Monday, October 3, 2016

EC Comics! It's An Entertaining Comic! Part 16: November 1951

Featuring special guest host, John Scoleri!

The EC Reign Month by Month 1950-1956
16: November, 1951

Tales from the Crypt #26

"Drawn and Quartered!" ★ 1/2
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Jack Davis

"The Borrowed Body!" ★ 1/2
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Howard Larsen

"Indian Burial Mound" 
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by George Roussos

"Political Pull!" ★ 1/2
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Graham Ingels

Sweating out the last of his savings and sanity in the humid sprawl of Port-au-Prince, American artist Max Moor curses the futility of his craft. Back in the States, his work was deemed unremarkable by critic Fenton Breedly, unsellable by dealer Arthur Green, and unworthy of any price over a pittance by collector Lawrence Diltant. Thus Moor is taken for quite the surprise when he runs into an old pal from home at a seedy bar who reports that Max’s paintings are selling for beaucoup bucks in the U. S., none of which Max will be seeing anytime soon. Desperate for revenge, the artist invades a voodoo ceremony and buys his way into a consultation with the witch doctor. The old magic man has Moor dip the hand he paints with into a pot whose steaming potion incredibly leaves him unscathed. Moor doesn’t see the full effects of his purchase until he tears a picture of a vase he idly sketched to pieces only for the real-life subject to shatter on the ground. It soon occurs to him that his painting hand is now infused with black magic, anything or anyone he renders upon the canvas or page fit for his punishment. This applies to Max’s recently completed self-portrait and so, hustling back to America, the artist makes short work of stowing the picture away in a safe and then cutting, scraping, and ripping the portraits of his betrayers. Hands are lopped off, eyes burned out with acid; even Max’s old landlord gets the legs he kicked his tenant out with swept out from under him when a truck runs over his lower torso. Having moved his self-portrait from the suffocating safe to a windowed closet, Max makes his way to Diltant to see that he gets properly remunerated personally. Just then, a sign-painter knocks over a can of turpentine that goes crashing through the skylight in Max’s closet, rendering the self-portrait a ghastly, gory mess. Meanwhile, Max has just slipped from a subway platform…

Rest in masterpiece.
("Drawn and Quartered!")

With “Drawn and Quartered!” we see Jack Davis confidently taking stride in the horror mode. His opening splash displays the ghoulish gallery of monsters that would routinely show up in his lead stories for Tales from the Crypt, a kind of Saturday morning cartoon cavalcade from Hell. Feldstein subtly inverts a time-honored formula, voodoo revenge, and creates something that, if not wholly original, is still mightily entertaining, as he had previously done with “The Gorilla’s Paw” (HoF #9). The final shot is certainly enough to give Dorian Gray’s picture a run for its money, a great, goopy mummy that cleverly sidesteps the restrictions of depicting the violent scene in flesh and blood.

"The Borrowed Body!"
The high from “Drawn” sinks during the next two tales. “The Borrowed Body!” is a fairly simple story that feels like it takes an eternity to unfold. Two lovers plan to off the woman's hubby on his way back from the office. The boyfriend’s surprise attack on hubby ends with his surprise encounter with the front bumper of a truck. Hubby returns to the apartment and the wife, dismayed by his healthy state, takes a fireplace poker to him just as the boyfriend is pronounced dead at the hospital. The spirits end up swapping bodies, and soon the hubby-controlled boyfriend is giving the wife tit for tat with the fireplace poker. If the boyfriend’s body was revived from death when the husband’s spirit entered it, why didn’t the boyfriend’s spirit awaken to his new meat suit as well? Was it a favor from the Big Guy Upstairs for the husband to avenge his whacking? Larsen’s work is adequate and redolent with a particular Golden Age aesthetic, as Jack says, but it can hardly stack up to the idiosyncratic flair of the New Trend artists.

“Indian Burial Mound” has a slightly better story but artwork that will thrill precisely no one. A young buck entrepreneur buys up the plentiful land of an old farmer with an eye toward converting the property into an airport and flying school. The only thing that stands in his way is a mighty mound that the farmer says was used by the Native Americans of old to store their dead  and is now cursed to strike back at anyone who dares defile it. The young buck responds with “Phooey!”, tries to bulldoze the mound, fails, finds a skull, and is later called on by an unseen visitor that night who takes off with his scalp. Roussos has good days and bad days--sometimes in the same story--and all that “Indian Burial Mound” can muster at the end of the day is a shrug.

"Political Pull"
1892 may be a good year for wine, but it makes for a terrible mayoral election season for Cyrus Mangate. Cyrus can’t stand to see the perennially beloved Mayor Jed Fulton hone in on a very viable re-election. To even the scales, Cyrus slips some poison into Fulton’s wine and prepares to leave behind a signed suicide note indicting Fulton of fraud and corruption. The literal winds of fate blow the note under a bookshelf where it goes unnoticed, thus promoting the belief that Fulton was the victim of foul play. Cyrus becomes the obvious suspect, but when the note is discovered by two policemen the townsfolk begin to revile the old mayor for pulling the wool over their eyes for so long. Fueling the fire of their hatred is Cyrus Mangate, and it isn’t long before the riled-up citizens have exhumed Fulton’s un-Christian corpse and dumped its weighted heft into the ocean. While out fishing one day a year later, the exultant Mayor Mangate gets a surprise visit from his old fish-nibbled opponent. Like the similar let-down of “Partially Dissolved” (CSS #5), “Political Pull” builds momentum and sets the stage for a promising and memorable conclusion that quickly becomes a rushed, by the numbers routine. We don’t even get a good glimpse of Jed’s corpse in all its waterlogged glory which, coming from a tale drawn by “Ghastly” Graham Ingels, has to qualify as a crime in some states. -Jose

Tom Baker in The Vault of Horror (1973).
Peter: After Amicus's Tales from the Crypt became a commercial and critical success in 1972, a sequel was inevitable and, the following year, Amicus released The Vault of Horror. Comprised of five stories (ironically, none were lifted from Vault; four were from Crypt and one from Shock SuspenStories), TVoH was the polar opposite of the first film, cheaply made and weakly scripted. Throughout the 83-minute running time, the cheap budget rears its ugly head constantly; the sets are shoddy, the make-up and special effects are almost amateurish in their execution (especially evident in the opener, "Midnight Mess," with its vampires sporting dime-store fangs), and the performances come across as hammy (as if the actors are ashamed to be in a horror film) rather than the strong, dramatic and serious delivery that made TftC such a winner. "Drawn and Quartered!" stars Tom Baker (who would be cast as the fourth Doctor Who the following year) as the cheated painter (here known only as "Moore") who uses voodoo to do away with his enemies (again, isn't it interesting that EC shied away from deals with the Devil?). The adaptation is fairly faithful, with only a few changes along the way, until the climax, when Baker delivers the third and final painting to art dealer, Diltant and dies under the wheels of a bus. Curiously, the Feldstein script leaves Diltant unpunished. Baker gives a customarily eccentric edge to Moore and the segment (the finale of the movie) is easily the best of the five.

I knew him, Horatio.
("Indian Burial Mound")
"The Borrowed Body!" and "Indian Burial Mound" (about as generic a title for a horror story as you can find, no?) just add ammunition to my argument that the stories illustrated by artists "visiting" the EC Studios were sub-par and stand out from the rest of the contents. Of course, it doesn't help matters much that Al saddled both Roussos and Larsen with weak scripts.

Jack: I was pleasantly surprised by Howard Larsen's art in "The Borrowed Body!" It's not New Trend, by any means, but it's very good, nonetheless, and would stand up to some of the better quality Golden Age art any day. Roussos's dull art sinks "Indian Burial Mound," which plods along to a disappointing payoff. Ghastly gives it his all in "Political Pull!" but it remains a routine story of revenge with yet another disappointing finish--the best parts are the splash page and the last panel, both of which feature the Old Witch. Feldstein and Davis keep the issue from being a complete letdown with "Drawn and Quartered!" and it's interesting that the damage to the victims of voodoo requires an active cause rather than just appearing out of nowhere. The last panel is the best thing in the issue, showing us the horribly disfigured painting and allowing us to use our imagination as to what the real man looks like.

John: “Drawn and Quartered!” is another example of a tale that, while predictable at a high level, manages to inject some original twists and turns along the way. I'll admit that for a minute I was expecting the can of turpentine to crush our poor artist's head directly. Taking a page out of the EC Infidelity playbook, “The Borrowed Body!” reminds us that the only way out of an unhappy marriage is murder. Why Al decided to cross that with the good old body switch story is beyond me. It made a mess of things that even Howard Larsen's nice art can't make up for. And while I don't mind when the writers start off with a basic horror story concept, it would be nice if they at least tried to do something original with it. "Political Pull!" is another by-the-numbers tale that tries (and fails) to save itself in the last two panels. If you're handing Ghastly the pencil, let him be Ghastly, fer chrissakes!

That hand is all you get.
("Political Pull")

 Crime SuspenStories #7

"Hatchet Killer!" 
Story and Art by Johnny Craig

"Revenge!" ★ 1/2
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Jack Kamen

Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Jack Davis

"Horror Under the Big-Top!" 
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Graham Ingels

There's a "Hatchet-Killer!" on the loose but Tom North has to go off to work for the day, leaving his frightened wife alone with the burly housekeeper, Hilda. The rain is pouring outside so the two women are stuck inside together, and newspaper headlines, TV news reports and radio broadcasts increase the tension, especially after Mrs. North learns that her friend was the killer's latest victim. As the day wears on, Mrs. North begins to suspect that Hilda is the killer, and when Hilda approaches with a hatchet to cut some firewood, Mrs. North snaps and stabs the maid to death. Mr. North arrives home from work with good news--the killer has been caught! It's too late for Hilda, though, and for Mrs. North, who realizes that she has killed an innocent woman.

Look at how perfectly Craig sets up the story.
("Hatchet Killer")
Johnny Craig's work continues to amaze me, and this story is one of his best. He uses text and pictures so well together to set the scene and then build up the suspense to the breaking point. The panels are very cinematic, and he uses colors (yellow in one place) to mimic the sort of high-contrast lighting one might see in a film noir version of the same psychological suspense story. Without the need for explicit gore, Craig presents one of the most horrible events we could imagine--the wrongful murder of an innocent.

Lila is a gorgeous gold-digger who meets a rich man named Willie on a cruise and marries him for his money. Life as his Texas trophy wife is fine until she meets a young hunk named Phil. An affair ensues and before you can say "James M. Cain," the couple are plotting hubby's murder. All does not go as planned, however, and Willie ends up paralyzed in a wheelchair, staring accusingly at Lila but unable to say a word. Phil is not thrilled at remaining her boy toy and one day he gives vent to his feelings in front of Willie. Drunk, Phil falls and hits his head on the fireplace hearth. Willie can't tell the truth and, when the servants testify about what they heard, Lila is locked up for murdering Phil.

Look at how Kamen makes us not care about the story.
I was feeling pretty good about "Revenge!" until it went one (or three) steps too far into Postman territory yet again at the end. Lila is yet another of Kamen's gorgeous gals and her hardboiled narration is wonderful, but this plot is already worn out at the EC offices and it's only November of 1951!

Safecracker Frank Shantly reads in the paper that wealthy gambler Ed Adellis will be out of town, so that night he heads to the man's house to find some loot. Adellis sits waiting in the dark with a gun and, when Shantly boasts that he can open any safe in three minutes, Adellis offers him $1000 and his freedom if he succeeds. Shantly does the trick and walks off with his cash, but it turns out Adellis was really another crook named Leech Baker, who beat Shantly to the scene and now can walk off with all of the money from the safe. Too bad the bills are all "Phonies," as Treasury Department agents tell the high-living Baker not long after the robbery.

It it wasn't signed by Jack Davis, we'd have our doubts!
Davis isn't trying very hard here, but Feldstein's plot is clever and the surprise ending got a laugh out of me, which is definitely worth a three-star rating for this little crime story.

You know there's going to be "Horror Under the Big-Top!" when Carlo the human cannonball suspects his pretty wife Wanda of fooling around with Aldar, king of the flying trapeze. Of course, Carlo is right and Wanda and Aldar rig up the cannon to send Carlo flying to his death the next day. In front of all of the happy families at the circus, Carlo flies right through the roof of the tent and is killed, but he lands on Wanda and she dies too. Moments later, Aldar falls to his death from the flying trapeze, which Carlo had rigged to have a fatal accident.

It's too bad that Ingels did such beautiful work on this by the numbers revenge story. We even get a panel where he demonstrates that he can draw some fine female leg, and the circus setting is a sure winner, but the story is a big disappointment.--Jack

"Horror Under the Big-Top!"
Peter: If the "cheating wife who hooks up with the young stud to off her husband" chestnut is the number one cliche in the EC plot box, then the "big top tryst" can't be too far behind. This issue, we're lucky (?) enough to be subjected to both foundations. Though Johnny manages to avoid creating a double-cliche with "Hatchet Killer!" (wisely skipping a climax reveal that "it's the husband!"), there's little doubt the ridiculous red herrings that continue to stack, page after page, will go nowhere (in the midst of a city-wide hatchet-killer frenzy, Hilda thinks nothing of plodding around the house in front of the hysterical Mrs. North with . . . a hatchet!). The beleaguered wife proves she's made of sterner stuff, though, when she goes back to channel surfing and "tsk-tsk"ing the local news mere panels after finding out her best friend has become the latest victim! "Revenge!" has been done before (and better), so all we're left to do is admire Lila's female pulchritude. I enjoyed "Phonies" and its double-twist; that splash sure looks like Davis got some help with inks. And, though it's not great, the best story this issue has to be "Horror Under the Big Top!" which suffers from an extremely silly climax (the show must go on even after two of the star attractions are itty bitty meaty portions all over the midway) but is just outrageous enough to keep your interest.

Jose: Sometimes working back from a story’s ending can reveal its initial genesis. Looking at the conclusion of “Horror Under the Big Top!” you can practically hear Al Feldstein’s jubilant pitch emanating from behind the door to Bill Gaines’s office. “So there’s this gal at the circus stepping out with the trapeze artist, see, and her husband performs as a human cannonball so—wait till you hear this one, Bill—her and loverboy decide to rig the cannon so that the jerk goes crashing into the midway!” The triple-death conclusion is all this one really has going for it, a veritable Shakespearean slaughter whose gooey aftermath Ingels leaves to our imagination. “Revenge!” shows a similar lack of original thought, and not just with that title. If you hear Feldstein selling a gimmick with “ . . . Big Top,” you can hear the grindstone of mediocrity churning in Kamen’s piece.

“Phonies” is a whole lot cuter and cleverer than it has any right to be, but I’m perfectly fine with that. Double-twists, let alone single twists, were always tough acts to accomplish, but here Feldstein carries it through with economy and grace, so much so that I can’t help but be cynical and wonder if “Phonies” was closely “based” on a literary work that has yet to be accredited. Either way, I’ll go on record as saying that both twists genuinely took me by surprise. Jack and I will probably have to start a “Johnny Craig Admirers Club” one of these days, because I'm similarly ga-ga over how expertly that man constructs a fluid, visual narrative, such as the kind seen in this issue with his foreboding opening to “Hatchet Killer.” To keep the tension boiling and the reader guessing is no mean feat, yet Craig has been able to do this seemingly without significant fail throughout his output for the first full year of the New Trend. Hail to the chief!

Are those zombie clowns?
("Horror Under the Big Top")

The Vault of Horror #21

"One Last Fling!" ★ 1/2
Story and Art by Johnny Craig

"That's a 'Croc'!" ★ 1/2
Story by Al Feldstein and Bill Gaines
Art by Howard Larsen

"Child's Play" 
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Jack Kamen

Story by Al Feldstein and Bill Gaines
Art by Jack Davis

"One Last Fling!"

Harry and Olga Bell have found great success with their knife-throwing carnival act but, while on tour in Hungary, Harry is dismayed one morning to discover his wife dead in bed. Returning home that night after making funeral arrangements, Harry finds his wife's body is gone. Moments later, a bat flies through the window and transforms into Olga! She explains that a vampire bit her the night before and that she now desires human blood. Disgusted but madly in love with his wife, Harry agrees to cover for Olga and they head back to the States. His conscience weighing on him, Harry locks Olga into their motor home and makes her promise she won't hunt for prey. She agrees but, the next morning, the hapless hubby wakes to find two puncture wounds on his neck. The pattern repeats over the next few nights until Harry realizes he has to do something drastic. That night, during the act, Harry substitutes wooden stakes for his usual blades and ends Olga's bloody reign in front of a live audience with "One Last Fling!" Though the story itself is nothing new, I enjoyed the dynamic between the couple (at one point after Olga chows on Harry, she apologizes in an almost child-like way: "I couldn't help it. I didn't mean to hurt you! I won't do it again . . . I promise. Anyway, I just took . . . a little!") and Johnny Craig's  visuals are spot on for what could essentially be a stage drama cornering around two characters. The only negative, again, is the climax, which just seems to sputter out rather than deliver an exclamation point.

"That's a 'Croc'!"
Zoo-keeper "Crazy" Coogan loves the residents of his new exhibit, a pit full of man-eating crocodiles, but he's noticed the creatures are a bit sluggish and unhappy. Coogan does what any caring zoo-keeper would do: he starts feeding the town's residents to the crocs. When the brother of one of the victims traces his sibling back to the crocs (via the victim's ring), "Crazy" does a pit fall and becomes his darlings' latest meal. This is the type of story that would ordinarily be handed over to Ghastly but, believe me, even Graham's visuals couldn't save this stinker. There's a fabulously loony scene where the victim's brother is in a bar and the crocodile pit cleaner sits right down next to him, brand new ring a-sparkling! "That's a Croc!"

Boys will be boys and that goes double for the Crescent A-C Footballers, a quartet who just love to practice in the street. Unfortunately, they happen to live on the same street as Clint Eastwood's father ("Get off my lawn!"), crusty old Mr. Collins who, for reasons unexplained, hates the four boys and will do anything to ensure they stay away from his little world. After one of the boys is caught trying to pick from his apple tree, Collins is prepared to tan the youngster's hide until Mrs. Collins intercedes. Bad idea, that. Very soon afterwards, the boys are mourning Mrs. Collins at her funeral and cooking up a little revenge. They dress up as a ghost to throw a scare in the old codger but, unwittingly, send the man over the edge and he dies of fright. Since "Child's Play" is a verrrrrry Bradbury-esque tale of precocious young boys and their playtime, Jack Kamen provides the perfect visuals (although I contend that there's not much difference between the boys' facial features, a la most of Kamen's work) and, though the climax is not a stunner, I enjoyed it.

On the run from the law, Marty hops a freight train, clutching his black bag stuffed full of greenbacks. He's awakened by a stirring in the shadows and a hobo introduces himself, inquiring as to the destination of his new roommate. Marty rudely rebuffs him but the man drones on anyway, warning that they've just entered the "bad country," a region known for its superstitions. A railroad cop forces the men to hop off and the old bum is killed in the fall. Marty heads off into the woods and stumbles on a weathered old cabin and its aged occupant. The grizzled mountain man warns of the supernatural forces at work in the forest but Marty, realizing this cabin would be the perfect hideaway while his rep cools, strangles the old guy and buries him in the muck just outside the cabin. Marty is annoyed to distraction by a buzzing fly but puts it out of his misery with a bit of fly paper. When lightning strikes a tree outside, Marty becomes convinced that the supernatural prattling just might be true and flees the cabin. Too late, he realizes that he's walked across the old man's makeshift grave and the ground pulls him under like quicksand. Meanwhile, the fly on the paper has resigned itself to its fate and settles in for death to take it. There's that nice bit at the climax with the fly and quicksand but the analogy is a tad forced and threads are introduced and jettisoned with no explanation. What crime has Marty committed? We're never told anything but he's on the run and the bag is full of dough (and, curiously, it appears to be a doctor's bag). Why do Al and Bill feel the necessity of introducing the bum, Bud Harrison, on the train? He serves no purpose other than to broach the subject of superstition (and the old codger in the cabin is there to reinforce that, anyway) and, by way of his appearance, provide a red herring (I may have answered my own question there). What exactly is the evil in the forest? Would Marty have escaped its wrath had he not murdered the old man? It's an odd one, not very successful, but not entirely dismissible. Also, Jack's art is very sketchy here (and a couple of my writing partners will probably say it's downright amateurish), with Marty's eyes agog and mouth constantly agape. -Peter

"Child's Play"
Jack: Not surprisingly, I liked Craig's story best of all. Harry takes the news of his wife's transition into a vampire surprisingly well! Once again, Johnny Craig examines the effect on real people of a horrible turn of events and, as a result, provides a new approach to the vampire story, something sorely needed at EC. In the second story, Larsen's art is decent overall but he draws Coogan in such an ugly fashion that the character looks like a preview of underground comix of the '60s and '70s. In the Kamen story, we get the lesser of the two categories of Jack Kamen subjects, the story involving little kids. I'll take Kamen's beautiful but deadly women stories over this drivel any time. Finally, Davis illustrates another story of people on the fringes of society, like Ghastly's circus story this month, but the plot peters out and Davis is again not at his best.

"Child's Play"
Jose: The ease with which Harry settles into his wife’s new un-living arrangements soured my enjoyment of “One Last Fling!” a story I remember as being a little more emotionally poignant than the standard issue “doomed romance” I found here. I appreciate the feeling of domestic horror that Craig is going for here, but the execution rushes the bits that need to be elaborated and draws out the parts that need to be punchy. On the other hand, “That’s a ‘Croc’!” is one, long drawn-out turd that would be completely sleep-inducing if it wasn’t for Howard Larsen’s unique art. The restraint on gore would have been commendable had there been some amount of atmosphere to back it up, but as it stands the story could desperately use some nasty croc action to give it some muscle. “Child’s Play” reads like a bedtime ghost story, dedicated in its following of formula and nicely complemented by Kamen’s cast of chubby-cheeked youngsters and ghoulish old codgers. The ending narration by the Vault-Keeper oddly tries to backpedal on the idea that the kids were responsible for Mr. Collins’s death by feeding us some line about Mrs. Collins’s heretofore unseen spirit playing an influence on the boys’ impressionable minds. This was clearly well before EC spit in the eye of that kind of morality with stories that showed little tykes deliberately murdering those who wronged them as in “Let the Punishment Fit the Crime” (Vault of Horror #33) and “The Orphan” (Shock SuspenStories #14).

This one really sticks with you. Heh, heh!
Call me Crazy Coogan, but I actually enjoyed “Trapped!” for most of the reasons that my comrades didn’t groove to it. True, Davis’s art is not quite at its peak here, but I think it still holds up fairly well and shows flashes of his future skill and genius, such as in the character of the hollow-eyed hermit. I also love how we’re never explicitly told what Marty’s crime was or what part he played in it. The reader is allowed to put the few pieces we’re given together themselves, the revelation that Marty’s black valise carries a heft of cool greenbacks only occurring halfway through the tale. The fact that we never find out any more about it makes the narrative feel all the more real to me; the reader observes everything as if they were there and are never force-fed exposition. The unexplained and inexplicable nature of the “haunted country” is another great aspect of “Trapped!” How many other EC stories can you name where the supernatural threat was the land itself? It’s a refreshing approach, one that guarantees you can’t ever be sure just what form Marty’s ultimate payback will take. “Trapped” might not be perfect, but it’s a damn sight more adventurous than a fair amount of some of the GhouLunatics' other shocking offers.

John: Why not just call "One Last Fling!" "My wife Olga the Vampire" and be done with it? I wasn't moved by Harry's predicament, though I give him credit for finding an easy way out; something I'm sure many unhappy husbands wish was so easy. "That's a 'Croc'!" shows us just how bad man-eating crocodiles have it. It takes an enterprising individual to come up with a good solution to meeting their unique dietary needs. I'm normally a fan of Jack Kamen's art, but I found his work on "Child's Play" lacking. And last but not least, let the record reflect that Peter is crazy. "Trapped!" is entirely dismissible. Class dismissed!

Next Week!
Jack and Peter bid a tearful farewell to
Johnny Cloud and All American Men of War!
On Sale Monday, October 10th


John said...

E.C. Comics were the best! They set the standard for all that was to follow -- up to the present day. Incomparable in their insane creativity.

Jack Seabrook said...

We agree! Thanks for reading and for taking the time to comment!