"Paid in Full"
Story by Jack Oleck
Art by Frank Robbins
"Death Pulls the Strings"
Story by Bill Finger
Art by Nestor Redondo
Peter: "Death Pulls the Strings," about a sadistic sideshow carny who talks three "midgets" into becoming puppets, is obviously a "file" story since writer Bill Finger had died two years earlier. I'd love to say that Finger, the guy who helped create Batman and wrote a whole bunch of the Dark Knight's 1940s adventures, left behind some quality work but "Strings" is not a very good story. The carny becomes obsessed with the fame the puppets have brought him and loses sight of the fact that they're real people. The troupe members decide to strike out on their own and the boss doesn't like that so he beats them to death. He's struck by lightning when he exits the tent and... The End. That's it. The scale of the little people and their tormentor seems to change from panel to panel. Not much better is the opener, which Jack Oleck typed up in the dark while re-reading some of his old scripts. Yet another variation on the "bad guy who runs across the old witch and has her conjure up some goodies for him until his evil behavior spells curtains for him" with the evil cat supporting character (inevitably named "Lucifer!") thrown in for bad measure. The non-linear storytelling that begins "Paid in Full" makes no sense whatsoever when you start to think about it. Here's a tip: don't think about it. All covered in a special Frank Robbins cream sauce. Robbins does have the ingenuity to draw his protagonist with a rat-like face so that the climax is ironic. I could complain about the mere 15 pages of story content this issue but... nah, I'll count my blessings.
|A rare example of Frank Robbins subtlety|
Jack: The large cat looming over the burial scene on page one of the story reminded me of the giant figures Jerry Robinson used to draw on 1940s Batman splash pages, and I liked the way Robbins drew a few more large cat shadows lurking behind some of the panels on subsequent pages. The twist is not bad and I did not expect it, but ending the story by having Cass become the cat's plaything was a letdown. You're right about the skimpy 15 pages of story in this issue. By the mid-1970s, the economics of comic books were starting to require lower page counts or higher cover prices and eventually something had to give.
"Face of Fright"
Story by George Kashdan
Art by E.R. Cruz
"Sweet Dreams, Bitter Nightmares"
Story by Wesley Marsh (Murray Boltinoff)
Art by Gerry Talaoc
"The Thing in the Teakwood Chest"
Story by Carl Wessler
Art by Fred Carrillo
Jack: Paul Chalmers is a millionaire racehorse breeder with a pretty daughter named Pamela who is in love with Eric, the deformed son of Chalmers's stable groom who died in a fire 18 years ago. Chalmers will do anything to keep Pamela away from Eric and his "Face of Fright," but boy loves girl too much to let go. One day, Chalmers attacks Eric and Pamela collapses. She can only be saved by a blood transfusion and guess who is the only guy around with the same rare blood type? Yes, it's Eric, who is happy to volunteer to donate blood to his beloved. Pamela survives but the transfusion makes her just as ugly as Eric! E.R. Cruz's steady hand with a pencil makes this run of the mill story look good and, even though I saw the ending coming a mile away, it was satisfying when it happened.
Peter: This is one awful issue of The Witching Hour from start to finish. "Face of Fright" climaxes with a blood transfusion that makes Pamela a malformed freak. What kind of blood would do that? How about the second feature, "Sweet Dreams, Bitter Nightmares," which reads like one of those really bad Gothic strips and features a finale guaranteed to raise chuckles rather than goosebumps? Worst of all is Carl Wessler's predictable "The Thing in the Teakwood Chest," with amateurish art by Fred Carrillo and a hook that makes no sense whatsoever. What really bugs me the most about The Witching Hour is that annoying 1960s hipster dialogue spouted by cutesy pie witch, Cynthia ("What a gas!" "Some bummer!" "Hang loose!"). It sounds like just what it is: a stable of writers out of touch with the outside world.
Jack: Cynthia does have great legs, though.
"What Scared Sally?
Story by Bill Dennehy (Murray Boltinoff)
Art by Fred Carrillo
"I, the Imprisoned Brain"
Art by Fred Carrillo
"Hunger of the Dying"
Story by Jack Philips (George Kashdan)
Art by Tenny Henson
Jack: Dr. Volke shoots and kills his partner, Dr. Thurman, but Prof. Osgood preserves Thurman's brain in a glass jar and hooks up eyes and ears to it. If only he could figure out a way to get the darned thing to talk! "I, the Imprisoned Brain" has no problem thinking (and narrating the story), however, so when Dr. Volke comes to kill the brain (don't ask) and murders a meddling night watchman instead, Prof. Osgood has a Eureka! moment. At the murder of trial of Dr. Volke, the first witness turns out to be none other than the dead night watchman, reanimated by having Dr. Thurman's brain transplanted onto the top of his head and covered with a fishbowl for easy display.
All three of the stories in this issue of Unexpected are dreadful, so I picked this one to write about because it gave me an excuse to reproduce here the ridiculous final panel!
Peter: You're not kidding, Jack. You don't have to wrap a fish in a copy of Unexpected #173 for it to stink. I do have to mention the opener, "What Scared Sally?" (a title which makes no sense, by the way), wherein we're presented with the two dumbest kids on Earth. Well, they have to be dumb if two suspicious characters grab Sally and her brother, Davey, from behind, identify themselves as government agents (even though they're in street clothes and look pretty mangy) and ask the kids where they can hide out... and the kids believe them! They set the bad guys up in the local mine and then bring them food. At least Sally, who's in her late teens, comes around to the truth eventually but by then it's too late; the bad guys bury the siblings by collapsing a mine support and hightail it. Luckily enough, Sally and Davey took a course in breathing under tons of rubble and there's a happy ending when a search team digs them out. Fred Carrillo is fast becoming the new Jerry Grandenetti, an artist whose name I shudder to see on the contents page. Couple this with The Witching Hour #64 and you can see why the walls were crumbling at the DC horror palace.
Jack: Sally starts out looking about eight years old but when one of the crooks starts to think about jumping her bones, Carrillo ages her to about 16 real quick.
"The Balloon Vendor!"
Story by Michael Fleisher and Russell Carley
Story by Jack Oleck
Art by Jess Jodloman
Peter: Andy Vogel, "The Balloon Vendor" for a ramshackle carnival, is in love with gorgeous snake-charmer Gay Lynn Foster, but Gay won't give Andy a second glance until the meek mouse presents her with a genuine pearl necklace. Turns out Andy (not the smartest tool in the shed) borrowed the dough from the syndicate and, soon after, two goons come to collect. The mobsters tell Andy they'll excuse his debt if he burns down the carnival tent (the owner owes them money as well!) and, with no way to pay, the little man agrees. The arson goes off without a hitch... unless you consider the thirty people who died in the flames... and the hoods give Vogel a little spending money to boot. Unfortunately for Andy Vogel and the hoods, the spirits of the dead (led by Gay, who also died in the fire) refuse to remain quiet. The next morning, three unique balloons float in Andy's workshop. It wasn't long ago that the name "Michael Fleisher" on a splash page would elicit excitement and anticipation but, by 1976, Fleisher was cashing a paycheck and rewriting his old classics into dreadful new time-wasters. All the cliches are packed tight into "The Balloon Vendor," including the nebbish and unrequited love, the carnival (which was becoming as frequent a backdrop as the swamp witch's shack), and the "ironic" twist ending where the evil doer is done in by his own hobby (see also: "Night-Stalker in Slim City" way back in HoM #224). Andy's 180 degree turn in personality, from sweet, child-loving nerd to uncaring murderer is not so much startling as eye-rollingly silly. I must say that, though I've never been a Frank Robbins fan (to say the least), he does know his way around the female figure now and then.
Jack: The fact that this is one of the better stories I've read recently in the DC horror books shows how far the quality had fallen by mid-1976. The story is almost entertaining and the art is almost bearable, but two issues in a row of House of Mystery featuring lead story art by Frank Robbins is not a good trend. His characters seem to inhabit a strange, timeless universe where clothing styles from the 1940s through the 1970s are all mixed up. The art in the backup story is by Jess Jodloman and it's hideous.
"Wrath of the Restless Specters"
Art by E.R. Cruz
"The Swahili Talking Bones"
Art by Franc Reyes
"The Haunted Catacombs"
Art by Abe Ocampo
Jack: It's 1974 and Stan Kappel and his wife Phyllis are vacationing in Rome. He decides to spend their last day there touring the catacombs while she goes shopping. When she gets back to the hotel, there is no sign of Stan, so she heads to the catacombs, where the night watchman tells her that no one visited all day because they are closed. Finding Stan's scarf by the entrance, she sneaks in but is scared away from a sinking patch of ground by a ghost. The night watchman discovers Phyllis and together they locate Stan's corpse; he was killed in a cave-in and his ghost warned her away from danger. A straightforward ghost story with an interesting setting and reasonably good art by Abe Ocampo, "The Haunted Catacombs" is much better than the other two dull tales that populate this issue. I nominate Leo Dorfman as the uncredited writer of all three, since they don't quite reach the level of confusion necessary to credit them to Wessler or Kashdan.
Peter: "Catacombs" is atmospheric and builds suspense quite well. I actually thought "Wrath of the Restless Specters" was a decent read even if it seemed like I was reading the Encyclopedia Britannica at times. Rasputin tells secret Bolshevik Vasily Treplev that if he does not renounce his ways, he and his entire family will die and roam the earth as restless spirits. One by one, his family dies but Treplev does not sway. In the end, he is shot dead and, indeed, rises as a disturbed specter. A nice twist and the bad guy wins! Nice art by E.R. Cruz as well.
Jack: Ghosts was bi-monthly at this point and the last panel says the next issue will go on sale during the first week in April. Does that mean that this issue, with a June cover date, went on sale during the first week in February? That's a long lead time! By the way, the sales figures in this month's batch of comics show sales of about 115K per issue.
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