Monday, July 22, 2013

Do You Dare Enter? Part Six: February-March 1970

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

Neal Adams
House of Mystery 184 (February 1970)

"Turner's Treasure"
Story by Jack Oleck
Art by Alex Toth

"The Eyes of the Basilisk"
Story by E. Nelson Bridwell
Art by Gil Kane and Wally Wood

Peter: Paul Turner, philosophy professor, becomes obsessed with finding a treasure buried in Egypt. He uproots himself and his wife and heads to Cairo, where he discovers the booty hidden exactly where it was supposed to be. Unknown to Paul, he's unearthing more than just millions in gold and jewelry. An evil spirit urges the professor to murder his wife and he takes the treasure back to the states. Paul sells a little bit here and there, with the demon cleaning up after him until, in the end, "Turner's Treasure" is his own undoing. Jack Oleck's writing is a bit on the pulpish side (what "haunted Egyptian treasure" story wouldn't be, though?) and the climax is too vague (so did the demon set up Turner's fall or was that all human error?), but Alex Toth's offbeat artwork more than makes up for any script shortcomings. That splash page is a knockout.

The sensational splash for "Turner's Treasure"
Jack: Hooray! It's 1970! Perhaps the greatest year for Neal Adams at DC, and here we are treated to another children in peril cover. I love Ancient Egypt so I was excited to read this story. I too enjoyed Toth's art but found the conclusion a bit muddled.

Peter: In medieval times, "The Eyes of the Basilisk" spell death and destruction for a small kingdom until its ruler declares that the man who slays the giant snake will win his daughter's hand in marriage and one day rule as king. Many knights try and all fail. Then comes Ulfar the Afflicted, a handsome young man, who kills the monster and collects his prize. When asked what it was like to stare into the Basilisk's eyes, Ulfar answers that he has no idea since he was born blind. Yep, the "twist" is about as surprising as the winner for Best Picture at the Oscars but, golly gee, it's Kane and Wood! Very much in the spirit of "Comes the Warrior," the pair's previous collaboration for HOM #180, "Basilisk" is a fantasy yarn worth looking at. This was the third and final story written in the House by E. Nelson Bridwell, who went on to write DC's Super Friends comic book in 1976.

Jack: Loved the art, didn't love the story. I can't recall a Bridwell story that I ever liked. The art, though, is great, with real flashes of Wood in among the Kane layouts. It's the best of both worlds, artistically, even though the dialogue is stilted and the plot owes more than a little to the Medusa legend. As for Super Friends, that's the point where I could no longer enjoy Alex Toth's art.

Peter: I should mention that this issue's letters page ("Cain's Mailroom") actually has an intelligent correspondence from Allen Benner of Hanover, PA. Allen writes in to praise Neal Adams' work on "The Siren of Satan" back in #181. Sure, I know that it wasn't Adams but Wrightson who did the art for "Satan" but, all the same, the letter does contain more intelligent analysis than the usual "I love your pet dragon" and "Do you have the same titles like Lois Lane and all?" A far cry from the debate and critical commentary found over at Marvel, though. Hopefully, that will all change in time. Interestingly enough, this title stands out this month as the only one not to carry four shorter stories, opting for two longer scripts. The comments below will probably show that the longer length is essential to build suspense and develop characters.

Jack: In my memory, by the mid-70s, the letters columns in DC and Marvel comics were interchangeable.

Neal Adams
House of Secrets 84 (March 1970)

"If I Had But World Enough and Time"
Story by Len Wein
Art by Dick Dillin and Mike Peppe

"Double or Nothing!"
Story by Marv Wolfman
Art by Sid Greene

"The Unbelievable! The Unexplained!"
Story by Steve Skeates
Art by Jack Sparling and Jack Abel

"If I Should Die Before I Wake..."
Story by Len Wein
Art by Jack Sparling

Peter: Marvin sits in front of his TV set, watching hours and hours of mindless programming, to the dismay of his long-suffering wife. One night, the set evidently transports Marv into some of the dreamscapes it airs (I say "evidently" because it's really not all that clear) and he finds himself a quick-draw in various time frames, all the while followed by a shadowy figure. "If I Had..." is a pretentious and pointless look at how TV sucks out our souls. I've read dozens of stories preaching exactly the same message and I'd venture a guess most of them did a better job than Len does here. The problem is that the story is confusing and jumps around too much, almost as though there were a few pages of art missing. I thought for sure the guy in the overcoat following the protagonist around was The Phantom Stranger. For a much better written dissertation on the downfalls of television addiction, see Don McGregor's "The Destructive Image" in Creepy #57 (November 1973).

Does this apply to reading
comics as well?
Jack: Your comment above regarding the problem with very short stories is an accurate reflection of this tale, though I was getting a little bit nervous about the result of my own TV watching.

Peter: Even worse is "Double or Nothing," about the evils of gambling and cheating, topped off with an incredibly silly ending. Let's just call this one "Nothing." Marv Wolfman's still edging towards that first great story but will it arrive before he jumps ship for Marvel? Stay tuned.

Jack: I enjoyed this one, from the stuttering nerd who turns out to be a sorcerer, to the ending, where the card cheat is encased in a pair of dice. Maybe sometimes my standards get a little low after reading too many comics.

Peter: Sometimes these stories can be so mentally frustrating. I can picture these writers just throwing out ideas without the necessary tools in which to develop those ideas. Such is the case with Steve Skeates' "The Unbelievable! The Unexplained!" Ruth has loved her uncle's castle since the days she stayed there as a little girl. Now a middle-aged woman, Ruth is elated to learn her uncle is near comatose (after a bad fright) and she commits him to a nursing home. Shortly after, the man dies and Ruth inherits everything, including a strange key to a house in the mists. Once she opens the door to the house she encounters... Who knows? We don't. Skeates never lets us see (or even get an inkling of) this terror behind the door. All we know is that it sends Ruth into the same trance her uncle fell into. These kinds of stories are like pillows without stuffing, nothing to hold onto. I know Steve got better with seasoning, though. His "The Hero Within" (Creepy #60, February 1974) was one of the best stories Warren ran in its storied history. DC seems to have been fertile ground for writers who got better once they worked for Warren. The art here and in the finale, "If I Should Die Before I Wake..." (both by Jack Sparling), is awful, but at least in "The Unbelievable..." Jack Abel seems to be able to rein in Sparling's chaos. Not so with "If I Should..," where Sparling's doodlings look like watercolors mixed with mud. What the heck has happened to Jack since his brief burst of brilliance with "The House of Gargoyles"? "If I Should..." has a man chased by a ghoulish figure through his dreams for no apparent reason so he sees a psychiatrist. Since the doctor (Basil Cranius!) is always held back in the shadows, we know from the get-go who he really is and Len Wein does nothing to surprise us.

"The Unstomachable!"

Jack: I think Wein must have watched the Twilight Zone episode "Perchance to Dream" right before he penned "If I Should Die"--the premises are identical. Sometimes the best thing about these comics is the ads (often the house ads!), but the best thing about this issue is the framing sequence, in which Abel wanders around commenting on the stories and eventually meets a friendly old woman with whom he shares a soda. To our surprise, after they part, the old woman is revealed to be one of the three witches from The Witching Hour! It's unfortunate that the stories are so forgettable, but at least I got a kick out of the latest escapades of Abel.

"If I Should Die..."

Peter: After four issues, editor Joe Orlando finally decides to clue us in as to who Goldie is in a short aside: "Goldie is Abel's constant friend and companion. Unfortunately, no one can see or hear Goldie...except Abel!" This issue sees the advent of a letters page. As with House of Mystery, a lot of the correspondence isn't actually worth the paper it's printed on.

Jim Aparo
The Witching Hour 7 (March 1970)

"The Big Break!"
Story by Steve Skeates
Art by Bill Draut

"The Captive!"
Story by Steve Skeates
Art by George Roussos

"Look Homeward, Angelo!"
Story by Mike Friedrich
Art by Jack Abel and Alex Toth

"Trick or Treat"
Story by Jack Miller
Art by Michael W. Kaluta

Peter: After his "Big Break," escaped convict John Cobern trudges through the swamp and eventually into yet another variation (and not too varied, I might add) on Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge." Cobern trips over a root, hits the ground, gets up, finds a mysterious mansion equipped with an eerie voice. The spectre informs John that he grew up in the house and if he leaves, he'll die. Cobern's tired of being told what to do so he heads out the door and we find out that (surprise!) his initial fall killed him. He's been dead the whole time! One of the old witches asks us if it was all a dream within the skull of a dying man or if it all happened and I, sadly, have to tell her I have no idea. Bill Draut's art resembles that of the 1960s DC sf titles, not necessarily a bad thing in this case.

"The Big Break!"
Jack: Not just a ripoff of the Bierce story, "The Big Break!" also features a house and family haunted by the curse of an ancestor. I liked the coloring in this story very much--the outdoor scenes at night use black, white and blue to give some of the panels an eerie look. Or perhaps the colorist just missed some parts of the pages! By the way, the GCD is puzzled about the cover artist, but I'm certain it's Aparo--the head of the convict is unmistakably his work.

Peter: Steve Skeates makes up for his unfortunate pilfering of a classic by giving us a nice little story with a genuinely pleasing twist in "The Captive." An artist is approached by a retired mafia don who wants his portrait painted to give to all "his old friends." The artist not only scoffs but insults the gangster, who assaults him and flees. Later that night, the don is awakened by a living statue of the artist. Our climax shows the artist, rousing himself from the floor and remarking he'd best grab a hunk of the highway and not worry how he got to be here. He passes a statue of the don on the way out the door. Didn't see that one coming and, after reading thousands of these horror stories over the years, that's a big plus. George Roussos's art is not spectacular but it's miles above the Jack Sparling bilge we had to slog through over in Secrets.

"The Captive!"
Jack: This story had me until the final statue switch, which made no sense. As the witch telling the story comments (and don't ask me her name--Cynthia the blonde is the only one I can remember), "As for HOW our friends happened to switch places--even I don't know that!" She's not the only one.

Peter: A poor angelic orphan is constantly berated by his adoptive parents. When furniture begins moving of its own accord, the pair decide to march little Angelo back to the orphanage, where they discover his true origin. "Look Homeward, Angelo" could very well be the worst written story we've come across so far (I also hope it's the worst I have to read in these DC horror comics but I'm sure something else will come along to ascend the throne) but I don't have the time to review my old notes.  Suffice to say, it's a Mike Friedrich script and Friedrich is very much in the discussion over at Marvel University, where his run at Marvel is being discussed, dissected, and then summarily forgotten.

Jack: Once again, we disagree. I liked this story, and I was surprised by the revelation that Angelo's parents were angels, especially when we first see them dressed (in disguise) as hippies. I know I'm the more sensitive one here -I like Christmas stories and dogs- but I thought it was interesting how Cynthia told this story about a misunderstood child to Egor in order to help him feel better about having to pose for a family picture with the three witches. Once again (as in this month's House of Secrets), the frame nearly overwhelms the individual stories. The Witching Hour is developing as a book that is more about the frame than anything else, and I'm enjoying it. The stories the witches tell don't always matter that much and I'm anxious to get back to their escapades. The Alex Toth art on the frame sequences doesn't hurt.

Angels in disguise as hippies
Peter: The two pages of Mike Kaluta art that make up the piffle known as "Trick or Treat" threaten to steal the entire show this issue. Thankfully, we'll be seeing more of Kaluta's art along the way. Toss him in the shopping cart with Wrightson, Jones, Alcala, and Neal Adams as the true stars of the 1970s DC horror titles.

Jack: The GCD says this is one of Kaluta's very first professional credits, and it's a beauty! The story is a throwaway, as so often happens with the really good pieces of art in these mags.

Early Kaluta

Nick Cardy
Unexpected 117 (March 1970)

"Midnight Summons the Executioner!"
Story by George Kashdan
Art by Sid Greene

"Hands of Death!"
Story by Al Case (Murray Boltinoff)
Art by Jerry Grandenetti

"The House That Hate Built!"
Story by Carl Wessler
Art by George Tuska

"Death of the Man Who Never Lived"
Story by Carl Wessler
Art by Bruno Premiani

Peter: DC throws us a curve ball as they bring back their series character, Johnny Peril, for one last appearance before putting him on a shelf  (until he magically reappeared in #200, July 1980). Since series characters fall out of our scope, we'll just pretend it never happened, Mr. Orlando.

Jack: "Midnight Summons the Executioner!" is a pretty good story, though. It really doesn't matter that the lead character is Johnny Peril--it could be anyone! Peril, alone in the world, is summoned to England to be reunited with his family. He discovers that it's a trick played by the elderly head of a clan who must sacrifice a relative to a ghost every 25 years. When his little grandson volunteers to give up his life, the old man does what he and the patriarchs before him should have done long before.

A family member bites the dust.
Peter: If the caliber of stories in this issue is any indication, then Unexpected is where Joe Orlando dumped all the weak horror stories (Warren did that for years with Eerie) that his writers would bring his way. All three are godawful but "Hands of Death" is the one I'll single out. The other two are merely inoffensive, boring, and just plain dumb.  "Look Homeward, Angelo!" didn't have to wait long before it was knocked out of first place for Worst DC Horror Story. "Hands of Death," written pseudonymously by Murray Boltinoff (later a DC editor), is easily the stupidest four pages I've read since ingesting the complete adventures of Ant-Man over at Marvel University. Susan just can't get over the fact that her boyfriend, Noah, is an undertaker. The very thought of him touching her makes her squeal like a pig and the fact that Noah drives around in a hearse doesn't help, either. When shallow skank Susan falls asleep while smoking, Noah makes the ultimate sacrifice to save her. It's been a long time since a comic story actually offended me (maybe not since Jack Sparling was assigned to draw an issue of Captain America) but the final panel pushes my "you're shittin' me" button in the worst way. This title is on notice, boys and girls.

Jerry Grandenetti's art had gone
downhill since the war comics of 1959!
Jack: What, you were offended that he lost his hand in the fire and she put a ring on his prosthetic replacement? Peter, I thought you were made of sterner stuff. In "The House That Hate Built!" we are treated to George Tuska's art as it portrays the story of Clem Atwill, a greedy man whose million dollars is sunk in a swamp when he thinks he's taking over a town that is really a mirage. "Death of the Man Who Never Lived" looks like a leftover from the '50s or early '60s. A crook learns to his dismay that a kindly old inventor is really a robot. Yawn. By the way, there's no sign of the Mad, Mod Witch this issue, making The Unexpected the only DC horror title without a host or a framing story. It could have used one!

A little something to offend our readers!

Coming Next Week!

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