) where we meet an inexplicable young lady, Linda Robbins, who, for reasons both too complex and boring to explain, has fallen in love with the Mummy (now residing in a museum in Vermont) and wants to transfer her essence into the mummy’s body so they can make spiritual whoopee. The experiment is less than a success and the mummy offs both the girl and himself in the grand finale.

In my opinion, this series ended too soon. Think what Skeates could have come up with in future installments: Vampirella as the Mummy; the Mummy as James Warren; Vampirella as Forry Ackerman and Ackerman in the body of the Mummy; Stan Lee in the body of James Warren. The combinations are limitless.

HUNTER (#52, 53, 54, 55, 56, 57, 121)
W: Rich Margopoulos, Budd Lewis, Bill DuBay / A: Paul Neary, Al Sanchez
HUNTER II (#67, 68, 70, 71, 72, 73, 101)
W: Budd Lewis / A: Paul Neary, Pepe Moreno
W: Jim Stenstrum / A: Alex Nino

Hunter is an assassin of the future, the only remaining warrior from the Last War. When we first meet him, he is freezing in a blizzard but finds refuge in a monastery high atop a hill in the Rockies. After being attacked by three mutants, he slays them and sets out for more adventures. In a flashback, we find that Hunter was the product of a brutal rape and that his father is Ofphal, leader of the mutants. Hunter does his best to follow his father’s tracks, with hopes of inevitably slaying him. In “Blood Princess” (#56), fellow Eerie character Schreck shows up to inform Hunter that the crazies from his series became werewolves and later the mutants that have dogged Hunter. The two mutant-hunters track Ofphal to Castle Bathory, where they meet up with the title princess, a young girl who shows the dynamic duo her big secret: an armed nuclear missile in her dungeon. In the final chapter (#57), Hunter finally meets up with his father.

Warren’s hook through the series years was that any of their characters could (and would) die. Hunter was the first evidence (or casualty) of this.

Twenty years later, the war is over and those few left alive are once again being attacked, this time by goblins. But the survivors have an even bigger mess to contend with: the Earth is dying. A group of wizards concoct a far-fetched plan to stop the world’s rotation for a full minute, thus missing the appointed Armageddon. Unfortunately, a rival wizard named Yaust has decided there’s no problem whatsoever with the demise of Earth. Yaust is convinced he will survive after the darkness takes over. Enter Karas, who dons the Hunter’s helmet (which has no super powers far as I can tell) and goes Goblin-hunting.

Though the aforementioned far-fetched plot stretches incredulity to the edges, I think this second series is superior to its first. Budd Lewis’ captions can still come off as though he’s channeling John Updike (“And the world was without end. And the Days were long and golden. For peace there was upon the land and all there was to see was fair and unspoiled”), but the storyline is engaging and, unlike the first HUNTER, seems to be going somewhere eventually.

Whereas the first two HUNTERs were straightforward science fiction, HUNTER III is an altogether different animal. Jim Stenstrum takes over writing chores from Budd Lewis and injects the Hunter series with a big dose of parody. Young Max Hallibut finds the fabled helmet, dons a jogging suit and becomes Hunter. He meets up with the beautiful Twyla Smyla (who, we find out later, is actually Max’s long-lost father (!)), liberates Woop, a talking lawnmower, and battles the evil frog warriors. Resembling an underground strip, HUNTER III, with its sarcastic dialogue and way-out art by Alex Nino, could be seen as a testing ground for what was to come soon from Warren: 1984.

HUNTER as a series had obviously overstayed its welcome to Warren readers (and perhaps to the writers as well) since this third incarnation lasted just the one installment.

NIGHT OF THE JACKASS (#60, 63, 64, 65)
W: Bruce Bezaire / A: Jose Ortiz

“The Jackass” is a designer drug that drives its user insane with fury, but comes with a hell of a downer: death in 24 hours. In 1892 England, rampant “Jackassing” has led to a George Romero-esque plague threatening to take down all of Europe, eventually the world. The only known survivors of a “Jackass” raid join forces to find a cure and save humanity. Bruce Bezaire’s story begins well enough but probably should have been a one-off rather than a quadrology, since each successive installment simply apes the previous. Jose Ortiz won the 1974 Warren Award for Best All-Around Artist, primarily for his work on the “Jackass” series.

EXTERMINATOR 1 (#58, 60, 63, 64)
W: Bill Dubay / A: Esteban Maroto, Paul Neary

After Bill Dubay ended his “Hunter” series, he created “The Exterminator.” Aliens have landed in a medieval kingdom, kidnapping (and ostensibly dining on) the local children. The king seeks help from the mysterious “Exterminator,” who lurks in a dark forest and refuses to remove his head piece. The Exterminator slays the aliens, only to find that the master plan was to take the children away from the horrors that would await them in a grown-up world. In the battle with the creatures, Exterminator loses his arm and our last look at him in chapter one reveals the length of wires leading from his robotic shoulder. But what is the Exterminator’s mission on Earth?

Interestingly enough, writer DuBay then jettisons that plotline and reinvents the Exterminator charcter in the second installment.

In 2014, Peter Orwell is arrested for fathering an “imperfect child” and sentenced to life in prison. He’s offered an early “parole”: his brain will be transferred into a robot whose sole job is to hunt down “imperfects.” His first assignment is to hunt down his daughter. Rather than the predictable climax I anticipated (Orwell saves the girl and begins a life on the run from the government), Bill Dubay opts for the darker road less traveled.

Since Marvel’s “Deathlok the Demolisher” debuted virtually the same time (in Astonishing Tales #25) as the 58th issue of Eerie, I’m willing to give the benefit of the doubt to Warren that this is simply a rip-off (as is Deathlok) of the then-popular TV series, The Six Million Dollar Man (unless, of course, Warren had a spy over at Marvel that tipped him off to the impending character). Unlike a lot of the other “similar” series at Warren, this one actually has some original ideas, sharp writing and a kick-in-the-head finale to its second chapter.

THE SPOOK (#57, 58, 62, 63, 64, 65)
W: Doug Moench, Budd Lewis / A: Esteban Maroto, Leopoldo Sanchez

Doug Moench’s answer to Marvel’s Brother Voodoo, The Spook is a man of the swamp who protects and avenges those who can’t fend for themselves. The Spook could get a bit preachy at times but effective art by Leopold Sanchez (at times resembling Berni Wrightson) elevates this series above most of the others.

SCHRECK (#53, 54, 55)
W: Doug Moench / A: Vicente Alcazar, Neal Adams

In an obvious “homage” to Night of the Living Dead (and Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend before that), “Schreck” chronicles the events following a series of nuclear bomb tests on the moon. Radiation fall-out drives 90% of the world insane. The other 10% go in hiding or find ways to fight back. Schreck (German for “terror” as we’re reminded time after time) finds himself sane but minus a hand after his wife’s screws go loose and she introduces him to the family meat cleaver. He passes out but, in a plot turn so whacky it should have been written into the “Mummy” series, awakens to find himself fitted with a metal hand that can be equipped with several different condiments (spoons, forks, pencils, etc.). The benefactors of the new limb are a group of “saners” who want Schreck to join them in their fight for whatever’s left out there. (See also “Hunter”).


We interrupt this program for a special announcement...

I wanted to take a moment to recognize our elder statesman, who is celebrating his birthday today. Here he is holding his gift, which won't actually be released for another month. Despite that, the smile is 100% genuine.

Happy birthday, Pete!

Monday, September 27, 2010

It's An Entertaining Comic! Part 1: The Haunt of Fear

A quick note before we begin. The following piece first appeared (in a slightly different form) in Jim Kingman's small press fanzine, Comic Effect, back in 2003. It was reprinted a few years later in the British horror comic magazine, From the Tomb, edited by Peter Normanton. I wrote three installments for the series and all three will appear here in the next month. I'll then be tackling the remainder of the EC titles. -Peter Enfantino

EC Comics! Entertaining Comics!

Some have called them “a travesty,” “vile,” or “an abomination.”

Some have called them “the greatest comics ever published.”

I fall somewhere in the middle of those camps, leaning towards the “greatest” label. A lot of the EC stories were pretty nasty and I can certainly see why parents of the 1950s would deem them “vile.” After all, this was long before parents let their preteens stay up late to watch such fun-filled family fare as Jackass or The Osbournes. Ostensibly, we (as in that generation) still had morals. Comics filled with necrophiliac morticians, conniving, large busted women, and undying corpses (who fall to pieces as they slowly shamble towards their adultering mates) could be interpreted as the antithesis of Father Knows Best or Ozzie and Hariet. Ozzie never had to worry about murderous business partners or bad cops. Robert Young wouldn’t be caught dead romancing a vampiress. But there was more at work here than just monsters, human and otherwise.

Certainly there was rougher edged entertainment aimed towards the adults of the 1950s: the murder-filled pages of Manhunt, the noir films that were coming into their own in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and the novels of Jim Thompson, David Goodis, and the other “Gold Medal” writers, works that almost trumpeted the viciousness that man could invite on his fellow man. But these blasts of criminal activity didn’t come wrapped in four color covers.

What most parents and legislators failed to recognize was that, unlike the gangster flicks and JD novels, the ECs, for the most part, were morality tales. If you did bad, you got punished (the one major exception to that rule, Shock SuspenStories, will be covered in a future installment).

Usually the protagonist of the EC stories would get their comeuppance for some evil deed the character committed. The character might have: a/ dumped his wife for a younger woman; b/ cheated his partner out of money; c/ treated an animal unkindly; d/ committed murder; or e/ all of the above. But some of this stuff was just mean-spirited. A perfect example:

A female sword-swallower is trying for years to save up money to buy a trick sword, but can’t put away the dough because her obese husband spends every dime on food. She finally manages to stash away two hundred dollars but the husband finds the money and spends it on one huge meal. The woman forces the slob to swallow a sword, ties him up, and leaves him in the final panel, warning: “Be careful, Alec! The least little movement might send the sword blade through your chest! Don’t even breathe hard! And above all...hah...try not to belch!” (from “Fed Up” The Haunt of Fear #13).

But, in the beginning, the ECs were certainly not as gruesome as some of the other infamous pre-code titles like Weird Mysteries or Weird Chills (pre-code expert Lawrence Watt-Evans calls the latter title “the single most unpleasant title I ever read.”), nor were they particularly original, let alone groundbreaking. Here and there are the standout classics, but for every “Poetic Justice” there are several stories like “The Vamp,” wherein the protagonist discovers his very pale, peculiar sweetheart is actually a vampire . Of course, the chief reason so many of these stories simply follow the “EC Revenge Outline” is that most of these stories were written by Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein. Both had been brought up on a steady diet of horror radio shows and pulps. Their “licks” were copped from authors like H. P. Lovecraft, Robert Bloch, and Ray Bradbury. In fact, Bradbury finally got fed up with being plagiarized (though, in a nice way) and asked for monetary compensation. This led to the 24 Bradbury authorized adaptations that dotted the EC line (including two in Haunt).

Stale stories aside, EC Comics certainly staffed itself with fine artists: Wally Wood, Johnny Craig, Jack Davis, George Evans, John Severin, Al Williamson, Joe Orlando, and Al Feldstein himself. The artist who would truly define EC’s horror comics was Graham Ingels, who would sign “Ghastly” to his grisly art.

Later, when the plethora of horror comic titles gobbed up the newsstands and drained some of the sales from EC, the publisher resorted to aping the comics that had been introduced to rip off EC in the first place. This gave way to infamous stories like “Foul Play” (where a man is ripped to pieces and his body parts are used as baseball equipment) and “Midnight Mess” (a man is strung upside down by a restaurant full of vampires, and has his jugular tapped) which, in turn led to the by-now familiar story of Frederic Wertham and Seduction of the Innocent .

The EC Comics line came to an end in 1954 (with the exception of Mad, a title that was reintroduced as a magazine and became an institution) with the advent of the restrictive Comics Code, but diehard fans and their fanzines, reprintings, movies, and television have kept the legend alive.

I’ve always wanted to do a series of essays on the individual titles, a list of ten favorite stories. Better writers than I have picked lists of “The Best of...” and written tomes on the EC legend. That’s not what I want to accomplish. I just wanted an excuse to reread these stories twenty (and sometimes thirty) years after first laying my eyes on them and this e-zine is the perfect forum for just such a freewheeling “thought piece.” As I recall, there were three events that led to my fascination with EC Comics: the Amicus film, Tales From the Crypt, starring Peter Cushing and Joan Collins; the special EC issue of the long-gone and lamented The Monster Times newspaper (which will get its' day in the sun on this site soon; and the East Coast Comix reprinting of Shock SuspenStories #12 (the classic heroin addiction cover). Suddenly there was something a little bit edgier than Where Monsters Dwell or Creatures on the Loose for a 14 year-old comic reader.

For this first installment, I read all 112 stories published in the 28 issues of The Haunt of Fear (actually the color reprintings published by Russ Cochran in the 1990s). I made notes on all the stories and assigned them the obligatory 1-4 star ratings. The eleven stories selected are my favorites of the bunch. This is not ‘The Best of Haunt of Fear.” Writers John Benson, Bill Mason, and Bhob Stewart do a remarkable job of critiquing the stories in Russ Cochran’s indispensable EC Library boxed set of Haunt. I can’t even touch the kind of in-depth notes and comments these three share with us. This is "Peter Enfantino's Favorite Stories from The Haunt of Fear.” The stories I can see myself rereading over and over. I hope you’ enjoy my recommendations and maybe it will nudge you into dipping your toes into the murky water that is Haunt or maybe even taking a dive in to the deep end and buying a copy of the box set. It may just be the friendly nudge you need to introduce you to a whole new universe. If you’ve got any comments or disagreements, I’d love to hear from you.

"Room For One More" (Haunt #7) Art: Graham Ingels/ Story: Bill Gaines
Rodney Whitman has his eye on the final spot in the family mausoleum. Only problem is, there are three other surviving members of the family who will vie for that spot when the Grim reaper shows up to claim them. In order to be the recipient of the death site, but not actually die before his time, Rodney starts bumping off his relatives and hiding their bodies. Totally offbeat and goofy, “Room for One More” is another yarn from the seemingly bottomless EC Revenge Well, but this one has that extra zaniness to push it to another level. Then there’s the “Ghastly” Graham Ingels art. Ingels could make the worst tale readable, but when he was given something with substance, no one could touch him. He was the 1950s version of Bernie Wrightson. I love Johnny Craig’s art as well (though I think his stuff got better, as witnessed by his work for Warren in the 1960s), but just compare the results of Craig’s take on the story (on the cover of #7) with the full story as drawn by Ingels. Craig’s art almost has a calm to it (despite depicting a corpse bursting through a basement floor) while Ingels oozes darkness and doom. Ingels contributed a story to every issue of Haunt with the exception of the first issue.

"The Gorilla's Paw" (Haunt #9) Art: Jack Davis/ Story: Gaines/Al Feldstein
"Wish You Were Here" (Haunt #22) Art: Ingels/Story: Gaines/Feldstein
As I noted in my introduction, it’s no secret that Gaines and Feldstein liberally “borrowed” from many sources to create their comic tales. Frankenstein was reimagined several times throughout the titles, as was Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. But it’s a testament to just how well the writing duo could pick at a corpse that two different versions of W. W. Jacobs’ classic “The Monkey’s Paw” make this list.

In “The Gorilla’s Paw", Floyd, passing an old curio shop is fascinated by a row of trinkets. Beckoned in by the shop owner, Floyd is first repulsed and then obsessed by a severed gorilla’s paw. He buys it and finds that every time he wished for something, he gets it. But every wish comes with consequences. When he wishes he had never bought the paw, the next morning his money is in the paw and he finds out that the curio shop owner has been murdered. The story ends with a classic AAAAAAH!: while talking to his buddy on the phone, Floyd demeans himself for being a dope, wishes he had his buddy’s brains, and... well, you get the picture (and, yes, you do get the picture!).

Closer to the original Jacobs story, “Wish You Were Here” opens with elderly couple Jason and Enid Logan pondering their money problems. When Enid remembers the jade statuette they’d found in Hong Kong and the three wishes it supposedly grants, her husband cautions her that according to the old yarn he’d once heard, each wish will come with a severe price. Enid reasons that it won’t hurt to try and so she uses her first wish, for “money...lots of money.” Of course, she gets her wish, and the price is the life of her husband. She becomes instantly wealthy from her husband’s insurance money, but the problem now is that her husband isn’t around to help her spend it. Since she has two wishes left, no problem, right? A grisly ending (the second for Jason, by the way) caps off a genuinely creepy story. As with “Poetic Justice,” (see below) “Wish You Were Here” was faithfully adapted for the Amicus Tales From the Crypt movie.

"Poetic Justice" (Haunt #12) Art: Ingels/ Story: Gaines/Feldstein
Henry Burgundy, “the town’s richest man,” can’t bear to watch kindly old Abner Elliot anymore. After all, the old man’s ramshackle house and plethora of pets threaten to devalue the neighborhood and are just a general eyesore and nuisance. So, Burgundy hatches a plan to run the old man out of the neighborhood. His schemes to demoralize Abner succeed and the old man commits suicide. In classic EC style, Abner rises from the grave and doles out a little EC-style justice to Henry Burgundy.

If I was to pick one story that epitomizes what I love about EC Comics, it would be “Poetic Justice.” It’s all here: Graham Ingels’ drippy, morbid art, a beautifully told, compact story, and one of the best punchlines ever delivered. Of course, my love for the story might also have something to do with the fact that it was wonderfully adapted by Milton Subotsky for the Amicus Crypt movie. Abner (here renamed Arthur Grimsdyke) is sensitively played by horror movie veteran Peter Cushing and the spirit of the story is captured almost frame for frame. Subotsky (and Amicus co-partner/ producer Max Rosenberg) certainly had a love for and working knowledge of EC Comics. They picked ten of the better stories from several different titles to comprise their two EC films. Just before the release of the second film, Vault of Horror, it was rumored there would be a third film, Tales of the Incredible, but the box-office failure of Vault (probably due to its’ R rating more than anything else) doomed the third installment.

"What's Cookin'?" (Haunt #12) Art: Davis/ Story: Gaines/Feldstein
Eric Edwards approaches Herman and Charlie with a proposition. He’ll help the two restaurateurs increase the business at their roadside stop,The Chicken Coop, if they’ll cut Edwards in on the profits. Sure enough, Edwards multiplies business by building huge fat-fryers and spits. The two partners decide that Edwards’ cut is too big and they torch him in his bed one night. Evidently, they don’t do a good enough job on Eric as he manages to escape (skin crackling and afire) and exact EC vengeance on the two. Absolutely vile! You won’t look at your fried chicken quite the same again. Filmed for the HBO Tales From the Crypt TV series, starring Christopher Reeve and Judd Nelson.

"Wolf Bait" (Haunt #13) Art: Davis/ Story: Gaines/Feldstein
Five riders on a horse-driven sleigh are chased by a pack of wolves through Russia in a violent snowstorm. Down to no bullets and a few miles to go to shelter, they must decide which passenger should be sacrificed to safe the rest. When the choice is made, out of the sleigh goes... well, we don’t know. The second to last panel shows a silhouette of a wolf pack attacking something, but who it is must be guessed at. The Crypt-Keeper’s final words include “Who did they toss overboard? Well, I’ll tell you! When I got there, there wasn’t enough left to tell who it was!”

"A Little Stranger" (Haunt #14) Art: Ingels/ Story: Gaines/Feldstein
Villagers can’t figure out whether a vampire or a werewolf is responsible for a series of murders. The bodies have punctures on the neck, but they’re also munched on. Guess what! It’s a tag-team job. Zorgo, a werewolf and his beautiful vampire girlfriend, Elicia, have joined forces to wine and dine on the hapless villagers. The torch-wielding mob finally catches up with the duo, dispatches them, and buries them in “The Devil’s Graveyard,” a place “where murderers and other creatures of evil are interred!” But you can’t keep a good ghoul down, and nearly a year later, all the creatures interred in the graveyard rise to witness the birth of Zorgo and Elicia’s offspring. I know what you’re thinking. This sounds like a really bad Mexican horror movie starring Paul Naschy. The sheer goofiness of the story is what pushes it into classic status for me. Gaines and Feldstein clearly decided to poke fun at the horror genre, in particular the Universal monster fests such as House of Dracula and House of Frankenstein, capped off by a wacky final full-page panel illustrating the birth of The Old Witch, the mascot/narrator of The Haunt of Fear. Thirteen years later, Archie Goodwin would pay homage to “A Little Stranger” with “Monster Rally” (Creepy #4, August 1965), an origin story for Uncle Creepy (illustrated by Angelo Torres).

"Dig That Cat...He's Real Gone" (Haunt #21) Art: Davis/Story: Gaines/Feldstein
Dr. Emil Mansfred has discovered the secret of cheating death. By “removing a certain gland from a common cat” and transplanting it into the body of a skid-row bum, he creates a man with nine lives. The two hatch a plan to reap the benefits of the extra lives. The bum becomes “Ulric, the Undying,” charging exorbitant sums to cheat death in several different manners: electrocution, jumping from a plane without a parachute, and going over Niagara Falls without a barrel. Before too long, the man with nine lives decides that he wants the whole pie, not just fifty percent, and he offs the doctor. Ulric gets his in the end, of course, when he makes a fatal mathematical error. “Dig That Cat...” was adapted by writer Terry Black and director Richard (Superman) Donner as the first episode of the HBO Crypt TV show in 1989. While I’m not a big fan of the TV show (way too much gore for my tastes), there were a few episodes that captured the flavor and atmosphere of EC and “Dig That Cat...” was one of them. Starring Joe Pantoliano as Ulric, the episode is directed subtly, a trait lost on future Tales makers. In all, eleven Haunt stories were adapted for the show.

"Hansel and Gretel" (Haunt #23) Art: Jack Kamen/Story: Gaines/Feldstein
The Old Witch tells the true story of those lovely young fairy tale children, Hansel and Gretel, two tykes that just couldn’t stop eating. When they literally eat everything in the house, their parents dump them deep in the forest, where the two imps come across the cottage of a nice old lady. She invites them in for lunch, revealing that her husband died and left her with a chest full of jewels and gold. Seeing their meal ticket before their eyes, Hansel and Gretel push the old woman in her oven and cart the booty home. Like the rest of the installments in Gaines/Feldstein’s “Grim Fairy Tale” series (eight of the fifteen stories appeared in Haunt), the slant was on comedy. These fables could have come from the pages of Mad (in fact, “Little Red Riding Hood” appeared in Mad’s sister title, Panic) with their smartass kids and goofy plot devices (the wicked witch of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” consults a Howdy Doody lookalike on a television screen rather than the mirror on the wall).

"Indisposed" (Haunt #25) Art: George Evans/Story: Gaines/Feldstein
Henpecked Henry has finally had enough of his wife Rita and makes good use of their new garbage disposal. Unfortunately, the disposal wasn’t properly installed and, on the night the boys are over, Rita makes a “return appearance” all over Henry’s kitchen sink. Fabulous artwork by Evans, with a particularly grisly final panel.

"Marriage Vow" (Haunt #26) Art: Ingels/Story: Otto Binder
Martin Saunders marries Eva not just for her beauty, but for her money. But the honeymoon ends very quickly and all that’s left for Martin is the money. After convincing Eva to change her will, leaving him the riches, Martin loosens the balcony and the woman falls to her death. Unfortunately for Martin, Eva believes in “Til Death Do Us Part” even after she’s dead. The corpse comes back craving companionship and in a “oh...lord...choke” final panel we get the full picture on love after death. Yet another example of why Ingels was the greatest horror comics artist of the 50s.


EC Horror Comics of The 1950s
Hardcover, edited by Ron Barlow and Bhob Stewart
(Nostalgia Press, 1971)

The EC Library: The Haunt of Fear
5 hardcover volumes. (Russ Cochran, publisher. 1985)
The definitive overview of the title, with in-depth critiques and interviews with the contributors.

Trade Paperback, edited by Grant Geissman
(Harper, 2005)

The Haunt of Fear
(EC Comics, May 1950-December 1954)
(reprinted by Russ Cochran/Gemstone, November 1992-August 1998)

Squa Tront #1-12
(EC Fanzine 1967-2007)

Hardcover, edited by Digby Diehl. (St. Martin’s Press, 1996)
An overview of the EC title, and the EC horror titles in general. My recommendation comes with a qualifier: I could have done without the sixty pages devoted in this nice glossy book to the TALES FROM THE CRYPT TV show. A lot of cover and art repros.

Hardcover, by Fred Von Bernewitz and Grant Geissman. (Gemstone/Fantagraphics, 2000)
In my opinion, the best overview of EC in one volume. Beautiful repros, including every EC cover, and a lot of information on the staff.

NEXT WEEK: Crime SuspenStories!