Monday, December 28, 2015

Do You Dare Enter? Part Sixty-Eight: March/April 1976

The DC Mystery Anthologies 1968-1976
by Peter Enfantino and
Jack Seabrook

Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez
The House of Mystery 239

"Day of the Witch"
Story by Jack Oleck
Art by Abe Ocampo

"Dog Food"
Story by Russell Carley and Michael Fleisher
Art by Ramona Fradon

Peter: "Mustang" Harry Coulson really digs lassoing wild horses but his reasoning isn't quite sane. Harry captures the beautiful animals for the money but his real love is to watch them being ground into "Dog Food." When horse lover Annie Templeton raises a fuss and the county board passes a new law banning the capture of the wild horses, Coulson gets payback by delivering Annie's beloved Palomino, Prince, to the slaughterer on his last roundup. Since this is House of Mystery and a story co-written by Michael Fleisher, you can pretty much figure out Annie's revenge.

Palpo! Not Alpo! That's hilarious!

The sadistic characters that used to be so fresh in a Fleisher strip had, by 1976, become cartoony caricatures, lacking any depth or human qualities. Instead of simply making Harry a vile individual living off the murder of these wild horses, Russell and Mike heap on nastiness until we're laughing rather than gasping. Does "Mustang" really have to get off by watching the animals being slaughtered? No, but it ramps up our hatred for the character, doesn't it? Fradon remains a fun addition to just about anything she does. "Day of the Witch" is nothing more than another inane variation on Rosemary's Baby.

"Day of the Witch"

Jack: "Dog Food" wasn't all that bad, Peter, and Fradon's art is so much fun that it elevates the tired script. The trend toward increasingly graphic violence continues as we are treated to the sight of a horse and a man on the verge of getting their brains blown out. In "Day of the Witch," we get to see the effect of mid-'70s Women's Lib on the realm of Satan. It's not pretty.

Ernie Chan
The House of Secrets 140

"Reprise: The Patchwork Man"
Story by Gerry Conway
Art by Nestor Redondo

Peter: Though thought to be dead from a fall (way back in Swamp Thing #3), the Patchwork Man is back! Hiding in a department store, the giant Frankensteinian creature can't help but get into trouble and the authorities are called. A cop's bullet grazes the monster's skull and the Patchwork Man is taken into custody but he's soon bailed out by four mysterious, nattily-dressed gentlemen representing the Mount Good Hope Institute. When the men get PM back to their lab, it's time for a little flashback action. Those who never read Swamp Thing #3 (shame on you!) learn that PM is, in reality, Gregori Arcane, father of Swampy's gal pal, Abigail. Arcane had accidentally stepped on a live mine near his estate and been blown apart, only to be stitched together by his conniving brother, Anton. Back in the present, the scientists at the Institute discuss just what to do with their pet monster and decide the best way forward is to zap him with their "genetic replicator" (just what this gizmo is is not explained). The charge seems to increase the creature's strength and he bursts his bonds, laying waste to the scientists, and heads out into the street. A kindly cab driver picks PM up and takes him home, hoping the wife will understand.

Just why DC and Joe Orlando would think it a good idea to resuscitate a Frankenstein clone from Swamp Thing is anyone's guess. Obviously, the introduction of a series character to the DC mystery line was designed to generate a spark in the falling circulation numbers. Most of the story is given over to catching new readers up on the back story, so nothing more than a few subplots get generated by Conway in the first installment. The sappy soap (a female scientist informs her colleague/lover that she's pregnant and wants an abortion so that she can continue her thriving career) is padding to convince us this series is "edgy" but it comes off closer to General Hospital throwaways. The story itself is extremely close to what Gary Friedrich and Doug Moench were doing with the Frankenstein Monster in Monsters Unleashed. Well, it looks like that was where Conway was heading but we'll never know as this series got the axe after one chapter. As a matter of fact, The House of Secrets was temporarily canned in 1976 and won't return until September (in its original anthology format). According to Amazing World of DC Comics #9 (November 1975), HoS was put on hiatus due to editor Joe Orlando's increased workload. While the script is lacking, you can't find fault in Nestor Redondo's art, which has more than a hint of Wrightson to it. As for the Patchwork Man himself, he pulls a disappearing act until Steve Bissette gives him a proper send off in Swamp Thing #59 (April 1987).

Jack: At this point, House of Secrets was bi-monthly, so the hiatus only caused it to miss two issues. I have never been a big fan of Gerry Conway's writing, but I found this story entertaining and I was glad for a break from the standard DC mystery format. According to the letters column in this issue, the plan was to continue featuring lead stories of ten pages each with the Patchwork Man and to fill in the back of the book with mystery stories. Instead, the next issue has the House of Secrets back at the helm of the letters column, bragging that the editors tried to kick him (it?) out but could not. One question: when the mysterious gentlemen hand the police a court order to turn the Patchwork Man over to them, what is the name on the order? Is it Gregori Arcane? And how did they get such an order? Did they tell the judge that Mr. Arcane had been revived as a Patchwork Man and they needed to study him? It's these sort of details that keep me up nights.

Luis Dominguez
The Witching Hour 62

"Never Steal From Your Mummy!"
Story by Carl Wessler
Art by Ernie Chua

"The Cat's-Eye Stone"
Story by Carl Wessler
Art by Fred Carrillo

"Murder By the Clock"
Story by Carl Wessler
Art by Ruben Yandoc

Jack: When archaeologist Roland Graves finds the mummy of Egyptian queen Ras-Iba, he quickly unwraps her bandages and steals the priceless emerald that hangs over her chest. He soon learns that an ancient curse advising folks to "Never Steal From Your Mummy!" should be heeded at all costs. After avoiding death on the plane ride home, he is nearly killed when a car jumps the curb; the driver is a gorgeous redhead and, before you can say "Carl Wessler," they are engaged to be married. The ceremony takes place at night and, as soon as they are wed, Madeleine flips back her veil and--surprise!--she's the decrepit mummy of Ras-Iba!

Well, what else would she be in a Carl Wessler story? As in previous stories with a similar plot, the big reveal comes out of nowhere and makes no sense. To make things worse, Carl is still stuck in the '60s with Cynthia the hot witch narrating along the lines of "Roland Graves dug beautiful gems the way he dug lovely chicks, which was the most!"

Peter: Absolutely dreadful but, then, so is the rest of the contents of The Witching Hour. Not to beat a dead horse, Jack, but why would Wessler think the hip talk on the street was still circa 1965? Chua/Chan, usually reliable, turn in a by-the-numbers job here, lacking any excitement or flair. I'm not sure how Roland didn't see the secret of Madeleine coming when she dresses like an Egyptian tomb. Even worse is "Murder by the Clock," a padded, meandering murder mystery with nice art from Yandoc, who must have been the most patient artist in the DC mystery bullpen. Imagine opening that Carl Wessler/George Kashdan script every month and thinking, "I should have been a janitor!" Ruben's art is the only saving grace in this awful issue.

Luis Dominguez
Unexpected 172

"Strangler in Paradise"
Story by Carl Wessler
Art by Romy Gamboa

"What Did You Do With My Body?"
Story by Jack Kelly (George Kashdan)
Art by Rico Rival

"Scream of Fear"
Story by George Kashdan
Art by Frank Redondo

Jack: Doris tells her husband Norm that she's worried about the new maid, Lina, especially after they witness Lina roasting live bats over an open campfire out in the yard (yes, you read that right). Norm pooh-poohs Doris's worries, but that night the housewife hears strange noises coming from the maid's room and finds Lina holding a Doris doll in front of the fireplace. Norm, who is not the most supportive of husbands, still is not concerned. Doris then looks on aghast as Lina commands an army of squirrels to come down the chimney and kill the family dog. Lina points her fist at Doris and a giant snake comes out of Lina's ring and wraps itself around Doris, choking her. This drives out a demon that had been possessing Doris's body and all live happily ever after; Lina, who turns out to be an exorcist, must move on to her next job.

Why are squirrels killing
a dog? No idea.
"Scream of Fear" is such a bizarre mess that only George Kashdan could have written it. Or maybe Carl Wessler. Either way, it's all too indicative of the drivel that filled DC horror comics in 1976.

Peter: An argument could be made (and I dare anyone to argue with me) that Unexpected #172 is the single worst issue of the DC mystery era. Usually we can, at the very least, depend on good art but there's none to be found here. "Strangler" falls back on the tired old premise that the murderer is, in reality, the best friend of the accused; Gamboa's art looks rushed and unfinished. Same goes for the carnival groaner, "What Did You Do...," wherein the corpse pulls the trigger on its own killer (trigger mortis, I get it!) and we're forced to sit through muddy, ugly visuals by Rival (who has been decent at times) and dialogue like "Beat it, crumb! Or I'll let you have a fistful of knuckles!" But the worst is saved for last with the aforementioned "Scream of Fear," a hodgepodge of cliches that somehow defies expectations by combining demons, exorcists, shady husbands, satanic rituals, and killer squirrels and still not emerge as entertaining!

Joe Orlando
The House of Mystery 240

"The Murderer"
Story by Ed Fedory and Robert Kanigher
Art by E.R. Cruz and Joe Orlando

Story by Cary Bates
Art by Ruben Yandoc

Peter: Dr. John Florius hides a secret in his dark and stormy greenhouse but Theresa Grey only wants to know what's happened to her sister, Sybil, who married Florius years before but has now disappeared. The worried woman contacts the police and Sgt. Thames promises Theresa that he'll investigate. When he and Theresa travel to Florius's estate, they are attacked by Florius but, luckily, backup arrives and the scientist is shot. Dying, he heads back into his greenhouse where the police find what Florius has been hiding: Sybil Florius, transformed into a huge plant.

There's a great final panel to "The Murderer," but you'll have to be patient and turn seven pages of Roger Corman/Vincent Price/Edgar Allan Poe-influenced dreariness and inactivity to get there. I've been kind enough to reprint that panel above so that our readers won't have to waste their time (Jack and I are almost like a public service). The script (by our favorite mystery punching bag, Robert Kanigher) is so sloppy that there's no reason given for the nutty professor to turn his wife into a flower (Dr. Florius is the most subtle villain name since Doctor Octopus). Was he working on a last-ditch antidote to save humanity from itself? Could we survive an atomic blast if we were all dandelions?  I shouldn't be so rough on the whole package, though, as Cruz and Orlando contribute some exquisite art to the snoozer of a script. Conversely, "Manslaughter" (whose gumshoe is a dead ringer for Humphrey Bogart) has a suspenseful build-up but a criminally weak climax.

Jack: With this issue, House of Mystery returns to monthly status after having been bi-monthly for a grand total of two issues. I wonder if Joe Orlando felt the dreaded deadline doom breathing down his neck and thus had to draw a cover lickety-split and finish off Cruz's pencils on the first story with some very light inks. Other than that last image of Cain in the panel reproduced here, I don't see any evidence of Orlando's artwork in the story at all. In fact, I think the story depicted on the cover might have been more interesting than the one Fedory and Kanigher turned in.

"Manslaughter" is much better, with some gruesome murders and a sick premise, just the way we like 'em.

Luis Dominguez
Ghosts 46

"Keep Beating, Haunted Heart"
Story by Carl Wessler
Art by Ruben Yandoc

"The World's Most Famous Phantom"
Story by Carl Wessler
Art by Lee Elias

"Curse of the Mad Marlowes"
Story by Carl Wessler
Art by Rico Rival

Jack: Arab crime boss Yusef Habib is sick and needs a new heart, so he has his goons murder a donor named Gamal Pahlevi to provide the necessary organ for Habib's survival. The surgery goes well but soon Habib starts to see the ghost of Pahlevi. Though Habib tells the stolen organ to "Keep Beating, My Haunted Heart," Pahlevi visits Habib in bed, rips out his heart, and sticks it back in his own chest. Poetic Justice, anyone?

Peter: I love how every time The Brotherhood (the secret organization that Habib works for) is mentioned, it's in bold or prefaced with ..., almost as though the baying of hounds will accompany the reference. After finding out Habib is skimming off the top, The head poobah of... The Brotherhood! mentions they've suspected the embezzlement all along. Then why go to the trouble of murdering someone to give Habib a heart? Yes, I know it's just a funny book.Elsewhere, there's some nice Lee Elias artwork lent to "The World's Most Famous Phantom," Carl Wessler's account of how Dickens got his inspiration for A Christmas Carol. By default, this is probably Wessler's best story of the month (hell, let's predict it's Wessler's Best of the Year!).

Coming in Our Next Issue!
The Introduction of
Enemy Ace!
On Sale January 4th!

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