Monday, May 27, 2013

Do You Dare Enter? Part Two: March-June 1969

The DC Mystery Line 1968-1976
by Jack Seabrook,
Peter Enfantino
& John Scoleri

Nick Cardy
The Witching Hour 1 (March 1969)

"Save the Last Dance for Me!"
Story by Denny O'Neil
Art by Pat Boyette

"Eternal Hour!"
Story and Art by Alex Toth

"The Perfect Surf or How to Make Waves Without Even Trying!"
Art by Jack Sparling

Peter: DC launched the second title in its budding mystery line in March 1969 with The Witching Hour. Whereas the House of Mystery (and the upcoming House of Secrets) was maintained by a single mascot, TWH was introduced by a trio of witches: Cynthia, Mordred, and Mildred, constantly aflutter around their boiling cauldron. The humor found in Cain, caretaker of the HOM, was carried over into this title as well. We first encounter the three witches while they're scolding their man(?)servant Egor for bringing home frozen pig's feet rather than the requested cloven hooves. We discover quickly that there is a divide between the two old hags, Mildred and Mordred, and their cousin, the gorgeous new-age dazzler, Cynthia ("Spare me that 'double bubble, toil and trouble' bit!") and the stories included in each issue are a competition of sorts to see which generation can tell the more frightening stories.  One difference in the new package was the cover artist. Nick Cardy had done the initial House of Mystery (the classic image that opens our blog) but then turned over the reins to Neal Adams. Cardy would do 46 of the 66 covers of The Witching Hour issues we'll cover in this blog, including the fabulously atmospheric first issue.

Toth or Adams?
Jack: I got a big kick out of the framing story in this issue. It's really goofy and fun and I like being asked to judge which tale is the best. Alex Toth is credited with both script and art and, while his drawing style is not quite up to the level he reached in the 1950s, it's still much better than the sort of thing he would be doing about ten years later. I also like that Cynthia has cat's eyes!

John: While I also enjoyed the approach of using the three witches, I thought we were in for real trouble with the emphasis on the hip, sixties witch. And maybe it's the result of my being from a later generation than you two, but I didn't find Cynthia particularly attractive...

signed by Toth
Peter: So what about the contents inside this premiere issue? "Save the Last Dance for Me" and "Eternal Hour" are marred by silly stories and "twist" endings that make no sense but are saved by great art. Pat Boyette concurrently worked for Charlton and contributed scads of really creepy artwork for titles like Haunted, Ghost Manor and The Many Ghosts of Doctor Graves. For my money, his greatest work is "The Rescue of the Morning Maid" for Warren's Creepy (#18, January 1968), a nightmarish, almost surreal, ghost story that has to be read to be believed. Nobody's art looked like Alex Toth's--blankets of black and that stick-figure lettering, and you could spot his stuff a mile away. We'll be discussing Toth's art quite a bit on our war blog. The final story, "The Perfect Surf or..." is a goofy little nothing about a surfer searching for the "perfect wave" and the rotten kids around him who decide to play a practical joke on him. They tell him they've heard about a witch in a hut on a beach (!) who can point him in the direction of that little piece of heaven. Who wins and who loses is up in the air. The Old Witch seems to get what she wants. Our beach boy definitely gets what he wants, despite it costing him his life (ostensibly). It's got a very silly ending but I like it because of its silliness rather than in spite of it. By the way, the GCD, an incredible source of information that Jack and I rely on constantly for artist and writer credits, credits Neal Adams for that epilogue (a two-page wrap-up of the argument between the witches) and notes that the acknowledgement came from Neal himself. It sure looks like Toth to me though.

Credited to Adams--the blonde is clearly Neal's work
Jack: I'm not ready to agree that these stories feature great art, but they are fun. What I liked most about this issue was the concept and the way it was executed. The frame is long and involved, much more detailed than the brief appearances by Cain over in HOM. I can see a glimmer of Adams in the last part of the frame, but I have to say that, if we accept that Adams drew the last two pages, the first four pages look more like his work than that of Toth, judging from the second story in the issue. All in all, a fun start to this series!

John: While I thought the first and third stories were forgettable, "Eternal Hour" gets my vote for best of show in this premiere issue, for decent art and the most interesting story. I also thought it was funny that only the hip-witch Cynthia's story featured a classic old crone. Go figure!

Neal Adams
The House of Mystery 179 (April 1969)

"Sour Note!"
Story by E. Nelson Bridwell
Art by Jerry Grandenetti and George Roussos

"The Man Who Murdered Himself!"
Story by Marv Wolfman
Art by Berni Wrightson

"The Widow's Walk"
Story by Howie Post
Art by Neal Adams and Joe Orlando

Jack: This is the first issue of House of Mystery to feature all-new stories, and it's a mixed bag. "Sour Note!" tells of a man who meets a beautiful female ghost. She does not understand what he says so she writes him a note in a language he can't read. He then proceeds to show the note to everyone he cares about in an attempt to have it translated. They all react with disgust and anger and banish him from their lives. He eventually loses everything and turns up at the police station, where they show him the note and he can finally read it. It says, "April Fool!" This is the kind of shaggy-dog story that gives scary comics a bad name.

Peter: Wow, is it ever a mixed bag, Jack! "Sour Note" is incredibly stupid and badly written. Examples? "I stepped out onto the porch and heard the creak of the boards yell beneath me as I moved to the front door and knocked gingerly, my knuckles barely touching the door as it opened with a rusty screech, revealing a musty vacancy inside..." But not all of it is that overwritten and hyperbolic. How about this, then: "My obsession with the note really haunted me!" It all builds up to a punchline that never comes, topped with an expository from Cain just in case we didn't get what was going on. I still don't know what it's supposed to mean. Why would the ghost give the note to our unnamed narrator? What's the motive? Who knows? I assume E. Nelson Bridwell couldn't figure it out either. Just skip the hard part and blind them with your bullshit, I says. Oh, and E., the artist's name is Charles Addams.

John: And to think that for a few pages I was actually curious to read what was written in the note. For my money, had the story ended with us seeing the note was blank, it would have been far more satisfying. Instead, we get a inexplicable cop-out. Fool me once, Cain...

Jack: "The Man Who Murdered Himself!" is a supposedly "true" story that is notable for being one of Berni Wrightson's first professional credits. It's only three pages long and the story is not very interesting, but that Wrightson magic is already evident.

John: I'm reading these first issues by way of the black and white Showcase reprints, and I can honestly say, based on seeing the color variation above, that Wrightson's art is much better suited for black and white than such a garish color palette. Unfortunately, this 'true' tale doesn't live up to the art. So once again, Sergio Aragones' Cain's Game Room saves the day. Can't go wrong with a handful of his single panel cartoons with a dark twist.

Peter: "Widow's Walk" is a meandering mess about a seaman who weds Mary to gain her father's inheritance and, when he finds he's been left out of the will, dumps her like a sack of laundry. Mary doesn't cotton to this treatment and curses Angus as he heads back out to sea: "I shall will you never to reach harbor until the day I die!!" Sixty years go by and Mary finally drops of old age and Angus is allowed to come back to port. He's a little worse for wear and barnacles. What's not made clear (yes, I know it's a 10-page story) is the scope of the curse and why Mary suddenly has the power to lay said curse on Angus and his ship. Was she born into a supernatural line? Why couldn't Angus simply put in at Boston harbor or San Francisco? That last panel's a creepy keeper, though, despite the slapdash story.

An obvious homage to EC, but a great one!
John: Wow! This one looked to be an irredeemable by-the-numbers tale of greed, so imagine my surprise when it paid off in a single panel! It almost makes up for the long slog getting there. Sadly, it left me wanting to read the story that starts with this premise...

Jack: "The Widow's Walk" is one of the worst examples of Neal Adams's artwork I've ever seen. We can't blame the inker, since it's Joe Orlando. More likely, Adams just dashed this one off to make a quick buck. There are some of the classic Adams touches here and there, but there are also panels that barely look like his work.

This panel is not included in
The Best of Neal Adams

Nick Cardy
The Witching Hour 2 (May 1969)

"Untitled (Yarrghh!)"
Art by Jack Sparling

"The Trip of Fools!"
Art by Jose Delbo

"Once Upon a Surprise Ending"
Art by Jack Sparling

Peter: "Yarrghh!" is yet another variation on The Tell-Tale Heart, this time starring a businessman who murders a younger colleague after having been skipped over for a promotion. He's then haunted by the man's scream, eventually to the point of madness. Even back in 1969, this must have been a tired old suitcase. Sparling's exaggerated, cartoony style actually suits the silliness of the story (you can almost feel the sweat that runs off Sparling's fat guys) but it's that silliness that eventually weighs it down and sinks it.

Jack: I enjoyed this story, though I admit it's an old one and I knew how it would end. Did you notice how the fat witch telling the tale was puffing and sweating as she ran along with the main character? Pretty neat.

John: By issue two, I was tired of the three witches framing device, and things went downhill from there.

Peter: The word silly could be used for "The Trip of Fools" as well but the theme is a bit more serious. Well, we think it's serious. Just before the Civil War, an African slave has the power to make his captors disappear in a poof of smoke. It's only after eight pages that we discover that the slave is actually an alien in disguise. He's traveling around, teleporting slave bosses to his planet. In an overly expository last panel, the disguised alien explains to his home crew (also disguised as Africans--why? who knows!) "You may radio a report to our planet that our mission was successful! These primitives will be most useful as nursemaids rearing our children in the ways of harshness and cruelty," but then inexplicably adds "get me off this planet--there is something about life here that disturbs me..." Why would the hatred and inhumanity the alien witnesses disturb him when he's here to handpick louses in the first place? He's heading back to a barbaric planet but he's upset about our way of life. Interesting. But stupid. This is an example of a writer wanting to make a statement about civil liberties without actually knowing how.

Jack: Whoa! I did NOT see that ending coming. I liked this story more than you did, though I was puzzled by how the clocks kept striking midnight on what appeared to be the same night. This comic hit the stands in early 1969, right after the turmoil of 1968, so a story about slavery was very timely. For a short comic book story stuck in the middle of a scary mag, I thought it was pretty well done.

John: Okay, I think I'm beginning to get it. The writers were handed a last panel and told to craft a spooky story around it, and given a specific number of pages to fill. Unfortunately, there are no last-panel redemptions to be found in this issue. Which gets us to our next story up for review...

Peter: "Once Upon a Surprise Ending" is a 5-page toss away, enlivened by some snappy, amusing dialogue and a so-so Sparling art job. There's no substance at all (and a "surprise ending" that's been used far too many times) unless it's meant to be a satiric take on the modeling business of the late 1960s (a photographer's declaration that the gorgeous subject in front of him  is "not a queen--just a princess! That skinny English dame is the queen" is obviously aimed at super-model Twiggy) or possibly on the shallow nature of chasing beauty. It also could be just another silly comic book story. Again, Jack Sparling suits this type of material. The GCD lists no credits for the writers this issue.

Jack: Just silly stuff, but fun! It's interesting how this comic seems to have one satirical short story in each issue, at least so far.

John: Well, if it works for a third of the readers, that's better than nothing. Again, I guess I was born too late to appreciate the hipster chic of these disappointing tales.

Neal Adams
The House of Mystery 180 (June 1969)

"Comes a Warrior"
Story by Gil Kane
Art by Gil Kane and Wally Wood

"His Name is... Cain Kane!"
Story by Mike Friedrich
Art by Gil Kane and Wally Wood

"Scared to Life"
Story by Marv Wolfman
Art by Bernie Wrightson

Jack: I don't know how "Comes a Warrior" ended up in House of Mystery, but I'm glad it did! Rangarry, a warrior in 673 A.D. who looks more than a little bit like Thor and swears by Odin, vanquishes a dragon only to find that the dragon was the only thing preventing the temple demons from roaming free. The art is stunning and features plenty of great action poses by the master. I don't see any of Wally Wood's handiwork here, though he's credited with the inks.

John: I was excited when I saw Wood's credit, followed by a page of three large panels of a bizarre rocky landscape that appeared to be his... but I also failed to find a trace of him after that. Still, the initial dragon of the story made me think of the Marvel Godzilla stories I read as a kid. If only the art that accompanied the twist ending was more menacing and less comedic, we might have a more powerful tale here.

"Comes a Warrior"
Peter: What if Thor made a mistake now and then? That seems to be the question behind Kane's masterpiece, a sword and sorcery tale that sports a killer finale. In the beginning, I suspected I was only in for another derivation of Conan (to be fair, this actually predates Marvel's Conan the Barbarian by more than a year) but what I got was far more sly. Then we have the added bonus of a sort-of sequel in "His Name is... Kane," a trippy behind-the-scenes of the DC locker room, complete with a cameo from editor Joe Orlando. Lots of in-gags and subtle jabs, as when Kane complains to Orlando that "those second-hand factory workers you call writers don't know a story plot from a piece of ground!"or when, sucked into his own artwork, he screams: "...faced with the terrible torture of the worst possible demons -- an editor and a writer!" Musing that he'll dump mainstream comics and publish his own project is an allusion to the failed His Name is... Savage (providing an obvious inspiration for the title of the HOM story), a violent magazine-sized experiment, written and drawn by Kane, published the prior year by Adventure House. Kane's Savage was inspired by actor Lee Marvin and his role as Richard Stark's Parker character in Point Blank (1967). As humorous as some of "His Name..." is, the reader gets the feeling (most prevalent in the panel where Gil, enveloped in his own artwork, is framed and hung on a wall) that Gil Kane felt trapped and suffocated by the comics business. Despite this vibe, both stories are solid gold.

Jack: These stories don't often work, but this one is very funny, especially when Kane complains that he's sure to be stuck with a terrible inker--in this instance, he's being inked by one of the all-time greats!

Peter: In an interview with Jon B. Cooke, published in Comic Book Artist #5 (Summer 1999), Gil Kane revealed that he wasn't getting along with DC Editorial Director Carmine Infantino at the time and that "His Name is... Kane!" was Carmine's way of "getting back" at the artist: "Clearly because I had the material outline I knew what they were going to do but they did everything they could to needle me. I tried to get back at them as much as possible by drawing Carmine in there, I drew Mike Friedrich with a face full of ulcers, and I drew Joe Orlando as a monster. I tried to get back at them. It really didn't level me or anything. The job came out pretty well." Indeed it did!

John: An odd diversion for 'Page 13,' to be sure. Fortunately, it didn't signal the end of Aragones' involvement in HOM, as his Cain's Game Room was not only right behind this story, bringing a smile to my face, but also for a double-dip before the issue closes out! I was hoping one of my colleagues might have covered the illustrated two-page prose tale, "Oscar Horns In!," since I've never been fond of prose stories squeezing their way into my comic books. It's almost as if DC was trying to remind us to eat our vegetables. Well, if one of you out there took the time to read it AND found it to be worthwhile, I'm counting on you to let us know through the comments.

Jack: With the three-page chiller, "Scared to Life," by Berni Wrightson, we have our first classic issue of HOM: a Neal Adams cover, Gil Kane & Wally Wood, and Berni Wrightson! It doesn't get better than this. And, as a DC fan, I should add that the house ads this month feature several classic covers--1969 was a great year for DC.

John: A Wrightson tale written by Marv Wolfman, no less! While Wrightson's art again proves to be worth the price of admission (and even more stunning reproduced in black and white), Wolfman's tale ends rather abruptly, causing me to wonder if this story would have been well served with the two pages used for the prose story. It seemed to me like the key thing missing was a sound effect heralding the elevator crash. Now that I think about it, I'm not sure if I've ever seen Wrightson use that storytelling technique. I guess I will remain on the lookout for that in future issues.

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