Monday, July 8, 2013

Do You Dare Enter? Part Five: December 1969-January 1970

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

Neal Adams
House of Mystery 183 (December 1969)

"The Haunting!"
Story by Jack Oleck
Art by Jerry Grandenetti

"The Dead Can Kill!"
Story by Marv Wolfman
Art by Bernie Wrightson

"Secret of the Whale's Vengeance"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Jerry Grandenetti and Wally Wood

Peter: In "The Haunting," Frank and Peggy Abel find themselves wandering through the cemetery down the road from their house one night for no apparent reason. Frightened by their apparent temporary amnesia, the couple nonetheless find their way back to their estate. Once there, they discover a light showing through their attic window and enter the house timidly. Once inside, they are terrified to find a ghostly apparition walking the halls. Before long, a second spectre shows and spills the beans: it is, in fact, Frank and Peggy who are the haunts. They had died the year before and are witnessing the new tenants. Not a very original concept but Grandenetti's cartoony style perfectly fits in this instance and there's an almost Scooby Doo-ish atmosphere where we don't, for one second, expect this to end in violence. Writer Oleck seamlessly converted this to prose for the first volume of Warner's paperback collection, House of Mystery (1973).

John: I think it's pretty clear what's going on within a few panels, which makes for an uneventful slog through several pages awaiting the surprise revelation. 

"The Haunting"
Jack: We saw this same twist ending a few weeks ago with the ghost parents who were watching over their dead son. Grandenetti's art is certainly stylized and pretty far removed from what we're seeing him do ten years earlier in the war comics.

Peter: Marv Wolfman's "The Dead Can Kill" is little more than a filler, albeit one with Bernie Wrightson artwork. Unfortunately, Bernie's not given much to work with here so there are no trademarked ghoulish Wrightson nightmares. In fact, there's only one panel that screams "Bernie was here!" (reprinted below). The story's just a quickie about a pair of explorers who come across a creepy apparition and discover two corpses deep in the recesses of the cavern. Was the creature the ghost of the murderer or that of one of the victims? Who knows? And, once again, Marv won't clue us in. Frustrating these uncompleted scripts.

"The Dead Can Kill"
John: Turning the page and recognizing Aragones or Wrightson art is one of the things I enjoy most about these issues. And while Aragones almost always delivers, and we can usually count on Wrightson to make worthwhile any story he works on, this is another quickly forgotten tale.

Jack: I think my brain is starting to go. Half the time I can't follow these stories. I get to the end, having read every word, and don't really know what's just happened. Fortunately, they have pretty pictures. By the way, can someone explain that cover to me? Is the whale's tooth a light switch on the wall?

Peter: In "Secret of the Whale's Vengeance," Jeremy and Austin Bridges, two maniacally sadistic whalers, hunt the sea more for the thrill of the kill than for monetary gain. These two really really like to kill whales (we know because Kanigher reminds us every couple of panels). One day, Jeremy picks the wrong whale to harpoon and it drags him to the bottom of the ocean where a magical ring of whales convenes and transforms him into one of their own (albeit an albino version). All this is unbeknownst to Austin, who believes his bro has been dragged to Davy Jones' Locker. That makes him really really really want to kill whales. When he finally nails one of the monsters who stole his brother, Jeremy's corpse rises to the surface. Robert Kanigher wrote brilliant war tales but he hasn't seemed, as of 1969, to get the hang of mystery. This one has that "Native American Legend" vibe to it but it's not well-told and it's confusing (why is Jeremy transformed into an albino whale? Does he know he's a whale? Is this the first time this has happened?). To add insult to injury, we get Wally Wood on inks and there's not one trace of the master showing through Jerry Grandenetti. Perhaps not the best match? I'm puzzled as to why the story is split into two chapters. A bathroom break after 6 pages? The biggest disappointment of the month in both story and art.

Jack: P-U! as we used to say in grade school. This was a real stinker. This issue seems like it was slapped together with lots of filler and some weak stories. I had to laugh when Part Two was labeled "The Searing Conclusion"! Searing conclusion my eye. This tale, like "The Haunting" that opened this issue, goes over material we've seen before in better hands.

John: I agree with my cohorts. This is a whale of a disappointment. On the bright side, this unnecessary two-parter didn't tarnish two separate issues of the book.

Gray Morrow
House of Secrets 83 (January 1970)

"The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of"
Story by Marv Wolfman
Art by Alex Toth

"Bigger Than a Breadbox"
Story uncredited
Art by Art Saaf

"The House of Endless Years"
Story by Gerard Conway
Art by Bill Draut

Jack: Is this cover the first we've seen of Gray Morrow? If so, he's a welcome addition to the stable of DC mystery artists. I always liked Morrow's work and did not realize he had been around since the 1950s.

Peter: I love Gray Morrow. We just talked about his fabulous pencil work on the premiere of Man-Thing in Savage Tales #1 over at Marvel University. His work, for me, is right up there with Wrightson and Jeff Jones when the discussion rolls around to favorite horror artists of the 1970s.

John: That's certainly an enticing cover. Let's see if anything inside lives up to its promise!

"The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of"
Jack: In the frame, Abel makes a little in-joke when he remarks that the next story was told to him by "a wandering Wolfman." Guess who wrote the story? I kind of like Abel. He's always a little nervous and here he gets locked out of the House of Secrets. And who is this Goldie he's always talking to? In "The Stuff...", Jim Ivey lays dying in a hospital bed, yet in his dreams he is a hero in a psychedelic other world. He meets and falls for Princess Lyla. He dies as she kisses him, and we see that he has also died in our world. The story is a simple one but Alex Toth's art is quite beautiful. There was one panel that looked like a Roy Lichtenstein painting.

"Bigger Than A
Peter: Toth's art, to me, is the only redeeming feature of this story. I feel like I've read this story a dozen times before. That might not be fair as the stories I read with the same plot may have come post-"The Stuff..." but I kinda doubt it. In 1970,  Marv is still taking elements from a lot of other horror stories he's read and molding them to his own concepts. This is not a hobbling offense. In fact, all writers do it when they're starting out. Wolfman will, very soon after this story was published, take Stoker's Dracula and make him, if not his own, very much a 1970s icon.

John: I found this one to be the stuff bad dreams are made of—both in story AND art. Granted, I'm reading these in black and white; perhaps in color it's got some redeeming qualities.

Jack: In "Bigger Than a Bread Box," lonely old Elmira finds a metal box in the attic after her inventor brother Abner dies. She puts it out as a mailbox and begins to exchange love letters with a mysterious admirer. She thinks it's the postman but she gets the fright of her life when a scaly alien shows up at her door with a bunch of flowers. Abel informs us that the box was an "interdimensional teleporter." I think Joe Orlando realized that the story didn't make much sense and so had to do a little explaining in the frame. The art is pretty poor and the GCD credits it to Art Saaf, who had been around since the Golden Age.

Peter: I would mildly disagree with you on this one, Jack. Yeah, the ending is weak but Elmira's mailman is so creepy I naturally assumed suspicion would turn towards him as some sort of monster but the climactic panel, though cliched, actually surprised me. This actually looks like it might be a "file" story (uncredited story and art by an old-timer) and would have fit nicely in one of those early to mid-sixties DC science fiction titles that I hated so much.

John: For me, this was another instance of a WTF? ending that more than made up for the journey. I mean it's ridiculous, and completely out of left field, but for whatever reason it left me with a smile on my face (which seems to be happening less and less frequently).

"The House of Endless Years"
Jack: "The House of Endless Years" is another disappointment from young Gerry Conway in which three kids explore a spooky house where an old hag lives and discover--TO THEIR HORROR--that the house infects everyone with the disease of old age. Even Tippy the dog is affected. This issue wasn't much good--it's sad when the frame story with Abel is the best part.

Peter: Another disagreement, Jack. I thought this was a genuinely eerie tale that had me guessing right up to its downbeat ending. It has an Edgar Allan Poe vibe just bleeding off the pages. Easily the best story in any DC mystery title this month. Bill Draut's art is effective but this screams out "Draw me, Neal Adams!"

John: I actually found myself enjoying this one as well. While it might have been a better fit across town in the pages of The Witching Hour, I was particularly impressed when the old hag basically turns to dust. Sure, at the end of the day this isn't a groundbreaking piece of fiction (like "Bigger than a Bread Box"), but a solid tale nonetheless. 

Nick Cardy
Unexpected 116 (January 1970)

"Express Train to Nowhere!"
Story by Dave Wood
Art by Art Saaf

"Steps to Disaster!"
Story uncredited
Art by Pat Boyette

"Mad to Order"
Story uncredited
Art by Murphy Anderson

"Ball of String!"
Story uncredited
Art by Bernie Wrightson

"Ashes to Ashes, Dustin to Dust?"
Story by Al Case (Murray Boltinoff)
Art by Sid Greene

"Express Train to Nowhere!"
Jack: Four passengers on the "Express Train to Nowhere!" find themselves getting off in a strange mist. They all were running away from failure in their lives but they each manage to use the skills they thought they had lost in order to get through the strange place and back onto the train to safety. As a result, they regain the confidence they need to move on with their lives. This is a very good story that does not take any ridiculous turns. Art Saaf's art is nothing special but it fits the tale. I enjoyed it! The old surgeon is a real jerk who instantly despises the thief despite the man's bravery and selflessness.

John: Wow. Such a promising cover, and yet they waste no time dashing your hopes with the splash page of this mess. If I want inspirational tales, I'll look outside DC's Mystery line for those...

Peter: I thought it was pretty silly and the art, in spots, is nothing more than sketches. We're never really told why these people in particular are taken on this journey of enlightenment. Does this train take a similar batch of losers every day? Who's operating the train? Saaf's art looks just as sketchy as in his previous work (way back in House of Secrets #83, above).

"Steps to Disaster!"
Jack: Lots of excitement is packed into four pages in "Steps to Disaster!" when Hans the Cobbler makes a pair of wooden shows out of a piece of mahogany driftwood. A killer on the run steals the shoes and then a sloop but is soon swept overboard during a storm somewhere in the Atlantic. He seems to be attacked by a spectre made of ice and he sees visions of people trapped in a cage. After he is dragged underwater to his death, the wooden shoes return to the wreck of the Titanic at the bottom of the ocean! I did NOT see that one coming. Peter has written before of Pat Boyette's impressive art and it's on display in this short but chilling story.

John: Unlike my colleagues, this one did nothing for me.

"Ball of String!"
Peter: Very nice art, indeed, by Boyette who just gets better and better. The story itself is way too short for my tastes but it's enjoyable enough. The same cannot be said for "Mad to Order," "Ball of String," and "Ashes to Ashes..." The first two are really silly and painfully obvious shorts; "Ball" is distinguished only because of Wrightson's art. These two exercises in tedium could just as easily been jettisoned in favor of three more story pages of "Steps to Disaster!" I hope we won't be encountering a lot of these mini-horrors along the way as they're usually not worth the paper. As for "Ashes...", it's a delightfully stupid revenge yarn revolving around ashes we never see. The art is strictly grade school doodlings. Not a very good issue.

John: I'm impressed you were able to find anything nice to say about the balance of the stories herein. My suggestion—ditch the Mod Witch for starters...

Nick Cardy
The Witching Hour 6 (January 1970)

"A Face in the Crowd!"
Story by Gerry Conway
Art by Mike Roy and Mike Peppe

"The Doll Man!"
Story by Marv Wolfman
Art by Jose Delbo

"Treasure Hunt"
Story by Steve Skeates
Art by John Celardo and Dick Giordano

Peter: This could be the worst all-around issue we've reviewed yet. Not one of the three stories is readable, in my eyes at least. The art crew of Mikes Roy and Peppe destroys what little suspense Gerry Conway drums up in this tired tale of a concentration camp survivor who sees Bulgart, his Nazi tormentor, on the street and decides to kill him. The set-up actually works, as we get to see inside this poor soul's head, but the midsection and denouement are so poorly written, the promise quickly fades. Our protagonist imagines slapping the Nazi up against an alley wall and ventilating him, only to find it's been an illusion. He then stumbles out of the alleyway and bumps into a man on the street who also looks like his Nazi prey. But is it? Is this all in his mind or is it some kind of ironic twist that Bulgart happens to be the first guy he passes on the street after having a meltdown? I'm really getting to hate this school of "Don't give them an answer and they'll think it's cooler!" scripting. But even if the writing was on an even keel, we'd have to put up with this gadawful art. When our man confronts Bulgart (or what he thinks is Bulgart), The Mikes suddenly draw him like he's been transformed into Mr. Hyde! Bloodshot eyes and all. I'm not one to raise eyebrows at bad taste but The Mod Witch's epilogue comments that Bulgart was "a nice guy, a man after my own heart" are inappropriate in a funny book only a quarter century removed from the holocaust.

John: Didn't Rod Serling write a story like this? I didn't think Conway did anything particularly interesting with this seemingly stale piece.

"A Face in the Crowd!"
Jack: Before we even get to the first story we have that great Nick Cardy cover and another funny frame with the three witches. Cynthia--my favorite--has committed the unforgivable sin of cleaning up her "air-chilled pad" and decorating it in "mod" style, complete with pop art by Ghastly Warhol! I think this stuff is very funny. As for the first story, I did not mind it at all. The GCD lists Mike Sekowsky as having drawn the frame pages and I got a Sekowsky feeling from the art in the first story, even though fans have credited it to Roy and Peppe. The theme reminds me of the sort of thing Will Eisner would explore in the not too distant future and I always liked it when he did it.

Peter: "The Doll Man" riffs on the old "mob mentality" hook EC Comics used to hang lots of stories on (especially in Shock Suspenstories). The difference is that EC excelled at their tales. Here we have the story of Caulfield, a man who shuts himself in his boarding house room 24/7 and works on his mysterious dolls. This riles his neighbors and they light the torches and head upstairs. After the mob (which seems to grow larger each panel until, by the finale, it might just be all of New York crowded into that room) accidentally kills Caulfield, they force open his locked bedroom door and come face to face with living, demonic dolls. Why are the dolls living or demonic? Well, like quite a few of his early stories, Marv Wolfman tends to ignore important details, skipping to the really "cool twist" endings. And, when I was 9 years old, these shock finales may have worked. They don't now. At least Jose Delbo's got the stock EC crowd look down.

JS: I'd kill for a second-rate EC caliber tale right about now.

"The Doll Man!"
Jack: A rather disgusting story. The mob "accidentally" kills Caulfield by beating him to death. You're right that this seems like a pale imitation of an EC setup.

Peter: The worst is saved for last. In "Treasure Hunt," a guide is hired to help an archaeologist hunt for a hidden treasure, rumored to be stashed under a waterfall somewhere in the jungles of the Amazon but the guide gets greedy and offs his customer in order to keep the booty for himself. The dead man's ghost comes back to play a game of musical waterfalls. These tales are simply too short to work up any characterizations, that's a given, but we still need a fresh plot and a genuinely surprising climax now and then.

Jack: This one wasn't even very interesting! At least it was short. In the close of the frame story, the two hags run away from Cynthia's pad, not wanting to be left alone with these "plastic horrors." Cute.

John: Okay Jack, time for you and Cynthia to get a room...

"Treasure Hunt"


At last, by 1969, we could live a little and have fun with the Nazis!

Coming Next Week!


AndyDecker said...

I have those Olek novelisations. The stories are bit adulted up and have wonderful Wrightson illustrations. Alone for that they are worth buying.

Hugh said...