Monday, September 30, 2013

Do You Dare Enter? Part Eleven: December 1970-January 1971

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

Neal Adams
The House of Mystery 189 (December 1970)

"Eyes of the Cat"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Jerry Grandenetti and Wally Wood

"The Deadly Game of G-H-O-S-T"
Story by uncredited
Art by Leonard Starr

"The Thing in the Chair"
Story by Jack Oleck
Art by Tom Sutton

Jack: After an unfortunate introduction in which Cain asks the reader, "Do you like groovy ghosts?", we get the old chestnut about the malicious black cat and the greedy nephew. Thank goodness Wally Wood takes over the art and inks Grandenetti very heavily, making the result pretty good to look at, except for one panel where Uncle Ansel zooms off the edge of a cliff in his wheelchair in a pose that reminded me of Fred Flintstone in his car. It does get pretty funny when the nephew starts trying to kill Cousin Cynthia and begins shooting at her, thinking that "hunting 'accidents' happen all the time"! The panel where Nicholas is sinking in quicksand has a strong EC feel to it.

John: While I wasn't a fan of the art OR story this time out, I must admit I did get a chuckle out of the seven-panel page of Uncle Ansel's trip down the cliff in his wheelchair.

Peter: Awful script by Kanigher, mining just about every cliche there is to wring out of a House of Mystery story. The intro shows rotten nephew Nicholas taking pot shots at Lucifer, the cat and then we launch into the cat's flashback of the events that led to Nicholas's demise. We're to infer that Nic is spending the rest of eternity in hell (aka The House of Mystery), I assume, but it's bit confusing. More confusing is the Jerry Grandenetti credit for penciling. Where? Wally Wood pulls off a miracle by making Grandenetti's art downright palatable. Not nearly as palatable is the return of reprints in House of Mystery. "The Deadly Game of G-H-O-S-T" originally appeared as the cover story for HOM #11 (February 1953). The only difference between the original appearance and the reprint is the paste-up on the splash inserting Cain's face over that of a demon's (see below). The story is a convoluted mess (something about a businessman who's killed his partner and staged a phony suicide only to be haunted by a ghost after playing a spirited game of Hangman) and it has one of those explanatory finales where you realize that no one could pull off illusions like those pictured.
New and improved (?) paste-up

The original splash for "G-H-O-S-T"

Jack: I knew this was a reprint right from the first page. So many words, and the art just has that '50s look to it. I liked it a lot, though I never cared for endings where everything supernatural was explained away.

Peter: Sue Ann's swamp kin seem to think she's got the devil in her so they go to conjurer Old Jeb and pay him two sawbucks to exorcise her. Knowing a phony when she sees one, Sue Ann gives Old Jeb a chance to refund the dough but the conjurer has other plans for the green. Suddenly, bad things start happening around Jeb's shack and when the girl makes another appearance, she tells the old man she can see his ghost sitting in a chair. Jeb tosses the girl out of the shack and, as is wont to happen, events take a nasty turn. The girl cracks her noggin on a boulder so Jeb takes her body out into the swamp, dumping it into a sinkhole. The crime is witnessed, Jeb is sentenced to death and he goes to... the electric chair! Very primitive art from Tom Sutton, an artist who will become as identified with 1970s horror comics as Wrightson and Jeff Jones. By this time, Sutton had already broken into comics via Marvel (a few western strips) and Warren (where he penciled the premiere installment of Vampirella) but he wouldn't blossom until he worked on the "supernatural hero" titles at Marvel a few years later. His best stuff can be found in the Charlton horror titles of the mid-70s.

John: Is it me, or did Tom Sutton use a sex doll for reference when drawing Sue Ann?

Jack: For Tom Sutton's first DC credit (and only one till 1973), this is pretty bad stuff. While some of the layouts show promise, the actual drawings are amateurish. He would later do much better work. Maybe this was a file story that he did years earlier.

Gray Morrow
The House of Secrets 89 (January 1971)

"Where Dead Men Walk!"
Story by Jack Oleck
Art by Gray Morrow

"A Taste of Dark Fire!"
Story by Gerry Conway
Art by Don Heck

Peter: Despite warnings of ghosts and goblins, Philip Hastings is determined to claim his inheritance: a huge, dark, ominous, gothic mansion. Wife Anne hates it the moment she sees the structure but Philip will not be persuaded and, once they meet caretaker Jamieson, the couple move in. It doesn't take long for Master Hastings to realize he's made a big mistake. Accident follows accident and, during the night, Anne is kidnapped and laid out on a torture rack in the dungeon. When Philip and Jamieson rescue Anne, they decide the best thing to do is burn the castle to the ground. Later, at the constable's office, Philip relates his tale and sulks when he realizes he's destroyed his inheritance because of some foolish superstitions. The constable then lets Philip in on a secret: Jamieson died and was buried days before the Hastings got to the castle. No big surprise in the climax of "Where Dead Men Walk!" (unfortunately, when you've read hundreds of these things, the twist usually becomes clear very quickly) but the unique formatting (odd-angled panels and the lack of word balloons) adds to the feel of a gothic romance novel. Gray Morrow is one of my favorite horror artists and he's at the top of his game here. I did have to laugh at the panel that depicts the Hastings after they've "scurried away" from the castle and are watching it burn atop a mountain several miles away!

John: The cover of this issue is a Marilyn Ross byline short of a Dark Shadows paperback. Morrow's art is such a delight in this issue, he spins straw into gold with an otherwise pedestrian tale. There's a richness of detail in every panel, which only serves to make Don Heck's decent artwork look worse by comparison.

"Where Dead Men Walk!"
Jack: Morrow's cover is a classic. I had thought it was an actual romance novel when I saw the house ad in other DC comics, but I guess it was just used for this issue. The opening story is also a classic, mainly because Morrow's art elevates the familiar tale. The lack of word balloons allows his panels to shine without interference and he terrifies the reader with his images of ghostly figures, especially when they chase the young couple fleeing from the castle. The ending did surprise me, probably because I haven't read as many of these as you have.

Peter: When Thomas Corbett gets up mid-sermon and leaves his church, Father John consults with his good friend, Rabbi Samuel, and the two decide Corbett has gone over to the dark side. Sure enough, when the dynamic duo break into Corbett's house, the man is conjuring demons. Luckily, the religious dynamos have the force of good on their side, righteousness is returned to their little 'burb, and Thomas Corbett is reduced to a pile of ashes.  "A Taste of Dark Fire!" is one of those most confounding of DC mystery stories: a really good, involving set-up with little to no payoff. Gerry Conway's pious pair are genuinely interesting and I could see a series of stories revolving around them. Unfortunately, Gerry has to throw in a silly contrivance (turns out the priest's trusted maid has actually been a satanist the whole time!) and a rushed denouement to weaken an otherwise solidly atmospheric piece. It may be damning praise, but for his part, Don Heck has never looked so unHeck-like. There's a smoothness to his pencils here I never saw in his work for Marvel nor in his dreadful art on the Batgirl mini-series in Detective Comics.

Some very atmospheric work by Don Heck... no, really, Don Heck!
Jack: A priest and a rabbi walk into a bar, and who do they find but Don Heck! The second story in this issue was a letdown from the first, but for Don Heck it was above average. Strangely enough, this super-duo of theologians would return in The Sinister House of Secret Love #2 a year later. That sounds like an odd place for a story about two men of God who battle evil. On a side note, the DC editor takes over the letters page in this issue instead of the House of Secrets responding to reader queries. The editor is now Dick Giordano, who has replaced Joe Orlando.

Dick Giordano
Unexpected 122 (January 1971)

"The Phantom of the Woodstock Festival"
Story by George Kashdan
Art by Dick Dillin and Vince Colletta

"Lady Killer"
Story by Al Case (Murray Boltinoff)
Art by Murphy Anderson

"To Die a Dozen Deaths!"
Story by Carl Wessler
Art by Jerry Grandenetti and Wally Wood

Story by Al Case (Murray Boltinoff)
Art by Jerry Grandenetti

Jack: The Stone Cantaloupe, a hard-rockin' trio of young musicians on their way to the Woodstock festival, gets stuck in traffic and beds down for the night in a deserted old monastery. During the night, Trina, the beautiful young singer, is summoned by the Phantom, who wants to keep her there forever to sing the music he has written. Her friends manage to free her and make off with an old parchment that contains a haunting melody. Sadly, the parchment is lost in the crowd at Woodstock. If only this tepid rip off of Phantom of the Opera had been dropped on the ground and forgotten at Woodstock!

"Shaggy, Daphne, we gotta find Scooby!"
Peter: DC's answer to Gold Key's Ripley's Believe It or Not! offers up four more lousy excuses for mystery. "Woodstock" is an inept, embarrassing variation on Phantom that makes no attempt at anything resembling originality. Lots of writers "pay homage" to the classics but the good scribes find something new to lay their hook on. Not so with George Kashdan who, it seems, was perfectly content to cash a check and get the hell out of Dodge. The less said about Dillin and Colletta the better.

John: There are some howlers in the 70s dialog. I can almost imagine Peter talking like that...

Jack: "Lady Killer" tells the oft-told story of a shy, deluded man who falls in love with a department store mannequin. The art is some of the worst I've seen from Murphy Anderson. When Jon Dusek murders the gypsy Rozmondo, he is cursed "To Die a Dozen Deaths!" Sentenced to be hanged, Dusek dreams over and over that his time has come, but each time the incredibly real experience turns out to have been a dream. After eleven such experiences, his lawyer shows up with pardon in hand and Dusek walks free, only to keel over from heart failure. This story does have some scary moments, despite Grandenetti's bizarre art. Wally Wood is not able to clean it up quite as well as he did in this month's HOM. A "Scarecrow" is what cranky old Sam becomes when he accidentally impales himself on a pitchfork while out looking for pesky crows by the light of the moon.

John: Boy, talk about being spoiled by Morrow's art in HOS. There's nothing worth your time in this issue.

"To Die a Dozen Deaths!"
Peter: The remaining three tales are just as dumb or unoriginal as the opener. "Lady Killer" is a bit on the sleazy side (that's a bonus) but it's bogged down by Murphy Anderson's color-by-numbers artwork and a dopey "twist." Jack points out that Jerry Grandenetti's art doesn't get quite as good a Wood-y this time out and that's pretty right on the money. It's still better than most of Jerry's DC work, though. The story's as limp as last night's pasta (I love the immediate and sudden full pardon Dusek gets because a witness dies) and the shock finale is about as tepid as they come. "Scarecrow" has to be the easiest ten bucks (or whatever DC paid their writers in 1970) that Murray Boltinoff ever made. "Let's see, I'll have this guy who hates crows but is too cheap to buy a scarecrow. We'll show him impaled at the end. How did he get impaled, Jerry? Don't ask questions, just draw!" Eventually, Murphy's Law has to take over and Unexpected will run a good story. Having said that... the fact that editor Dick Giordano lets the cat out of the bag on the letters page and announces the impending return of mystery character Johnny Peril to the pages of Unexpected makes my prediction/proclamation a bit suspect.

Nick Cardy
The Witching Hour 12 (January 1971)

"Double Edge"
Story by Steve Skeates
Art by Alex Toth

"Double Take"
Story by Steve Skeates
Art by George Tuska

"Double Cross!"
Story by Steve Skeates
Art by Gil Kane and Dan Adkins

Jack: A boy's wicked stepmother throws out all of the junk cluttering up his room in "Double Edge," including a mysterious talisman. Years later, the boy is now a man and realizes that the talisman held great power that could be used for good or evil. He journeys to Los Angeles to reclaim it from a witch, but she attacks him and a mystical battle ensues. The young man defeats and kills the witch, only to discover that she was his stepmother. Toth's art makes this simple story seem like an epic! The mystical battle is impressive, but I'm not sure why the young man mourns the loss of his wicked stepmother at the end.

"Double Edge"
Peter: This is purely eye candy, Jack. Steve Skeates wrote some magnificent stories in the 1970s but this ain't one of them. It's not awful (it's head and shoulders above any of the junk found in this month's Unexpected) but the story has some unexplained mysteries that have nothing to do with the occult. In addition to the aforementioned climactic mourning, it defies logic that the stepmother would have spent any time tinkering with the talisman rather than doing just what she said she would do: toss it in the rubbish with the rest of the boy's collection. Just what is this talisman anyway? And who's the guy talking to our hero at the beginning of the story? His therapist, or perhaps Steve Skeates himself? Never mind all that. Just enjoy Toth's art.

John: I wish I could. Maybe it's because I'm reading it in black and white, but these big splash page mystical battles did absolutely nothing for me.

Jack: "Double Take" finds a man murdering his blackmailer, only to discover that he's playing a part in a movie. Or is he? This story is too confusing to work, and Tuska's art doesn't help. Happily, "Double Cross!" features very strong art by Kane and Adkins to illustrate the story of a happy housewife who comes unhinged when a yogi teaches her to expand her mind. She now sees beyond the surface of things and realizes that the forces of good and evil are battling for her soul. She breaks a store window and steals a cross to protect herself, only to be arrested for robbery and tossed in a cell, her cross confiscated by the cops! I am a huge Gil Kane fan, so I rejoice whenever one of his stories pops up in a DC horror mag. There is also a neat in-joke--the yoga book that Mrs. Coburn studies is by none other than Eli Katz, which is Kane's real name.

"Double Take"
Peter: George "Buckteeth" Tuska is currently ruining Iron Man and Hero For Hire over on our sister blog Marvel University so let's hope he's not as much a presence over here. As Jack said, "Double Take" doesn't really work as a story. The twists are too convoluted but it's a fun idea and I'll give Skeates points for trying something with a little bit of imagination to it, failure or no. As my Math teacher used to say, "I won't fail you if you at least make the effort." Of course, he failed me anyway. The best is saved for last, though, with "Double Cross." Not only does Gil Kane deliver on the art front (I believe writers were actually crafting stories around Kane's penchant for huge furry snake demons) but Skeates turns in a refreshingly cliche-free little devil worship story. I thought for sure we'd find out that Mrs. Coburn's jailers were, in fact, satanists as well but that may have been the biggest twist of all. That last panel, of the helpless housewife awaiting her fate, is a gem. Best story of the month. Aces all the way!

"Double Cross!"
John: While I do think Kane's art in the last story is the best of the bunch, I think that's a pretty low standard to measure against. For my 15 cents, this issue peaked with the great Nick Cardy cover (which on first glance I thought was Two-Face).

Jack: With the three stories inter-related by themes of doubling, this issue of The Witching Hour is particularly strong; too bad four pages of Tuska have to interrupt the fine work by Toth and Kane!

Peter: I wonder why Skeates didn't work a charm/talisman into the middle story since they played an important part in the two bookends.


...and more Toth!


AndyDecker said...

Is it just me, or did HoM get the best covers of the bunch?

Or is it just Adams' magic?

Peter Enfantino said...

It's not just you, Andy. I think HOM was considered the flagship title of the line. It got the best stories (and will continue to) and the best covers.

And it's Adams' magic :>