Monday, August 19, 2013

Do You Dare Enter? Part Eight: June-July 1970

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

Neal Adams
House of Mystery 186 (June 1970)

"The Secret of the Egyptian Cat"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Bernie Wrightson

Story by Jack Oleck
Art by Neal Adams, Dick Giordano, and Joe Orlando

Peter: Wrightson and Adams in the same issue! What could be better than that? Two good stories maybe? Well, let's add that to the equation then.  The evil wizard Konassos covets Egyptian priestess Isha but the young lady is not for sale, so he utilizes a magic potion to transform the girl into a cat. Since they are both immortals, Konassos keeps Isha under lock and key throughout the centuries until they take a room at the House of Mystery. One night, out prowling, Isha meets up with a stray cat and falls in love. Seeing this, Konassos poisons a saucer of milk and dispatches his competition. Bad mistake! This stirs Isha into action and she's able to get hold of the potion that transforms her back into a woman. Awakened from his nap, Konassos discovers the priestess has transformed him into a rat and Isha's feline friends await him at the door. Bernie's art, of course, is the draw of "The Secret of the Egyptian Cat" but, thankfully, Robert Kanigher delivers a witty script topped with a delightful twist ending. Again, we have Cain interacting with the characters of the story, blurring the line between narrator and participant. Just two years away from revolutionizing the horror comics genre with Swamp Thing, Bernie's art just keeps getting better. Literally, you can tell the difference from strip to succeeding strip as he moves away from Ingels-imitator to developing a style of his own. We'll be lucky enough to witness this ascendancy.

Jack: The two-page splash that opens the story is tremendous, depicting the transformation from cat into Egyptian beauty. It has all been done before, of course, from The Wolf Man through She Wolf of London, with a dash of The Mummy's Curse tossed in for good measure, but Kanigher and Wrightson tell a smooth and engaging tale. Peter is right that one can see Wrightson's style developing rapidly, and knowing that Swamp Thing is not too far in the future allows us to spot its antecedents here and there in the dark and shadowy scenes that fill this story.

John: I wasn't impressed by this one. I felt the story was not particularly interesting, and thought that this was another case where aside from a handful of nice panels, Wrightson's normally exceptional art felt rushed.

Peter: Young and sickly, Judy is given to flights of fantasy. Since she's left on her own at her father's estate for much of the day with no one to play with, she creates a playmate out of the stone statue of Pan in the garden's fountain. But is Judy fantasizing? Pan takes Judy to his kingdom, a veritable Eden where the sun always shines and unicorns run free, but warns the girl never to open a large ominous door, the only drawback to this paradise. Being a precocious child, Judy investigates while Pan is napping one day and discovers another land behind the door: a nightmare world where all is black and monsters lurk behind every tree. Pan arrives to rescue her, sending Judy back to her own world, where we learn she's had a near-fatal fever and has just emerged from a deep sleep. Days later, trying to convince his daughter that the tales she's been telling him are nothing but delusions, Judy's father insists she touch the Pan statue to prove it's nothing more than stone. The girl does so and allows that she may have hallucinated the whole incident after all. As the pair turn, they miss a tear falling from the eye of the stone figure. Wow! What a powerful story! I first encountered this gem at the ripe old age of 12 in one of those over sized reprint volumes that were the rage at Marvel and DC for a couple years (the size designated at the GCD is "Tabloid" and I guess that fits better than any word I could come up with). DC was reprinting key back issues in a large format and the experiment had been such a success (so much so that Marvel quickly jumped into the water as well) that the company expanded the line to feature "treasury" editions, 84 pages packed with that title's "greatest hits." The House of Mystery collection (#C-23, Winter 1973) featured the cream of the HOM crop including "House of Gargoyles," "Widow's Walk," and the two stories comprising HOM #186 (in all, 7 stories from the title's first two dozen issues). I bought into that super-expensive investment (one whole buck!) and must have read it cover to cover a dozen times within a week. Even my pre-teen brain knew that "Nightmare" was something special, a story within a story. This could be Neal Adams's best DC horror work, evoking both wonder and fear in the mesmerized reader. Jack Oleck did his best to convert the classic to prose for the first Warner House of Mystery paperback but, without Adams's art, it's obviously lacking.

Jack: I'm right there with you on this one, Peter. Adams is one of my favorite artists and, as we learned while reading Batman, 1970-71 DC Comics featured some of his best work. Dick Giordano was probably his best inker (though Adams inking his own work may have surpassed that mark) and the story is good enough to allow the art to soar. The GCD has a couple of interesting notes on this story: one, that Jack Oleck had used this plot before in a 1950s story for Marvel; and two, that Adams based the girl on his own daughter, Kris. If there's anyone who would be able to pinpoint the source story in a 1950s Marvel (probably Atlas) comic, it would be Peter!

John: I'm pleased to report that we're all in agreement on this one. Great art, great story. When the girl passes through the 'doorway', Adams already fantastic art reaches new levels. If Neal Adams has better horror work to come, I can't wait to see it. I do want to make a point of mentioning Sergio Aragones, who has several particularly fun single panel cartoons in this issue's 'Cain's Game Room.'

Peter: A bit more on the DC treasury editions can be found here at this wonderful resource tool. Also, I'm not sure about the legal side of these things but if you don't have a copy of "Nightmare" and would like to read it online, you can do so here.

Jack: I was a big fan of the DC Treasury editions in the mid-70s; the Marvel versions never seemed quite as special. It was quite a thrill at the time to own facsimile copies of Action 1, Detective 27, and so on.

John: I recently picked up a beautiful copy of the HOM Treasury, believe it or not, for the same $1 Peter paid for it back in the day. Of course, my introduction to Treasury editions came via Star Wars (Issue #1 reprinting the first three issues of the film adaptation, Issue #2 reprinting the remainder, and Issue #3 an omnibus of all six issues).

Neal Adams
House of Secrets 86 (July 1970)

Story by Steve Skeates
Art by George Tuska

"The Golden Tower of the Sun"
Story by Gerry Conway
Art by Gray Morrow

"The Ballad of Little Joe"
Story by Gerry Conway
Art by Big Bad Bill (Bill Draut)

"The Day After Doomsday..."
Story Uncredited
Art by Jack Sparling

Peter: Steve Skeates continues his plundering of Ambrose Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" (for his previous "homage," see "The Big Break" in The Witching Hour #7, March 1970). How many times could Joe Orlando accept the exact same story from this guy? In "Strain," the protagonist is a young composer driving madly down a country road, having just murdered his wife. He overhears a haunting melody, stops the car and follows the music to an ancient estate. Inside, he finds his wife, apparently still alive and having mastered the piano. The oddity of the situation bothers him a bit but he gets over it, still fascinated by the lovely music emanating from his formerly tone-deaf, undead wife. When he approaches her, she turns into an old hag and slams the keyboard cover on his hands. His car crashes into a tree and he's dead. One of the cops remarks that it's funny, the corpse has "bruises on his fingers... as if something had been slammed down on them." That bit is hilarious because our young composer would resemble a large salami after the impact of the car, so why some bruising on his fingers would stand out is answerable only to the (comic book) cop and Skeates himself. So was the entire trip in the imagination of the character or just bits of it? Who is the hag? I'm not sure. The George Tuska art is about what you'd expect (and accept) from Tuska: no energy, very few backgrounds, shoddy and on the fly. The whole thing is forgettable and that's just what I aim to do. Well, that is, until Skeates's next "adaptation" of "Owl Creek Bridge."

Jack: I think you're being unfair to Ambrose Bierce by mentioning him in the same breath as Steve Skeates. The best thing I can say about this story is that Tuska's art has been worse. Oh, and it's only six pages long.

John: As I'm not as well-versed in Tuska's art as my colleagues, it's hard for me to imagine it being much worse.

Peter: DC and Marvel used to run one-page prose pieces in each of their anthology comics. This was done, for some reason or another, as a requirement for their postal licenses. I think. Anyway, those pretty much went the way of the dinosaur in the early 1970s so to have a prose piece here in HOS #86 is a bit surprising. You'd be forgiven if you thought "The Golden Tower of the Sun" was a sequel of sorts to "Strain" as the opening act has the undead protagonist, a rock 'n' roll singer, thrown from the burning wreckage of his car. We come to find out he'd wanted out of the band but the rest of the members and his agent didn't agree. Rather than letting him split the group up, they kill him and stage an accident. Only problem is that the singer has a wandering spirit and gets his revenge against the men who killed him. "Golden Tower" is more than a tad pretentious and flowery:
Bubbling chaos echoed around me, became a golden-spired tower of darkness in the distance. I groped towards it, felt reality slip away beneath me, become a river of rippling water then ran tumbling over into a waterfall of endless white.

"Why?" I screamed again, my soul a bleeding thing inside me. I sobbed in the silence of eternity.
And from the dark hand there was no answer.
The Gray Morrow art is disappointing, resembling bad 1960s water color rock music posters. I'm not sure prose pieces will make their comeback any time soon.

John: I didn't read the story, and while I think it does have that 60s rock poster look, I didn't think it looked bad. Of course I was coming right off Tuska...

Jack: To prove my dedication to this blog, I actually read all five pages of this. It reminded me of something a high school student would write. In fact, I might have written this in high school. Or perhaps junior high. Conway was 17 years old at the time but I would bet this is not one of the things he still puts on his resume.

Peter: The alien race of Quaros lives under the Earth's surface and it's high time they conquered our world. Their plan is to steal one of Jonathan Poe's life-like dolls, give it life, and then use it as a spy. The Quaros didn't bargain for "Little Joe" though, Poe's most beloved puppet, and the doll lets Poe in on the secret. Unfortunately, the old man believes he's losing his mind when his wooden friend begins talking to him and he has a massive heart attack. The aliens shut Little Joe down and, ostensibly, wait a few years until they can inhabit a Transformer. (Big Bad) Bill Draut's pencils save this weak effort from being disposable. The subplot concerning Poe's daughter (who may or may not be a money-hungry leech) does generate some interest but then is abandoned until the climax when it becomes sappy. HOS #86 is the antithesis of HOM #186: sloppy, lazy writing and (for the most part) uninspired artwork.

John: The teary eye didn't tug on your heartstrings like it did in "Nightmare"?

Jack: I never would have thought of having green spacemen get involved in the story of Pinocchio! This story is such a mess. I don't think Geppetto Poe has a heart attack because Little Joe starts talking--Little Joe throws himself in front of some sort of alien death ray aimed at his "father" and the old man keels over, clutching his chest. I suppose it's useful to watch Gerry Conway learn how to write comic book stories, but it's not very entertaining.

Peter: There also a 2-page piece titled "The Day After Doomsday." After a nuclear holocaust of biblical proportions, the last man on Earth crawls from the wreckage of a city and encounters the last woman on Earth. His name is Adam and hers is ... Gertrude. They quickly make peace and decide they'll repopulate the world. There's not really enough here to complain about since Jack Sparling barely has room to screw anything up. This serialized strip will continue throughout the years and various DC horror titles. The second installment appears in this month's Witching Hour.

Jack: Good Lord, you mean Adam and Gertrude's story will continue? Is there no mercy? And why are the last man and woman on Earth always so attractive? Think Charles Bronson and Elizabeth Montgomery on The Twilight Zone. Isn't it more likely they'll be a couple of fat slobs?

John: I'm a sucker for LMOE-type stories, but if within minutes of rising from the rubble you spot another survivor, isn't it a tad narcissistic to assume you're the last man? And what's up with how this story just ends? Is this one of those cases where they needed to fill pages at the 11th hour, and so they decided to split the story across magazines?

Unexpected 119 (July 1970)

"Mirror, Mirror on the Wall,
Who's the Deadliest of Them All?"
Story Uncredited
Art by Bernie Wrightson

"The Swampchild!"
Story by Carl Wessler
Art by Werner Roth and Frank Giacoia

"Rachel Isn't Ready to Die"
Story by George Kashdan
Art by Sid Greene and Vince Colletta

Peter: "Mirror, Mirror..." is a really silly story about an accountant who murders his client and the supernatural mirror that witnesses the act. Not even Bernie's art can help this one stay afloat. Equally badly written is "Swampchild," a pulpish bit of nonsense about Doctor Starke, who creates a child from scratch and then gives it up for adoption. Years later, the hot-tempered Evans brothers, Ben and Luke, come sniffin' around the doc's assistant, Julia. Could one of the brothers be the swamp child? When Julia learns the secret from Clarke's ancient notebook, she has to know the truth. I'll give Wessler a bump up to a full star (out of four) for the twist ending, the revelation of who the real swamp child is. I was fooled. Werner Roth's art is about as middle-of-the-road as it was when he was the regular penciler for Marvel's The X-Men in the mid-60s. Not the kind of embellishment you want if you're trying to elicit goosebumps from an audience.

Jack: I read "Mirror, Mirror" and expected a rave from you! I thought it was an excellent story, with twists and turns that I did not expect and art that flowed beautifully and creepily from start to finish. At first I thought we were in for a retread of the "Mirror" episode of the classic British horror anthology film, Dead of Night, but this story goes in a different direction. I did not expect the man who ended up with the mirror to be blind, and as for the big finish--when the broken pieces of the glass all reflect the murder--I admit I saw that coming but I enjoyed it anyway. That little bit reminded me of "The Purple Testament" episode of The Twilight Zone--there's a scene where a broken mirror's fragments reflect a future event. As for "The Swampchild!" it's hard to believe this is not a reprint. It looks like it does not belong in the same issue as the Wrightson story.

John: "Mirror, Mirror" has got nothing on the Dead of Night segment. And while Wrightson's art doesn't get a lot of opportunity to shine in this story, it's better than his story in this month's HOM. As for "The Swampchild", I thought it did find some redemption in: "Julia reverts to a greyish, gelatinous mass... once again a pulsating mass of swamp muck."

Peter: The first two stories in this issue are gems compared to the finale, "Rachel Isn't Ready to Die," seven and a half pages of deliriously bad hooey. So bad it threatens to spill into "guilty pleasure" territory. At some point in the witch-burning days of yore, Rachel has been deemed a witch by the town's religious zealots and sentenced to hang in the town square. Swept up by the crowd on the way to the spectacle is nattily-dressed blind man Myles (who looks, for all the world like Matt Murdock, aka Daredevil), who roars his disapproval to the crowd. The hanging is temporarily halted and Myles is stoned by the good people of the town until Rachel casts a spell and the hoods are run off. The kindly witch takes the blind man back to her swamp shack to tend to his cuts and bruises. While there, Myles allows that he thinks she's a gorgeous chick by the sound of her voice. Completely smitten, Rachel conjures up a potion that will give Myles his sight back despite the whopping side effect it will have on her: it will render her powerless. Deciding that she'd rather have Myles regain his sight even if it means it'll scare him away once he gets a gander at her, she goes through with the process. No longer blinded, Myles is puzzled by Rachel's standoffish behavior. She runs down to a stream and Myles confronts her. It's then that she looks at her reflection and realizes that, with the loss of her witchly powers, she has become a real babe. Ah, even witches can find true romance now and then! I love Myles's Hugh Hefner-esque wardrobe, which doesn't exactly blend in with the times but does put him at the top of the 16th Century GQ Best Dressed List. The really mushy climax makes me think that Joe Orlando was straddling the fence between horror and gothics with the line and, praise the lord, in the end he sided with horror. There will be a few more stories of this ilk in the coming weeks but this will pass.

Jack: I thought this was a nice story and I liked the happy ending. This issue concludes with a one-pager, "Rest in Pieces," and a two-pager, "A Phantom in the Tree!" that features some pretty bad art by Jerry Grandenetti. The latter story is notable for having a young man go off to war in Vietnam, something I don't recall seeing mentioned before on our journey.

The Witching Hour 9 (July 1970)

"The Lonely Road Home!"
Story by Steve Skeates
Art by Jerry Grandenetti (?) and Murphy Anderson

"The Day After Doomsday..."
Story by Len Wein
Art by Jack Sparling

"The Last Straw"
Story Uncredited
Art by Jose Delbo

"Trumpet Perilous!"
Story Uncredited
Art by Jack Sparling and Jack Abel

Peter: Rob makes a wish and gains eternal youth but, as he watches all his friends grow old and die around him, he discovers being young forever ain't all it's cracked up to be. Seeking some kind of peace, Rob heads back to his hometown where he meets Linda, a girl he went steady with decades before. Linda seems to have discovered the fountain of youth as well, but she quickly tells Rob the real secret: she's dead and so is he. She takes him to a haunted house where all the dead live and they, ostensibly, live (or die) happily ever after. A total waste of time from beginning to end, "The Lonely Road Home" makes no sense whatsoever. If Rob's a ghost, why can people on the street see him? If Linda knows she's dead, why doesn't Rob? To add insult to injury, Murphy Anderson destroys anything Jerry Grandenetti might have brought to the table, with the result resembling a Superman installment. Steve Skeates, for his part, stops just short of ripping off "Owl Creek" for a third time but clings on to the eventual outcome: Surprise! Surprise! Surprise! The guy was dead the whole time!

Jack: I had the same concerns until I decided that Rob isn't really dead--Linda is using a metaphor. You see, the fact that he never changes means it's like he has been dead, since--as Linda tells us--life is change. At least that's my take on it. The GCD credits Grandenetti with pencils but isn't sure. As I read it, I saw absolutely no sign of 1970 Grandenetti and thought it was Murphy Anderson on pencils and inks. I know he was usually an inker but he did draw the whole thing sometimes, and I think it looked like this!

John: I thought some of the art (not involving the human characters) looked okay. Okay, I guess it's just the one panel with the Nealson's home. In "The Day After Doomsday" I once again found myself asking why the main character is continually referred to as the last man on Earth when he can't go one panel without bumping into someone else. The most interesting thing about this story is that if it does in fact follow the HOS installment, we can imagine he likely killed (and perhaps ate?) Gertrude...

Peter: The second installment of "The Day After Doomsday" makes me wonder if there was a grand scheme to this thing or did Joe Orlando throw out an order for "Last Man on Earth" stories. Ostensibly, the last man on Earth from the first chapter (seen in House of Secrets #86, above), Adam, is the same guy here who stumbles across the corpses of two soldiers who had just shot each other after the big apocalypse. So where is Gertrude? Much better is "The Last Straw" which mixes a bit of humor in with the tale of Chou, a lazy Chinese heir to a vast estate who is forced to sweep his family tomb every year (during the local Ching Ming festival) lest the estate fall to the local war lord. Chou tries to sidestep his duties by purchasing a magic broom from a wizard but, in the end, Chou finds that it's always best to get one's hands dirty. I really liked the breezy way (uncredited) told his story with dollops of larfs ("Chou explained his problem to the ancient warlock--and quicker than you could say Have a Ring-A-Ding-Ding Ching Ming!")  while not detracting from the narrative itself. The tale actually goes from Point A to Point B and ends satisfactorily, without straying from the course and adding unnecessary nonsense that can't be explained later on (Steve Skeates, take notice). The art, by Jose Delbo, is fabulous. A complete surprise all around for me.

Jack: "The Day After Doomsday" made me recall
Doomsday + 1, one of the short-lived Charlton Comics that came out in the mid-'70s when that company tried to compete with the big two. In a similar way, "The Last Straw" had art that reminded me of something either from Charlton or from Atlas Comics, the beloved but doomed comics company that tried to pay writers and artists fairly at around the same time Charlton was making a go of it. I agree that this is an above-average story. It certainly is original, at least in comparison to what we've grown used to.

Peter: The best is saved for last! "Trumpet Perilous" finds Elliott Summer, bored archaeologist, traipsing up "a mountainside deep within the wilds of Central Asia" with his explorer buddy, Ramsey, and a crew of four climbers. Disgusted by the current state of the world ("computers, television, and traffic jams"), Elliott strives to keep exploration alive despite the general disinterest from the rest of mankind. His goal is to find the Lost City of Athai, rumored to be buried atop the mountain behind a false front. Indeed, the men do find a cave leading to an incredible hidden city, complete with impressive architecture and lush vegetation but, curiously, lacking anyone at home. In the middle of the city, they find a main building with Sanskrit carvings. Translating the etchings, they discover they are in "the place of sound." Ramsey rings a bell placed next to a chalice engraved with the Sanskrit word for "water" and the cup magically fills with water. Exploring further, Elliott comes across a huge horn labeled "Trumpet of Doom." An etching tells the men that, should the trumpet be blown, a new age shall begin. Disregarding warnings from Ramsey, and feeling this could be the key to mankind's modern maladies, Elliott blows the horn... and ends the world. Not many writers at this time would have risked their work getting chopped up by the CCA but (uncredited) had the balls to give it a try and succeed. That final panel of the Earth ablaze (with the word "End" reaching out into space) is a powerful one. Jacks Sparling and Abel, two artists I've ripped both here and in the DC war comic blog, somehow overcome the odds and deliver a fine piece of storytelling. Every panel ripples with excitement and wonder. Overall, a stellar month for the DC mystery line.

John: Yep, that was a fun one. Gotta love a story in which the world ends.

Jack: This was a Boy's Adventure type of story that was enjoyable enough. What I most enjoy in The Witching Hour is the framing story, which sometimes threatens to overshadow the tales in between. This time, the comic ends with the world destroyed, and a white half-page panel that features word balloons of the witches discussing what just happened! Rest assured, they tell us, they'll have the world back together in time for the next issue.

Limited Collectors' Edition C-23

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