Monday, October 28, 2013

Do You Dare Enter? Part Thirteen: April-May 1971

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

Neal Adams
House of Mystery 191 (April 1971)

"No Strings Attached!"
Story by Len Wein
Art by Bill Draut

"The Hanging Tree!"
Story by Jack Oleck
Art by Tony deZuniga

"Night Prowler!"
Story by Len Wein
Art by Bernie Wrightson

Peter: Kindly ol' Gregory Miller (Gramps to the multitudes of children he entertains with his puppet shows) is approached one day by a particularly nasty fellow by the name of Lucas Stone. The man makes Gramps an offer few would refuse: twenty-five thousand dollars for the house the old man lives in. Citing memories and a fondness for the children, Gramps turns the offer down and, before too long, Stone shows up again with the police and informs the old man that he's bought the house from under him and he's got one day to vacate. 24 hours later, Gramps is arrested for vagrancy and locked up. We find out that the house is in the path of a planned freeway and the owner stands to make mucho dinero when he sells out to the city.

"No Strings Attached!"
The children send their love letters to Gramps but Stone intercepts them and, thinking he's been forgotten, the kindly old man dies of a broken heart. That night, as the children sleep and Stone cackles, the puppets come to life and exact their revenge, making Lucas Stone a part of the show. No doubt raised on a steady diet of EC Comics, Len Wein "pays homage" to one of the classics, "Poetic Justice"(Haunt of Fear #12, April 1952), a story that would become even more famous when it hit the big screen as one-fifth of the Amicus film, Tales from the Crypt. Unlike the EC story, "No Strings Attached" is no classic as neither writing nor art stand out. Hardly any time is spent focusing on the eventual weapon of revenge, the puppets, so their arrival seems more of an afterthought, a windup.

Jack: The awakening toys look quite malevolent but that's about the only good thing I can say about this one. I'm not very clear on how bad guy Stone turns into a puppet at the end.

John: Yeah, I was looking forward to the big payoff, so I was disappointed when it happened off the page. My favorite part of this story was Cain's prologue where the dragon torches the knight.

Peter: Most witches curse future generations from their perch atop a burning stack of firewood. Not Hecubah. This witch decided she'd throw a curse on anyone who carved their initials in "The Hanging Tree." So, through the hundreds of years after, generation after generation manage to forget the witch's vow and seemingly can't help themselves from putting knife to bark. Hoping to stop the reign of terror, Isaac Irvington does his best to warn off young lovers but this enrages Hecubah and she drags Isaac down to hell with her. A really bad horror story, I was surprised to learn that this wasn't a Golden Age reprint. It's got one of those dishpan haunting story lines and deZuniga (who I liked a lot in his previous outing) blends in with Bill Draut and the other weak artists consigned to these forgettable quickies. The only compliment I can pay this bilge is that, when one couple finds out Isaac stopped them from carving because of a witch's curse, they lay tracks back to the tree, determined to finish their handy work. The only thing that could have made it perfect would have been if Draut had drawn speeding circles for the couple's legs.

Here me?

John: I thought the art was okay, but the story was nothing to write home about.

Jack: I cackled when the tree limb fell on poor Amos with a big "THUD"! Too bad Isaac Irvington wasn't named Sam Schmedlap--he would have avoided a lot of trouble.

"Night Prowler"
Peter: There's a "Night Prowler" loose in a small rural town and every one is on edge, so when Fred's wife wakes him to tell him there are noises coming from the ground floor, the man calmly takes his shot gun and creeps down the stairs. Needless to say, on this Christmas Eve, it's not a prowler Fred meets up with. A three page quickie, the story is naturally abrupt, but it's cute enough and there's some top-notch Wrightson here to hold us over until Len and Bernie launch their magnum opus in a few months.

Jack: When Bernie Wrightson tries to draw average folks they come out looking a little weird, don't they? As usual, I like a Christmas story, and was surprised that nothing horrible or grisly occurred.

John: I was similarly shocked, but not in a good way. Wrightson drawing what is essentially a feel-good story? It just seems like a waste of his talent.

Peter: Circulation figures show that, in the previous twelve months, House of Mystery was selling an average of 180,642. That's an increase of 7,436 copies over the 1969 numbers.

Neal Adams
House of Secrets 91 (May 1971)

"The Eagle's Talon!"
Story Uncredited
Art by Jerry Grandenetti and Wally Wood

"Please, Don't Cry, Johnny!"
Story Uncredited
Art by Sam Glanzman

"There Are Two of Me... and One Must Die!"
Story Uncredited
Art by Murphy Anderson

Peter: While leading a coup against the vicious dictator, General Mirez, the freedom fighter known as El Aguila (The Eagle) is taken prisoner and has his hand (actually an eagle's talon grafted on by a witch, or so the rumors say) lopped off. As he dies from blood loss, El Aguila curses Mirez with death "by eagle's claw in a cage" (...on a Monday morning just past sunset near the border of Jacinto...). Over the next few days, the General is attacked by deadly birds that only he can see. Fearing he's losing his marbles, Mariz heads off on vacation but the despot soon learns that revenge will find him even at a beach resort. Finally, a Grandenetti art job I can say good things about! Granted, you can't see any of Jerry through the Wood but still... The story's another one that's been done to death and much better (Ray Bradbury wrote a version that was made into an Alfred Hitchcock Hour, as I recall) ["The Life Work of Juan Diaz"--Jack] at that. I'd have liked to know more about El Aguila and his talon but (uncredited) decides to off the character within the first few panels. How did he get such a perfect talon? Did a surgeon do the graft or was it really a witch with a keen eye and steady hand, able to sew nerves together?

Commandant Von Ekt takes time out from hunting
Mlle. Marie to catch the ghost of El Aguila

Jack: Too bad Neal Adams did not draw the story along with the cover, which is fantastic! There is no beautiful girl running from a giant eagle in the story, only the fat generalissimo. This story hits new heights for gruesomeness in a DC horror tale--the talon/hand gets chopped off, eagles are machine-gunned, etc. Young bird-loving readers must have had nightmares in 1971.

John: Based on the Adams cover, I was expecting something more along the lines of Night of the Eagle (aka Burn Witch Burn). But I have to say, giving El Aguila a claw was a pretty wild idea.

Peter: "Please Don't Cry, Johnny" is an abysmal three-page joke about a little bald-headed boy who doesn't appreciate being picked on and called "egghead" at school. When he gets into a fistfight, his teacher visits his home and discovers that Johnny's father is actually a giant egg (Humpty Dumpty?). I'd prefer to be listed as (uncredited) too if I'd laid this rotten egg.

Co-starring Vincent Price as...
Jack: How could you not love that final panel? It's so bizarre!

John: I'm with Jack on this one. It's so out of left field, I have to give them credit for at least surprising us. 

Peter: Industrialist Marshall Perkins has a nasty habit of seesawing between good fella and mean ol' cuss. His son insists that Marshall must get a handle on his emotions before something bad happens. On a business trip to Hong Kong, Perkins runs across an incense burner in the shape of a Buddha that purports to separate a man from his madness. Once back in the States, Marshall burns the incense and is confronted with the personification of his own evil. The twin exclaims to Perkins that he'll ruin his life and then take over. This leads to the inevitable showdown when Marshall's son is forced to choose which one of the twins to shotgun. DC titles had the most annoying habit sometimes (and this extended to their hero comics) of showing you the punchline and then working backwards (or bassackwards actually). "There Are Two Of Me..." begins with Perkins having one of his mood swings and then, when we turn the page, we see a large title page of two Marshall Perkins accusing each other of fraud. We then get into the meat of the story. How can any reader be surprised then when the story begins to reveal its "secret"? Not that it's much of a read but at least we didn't get the most predictable of climaxes (the entire time I was convinced that Marshall's gorgeous wife and his son were having an affair, slapping on Marshall masks and trying to drive the old man loony) and Murphy Anderson's art is appropriate for a story that should have been published in 1956.

John: Actually, that story technique can be very effective. Richard Matheson frequently used it quite successfully. But I'll go out on a limb and say that I'm confident Richard Matheson was not responsible for this lackluster tale.

Peter tries to calm Jack, insisting that these horror stories can only get better!
Jack: What can I say to that? After five years of therapy you'd think I'd be further along.

Neal Adams
Unexpected 124 (May 1971)

"These Walls Shall Be Your Grave"
Story by Jack Phillips (George Kashdan)
Art by Jerry Grandenetti

"Gift of the Ghouls!"
Story by George Kashdan
Art by George Tuska

"The Incredible Rebirth of Martin Phipps!"
Story by Carl Wessler
Art by Jack Sparling

Jack: Dr. Kane seems to barely escape danger from a rampaging patient named Abraham in "These Walls Shall Be Your Grave," a tale set in a mental institution. When a driver with car trouble pulls off the highway and stays the night, he is awakened by Dr. Kane, who frantically borrows the car to chase an escaped inmate. In the UNEXPECTED climax, Dr. Kane is revealed to be a patient himself, whose daughter protects him from the truth. It's hard to know what's worse in this story--the old chestnut about the lunatic masquerading as the asylum chief, or Jerry Grandenetti's slapdash art. I really have to wonder if he thought he was creating some sort of bizarrely original style. I have difficulty selecting just one panel to represent how bad this looks.

Jerry "Picasso" Grandenetti
Peter: Well, what's worse--the story or art. How about a draw? Did George Kashdan really believe anyone would gasp at the UNEXPECTED ending? Only a moron would miss what this was about right from the beginning. I assumed some other twist was coming our way but I'm beginning to think that the most UNEXPECTED curve ball would be a decent story. And I'm still shaking my head when thinking about the story Grandenetti drew (and Wally Wood inked) in House of Secrets this month. That story and this one are evidence that an inker is truly part of the artist package. The art in "These Walls" looks like a 6th Grader let loose with water colors.

John: This art was so bad I couldn't bring myself to read the story. Sounds like I didn't miss out on much.

Jack: Milton Rapp is given the deed to a new house, which turns out to be a "Gift of the Ghouls!" It seems all of the neighbors are witches and warlocks who try time and again to kill Milton's son Gary. When Gary's birthday rolls around, it will mean doom for the sorcerers. Day after day, Gary manages to escape death, so the neighbors cook up a witch-themed birthday party. But before eating the birthday cake that will kill him, Gary blows out the candles and all the witches disappear. Maybe Peter can make some sense of this mess, because I sure can't. All I can say is that George Tuska's art looks polished after Grandenetti's.

A wild witch party according to Tuska
Peter: Good God, this mess just gets worse as I turn the pages. Milton's wife wears one of those bandanna things Lucille Ball used to wear, Milton has green hair in one panel, and Gary goes from slim to porky and back again depending on which page I'm on. The only compliment I could give to Tuska's work is that he'd be the perfect artist for Alvin and the Chipmunks. As for the story, and its "unique conjunction of the stellar constellations," I'm convinced writers like George Kashdan had nothing but contempt for the brats reading their swill. How else to explain such lazy writing, endlessly recycled plots and punchlines and finales that make no sense whatsoever? This stuff would have put me off DC horror had I read it at ten years of age.

John: Wasn't it just last month that I was threatening to stop reading Unexpected? The art is a marginal step up from the prior story, but the story is another 'Expected bottom feeder.

20? or 45?
Jack: "The Incredible Rebirth of Martin Phillips!" doesn't last long, as grouchy old Phipps learns when he cheats a mystical painter out of the $10,000 fee the artist wants to charge for making Martin look decades younger. Martin woos and wins young Eloise Brooks from his company's steno pool, but one day the chickens come home to roost and Martin finds he's old again. He goes in search of the mystical artist but can't find him. Too bad he didn't stay home longer--Eloise has also grown old, apparently having used the same trickery to regain her youth. This story is just dopey! Eloise is supposed to look 20 when she meets Martin, but she looks more like she's about 45 and a chain-smoker to me.

Peter: Well, she could be 20 and look 45 because she's a chain smoker, Jack. Oh, and she's drawn by perennial favorite Jack Sparling. I didn't have a problem with this one, enjoying it for what it was, and the twist at the climax actually surprised me. Can't begin to tell you when the last time an UNEXPECTED story actually had an UNEXPECTED finale. This may be a case of me lowering my standards when dealing with this title.

John: Dorian Gray he's not. Take another gander at that art. Eloise looks like one of those misshapen folks from the early days of the Marvel Universe. And that's supposed to be when she looks good!

Jack: The circulation report in this issue says that Unexpected was selling an average of 159,390 copies a month in 1970, an increase of 4,280 copies per month over the previous year.

Carmine Infantino and Neal Adams
The Witching Hour 14 (May 1971)

"Fourteen Months!"
Story by Gerry Conway
Art by Jeff Jones

"Which Witch is Which?"
Story by David Kaler
Art by Stanley Pitt

"The Haunted House in Space!"
Story Uncredited
Art by Al Williamson and Carlos Garzon

Jack: Starfleet Commander Elliot Scott has been in space for "Fourteen Months!" and it's taking its toll. He shoots down an enemy ship and celebrates with his colleague Kelly--though we learn that everyone else on board was killed in a prior battle and he is talking to dead men. This story is only 3 1/2 pages long and never gets going, though the art by Jeff Jones features some unusual use of light and shadows. Did you know Jeff Jones later became a woman before he passed away? I was out of the comic scene for a few decades and missed that.

"Fourteen Months!"
Peter: I believe this is the first we've seen of the soon-to-be-famous Jeff Jones. Very soon Jones would join that second tier of comic book/paperback artists that included him, Boris Vallejo and Ken Kelly (the first tier was reserved for Frank Frazetta alone). "Fourteen Months" is an oddball, to be sure, with half the visuals resembling Jones the stylist and the other half (in particular, the panels of the space ships) looking like he farmed it out to one of the grade school kids down the block. What's startling about Jones's work, as well as that of Bernie Wrightson, is just how much it stands out from the weaker artists in the DC mystery stable (Grandenetti, Sparling, Tuska, Glanzman, etc.).

John: I was surprised to see a tale set in space, and while I had high hopes that Jones might bring something special to the table, this one didn't amount to much. 

Jack: Ladies man Archer Ka-R would be better off knowing "Which Witch is Which?" when he and his pal Hale land on Juvan Three, "every space jockey's dream of paradise"! Archer hooks up with lovely blue Ilysia and falls hard for her, doing the things lovers do across the universe--shopping, running on the beach, riding giant flying chickens--until Hale knocks him out and takes him back into space on their ship. Archer is really angry and gets into a fight with Hale, accidentally knocking Hale into a control that opens the ship's cockpit dome, sending them both into space where they die immediately. Back on Juvan Three, it's revealed that Ilysia was a witch who put a spell on Archer to avenge her sister (?) Versa, whom Archer had jilted on a prior visit. This is a really weird story! The art goes back and forth between looking very stilted and wooden, like a reprint from a 1950s comic, and looking like elaborate pulp magazine cover art, especially in respect to the women. In addition to the art credit to Stanley Pitt, there is a "Design" credit given to Reg Pitt. The design of the pages is quite nice, actually. The Pitt brothers were Australian artists who were the first from that continent to have their work published in an American comic, or so says Wikipedia.

"Which Witch is Which?"
Peter: How the heck do you pronounce Ka-R? There's more than a hint of sexuality here, especially in the panel of obvious post-coitus between Ka-R and one of his lovelies. The finale is a strange bird indeed. Ka-R doesn't meet his maker at the hands of the girl swearing revenge, as is often the case, but as a result of raging testosterone! This guy just can't wait to get back to Earth to bed his maiden! I could stress that the sequence of panels where Ka-R and Hale fight in briefs has an almost homoerotic bent to it but, since I'm not Fredric Wertham, I'll just say that I thought the climax was fabulous and right out of left field. Eccentric is so much better than cliched.

John: Wait—you're not Fredric Wertham?

Jack: Three space criminals discover "The Haunted House in Space!" where, when each of them dies, he turns into the room he most fears. It seems that there is a witch involved, but the story makes little sense. Fortunately, we are treated to eight pages of utterly gorgeous art by the great Al Williamson.

"The Haunted House in Space!"
Peter: I couldn't make heads or tails of most of this story and the bits I could understand (man becomes the room he fears the most) were just silly. Who walks around fearing he'll become an attic or a closet? Incredibly silly story with fabulous graphics, "The Haunted House in Space" reminds me of one of those interminably bad Skywald stories lovingly illustrated by... Carlos Garzon! The artist would move on to bigger and better (?) things when he and Al Williamson teamed up again for Marvel's adaptations of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.

John: I'm a huge Al Williamson fan, and yes, I first became aware of him when he did the Empire Strikes Back run in Marvel's Star Wars comic. But I fell in love with his style, and as a result I enjoy everything I've seen of his, including this strange tale. 

Jack: This issue has only the most tenuous connection to the supernatural. All three stories are set in outer space, and even the frame takes place there. Jeff Jones, Al Williamson, and even the Pitt brothers turn in some great visuals but it's too bad the stories are not of like quality.

Peter: It's a different road that editor Murray Boltinoff was steering the title onto but I don't have a problem if it results in some nice artwork. Interesting and intelligent stories wouldn't hurt but I'm thinking baby steps here. If you nail one maybe the other falls in line? We'll see.


AndyDecker said...

A circulation of 160000 for a middle of the road comic like Unexpected? Truly different times.

Peter is right about Wrightson, Jones and co. Their work is so removed from the rest of the artists.

Peter Enfantino said...


Those are certainly insane numbers compared to the sales figures for today's comic books but 160,000 on the low end for 1971 DC considering Superman was selling 421,000 a month that year!

Bird of Paradise said...

Death by eagle Talon the Ghostly eagles rip the Dictator apart or at least maul him to Death and well El Agula reincarnated As A EAGLE