Monday, June 24, 2013

Do You Dare Enter? Part Four: October-November 1969

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

Neal Adams
House of Mystery 182 (October 1969)

"The Devil's Doorway"
Story by Jack Oleck
Art by Alex Toth

"Grave Results!"
Story by Marv Wolfman
Art by Wayne Howard

"The Hound of Night!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Jerry Grandenetti

Jack: "The Devil's Doorway" is one of the better stories we've seen to date. Phillip Warren buys a mirror from a New England house and is assured that everything in the house was exorcised a long time ago. He brings it home and his daughter starts to disappear into the mirror and come out again. After one trip, she gives him a cult statuette that her new friend Mr. Belial gave her. Phillip realizes that Belial is another name for the Devil and goes into the mirror himself. He confronts the Devil and escapes with his life. He destroys the mirror only to discover that his daughter is still trapped inside. To add insult to injury, he finds out that the mirror was the only item in the old house that had not been exorcised! Alex Toth does a tremendous job with the art in this creepy story.

"The Devil's Doorway"
Peter: What a fabulously creepy story this was. How many post-code horror strips have ended on such a grim note? Not that many. Warren excelled at bleak finales but I think most code-imprisoned comic writers probably felt they needed their tale to end on a high note. We never even find out what happens to little daughter Beth, caught forever in hell. If you're Beth's father, try living with those consequences. I first saw the name Jack Oleck when I was a horror movie paperback tie-in nut in the early 1970s and picked up the novelizations of the Amicus films Tales From the Crypt and Vault of Horror and devoured both of them. Oleck would go on to morph a handful of his House of Mystery scripts into two similar "novelizations" for Warner. We'll mention those further when 1973 rolls around. Alex Toth is one of those rare artists who can make his human characters so life-like but can pump out a pretty nifty demon when the occasion is warranted. Here he's at his best.

John: For the most part, I felt the art served the story just fine, although I didn't find the devil himself to be very menacing. I did like the simple yet evil visage in the final panel, though, so better late than never. I also felt the whole bit about everything in the house being exorcised—BUT THE MIRROR—was an unnecessary plot twist. He made it clear to readers from the outset that the mirror was supernatural, considering the first time we saw it in the house, the daughter was jumping OUT of it... A minor nit-pick in an entertaining tale.

"The Hound of Night!"
Jack: "Grave Results!" is a three-page throwaway about some coffins that won't stay put. Wayne Howard, the artist, does a decent Wally Wood impression but the story makes no sense. This is Howard's first professional credit and he was working as one of Wood's assistants at the time. Even more confusing is "The Hound of Night!", which includes a Baskerville-type hound, a witch, a magic lamp, and a jealous brother who tries to profit by the occult but finds out that it doesn't work out so well. The story is a muddled mess and Grandenetti's art is over the top.

Peter: "Grave Results" reads as though there's quite a bit missing. It presents us with a silly concept and then never gives us a solution. Why were the coffins constantly changing positions? Who knows? Obviously not Marv Wolfman or he'd have clued us in. Nice art by Howard, who would go on to do a lot of horror work for Charlton and Gold Key. I have to disagree with you, Jack, about the art on "The Hound of Night." I've never been a fan of Grandenetti's but, thanks to this journey we're taking, I'm beginning to think I may have missed something the first time 'round. The story's a bore though.

John: Thanks, Jack, for the explanation why I felt I was looking at a Wally Wood story initially, and Pete's right. You read "Grave Results" thinking you're going to get some sort of 'strange-but-true' explanation, only to have the story abruptly end. A waste of pages, as a result. As for "The Hound," I didn't find it to be a worthy inclusion by way of art or story, so we'll just leave it at that!

Neal Adams
The Unexpected 115 (November 1969)

"Diary of a Madman"
Story by Carl Wessler
Art by Ed Robbins

"Abracadabra--You're Dead!"
Story by Dave Wood
Art by Curt Swan and Jack Abel

"The Day Nobody Died!"
Story by D. W. Holz (Dave Wood)
Art by Werner Roth and Jack Abel

Peter: Like House of Mystery and House of Secrets, The Unexpected (nee Tales of the Unexpected) got its start running really bad science fiction/fantasy stories with art by such DC old-timers as Bernard Bailey, Sheldon Moldoff, Nick Cardy, and Curt Swan. For the eleven issues preceding our debut here, Unexpected featured the "exciting" adventures of Johnny Peril, "adventurer of the weird." The title had been running weird mystery stories now and then for the past year but it wasn't until #115 that the entire issue was given over to thrills and chills. Unfortunately, we may have to wait a bit for those hoped-for emotions.

Jack: Can we take a moment to mention that fantastic Adams cover, which--for a change--does not feature children in peril? It's a beauty! Adams took an incident from the third story in this issue and fashioned a thrilling picture. One more thing: this issue appears to be the first month that DC runs writing and art credits for every story, following a trend popularized by Marvel several years before.

John: Right out of the gate, we meet 'The Mad, Mod Witch'? That's not a good sign...

Peter: First up is "Diary of a Madman," easily the worst "horror" story we've yet run across (and hopefully will run across), in which teenage Maude meets eccentric artist Amos and his lunatic brother. The girl falls madly in love with the painter but he keeps her at arm's length. For good reason, we come to find out. Amos doesn't really have a mad brother but a second face on the side of his head. We learn nothing else about the mutant... why does he act crazy sometimes? What does he want with Maude? Why does he dress like a dandy? I was astonished when Maude's father insists she not see the painter again and reminds her she's still a minor. You wouldn't be able to tell from Robbins' art, which resembles some of that awful stuff found in the lesser pre-code horror titles in the 1950s. Maude swings from looking like a teenager to, well, Bea Arthur. Carl Wessler wrote much better scripts for EC and Warren.

"Diary of a Madman"
Jack: Peter, you and I had completely different reactions to this story, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I will grant you, it looks like something out of a lesser-grade 1950s horror comic, and I wonder if it was a reprint that no one has identified or possibly something that had been sitting in the files. They jazz it up with a frame that features an introduction by the Mad, Mod Witch and an incomprehensible story about crazy Maude, who shows us she's a 1969 girl by wearing a headband. But the ending of this story is a shocker! The man with two faces--one handsome, the other hideous--sure took me by surprise.

John: While I do think there are cases where one panel can save an otherwise lackluster story, in this case, rather than being shocked and horrified, I found it to be hilarious. Granted, I had been waiting for the explanation all along that the two brothers were one and the same, but I never would have guessed Amos was a two-faced bastard! At a different age, I might have found this twist more effective, but not today.

Peter: The other two stories this issue are abysmally bad patchworks presented in a format a la Gold Key's Ripley's Believe It or Not. We're led to believe that these events actually happened but the problem is, the narratives are so disjointed we don't necessarily disbelieve, we just don't comprehend. The art and writing this issue are so uniformly dreadful that it makes the prospects of this title bleak.

Unexpectedly Bad Fashions
John: Thank you for clarifying that Ripley's Believe It or Not is a Gold Key title I can safely skip!

Jack: "Abracadabra--You're Dead!" is too short to work and this is the first time I've seen Curt Swan credited as "Curtis." Like the prior story--but even more so--this looks like something done years before 1969. The last story is by Dave Wood under the pseudonym D.W. Holz, though why they thought he couldn't be credited with two stories in one issue I'll never guess, especially when they spill the beans about the name in this issue's letter column! The story is not bad and recalls "The Howling Man" on The Twilight Zone. The house ads and covers for other DC comics in this issue have made me realize that this is just about the exact time when I fell in love with comics. These covers have a strange effect on my heart!

John: The movie On Borrowed Time is an old favorite of mine, so I was looking forward to this tale of death being captured. My hopes were dashed when I saw that Death was captured via the classic fashion of—I'm sure you saw this coming—a bear trap! Unfortunately, none of the interesting things that arise as a result of death's capture are really explored here. I recommend folks check out the movie instead.

Our pal Death says, "See you soon!"

Neal Adams
House of Secrets 82 (November 1969)

"Realler Than Real"
Story uncredited
Art by Werner Roth and Vince Colletta

"Sudden Madness"
Story uncredited
Art by Dick Giordano

"The Little Old Winemaker"
Story uncredited
Art by Jack Sparling

"The One and Only, Fully Guaranteed, Super-Permanent 100%?"
Story by Marv Wolfman
Art by Dick Dillin and Neal Adams

"Sudden Madness"
Jack: "Realler Than Real" is a poor story featuring the artistic stylings of Werner Roth, who also drew a story for this month's Unexpected. We have trashed Roth repeatedly over at Marvel University. The story features an obnoxious movie producer who demands realism from his crew. He ends up shot by an arrow from an Indian in a movie being screened for him.

Peter: "Realer Than Real" suffers from the same malady that afflicts so many of the war stories we've been reading: a tendency for the writer to latch onto a key word (in this case, "realism") and run it into the ground. It's not the only drawback, of course, since it's poorly written and unengaging as well.

John: It's an awfully big buildup for a silly final panel gag. I would have preferred it if we found out that he was in fact killed by the crew he continually berated, using their special effects skills to make it look like the onscreen Indians were the culprits. Oh well. That brings us to "Sudden Madness," and let me say right here and now, I can't wait for the return of the two coolest characters to debut in the DC Universe  in years: Frggmleeg and Zgagg!

"The Little Old Winemaker"
Jack: "Sudden Madness" is all of two pages long. Aliens give games to everyone that drive them crazy, sort of like a Rubik's Cube. "The Little Old Winemaker" is pretty good in comparison to the first two stories in this issue. A jealous nephew is against his elderly aunt marrying a little old winemaker. Some time later, the nephew is convinced that the winemaker has murdered the aunt and hidden her body in a cask of wine. He goes mad, chopping up all of the wine barrels and eventually drowning in the wine that spills out. Jack Sparling has fun showing the young man go nuts and some of the crazy scenes are entertaining. "The One and Only . . ." shows henpecked Stanley Landman get revenge on his shrewish wife by ordering a product from a mail-order catalog. This story is nothing special but it has the unusual credit of Dick Dillin being inked by Neal Adams. Dillin drew the Justice League of America for a long time and Adams's smooth hand looks good over his pencils.

Peter: Is it just me or does there seem to be a word balloon missing in the splash page of "Sudden Madness"? The first thing Abel says is "--- a little device called Sudden Madness!" as if there's a leading balloon. "The Little Old Winemaker" features the best art I've ever seen from Jack Sparling (and I do mean it's good art!) and a nice, nasty twist ending (turns out the nephew was right!) marred only by an afterward by Abel reminiscent of those "let's set this right, the guilty really were brought to justice" epilogues forced on Alfred Hitchcock while he was on TV. Just ignore those final two panels and it's a keeper. And I couldn't disagree with you more, Jack, m'man. I think "The One and Only..." steals this issue's Best Story prize. It's a genuinely funny and (for its day) quite edgy tale, the best we've seen so far from future Hall of Famer Marv Wolfman.

John: I enjoyed "Winemaker," although I honestly would have preferred for the aunt (or pieces of her) to pour out of one of the huge casks. And I forgive the story the physics problem of the volume of liquid within the casks somehow exceeding the volume of the room in which said casks were stored. "The One and Only..." was also a a lot of fun. The wife reminded me of the character Adrienne Barbeau portrayed in Creepshow. No, not for those two reasons.

"The One and Only . . ."

Nick Cardy
The Witching Hour 5 (November 1969)

"The Sole Survivor!"
Story uncredited
Art by Berni Wrightson

"A Guy Can Die Laughing!"
Story uncredited
Art by Pat Boyette

"The Computer Game"
Story by Steve Skeates
Art by Stanley Pitt and Dick Giordano

Peter: Stubborn Captain Dandridge of The Ocean Queen would sooner lay upon the sea floor for eternity than take advice from his crew. So it is that the ship enters a deadly storm and all crew are lost save the good captain. Washed ashore Bird Island, Dandridge makes the best of his solitude and prepares for a passing boat. That boat comes but not with good news: there has been a "sole survivor" of the Ocean Queen wreckage and she's anxious to get back to the mainland to tell her story of how Captain Dandridge effectively killed his men. When the outraged Captain demands to see this mysterious woman, she has vanished. The crew tracks her footprints to... the Ocean Queen's "bowsprit," the wooden carving that leads the ship, now half buried in the beach! An odd little tale this one. Usually, the "punchline" is focused on at least a few times in the course of the story but here we see the "bowsprit," only in passing, twice. No leading dialogue is spoken, nothing like "You know, it is said, here out at sea that a bowsprit has unearthly powers..." The other oddity is that there is no closure. Dandridge is almost forgotten in the final panels. He's not turned into a "bowsprit" nor does he end up on the ocean floor. When we see the panel of the approaching ship, I'd have bet ten bucks it would be Dandridge's crew, now rotting corpses, lumbering off to exact their revenge. As it stands, there can be no trial as the witness testimony came from a hunk of wood. A nice piece of wood, but a piece of wood nonetheless. Berni Wrightson hits another triple (coming very close to leaving the yard) with his drippy mouths and exaggerated features. The major plus when Berni is illustrating is that you really don't need a great story. Just something to fill the word balloons above his classic renderings.

John: As I was reading this tale, I was actually thinking how nice it would be to be able to lift away the word balloons to better appreciate Wrightson's amazing linework herein. 

Jack: You did not mention Cynthia! In Alex Toth's frame this issue, we learn that Cynthia picked up her "impudent ideas" at college. That goes for so many of us!

Peter: The other two stories this issue are pretty silly. The protagonist of "A Guy Can Die Laughing!" (which very clearly reads "A Guy Can Laughing! Die" on the splash page) is washed-up clown Alfie Steed, who can't seem to bring a smile to a single face in his audience. One day, while in a museum, Alfie stumbles on the costume used by "the cruel King Richard"'s court jester. Without taking the time to read the warning, Alfie steals the suit, killing the nightwatchman in the process. In the end, the new clown suit brings a million laughs but the downside is that it won't come off its new owner until death do they part. Pat Boyette contributes his usual eerie art but there's not much to the story and the final panel "twist" is one that's already been revealed!

John: I was surprised that, out of left field, Alfie kills the night watchmen. Even more surprising is that it took place between panels! Let's just say that I didn't find myself laughing at this one.

Peter: Finally, "The Computer Game" is another knockoff of the "computer becomes the boss" genre that had already grown old only a short time after 2001: A Space Odyssey had hit screens. The art is dreadful (it reminded me of the back-up features we hated so much while covering Detective Comics on this blog) and I'm not familiar with Australian artist Stanley Pitt but he's certainly not helped by Dick Giordano's inks. This is that kind of photo shop art that shows no imagination or life.

Jack: You're being too hard on this one, Peter. The giant, room-filling computer is good for a laugh nowadays, when computers fit in the palm of your hand. Once again, Cynthia saves the day in the closing frame. Her college beau runs off in fright, telling her that he did not realize she was "that kind of girl"—i.e., a witch. She sheds some tears, though I'm not sure if it's because lover-boy ran off or because he didn't like her story best!

John: I'm glad you were able to find something to like in "The Computer Game," Jack, but I think they could have used the 'computer-in-a-room' to much greater effect with just about any other tale...

About that ad above: you'll notice three titles listed under the header "DC's New Mystery Line" that we haven't covered and won't be covering. From Beyond the Unknown was a science fiction reprint series (launched November 1969) that ran 25 issues until December 1973. The title reprinted 1950s DC SF stories from titles such as Strange Adventures and Mystery in Space. Challengers of the Unknown was a SF team book that ran 77 issues from May 1958 through January 1971. Since both these titles were focused on science fiction, they were out of our parameters. The Phantom Stranger was a tougher title to exclude but we decided we wanted to narrow our target to anthology books and TPS is a character comic. While an early 1950s version of The Phantom Stranger lasted only six issues, the revamp in June 1969 (highlighted by some extraordinary cover art by Neal Adams) managed 41 issues (to March 1976) and was anchored by the dynamite writer/artist team of Len Wein and Jim Aparo. For the very same reason, we won't be covering Swamp Thing or Deadman either. Send all complaints to Peter.

This really brings it all back!
Yes, there was a time when Scooby-Doo was a new show!

Coming Next Week!


Greg M. said...

Hey, Guys!

Just a quick note. I don't have my copy of the story handy, but I wouldn't be surprised if "Grave Results" was either a telling of, or inspired by, the story of the moving coffins of Barbados. If there was no explanation in the story, it's probably because no one's been able to explain the real story.

Here's a link to the story, if you've never heard of it before.

Keep up the great work!

Jack Seabrook said...

Greg, you are absolutely right! I went back and reread the story and checked it against that site you provided and it's the same thing. Good catch!

Greg M. said...

No problem, Jack.

I've been obsessed with stories of the supernatural since I was a kid, so I'd heard the story of the coffins before. I read all the books I could find on ghosts and the like, and watched shows like That's Incredible and In Search Of.

Good times. :-)