Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Best (and Worst) of 2010

by Peter Enfantino


I read the latest Lee Child (61 Hours), which was just like the last Lee Child: great set-up, so-so mid-section, and one-man wrecking crew climax. It doesn’t add up to a great read, unfortunately. It was, however, a classic compared to Stephen King’s latest train-wreck, Full Dark, No Stars, which saw the former storyteller recycling and regurgitating the same old clichés. Ând jeesus if he doesn’t love those italics or I’m a cockadoodie. “Big Driver,” the second of the four tales in the book reads like the novelization of some bad slasher franchise sequel relegated to 2 A.M. telecasts on Showtime. Could this really be the same guy who gave us Salem’s Lot and Pet Semetary? Does he have anything left in the tank after previous disasters, Cell, Duma Key and From a Buick Eight seem to prove otherwise? Most important of all, which draft of “Big Driver” did author Suzanne Collins read when she called this tripe “fast-paced, beautifully plotted” and “gripping” on Amazon? I had held out hope that one more great book would come from King, but I’ve given up now. You really can’t go back.

I used to see a movie a week at my local multiplex or art house. There were times when I had to make hard choices. The hard choice now is whether I want to add Iron Man 2 or Hot Tub Time Machine to my Netflix queue when they become available. I saw no new releases at the cinema this year for the first time I can remember. Judging by what I finally did see on dvd, I didn’t miss much. From bloated, boring blockbusters (Iron Man 2) to overrated indies (Winter’s Bone), 2010 was, but for a few flicks, a desert wasteland. I thought Ghost Writer, directed by Roman Polanski, was a flawed but enjoyable thriller that showcased Pierce Brosnan’s new-found acting abilities (discovered around the time he starred in The Matador) and a nice turn by Ewan McGregor. The American proved that George Clooney can make an entire film without his trademark smirk and, aside from a rushed, incomprehensible climax (so who’s shooting who and why?), kept my interest.

In Salt, Angelina Jolie does Bourne in a good way. From start to finish, no brain food (in fact, it’s amazingly dumb in several spots) but great comic book action. Frozen was nothing more than Open Water at a ski resort but, if this film is any proof, there’s nothing wrong with that. Two Afflecks provided thrills of different sorts this year: Casey did his best with the unenviable task of bringing to life Jim Thompson’s greatest creation, sheriff Lou Ford, in director Michael Winterbottom’s The Killer Inside Me. I admired Winterbottom for not sugar-coating Thompson’s violence but hated his wrap-up. Brother Ben Affleck turned writer Chuck Hogan’s heist novel, Prince of Thieves into The Town, with an Oscar-nom worthy Jeremy Renner and edge-of-seat pacing. Affleck may only have a problem with one subject he turns his camera to: himself. There are a few too many “is this my best side?” shots in the flick. The plot is derivative of Heat but I can’t argue that the heist sequences are some of the best in years.

The best film I saw this year was Inception. Up front, I’ll say I came to this with heightened expectations based on director Christopher Nolan’s track record (four of his five “pro” films are favorites of mine) but oftentimes that can work against an artist. Not here. The experience is like being on a Disneyland ride you’ve not been on before. You’re not sure whether it’ll go up or down or sideways. Inception goes in all three directions, sometimes at the same time. Dreams within dreams within dreams…


Since I don’t go to the movie theater anymore, I rely on my dvd player for new cinematic experiences. I saw several documentaries this year that I’d recommend. I’m a sports nut (in particular, the NBA) so ESPN’s 30 For 30 series of sports films, which continues to present stellar work by established directors, is eaten up around my house like M&Ms. In No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson, director Steve James (Hoop Dreams) revisits his home town (and that of Iverson) 16 years after a controversial brawl left the town racially divided. Muhammed and Larry shows the damage one more big fight did to Ali and what a class act Larry Holmes remains to this day. The first 15 films are available in a nice box set. If you want to know more about such legends as Reggie Miller, Len Bias, Jimmy the Greek, and Ricky Williams, here’s the place to start.

Acclaimed by many fans (this one included) as one of the two or three best TV-horror films of all time, it took years and many false starts to replace out grey market boots with a nice copy of Frank deFelitta’s ambiguous thriller, Dark Night of the Scarecrow. Is it a supernatural presence haunting a group of old men who have committed a vicious murder or is it all just red herrings? I won’t spoil the surprise.

Another long-awaited dvd was the massive Thriller box-set. If not for the handful of classy, atmospheric mini horror films, pick it up for the dozens of informed, engrossing, and most notably, critical commentaries. Image did a fabulous job with this set.

Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage takes us down memory lane with the Canadian power trio. Long ignored by music critics and beloved by millions of fans, Rush come off as three really nice guys you wouldn’t mind having over for dinner some time. Try saying that about Axl Rose or Gene Simmons. The section of the film covering the death of drummer Neal Peart’s wife and daughter is genuinely stirring and you can’t help but root for Peart as he attempts to find his way back to the surface while taking a several-months road trip on his hog. Though you may not come away liking their music any better, you may discover a begrudging respect for these hard-working zillionaires.

George Hardy, the star of Troll 2, the subject of Best Worst Movie, may be the funniest dentist I’ve ever encountered. Hardy, as a young man, starred in the execrable Troll sequel and then got on with his life. Twenty years later he’s bowled over by the response the film is getting at Midnight screenings. Rocky Horror it’s not, but for some strange reason droves of people turn out to experience its idiocy. The new fame is not lost on Troll 2’s child star, Michael Stephenson, who picks up a camera and decides to follow Hardy around on a Troll 2 tour. Hilarity follows. Hardy’s trip to an autograph show, where he rents a booth and tries to drum up interest in Troll 2 memorabilia will make you alternate between wincing and guffawing.


Thank god for the continuing success of Tv-on-Dvd. Several shows I wouldn’t have the chance to catch come up on my radar thanks to this medium. Friday Night Lights (Season 4) continues to be the best football show not about football that no one watches. Such a shame that many won’t give it a try because “they don’t like football.” FNL is about football as much as Breaking Bad (Season 2) is about cooking meth. It’s there but it’s usually in the background. The characters are what keep you coming back. Curb Your Enthusiasm (Season 7), for me, remains the sharpest and wittiest show ever on TV (the only show that comes close is Frasier). Many of the situations Larry David finds himself trapped in each episode have plagued us. We just don’t have the skewed perspective on life to think it funny at the time. Larry shows us why it’s funny that a blind guy worries about his girlfriend’s looks. As for Gordon Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares (UK-Season 2): I hate reality shows, always have, but Ramsey’s trips to failing restaurants and his dealings with their bumbling owners and egotistical chefs has me spellbound. I don’t feel the same about Ramsey’s Hell’s Kitchen, wherein he spends the better part of an hour telling young chefs they’re f(beep)ing idiots and their food is shite. If I wanted that kind of nastiness, I’d watch American Idol.


Most of the reading I do is non-fiction. I particularly like studies of forgotten or cult films, fiction and comics. This was a banner year for my kind of read.

The size of a phone book, Gathering Horror (Phrona Press) by David Horne is filled with so much information about the Warren Publishing Empire that another such book will never have to be compiled. I was involved with two Warren projects of this scope over the years. Both were abandoned after a lot of hard work. This book dwarves those projects. The only thing that upsets me is that there’s no mention of the appearance of my name in two, count ‘em two, Mystery Photos.

I reviewed The Horror The Horror (Abrams) by Jim Trombetta and Four Color Fear (Fantagraphics), edited by Greg Sadowski in depth here. Two very good compilations of horror comics from the pre-code 1950s. Trombetta’s psycho-logy-babble at times is suspect but that’s not why we should pick these up. It’s all eye candy The Weird World of Eerie Publications (Feral House) by Mike Howlett is the long, lusty, and usually sordid history of Myron Fass’ Eerie Publications, most famously responsible for the gruesome black and white comic magazines of the 1960s and 70s that made beheadings, disembowelments, and especially women with big tits and ripped cheeks the fashion plate for my generation. The reality of titles like Witches Tales, Weird, and Horror Tales is that they’re more fun to read about than to actually read. Howlett takes us behind the scenes from the very beginning to the hazy end with stops on the way to show us the girlie mags, UFO tabloids, and True Confessions (“My Vagina is my Nursing Aid!”) that Fass found time to staple together while overseeing his horror empire. It’s a fabulous, fascinating read that gives me hope we could see book-length spotlights on other horror publishers (Harvey please!). The best book of the year.

AND… My “Best Event” of 2010

The Rolling Stones

Nearly 50 years after taking a stage for the first time, The World’s Greatest Rock n Roll Band (and they are that, make no mistake) are once again masters of the media. First to roll out was the remastering/plundering of the legendary Exile on Main Street, complete with a second cd of unearthed tracks (albeit with a help from a very 2010 Mick Jagger). These aren’t the kind of “extra bonus tracks” most groups tack on to remasters (previously released b-sides, alternate takes, blahblahblah), but the kind of hot funk and bluesy riffs that made The Stones a radio staple back when there was such a thing as radio. “I’m Not Signifying,” “Plunder My Soul,” and especially “Pass the Wine (Sophia Loren),” should all be in heavy rotation on your ipod. Two dvds followed: a “Making of” doc, Stones in Exile, details the trials and tribulations of being a Stone in England in the early 70s: rich but without “a pot to piss in” thanks to an ungodly tax rate; and the long-awaited re-release of Ladies and Gentlemen, The Rolling Stones, a concert showcase filmed during the Exile tour, a tour that would set the standards for the excesses and debauchery of rock ‘n’ roll and, arguably, the last time The Stones were a great live band (before they became lazy and let props and lighting do their work for them). To top off the year, we get Keef’s masterly and scholarly autobiography, Life. Who knew this guy was more than just a pretty face?

Will we really pay this much attention to Jay-Z, Eminem, or Lady Gaga in 40 years?

Friday, December 24, 2010

Happy Holidays!

We would like to wish all of our readers a wonderful holiday and Happy New Year! We have plenty more in store for bare•bones in 2011, and don't forget that on 1/1/11 we begin our daily look at The Outer Limits on our sister site, We Are Controlling Transmission

Peter and John

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Complete Guide to Manhunt Part 14

A note to our faithful readers: By now you've noticed a few hiccups in our regularly scheduled programming. No Matheson last Sunday, No Health Knowledge on Wednesday, and the following, a one-issue Guide to Manhunt. Work, Holidays, and Life have all intruded this last week and probably will do so next week. We hope to return you to our regular slate after New Year's. (Because then all we'll have to do is a daily Outer Limits review. Oh wait—  JS) Thanks for being patient and big thanks from John and I to Jack Seabrook and Larry Rapchak for providing some entertainment whilst we take a breather.

Continuing an issue by issue examination of the greatest crime digest of all time.

by Peter Enfantino

Vol. 2 No. 7 September 1954
144 pages, 35 cents
Cover by Michael

The Witness by John Sabin
(3000 words) ** illo: Houlihan
Mark Hagan begins to question the merits of being a good samaritan. He witnesses the murderous Earl Splade gun down a man in cold blood and reports it to the police. Now, it seems the police can’t protect Mark from the murderer, who’s back on the streets in no time. Abrupt but satisfying climax. This was Sabin’s only appearance in Manhunt or any crime magazine for that matter.

Bedbug by Evan Hunter
(1000 words) *
A paranoid husband interrogates his mad wife. Or is it the other way around? When does a 1200 word short story feel like a 120,000 word novel? When it’s filled with dreadful dialogue and a story that is going nowhere. This story and “Association Test” (from V. 2 N. 5) prove that Evan Hunter needs a few more words to get his groove going.

State Line by Sam S. Taylor
(6500 words) *** illo: Houlihan
Linoleum salesman rolls into Vegas and is immediately smitten with a rich beauty. Like most Manhunt dames, this one’s got something up her sleeve. She’s got an old hubby who’s become a burden and now she’s searching for a way to become a rich widow. What seems to be heading down the path of a Fred MacMurray film veers down a dirt road to something completely different. This would have made a nice episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents (it is slightly reminiscent of the classic “One More Mile to Go” from the second season of AHP).

Night Watch by Jonathan Craig
(4500 words) ** illo: Dick Francis
Sergeants Sharber and Curran, Homicide, 9th Precinct, catch a strange case: the man’s been shot in the head and when they dig further they find kiddy porn and heroin. Luckily for the detectives, the murderer falls right into their hands and confesses. This must have the most abrupt ending I’ve ever come across. I literally searched the magazine for a “Continued from page 42” but my copy is lacking any such closure.

Tin Can by B. Traven
(4000 words) ***1/2 Illo: Tom O’Sullivan
Natalio Salvatorres is looking for a wife and finds her in Filomena Gallardo, a young peasant whose father is only too happy to sell her for a new pair of pants and a few bottles of tequila. Moving to a mining town to find work, Natalio is happy in his new life until one day he finds his wife has run off with another man. Seeking revenge, Natalio crafts an explosive in a tin can and heads for the hut where his wife is attending a party. Unfortunately for Natalio, the only person killed in the blast is a friend of Filomena’s:
The occupants of the hut saw the bomb and jumped out of the hut without even taking the time for a shout of horror. This took them less than half a second. At once a terrific explosion followed, sending the hut up a hundred feet in the air. Of the six people who had been inside, five escaped without so much as a scratch. The sixth, the young woman of the couple that owned the hut, was not so fortunate. This woman had, at the very moment the bomb made its appearance at the party, been busy making fresh coffee in the corner of the hut farthest from the door. She had neither seen the bomb nor noted the rapid and speechless departure of her guests. Consequently she accompanied the hut on its trip upward. And since she had been unable in so short a time to decide which part of the hut she would like best to travel with, she landed at twenty different places in the vicinity.
As you can tell from that passage, this is a dark comedy. “Tin Can” gets even wittier when Natalio faces trial for his crime.

B. Traven was the author of Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1927), The Rebellion of the Hanged (1936), and several other acclaimed novels. His life and identity were something of a mystery. According to his Manhunt bio, not even his agent knew his true identity.

Ambition by Patrick Madden
(1500 words) ***
The cops have a cold-blooded killer dead to rights but the murderer seems almost happy they do. For such a short story, this is an effective commentary on what someone will do to achieve that “15 minutes.”

A Moment’s Notice by Jerome Weidman
(9000 words) **** illo: Houlihan
Dr. Holcomb, eighty years old, realizes he hasn’t much time left but before he goes he must atone for a sin his son committed ten years earlier, an evil act Dr. Holcomb helped cover up for fear of scandal. When a similar situation rears its ugly head and his son is again the villain, the doctor finds a way to make peace with himself. Or does he?

Though I have problems with the logic the doctor shows in solving his problem at the climax, this is a riveting story. Too often, I’ve found when a big name drops in to the Manhunt headquarters, they seldom deliver. Here’s a case of the big name delivering and then some. A passage, referring to Holcomb’s son, Robert, might well be prescient of today’s celebrities and their various foibles:
How did one deal with the wicked who were ignorant of the meaning of wickedness, with the sinner who had no conception of sin? The only occasion on which Robert seemed to be aware that he had done anything the world condemned came at the moments when he was caught.
Jerome Weidman (1913-1998) is best known for his Great Depression novel, I Can Get It for You Wholesale (1937) and for co-writing the Joan Crawford vehicle, The Damned Don’t Cry (1950).

Every Morning by Richard Marsten
(1500 words) ** illo: Houlihan
A governess plays cruel games with her hired help every morning until he can take it no more and violence ensues.

Some Things Never Change by Robert Patrick Wilmot
(2500 words) * illo: Tom O’Sullivan
Kerrigan flies back to England to reclaim the love he lost during the Second World War. She’s got other plans for the sap. But is he a sap? A first: 500 words of set-up, 2000 words of expository. Outrageous and clunky expository to boot!

The Empty Fort by Basil Heatter
(14,500 words) *** illo: Houlihan
Flake, captain of the Jezebel, is hired by Mangio to haul in tons of shrimp. Flake is the best at his business, he knows it, and demands a larger cut from Mangio. Not one to take insubordination, Mangio hires shipmate Cutter to kill Flake and make it look like an accident. Cutter knocks Flake overboard during a nasty storm but the captain is from the “die hard” school and survives long enough to be rescued by a passing boat. Exciting sea adventure, reminiscent of Charles Williams’ novels, with a violent finale at the titular structure.

The son of radio broadcaster Gabriel Heatter, Basil Heatter was the author of several novels including The Dim View (Signet, 1948), Sailor’s Luck (Lion, 1953), The Mutilators (GM, 1962), Virgin Cay (Gold Medal, 1963), Harry and the Bikini Bandits (GM, 1971) and two adventures of Tim Devlin, marine insurance man, The Golden Stag and Devlin’s Triangle (both Pinnacle, 1976). Mugged and Printed mentions an upcoming Lion novel called Powder Snow. This was retitled Act of Violence for publication in 1954. Heatter’s novels accentuated the adventure whether it be icy mountain tops (Act of Violence), ships wrecked (Virgin Cay), or gun smuggling in Europe (The Mutilators).

The Promise by Richard Welles
(1000 words) *
Nothing more than the outline for a short story about a cop who goes after his brother, wanted for murder.

Mugged and Printed features Jerome Weidman, Basil Heatter, B. Traven, and Sam S. Taylor.
Also this issue: Vincent H. Gaddis’ Crime Cavalcade, Dan Sontup’s Portrait of a Killer #13: Leon Peltzer, and What’s Your Veridict #2 by Sam Ross (The Uncooperative Wife).

Further reading:

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Interplanetary Episode: The Sequel!

by Larry Rapchak

In late 2002, while attempting to learn more about the mysterious artist Kenneth Landau, I discovered that "Interplanetary Episode's" appearance in January of 1960 was NOT its first; it had, in fact, served as the cover story of ACG's Adventures into the Unknown #61 (Jan-Feb 1955) which was, I believe, the final pre-code issue of this particular title.

And here's the original splash-panel, drawn (and signed) by Kenneth Landau in late 1954. Compare and contrast with the 1960 version shown in part one.

Was the roulette-wheel thing a part of Landau's original drawing, or was it grafted on later? The "wheel of fate" idea mentioned in the text has very little bearing on the story, and it was eliminated in the 1960 version. But Landau's crackling lightning and millions of little scratch-marks for the background give us a preview of the crazy, out-of-kilter feel of the story.

However, things get really interesting upon discovering that most of the 1955 version's crucial plot set-up—the brutal mistreatment of the simpleton Simon by the townsfolk—has been entirely altered from what one sees in the 1960 version! Yes, totally re-drawn by another artist and, oddly, softened a great deal in its emotional impact!

That's right—the Pre-Code version of the story as it appeared in January, 1955 was much more mild and inoffensive than its CODE-era reissue in January, 1960!

Here are a few samples which illustrate these changes along with a bit of a spoiler (as if anyone is going to run out and track this thing down): the climatic outcome of the story is the result of Simple Simon's gradual realization that the people of Earth are, in fact, basically cruel and not worthy of salvation. Thus, the entire plot hinged on our seeing Simon's kindly nature and trust in humanity ultimately destroyed by his personal encounters with the evil townspeople.

So here, in 1955, are a few re-drawn panels from page 2 which illustrate some of these encounters; Simon first rushes to the aid of a stereotypical Italian hot-dog vendor, who has made the mistake of peddling his wares in front of the local butcher shop. The butcher, being a jerk, goes berserk and knocks over the vendor's cart (big deal), as Simon rather sanctimoniously comments: "Folks are good... even if they don't think sometimes." (Oi!) Next, Simon happens upon a big thug stealing a lunch box from a little kid. Again, big deal.

But here are the same two panels, as seen in the 1960 version:

A few things leap out at the reader. The artwork of these two panels is on an entirely different stylistic plane than the first version above; they were obviously drawn by Landau. This meant that the version published in 1960 contained Landau's original artwork. The panel on the right is an example of the artist's quintessentially creepy, sardonic, cartoon-y stylization of his characters, recalling the famous tragic/comic masks that represent opposite poles of human nature. At this point early on in the story, you're not quite sure if you're supposed to be laughing at the main character or not.....

As the 1955 version progresses, (page 3 of the story) Simon finds a wallet which he intends to return to its rightful owner. Problem is, those nasty townsfolk spy him with the wallet, assume he's the one who stole it, and are instantaneously transformed into a lynch mob. In a very one-dimensional, contrived way, this sequence establishes Simon as a sympathetic (and a fully rational, seemingly normal) guy whose only quirk is that he happens to look like a bum.

BUT WHEN THE STORY APPEARED IN 1960, HERE's how the plight of the pathetic Simple Simon unfolds... in Landau's original panels from the same position on page 3:

Here, Simon's "folks are good..." line, spoken to his little 4-legged pal, acquires a whole new sense of pathos. I can't begin to describe the way that this portion of the story left me stricken... for lack of a better word.... numb... when I first read it. Landau's (and the author's) original conception of Simon as helpless, pitiful, and intellectually primitive reaches far deeper into the conscience of the reader than does the silly attempt to sanitize the story in its 1954-55 re-write.

AND HERE, back in 1955, is the final panel of Simon's interaction with the townsfolk, just prior to the first appearance of the aliens:

CONTRASTED with the 1960 version of the same panel, another Landau image that fried my poor young mind:

From this point on in both the '55 and '60 versions, the stories are identical, except for a couple of flashback panels near the end, as Simon recalls his encounters with the residents of Miller's Gap.

A few thoughts, questions, etc:

1.) I'm not particularly knowledgeable about the comics industry; I'm aware of the major controversy which led to the establishment of the Comics Code, and I'm sure that the turmoil during the 1952-54 period left publishers to deal with the impending censorship in any number of ways (the E.C. "New Direction" titles, for instance). I assume that the reworking of "The World That Was" after Landau had completed it was one of many examples of a publisher's last-ditch attempt to placate the incoming Code regime.

2.) It's fascinating to observe the ludicrously bad attempt to match the artistic style of the 1954 re-drawn panels (I'm certain that ACG staffer Ogden Whitney was the culprit) with Landau's unique originals. One assumes that the re-written/re-drawn work was done quickly, and that Landau was not available (or perhaps unwilling) to revise his original work.

3.) Also intriguing is the fact that, under the incoming new Code guidelines, the entire story should have been scrapped, since the alien plot and the final outcome of the story were considerably stronger than anything that would be sanctioned during the ensuing period of censorship. However, in salvaging the story for publication, the folks at ACG knew exactly which specific panels had to be jettisoned---those which depicted the brutal treatment of the retarded main character at the hands of the vicious townsfolk. And I am living proof of the effect of those images upon a sensitive young mind...when they were finally published six years later.

4.) How bizarre is it that ACG chose to publish Landau's ORIGINAL, UN-EDITED artwork in 1960!!? WHY??? If, say, they were behind schedule and needed to fill the issue with a previously published story, why in heck would they not simply reprint the "softer" 1955 version with the Whitney redrawn panels?? Why would they choose to unleash the raw, disturbing ORIGINAL Landau images on an unsuspecting Code-era readership that had been lulled into accepting the "horror-lite" material of the day?

I realize that the case of "The World That Was/Interplanetary Episode" wouldn't even register as a miniscule speck on today's comic consciousness...but it sure is fascinating. As far as I am aware, virtually nothing is known of artist Kenneth Landau, who was but one of a sizable stable of artists cranking out their work as part of the thriving comic book industry way, way back in the early 1950's; I would imagine that, barring some sort of extremely lucky break, very little will ever come to light about Landau himself... and certainly nothing about the bizarre and unsettling story that has served as the topic for this article.

In retrospect, I'm sure that, had I seen them, the typical pre-code comic book skeletons, vampires and zombies would have freaked me out in a fairly predictable way. But nothing could have prepared me for the effect of Landau's pathetic, emaciated simpleton—those skeletal, black eye-sockets weeping tears of grief over his mangy little pooch, just prior to his being pounded by his tormentors; you would have expected that vicious punch from the neanderthal farmer to have pulverized the poor kid into dust and blown him away along the dirt roads of Miller's Gap, Kansas, for all his life was worth; it's so damned upsetting. But, luckily for Simon, things would change dramatically when those repugnant yet noble aliens appeared. And even though, from that point on, the story brightens considerably, I could never begin to shake the emotional trauma of the opening scenes, so devastatingly effective were they rendered.

A powerful and deeply disturbing experience for me, one that fascinates and frightens me more than 50 years later.

Author's Note: I would love to hear from anyone who has any insights into this story and/or artist Ken Landau (no, he was NOT Martin Landau in his pre-acting days, as was sometimes rumored). With the non-stop pressure/deadlines under which the the comics industry operated, I'd be surprised if the story-line of "The World That Was/Interplanetary Episode" was original; it was probably "adapted" from an existing story, or perhaps patched together from more than one. Any information would be greatly appreciated.

Larry Rapchak

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 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].


To Be Continued!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Complete Guide to Manhunt Part 13

by Peter Enfantino

Continuing an issue by issue examination of the greatest crime digest of all time.

Vol. 2 No. 5 July 1954
144 pages, 35 cents

Chinese Puzzle by Richard Marsten
(5000 words) ** illo: Tom O’Sullivan
A young Chinese girl goes into convulsions while doing her job as a phone solicitor and dies in front of her co-workers. Detectives Parker and Katz know strychnine poisoning when they see it. With the staccato dialogue and detailed procedural descriptions, it must have been fairly easy for those paying attention back in 1954 that Richard Marsten was a pseudonym for Ed McBain.

My Game, My Rules by Jack Ritchie
(2000 words) **1/2
Johnny takes a job from three desperate men. Since Johnny is an assassin, someone’s going to die, but the hit man’s mind may not be entirely on the target, but rather the target’s moll.

Association Test by Hunt Collins
(1000 words) * illo: Bill Ashman
Silly short-short about a psychiatrist and the word association test he conducts with his disturbed patient.

Two Grand by Charles Beckman, Jr.
(3500 words) *1/2
Doug Wallace flees L.A. after landing big debts with the mob. He heads for the hills where his brother, Jim, and wife, Sadie, live. Doug soon finds there’s quite a bit of sexual tension in the air. In an amusing conversation with his brother, Doug finds out why:
“The war was rough on a lot of guys,” (Jim) mumbled. “I guess I got no call to bitch. But why couldn’t I have gotten it some other way? I wouldn’t have minded losing an arm or a leg, Doug. You can still be a man with an arm or leg missin’. But not with – “ It gradually dawned on Doug what the hell his brother was talking about. His eyes opened wide. So – now he understood it. He remembered vaguely that Jim had gotten the Purple Heart for being shot in Korea. But now he knew where Jim had been shot.
“Two Grand” reads like the outline for one of those countless “Hill Tramp” backwoods novels that permeated the stands in the late 1950s. It’s rushed and ultimately unsatisfying.

The Judo Punch by V. E. Theissen
(1000 words) * illo: Tom O’Sullivan
A bent cop’s wife suspects a man is following her and asks her husband to instruct her in the deadly art of judo. Nonsensical climax asks the reader to fill in all the blanks.

Sanctuary by W. W. Hatfield
(1500 words) ** illo: Houlihan
Joe Varden has killed a prison guard and fled into the swamps to hide out with his cousin Pete and Pete’s wife, Ginny. After Joe falls for Ginny, he devises a plan so he can have his freedom and the beauty as well. This and “Two Grand” make two very similar and very similarly lackluster tales.

Return by Evan Hunter
(5000 words) ***
Matt Cordell is giving blood so he can raise booze money when he runs into old friend Sailor Simmons, who tells Matt some news: Matt’s ex-wife Trina is back in town. He would have found this news out sooner or later because soon after he returns to his homeless shelter, Trina shows up, begging Matt to take her back. After a three paragraph hesitation, Cordell takes her back only to find that there’s something up the ex’s sleeve.

A good, solid entry, the penultimate in the Matt Cordell series. The “return” of the title could refer to the return of Trina, the return of Matt’s self-respect (albeit briefly), or the return of his sobriety since, as we take leave of him, he’s still dry. But there is one more story to tell…

I Want a French Girl by James T. Farrell
(4000 words) *1/2
Lawrence has come from America to Paris because he wants a French girl. He finds them, fat ones, skinny ones, dull ones, but not the one he’s looking for. He’s convinced that French girls are better lovers but he’s finding it hard to get proof. But for one throwaway final paragraph, this has no business being in a “detective story monthly.” The “In This Issue” blurb on the back cover touts this “the story of a man with a single ambition, and of the way he was forced to fulfill it.”

The Innocent by Muriel Berns
(1000 words) * illo: Houlihan
Richard Leaman is brought up before a judge for rape and assault but Richard’s mother refuses to believe her son is anything but an angel.

Confession by John M. Sitan
(3000 words) ****
John Egan is a murderer. Not just any murderer. He takes his business seriously, with lots of preparation. His only motivation is “to insure the inclusion of my name in man’s history and memory.” Brutal serial sniper story is innovative long before the film Targets covered such ground. Sitan holds back no punches, here describing our first look at Egan’s handiwork:
John Egan adjusted the rifle’s telescopic sight again. It was quite easy to pick out the circle of light from the single lamp over the theatrical announcement plaque. The spot was a good target point. It was ten minutes after eleven and no one was about on the apartment house roof. He had counted eight persons crossing the circle of light. They had all been men. The ninth person was a woman. The white shoes and dress under a dark coat indicated she was a nurse. There was a young couple walking behind her. A policeman turned the corner. When the nurse reached the circle of light her head flew apart.
Or this bit where Sitan pulls us, whether we want to be pulled or not, down even farther into Egan’s twisted world:
He sighted on the junction again when he saw a woman and a little girl coming along. The girl was about five years old and wore a pink frilly dress. She was skipping a little ahead of the woman when she reached the junction. At that moment John Egan squeezed the trigger of his rifle. He watched the convulsive sideways jerk as the bullet thudded home. At his distance it appeared as if the child had stumbled. John did not look back until he had broken the sniper rifle down and put it in the trumpet case. When he did look back the woman was on her knees and screaming.
I must admit while I was reading that passage, I fully expected that action would be halted in some way or that he would take out the mother. I never expected Sitan to go the distance. Obviously, with snipers a part of our everyday world, “Confession” is even more relevant now than when it was written nearly sixty years ago. But further, the story examines the popularity of murder and the celebrity of evil.

Find a Victim by John Ross MacDonald
(20,500 words) *** illo: Tom O’Sullivan
Fifth and final appearance of Lew Archer in Manhunt. This time, Lew’s on his way to deliver a report on drug trafficking to legislation in Sacramento when he happens upon a bleeding man on the side of a deserted highway. The man dies soon after Archer delivers him to a hospital. Before long, the PI discovers that the town has quite a few skeletons in its familial closet. The plot feels second-hand (or even third-hand) but the writing crackles and keeps those pages turning, making even the obligatory conk on the head dazzling:
His fist came out from under the windbreaker,wearing something bright, and smashed at the side of my head. My legs forgot about me. I sat on the asphalt against the wall and looked at his armed right fist, a shining steel hub on which the night revolved. His face leaned over me, stark and glazed with hatred: “Bow down, God damn you… Bow down and kiss my feet”
another passage, after Lew takes a nasty tumble:
It was a long fall straight down through the darkness of my head. I was a middle-aging space cadet lost between galaxies and out of gas. With infinite skill and cunning I put a grain of salt on the tail of a comet and rode it back to the solar system. My back and shoulder were burned raw from the sliding fall. But it was nice to be home.
I still have problems with those cliched PI expositories (“Suddenly I knew everything that had happened so I gathered everyone in one room and told them how it went down”), but this one has enough dazzle to make me overlook the trappings. That same year, Knopf released an expanded version of "Find a Victim" in novel form.

Helping Hand by Arnold Marmor
(1000 words) **1/2
The DA can’t get to mob boss Gomez unless O’Hara sings but O’Hara says he’d rather fry in the electric chair than rat out Gomez. Nice twist elevates this above most short-shorts.

Mugged and Printed features bios on James T. Farrell, Evan Hunter, John Ross MacDonald, and Charles Beckman, Jr.
Also in this issue are Vincent H. Gaddis’ Crime Cavalcade, Dan Sontup’s Portrait of a Killer #11: Vernon Booher, and “Burglaries” by Fred L. Anderson (another non-fiction expose on crime).

Vol. 2 No. 6 August 1954
144 pages, 35 cents

Identity Unknown by Jonathan Craig
(4500 words) ** illo: Houlihan
The identity of a dead woman is traced through her fancy shoes. Very much like an 87th Precinct story.

Necktie Party by Robert Turner
(2500 words) * ½ illo: Francis
So a drunk walks into a bar and can’t get served… A wildly gory horror story about a disgruntled customer with a straight razor and plenty of flesh around him. Not a bad set-up when done right. This isn’t done right.

The Old Man’s Statue by R. Van Taylor
(3000 words) * ½ illo: Houlihan
What is the secret behind the young man who, day in and day out, wipes the profane graffiti away from a statue in the town square? The new owner of the town paper is determined to get to the bottom of the mystery. Peyton Place pathos in a small Mississippi town with a climax right out of Friday the 13th. Two gory horror stories in one issue, in this case, is two too many.

Effective Medicine by B. Traven
(4000 words) *
An American doctor practicing in Mexico has a problem on his hands. A local villager wants the doctor to find his adulterous wife or the doctor will feel the sharp edge of the man’s machete.

Accident by John M. Sitan
(2000 words) ***
James Merrill has a strained relationship with his girlfriend, Gladys. They fight a lot. After one such argument, Gladys rushes out of the coffee shop they’re both in and into traffic. Merrill spends the rest of the story making life a hell for the unfortunate woman who ran down Gladys.

After hitting a home run last issue with “Confession,” I doubted author Sitan could come up with another but it’s a solid thought-provoker with a wallop of a climax. It gets the job done but I’d have liked to see it a bit longer. That may be because I enjoy the author’s prose. This is the last of the three stories Sitan wrote for Manhunt. Other than a few stories in some of the harder men’s magazines of the 1970s and 80s (Gem, The Swinger, and BUF (Big Up Front) Swinger), I can’t find a trace of his writing. Any detectives out there?

I Don’t Fool Around by Charles Jackson
(3000 words) **
George Burton is in love with the “new girl in town,” Lynette McCaffrey, a lovely little tart who thinks nothing of revving up George’s engine and then shutting it off at a moment’s notice, with a smile. Much like “I Want a French Girl,” this has no place in Manhunt. There’s only a threat of violence hinted at in the final paragraph. Nothing else makes this a crime story. I suspect it’s simply because Jackson was a “name author” at the time (as author of The Lost Weekend) and John McCloud would have taken anything from him. This wouldn’t be a very good story if it were in Saturday Evening Post.

Frame by Frank Kane
(9000 words) ***
Johnny Liddell finds himself in a bit of a pickle once again. This time, an aging starlet his PI company has been bodyguarding has been found murdered and all clues point to Liddell. Johnny had been helping the woman to cash in several thousands of dollars worth of diamonds and the jewels are MIA. The private dick has his work cut out for him as all his business associates in the case are looking out for No. 1 and denying any knowledge of the diamonds. Non-stop action, snappy dialogue, good hardboiled:
“This is for the kid, Murph.” He slammed his fist against the big man’s mouth. There was the sound of crunching teeth. The big man went staggering backward and fell across a table. “You won’t be needing teeth where you’re going.”
And Share Alike by Charles Williams
(21,000 words) **** illo: Tom O’Sullivan
Our narrator is hired by Diana James to steal a large amount of money from a woman named Madelon Butler. Mrs. Butler is married to a bank president who has mysteriously disappeared after embezzling $120,000. Diana is convinced she can dig up the money before Madelon. First rule of noir: never trust a woman. Both females have so many double-crosses up their sleeves they need larger gowns. Williams ends it on a beautifully downbeat ending as the guy gets nothing but a jail cell. We find ourselves rooting for this guy even though the majority of his actions are immoral. He just happens to be a little less immoral than either of the female cast members.

Perhaps best known for the sea thriller Dead Calm (1963), Charles Williams was, according to Ed Gorman, “line for line, the best of all the Gold Medal writers...quiet and possessed of a melancholy that imbued each of his tales with a kind of glum decorum.” Writer John D. MacDonald said that Williams was “one of the two or three best storytellers on the planet.”

Here are a few lines from Williams himself, taken from “And Share Alike”:
I stood there on the corner under a street light just holding the paper while the pieces fell all around me. It was too much. You could only get part of it at a time.
And when I tried to tell them that I couldn’t be suffering from any sense of guilt for killing Madelon Butler because I hadn’t killed her, and not only that but if I had killed her I still wouldn’t feel guilty about it because if I could only get my hands on her I’d gladly strangle her slowly to death right there before a whole courtroom full of people, including standing-room, and even pass out free refreshments if I had the money, it didn’t help any.
“And Share Alike” was expanded to novel form and released by Gold Medal later that year as A Touch of Death (and reprinted in 2006 by Hard Case Crime).
After his brief stint with Manhunt (3 short novels), Williams went on to write several more suspense novels (among them, Man on the Run (1958) and Aground (1960)). Like many of the classic Gold Medal crime novelists, the acclaim and notice didn’t come until decades later when reprints and movie adaptations awakened a new generation to these “hidden treasures.” Williams took his own life in 1975.

The film version of Dead Calm, skillfully directed by Philip Noyce (Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger, Salt) is a nail-biting, claustrophobic thriller set almost entirely on a boat in the middle of the ocean. Dead Calm made Nicole Kidman a star.

Yard Bull by Frank Selig
(1000 words) ** illo: Houlihan
Security guard for the railroad recounts his early days as a train-hopper.

Also in this issue are Crime Cavalcade by Vincent H. Gaddis, Dan Sontup’s Portrait of a Killer #12: Jesse Walker and a new feature, What’s Your Verdict? By Sam Ross. A short mystery set-up and the reader is asked to decide what the outcome should be (an answer to the problem is provided).