Monday, September 5, 2016

EC Comics! It's An Entertaining Comic! Part Fourteen: September 1951





Special guest host, John Scoleri, is on vacation!


The EC Reign Month by Month 1950-1956
14: September, 1951


Feldstein
Tales from the Crypt #25

"The Trophy!" ★ 1/2
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Jack Davis

"Judy, You're Not Yourself Today!" 
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Wally Wood

"Loved to Death!!" 
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Jack Kamen

"The Works . . . In Wax!" 
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Graham Ingels



"The Trophy!"
Big game hunter Clyde Franklin can't get enough stuffed heads on his wall. It may bother others that he brutally murders animals for their noggins, but not Clyde; it rolls right off his back. After a particularly invigorating moose-hunting expedition in Alaska, Clyde is driving back from the hills when his tires burst and his wagon heads off a cliff. He awakens to find himself in a cabin bed, with strange moanings and pleadings coming from behind a closed door. The hunter soon finds he has been the hunted as a strange man enters the room and informs Clyde that he is the man's prisoner, but what are his intentions? His captor leaves the cabin and Clyde wanders, finding an eerie room furnished only with a table and a machine with tubes running up to a small hat-shaped box. He lifts the box and is amazed to find a severed head, still alive and begging Clyde to run for his life but . . . alas . . . it's too late. Clyde soon becomes the next head on the table. From the tip-off on the splash (and the hilarious mounted heads labeled "editor," "assistant editor," etc), I was afraid "The Trophy!" would be heading down the very familiar territory (Jose and I actually covered one of those stories for our "Dungeons of Doom" column) of "Hunter ends up with his head mounted on his trophy wall" and, while it does kinda sorta go there, Al manages to find a more original way to put a cap on it.

"The Trophy!"
Though, I admit it, the hunter, who couldn't care less about the lives of his prey, winding up on the receiving end of the bone saw is a little too ironic, there are some very unnerving bits here. Clyde's first gander at his jailer, with only a silhouette of the man entering the room, is genuinely creepy, as is our first look at the head under the box, tubes trailing from his neck. My colleagues have not yet warmed up to the Jack Davis magic but I stand before the altar and scream, "This guy is the tits!"

Donald Abelson loves his wife, Judy, so much that he worries for her welfare, telling her every day as he heads to work not to open the door for anyone. Alas, gorgeous but blonde Judy Abelson disobeys the boss just one time and pays mightily. When an old crone comes a-knockin', begging for a crust of bread, Judy feels pity for the woman and lets her in. Big mistake. This poor old woman is actually a witch and she's taken a shine to Judy's body. After a mouthful of mumbo-jumbo incantations, the switch is final and Judy no longer has those gorgeous headlights and lovely gams; she's an old crone. When Don gets home, he's naturally skeptical but a few questions that only Judy could answer dispels any doubt. Just then, one of Don's pals rings to ask if Don and Judy have had a row as Judy is about to hop the 3:10 to Yuma.

"Judy, You're Not Yourself Today!"
The harried husband tells his wife (the old crone, keep up with me now) he's going to lock her in the closet and go get Faux Judy, but when he gets to the station he gets a swell idea. He tells the old crone (who's in Judy's body, remember!) that he understands why she's leaving him, seeing as how she's got cancer and is dying. Faster than you can say "Alec Baldwin and Meg Ryan star in . . ." the old crone is back in her old body and Judy is enjoying her slim, petite figure again. They rush home, where Don pumps the closet full of bullets and then buries the old witch in the cellar. The couple settles in for a happy ending but, since this is an EC story, no such luck. Six months later, the old witch rises from her grave in the cellar and repossesses Judy, forcing Don to shoot both witch and wife to end his suffering. Like a lot of those Hollywood switcheroo flicks, "Judy, You're Not Yourself Today!" is a fun little trifle if you don't stop to think about the details too much (why does the witch rise again at the climax after such a long and random amount of time?). I thought it would have been a more effective twist if the witch had possessed Don at the station rather than return to her own body. As it is, the story just peters out rather than delivering a final panel shock.

"Judy . . . "
I believe "Loved to Death!!" is the first Jack Kamen story to get the four-star Michelin treatment from me, so it has to be something delightful, right? The set-up is old hat: Edward is madly in love with Margaret but the feelings are hardly mutual, so Edward sees an alchemist who delivers a cheap potion to the love-crazed nerd (while promising that Edward will be back for the antidote before too long). Eddie drops the liquid into a "farewell glass of wine" and serves it up to Margaret and, sure enough, the gorgeous gal falls head over heels for our dopey hero. Months later (after a quick courtship, marriage, and attempt to remain patient as Margaret coos in his ear and sits in his lap constantly), Edward does indeed head for the antidote but, in an honest error, the antidote (actually a poison) is dumped into Ed's coffee and he quickly dies. In Heaven, Edward enjoys his free time but that freedom is short-lived as Margaret rushes up to him and explains she couldn't live without her husband and committed suicide. "Loved to Death!!" overcomes the obvious handicap of being illustrated by EC's weakest artist by virtue of its charm (you could just see Dick Van Dyke in the lead role) and hilarious and surprising outcome. Of course, it helps that Kamen is only required to draw a couple characters and some disposable backgrounds but his art, in this instance, really befits the tone of the tale. The final story, the weakest of the quartet, is yet another variation on the "living waxworks" design, delivered with customary ickiness by Ghastly. "The Works . . . in Wax!" will make you wonder, yet again, why these gorgeous women marry men with teeth numbering in the single digits, but not much else. -Peter

"Loved to Death!!"
Jack: The Ghastly story was my favorite of the issue, with classic art and a great use of the wax museum setting, one always guaranteed to bring delightful chills. There was an unnecessary bit in the final panel where Henry, the evil owner of the museum, is turned into the wick of a giant candle, but never mind that and enjoy the gruesome pictures. I was not as taken by the Kamen story as you were, perhaps because I recognized it as an uncredited adaptation of John Collier's story, "The Chaser" (later done on The Twilight Zone) and kept reading just to see if it deviated from the source. I loved Wood's tale, which starts as a fairy tale but ends as a confusing muddle; Wood's art has reached the pinnacle for me. You're right that I don't quite see the Jack Davis magic yet in his horror tales, though he's sure doing a fantastic job in the war stories.

"The Works . . . In Wax!"
Jose: Am I the only one who thought that “The Trophy!” would’ve been a little tighter if it dropped one page? The story is still strong as it is, and the wicked turn of events that finds Clyde the victim of a reclusive psycho is, like Arch Oboler’s “Valse Trieste” from Lights Out, quite prescient of the horror films of the '70s and onward that would build features on the premises of classy urbanites falling prey to grimy backwoods killers. Jack’s art is certainly “getting there,” but it still hasn’t quite clicked for me. Wally Wood is an interesting match for “Judy, You’re Not Yourself Today!”; one would think that Jack Kamen would have covered this suburban Brothers Grimm tale, but Wood proves more than capable of the job, as if there could be any doubt. “Loved to Death!!” is pretty cute, but four-star quality? I think someone should check Peter’s coffee for any traces of potion. Tales of the “haunted wax museum” variety hardly deviate from one to the other, and while “The Works . . . In Wax!” is decidedly rote in this regard it’s Ghastly’s twisted, tortured artwork that draws you in. And I liked the giant human candle at the end. That was sick!

"The Works . . ."


Craig
 Crime SuspenStories #6

"A Toast . . . to Death!"  1/2
Story and Art by Johnny Craig

"Out of My Mind!" 
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Jack Kamen

"The Switch" 
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by George Roussos

"Jury Duty!" ★ 1/2
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Graham Ingels

In an unknown time, in an unknown land, criminal Peter Kardoff is ushered from his cell to the gangly form of the scaffold in the pre-dawn prison courtyard. His sentence is carried out swiftly, and the fiend is declared legally dead by the attending physician. The corpse is loaded onto a wagon manned by Kardoff’s faithful servant Boris, but the lackey gets the shock of his life en route to the cemetery when his late master emits a painful moan from the backseat. The incredible occurrence is confirmed later when Boris calls on Kardoff’s defense lawyer, Felix Barnes, and the legal beagle witnesses the crook-necked Kardoff returned from the dead with his own eyes. Now able to walk the earth at a slightly askew angle and untouchable by traditional justice, Kardoff makes short work of slaughtering every member of the jury that determined his death sentence. Pushed by the criminal’s insatiable thirst for vengeance, Barnes rounds up the surviving jurors and together they provide Kardoff the funeral service he never had by nailing him in a coffin and burying him alive!

Hang in there!
("Jury Duty!")

Though the paint-by-numbers storyline is certainly no stranger within the realm of genre entertainment, “Jury Duty!” delights with the mordant glee in which it is depicted, an EC staple that has become sharper and more defined with every successive issue in this marathon. Ingels keeps the gruesomeness fairly low this time around, making this “chilling little tale,” as the Old Witch calls it, a suitable fit for the pages of Crime SuspenStories. He seems to have the most fun illustrating Kardoff, whose lopsided head is used as the source for a number of amusing shots, my favorite being a panel that shows Barnes storming away in the background while Kardoff’s horizontal head glowers from the bottom border of the panel like a gourd on a shelf. In a certain EC context, “Jury Duty!” is good clean fun.

"Out of My Mind!"
Betty has hatched the perfect scheme for doing away with her “cocker spaniel” hubby, Bert: by faking a series of “episodes” where she loses both control of her actions and later all her memory of the episodes, Betty is setting herself up for a sure vote of “Most Likely to Be Found Legally Insane” by a jury of her peers when she goes to court for Bert’s murder. What sweetens the pot even more is the fact that Bert’s beloved brother Harvey has just been appointed as the new director of the local asylum, so surely Betty’s dear in-law will see to it that her stay is a smooth one before her eventual release. After chopping up ol’ Bertie with a meat cleaver, Betty is prosecuted and shipped off to Harvey’s funny farm in the hopes that her condition will be cured. But being trussed up in a straitjacket and getting frigid ice baths isn’t the vacation Betty thought it’d be, not to mention having to deal with the screaming, tittering, and staring antics of her fellow tourists. Fearing that she might legitimately crack up, Betty confesses all to Harvey only to find out that Brother Dear has known the truth all along and plans on keeping Sister Dear for an extended stay.

Institutionalized cheesecake.
("Out of My Mind!")

For perhaps the first time, Feldstein has finally done right by Kamen by providing him with a script every bit as spicy and foxy as the artist’s work. Betty is one of the sassiest narrators we’ve seen yet; her detestation of Bert and his relationship with Harvey is immediately made apparent to us in the frank and upfront fashion that typifies all of Betty’s thoughts. (“On my left is my husband, Bert Andrews! Looks like a nice guy, doesn’t he? I hate him!”)  Some of her inner monologue even borders on the cusp of Valley Girl embellishment: “U-U-Ugh! Isn’t it nauseating? Well, time’s a-wasting!” Betty is the kind of femme fatale who doesn’t take to the ice-cold approach but rather wears her crooked heart on her sleeve, gushing over every last detail of her plight whether it’s congratulating herself on her incredible acting chops or calling one of the beefy matrons at the hospital an “ox.” Betty might deserve what comes to her in the end, but I know I wouldn’t mind seeing more snappy ladies like her in the future.

The inker has gouged out Edwin's eye!
("The Switch")
The other two stories in this issue are largely forgettable. Expected considering one’s a George Roussos bit, but depressing considering the other one’s a Johnny Craig joint. Rousso’s piece, “The Switch,” hangs out to dry in the heat of convention as a henpecked hubby hits upon the perfect way to have his wife killed—she nags and nags and NAGS, natch—when he accidentally hears his neighbor’s plot to have his wife killed by a gunman while Mr. Neighbor is away on a “business trip.” I admit that I didn't really know just where the story would end up going as I was reading it, and the twist does offer up a small amount of ingenuity, but even the smallest amount of retrospective scrutiny reveals how incredibly contrived the whole affair is in the end.

“A Toast . . . to Death!” is regrettably only better by a few precious margins. A young housewife who wants to see the world—or at least the nearest nightclub—kills her vintner husband by poisoning him with arsenic and burying the body under his prized grapevine. The wife gets a boyfriend seven years later and they toast to a new, happy life together, but guess where they harvested the grapes for their celebratory wine? James M. Cain’s landmark novel was a catnip that apparently nobody in the EC bullpen could resist for long; Feldstein paid his tribute to Postman (and Double Indemnity) earlier with the slightly more enjoyable “Premium Overdue” from CSS #4. Craig’s “adaptation”  is lackluster on nearly every count, showing almost none of the invention and flair that we’ve become accustomed to in this artist’s work aside from one wry panel that shows a book of murder mysteries resting at the numb feet of our dearly departed vintner. -Jose

A brief hint of the old Craig magic.
("A Toast . . .  to Death!")
Peter: In his indispensable notes to the Crime SuspenStories Library (published by Russ Cochran), Max Allan Collins calls “Jury Duty” a “wryly humorous but nonetheless creepy excursion into the Ingels/Feldstein universe.” It’s that and much more. The appropriately named Peter Kardoff  tips us off that Gaines and Feldstein’s obvious influence for “Jury Duty” was the 1939 Boris Karloff film The Man They Could Not Hang, but there are also echoes of the Ygor character that Bela Lugosi played in Son of Frankenstein (1939) and Ghost of Frankenstein (1942). The other three stories this issue all have effective twists, with the downright silly reveal to "A Toast . . . to Death!" being the most outrageous. If nothing else, Johnny Craig still draws gorgeous women with all the right equipment.

Jack: Johnny Craig sure does, but what about Jack Kamen? "Out of My Mind!" is a feast for anyone who likes Good Girl Art with a little bondage imagery thrown in. This is what Kamen does best and the story allows him to give us plenty to make our eyes bug out. Craig's gal is gorgeous, too, but the end of the story once again has echoes of Cain's famous novel. Roussos's story is a waste of paper but the Ingels tale is a classic. It seems like Ingels excels on period pieces and this one not only owes much to the Karloff B picture but also to Poe's "The Premature Burial."

"Jury Duty!"


Craig
The Vault of Horror #20

"About Face!" ★ 1/2
Story and Art by Johnny Craig

"The Reluctant Vampire!" 
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Jack Davis

"Grandma's Ghost!!" 
Story by Al Feldstein and Bill Gaines
Art by Jack Kamen

"Revenge is the Nuts'!" 
Story by Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein
Art by Graham Ingels

Beautiful lion tamer Lydia Armstrong is the star of the circus until a vicious attack by a black panther leaves her face horribly disfigured. Though she wears a veil to hide her face, her handsome chauffeur, Steve, convinces her that he loves her for what she is like on the inside, and she signs over Power of Attorney to him. He withdraws all of the money from her bank account and skips town for Florida, at which point Lydia consults a book on witchcraft and, with a quick Abracadabra, recovers her pretty face and leaves Steve with a face that is horribly disfigured. "About Face!" is another fabulous story by the great Johnny Craig, with an unusual heroine and a satisfyingly ghoulish twist in the tail.

"The Reluctant Vampire!"
"The Reluctant Vampire!" is a bit lazy and a bit squeamish about killing, so he holds down a job as night watchman in a blood bank, drinking what he wants and altering the account ledgers. When the books disappear, he has to resort to killing to replace the blood he has embezzled; when the home office demands an increase in productivity, he steps up his killing to make it look like more blood is being donated. Home office is so impressed that his boss gets a medal; when Mr. Drink's real identity and crimes are discovered, the medal is pinned to his chest instead--with a stake! Feldstein satirizes the stories about meek bank clerks embezzling by making his clerk a vampire and Davis is the perfect choice to mix wry humor with grisly, blood-sucking horror.

Yes . . . yes . . . yes!
("Grandma's Ghost!!")
Little Peggy's grandma dies when Peggy can't find her pills, so when Peggy inherits all of Grandma's dough her evil aunt and uncle plan to do away with the girl. "Grandma's Ghost!!" seems to protect little Peggy, causing her uncle to fall to his death when he tries to push Peggy off a cliff. Grandma also intervenes when Aunt Helen tries to shove Peggy into the furnace and ends up frying herself. Peggy is nonplussed and heads over to the home of Alex, the friendly gardener, with whom she lives happily ever after. I was disappointed at first when I saw that the heroine of this Kamen tale was a young girl, but soon enough Aunt Helen made the scene and Kamen did what he does best.

Dr. Lytham Blackpool rules the Croydon Insane Asylum with an iron hand, certain that the best way to treat the mentally ill is to abuse them. One unfortunate inmate complains to his mother about how he is being treated, and Blackpool whips him. The beating angers a giant inmate named Olaf, who hits Blackpool and is chained in a cell as punishment. Blackpool's prolonged ill treatment of Olaf causes the other inmates to revolt--they escape from their cells, capture Blackpool, and present him to Olaf, who tears the man to pieces. "Revenge is the Nuts'!" benefits from a great, Gothic setting and the usual gorgeous art by Ghastly, but it's such a simple tale of vengeance that there's not much to remark on. -Jack

"Revenge is the Nuts'!"

Peter: If this month's Tales from the Crypt was an unqualified success, then this issue of Vault of Horror would be its polar opposite. "About Face!" is, by process of elimination, the best story this issue. It's an enjoyable little tale that simultaneously manages to elicit sincere sympathy for its mutilated heroine and "yowsah"s for Craig's depiction of the female form. The twist is a good one as well. The common thread that binds the other three sagas is a failure to deliver a satisfying denouement. I don't expect a twist in the tail every time out but I would prefer a proper finish rather than the sputters we get with "The Reluctant Vampire!" (surprise! the vampire gets a stake in the heart!), "Grandma's Ghost!!" (surprise! the baddies get offed by granny's spook!), and "Revenge is the Nuts!" (surprise! the heartless Croydon gets his at the hands of Olaf!). Just about everything, save Olaf, about "Revenge . . ." would be recycled  by Al Feldstein as the much better "Blind Alley" for the final issue of Tales from the Crypt.

"About Face!"
Jose: While I certainly wouldn’t say that Vault of Horror #20 was a complete failure, I can’t help but feel that each of the four stories here was missing one elusive component that could’ve made them all winners. “About Face!” seems to have all the ingredients of a Craig classic, but I think the main problem here is that we’re never really given a chance to know who Lydia is outside her accident and de facto longing for companionship, a one-note, literally faceless heroine that we can’t connect with on the type of human level that Craig achieved so well in other stories. “The Reluctant Vampire!” proves that Gaines and Feldstein have yet to completely hone their shtick. The promising premise is ultimately let down by the lackluster delivery; the editors even drop Mr. Drink for the final act and have the readers spend time with the boring human cast instead! This is another instance when the adaptation for the television series improved on the source material; screenwriter Terry Black realized the wealth of gallows humor that could be wrung from the day-to-day life of an “ordinary” nine-to-five vampire who must hide his true identity while looking for love and sustenance. “Grandma’s Ghost!!” isn’t the best of Kamen’s “wittle kid” stories, but the whizz-bang payoff of seeing femme fatale Aunt Helen sizzle in the furnace is a sweet note to close on. The narrative of “Revenge is the Nuts” is standard fare as they come—it put me in mind of the similar Tod Slaughter vehicle It’s Never Too Late to Mend (1936)—but seeing Ingels run rampant in the Gothic playground that is the Croydon Insane Asylum made my heart immensely happy.

Next Monday . . .
We deliver the message!

2 comments:

Grant said...

Any given weird story will remind you of others, even WITHOUT any story being anything like a copy. "Judy - You're Not Yourself Today!" made me think of at least two other stories indirectly. One is Lovecraft's "The Thing In The Cellar," because of both the switched bodies and one of the characters "repossessing" the other even after being buried in a cellar.
The other is the Night Gallery episode "The Housekeeper," except that that one reverses the roles - a mad scientist (played by Larry Hagman off all people) tries to put the mind of his kindly housekeeper into the body of his hot but shrewish wife.

Jack Seabrook said...

You bring up a good point. It all depends on what else you've read or seen. One thing reminds one person of something and it reminds another person of something else. I think pop culture feeds on itself so often that influences are flying everywhere.