Monday, October 31, 2016

EC Comics! It's An Entertaining Comic! Part 18: January 1952




Featuring special guest host, John Scoleri!


The EC Reign Month by Month 1950-1956
18: January 1952


Wood
Tales from the Crypt #27

"Well-Cooked Hams!" 
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Jack Davis

"Madame Bluebeard" 
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Joe Orlando

"Return!" 
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Jack Kamen

"Horror! Head . . . It Off!" 
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Graham Ingels

In Paris, Arthur and Miles are so impressed with the Grand Guignol that they petition M. Matier, the owner, to share his secrets so they can re-create the spectacle in America. He refuses but lets on that the secrets of makeup and gore are written down and kept in his safe. That night, Arthur and Miles return to his office, kill Matier, steal the secrets, and board a plane back to the U.S. They advertise the American premiere of the Grand Guignol, a spectacle in which they will play the starring roles. On opening night, the show is a hit, but these two "Well-Cooked Hams!" kill each other when the special effects turn out to be real. In the audience sits the corpse of Matier, looking on grimly.

"Well-Cooked Hams!"
The Grand Guignol as presented here sure looks like an evening at the theater that Peter and Jose would enjoy! But if I were M. Matier and I knew the secrets to the spectacle, I sure wouldn't blurt out to visitors that they were all written down and locked in my office safe. Feldstein plays with the cliches of the very horror comics we love to read, but the story's ending makes no sense.

Teresa may be a hot little number, but when it comes to men, she's "Madame Bluebeard!" She has just killed her seventh husband and inherited even more dough. It all stems back to her parents--her dad walked out on her when she was a little girl and her mom instilled a hatred of the male gender. One night, Teresa buys seven wreaths to lay on the graves of her dead husbands, but to her surprise their corpses all rise from their graves and assist her in joining them below the ground.

This is a straightforward revenge tale with an almost Woolrichian setup, where a woman kills her husbands annually on the anniversary of her mother's death. The payoff is nicely done and it's great to see Joe Orlando join the ranks of EC's horror artists with some great, 1940s pulp illustration-style art. His Teresa gives Jack Kamen's ladies a run for their money.

"Return!"
Speaking of Jack Kamen, he lays on the Good Girl Art thickly in "Return!" Myra is in love and marries Jim, who wants to start an air freight service with his friend Hal. The business gets off the ground but Jim disappears when he travels to South America. After thirteen months, he suddenly shows up at home, and he and Myra spend a blissful night in bed, but he's gone again in the morning. Three months later, Myra is pregnant and Hal tells her that Jim has been dead for over a year--so how could he have shared Myra's bed months before?

Kamen shows what he can do in this Good Girl Art extravaganza. Forget the story and enjoy Myra in a bathing suit, a nightgown, etc. Hubba hubba!

During the Reign of Terror in Revolutionary France, the Duke de Lugere makes a profit by taking money from other noblemen eager to escape Paris and the guillotine. He then gets paid twice by betraying them to the soldiers of the Republic. Double-crossing the Marquis de Rochemont turns out to be a bad idea, however, since his headless corpse soon returns to frighten the Duke. It turns out that Rochemont's devoted servant was behind the trick and he seems to have chopped off the Duke's head for good measure.


"Horror! Head . . . It Off!" is disappointing. After a great splash page by Ghastly, Feldstein's script is by the numbers, and the conclusion is the sort of silliness that I would not expect in an EC comic. It's never good when the host has to explain what happened after the last panel for us to get the full picture. --Jack

Peter: I like stories that leave a lot to the imagination but "Well-Cooked Hams!" smells like a tale that Al didn't finish. We're to draw our own conclusions as to why the special effects went so terribly wrong for Arthur and Miles. They're bad dudes and that's a good reason, I guess. With a lot of these morality plays, I have a hard time swallowing that these characters will do such rotten things for such small rewards. These two nuts have no idea if this thing will be a hit and they seem to just turn on a dime from interested parties to cold-blooded murderers. I don't buy it. The other three stories this issue are just as lackluster. "Madame Bluebeard" forms its foundation around several idiocies, the major one being that this woman could have gotten away with all these murders on the same day each year! "Madame" shares the same weakness as the successive stories, that being a need to get to the shock with as little thought as possible. "Return!" and "Horror! Head . . . It Off!" may have shock endings but they don't surprise. Ghastly's art in the final tale suffers from too many close-ups though the headless chicken is a classic.

"Madame Bluebeard"
Jose: Jack’s got his finger on my pulse again (I ain’t dead yet, pal!) when he says that the Grand Guignol setting of “Well-Cooked Hams!” would be a major turn-on for me, because it is. I’m an absolute sucker for any tale concerning that ghastly little Parisian chapel-cum-theater, and on a purely superficial level “Hams” does the trick for me. The story has its share of holes, though; other than those already mentioned, I love how Arthur and Miles make a big deal about “learning their lines” when their scene only consists of four snarled curses and the immediate mutual deaths of their characters. Hope you didn’t stay up too late running that blocking, boys! I do actually like the presence of Matier’s revived corpse, as nonsensical as it may be. The concurrent disappearance of his body from the morgue and staging of the Guignol in the States gears the reader up for some ol’ fashioned zombie vengeance, but as it turns out the dead stage manager just wanted to be there for the premiere of the final show. “Madame Bluebeard” fudges the free-throw with the script but sticks the landing with the art. (Those two things are from the same sport, right?) Orlando’s illustrations have been getting more gorgeous with each assignment. The sad thing is Feldstein’s story could’ve fixed up a lot of the reader’s incredulity if it took a cue from the legendary figure its title refers to by setting up Teresa as a powerful aristocrat whose crimes are known within the community but to whom justice is never delivered due to her position, a la Elizabeth Bathory or Gilles de Rais. All the more reason for those too-briefly-glimpsed cadavers to vie for her skin!

Myra again
“Return!” just may be the sappiest and dullest Kamen horror story yet. It can only be recommended to those who enjoy ceaseless panels of rosy-cheeked heroines wondering when their boyfriends will call and fantasizing about jumping into the shelter of their strong, manly arms as a prelude to nice, quiet sex. The only thing fun about it is the Crypt-Keeper’s somewhat uncomfortable pussyfooting around the topic of ghostly pregnancies. I liked “Horror! Head … It Off!” much more than my colleagues (surprise, surprise, the French Revolution is another horror soft-spot!). I think the close-ups are a nice touch as they give Ingels the chance to work on distinguishing his characters (a criticism we’ve lobbed at him before), and I think he does a more than admirable job of it here. This story would’ve been perfectly suited for airing on Inner Sanctum Mysteries or Lights Out! The clump-and-drag of the dead Marquis’s club foot could have made for a tense listen.

John: Thanks to Tom Savini, I was aware of Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol at an early age. I was impressed to see an EC comic based around it; making it feel high-brow for a change. Sadly, in "Well-Cooked Hams!" we’re asked to throw logic out the door and appreciate that the dead man’s corpse was in the auditorium watching. Did kids back then truly have such low standards? "Madame Bluebeard" is a bit more fun, as we see the seven ways Teresa’s seven husbands died, followed by the alternate angle showing her involvement in each of their deaths. That said, allocating barely two panels to represent all seven husbands coming back from the grave was disappointing. I enjoyed “Return!” both because Jack Kamen’s art really shines, and because I felt the twist was particularly inspired; it wasn’t just that she had been visited by Jim after he had died, but the fact that she was now pregnant! Of course I'm also a sucker for ceaseless panels of rosy-cheeked heroines wondering when their boyfriends will call and fantasizing about jumping into the shelter of their strong, manly arms as a prelude to nice, quiet sex. But that's just me. As for "Horror! Head . . . It Off!" - there was far too little guillotining in this guillotine tale for my tastes.




Craig
 Crime SuspenStories #8

"Out of the Frying Pan . . ." ★ 1/2
Story and Art by Johnny Craig

"A Trace of Murder!" 
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Jack Kamen

"The Escaped Maniac!"
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by George Roussos

"Partnership Dissolved!"  
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Graham Ingels

Laid up in the hospital, old Charlie enjoys telling his bedridden roommates about the lovely day and exploits of locals outside his window. Meanwhile, Hank Bowers catches his old lady gettin’ it on with another guy, loses his temper and chases the guy down an alley. Hank blows the guy away but sustains a minor injury during the fight, leaving him temporarily blind. The police haul him to the hospital and it’s there that Charlie and Hank cross paths. Listening to Charlie’s descriptions of a beautiful park across the street, Hank conjures up the perfect escape once his eyesight begins to return. Unfortunately for Hank, he doesn’t take into account that old Charlie is actually blind and that the non-existent park is actually a brick wall. The six-panel first page (an alternative to the usual splash plus) hints at the goofiness Johnny Craig has in store for us in “Out of the Frying Pan.” The double-sized panel depicting Hank’s five foot flight into the brick wall is priceless and draws as many guffaws as anything EC ran in MAD.

"Out of the Frying Pan . . ."

"A Trace of Murder!"
When his wife, Muriel, threatens to leave him, Irving Fenwick poisons her with arsenic and then commits suicide. Across town, Felix Morley has the exact opposite problem; he's got a gorgeous girlfriend and a shrewish wife, Emma, who happens to be loaded. Felix does a little homework and mixes a non-traceable, toxic cup of coffee for his wife . . . voila, no problem, right? Well . . . the lovebirds let a little time elapse and then elope but when Felix's new wife gets wind of how the first wife really died, she sings to the cops. Meanwhile, in Greentree Cemetery, a couple of boys are having a little fun by switching around headstones; they just happen to be working on the stones belonging to Emma and Muriel when the guard chases them off. Shortly after, the police exhume what they think to be the body of Emma Morley for another autopsy and (since it's actually the body of Muriel Fenwick) find traces of arsenic! It's curtains for Felix Morley. Boy, oh boy, all the mistakes police must have made before the CSI crew came into existence (Mrs. Fenwick has to be at least two decades younger than Mrs. Morley!). Are we to believe that three pre-pubescent brats can lift a headstone and move it to another grave? Though "A Trace of Murder!" ends on a supremely dopey moment (told his wife's body has traces of arsenic, Felix says, "That's impossible! I'm being framed! The poison I used leaves no trace!" Ulp, I mean, that is . . . cue wah wah music), it certainly begins promisingly with two seemingly unrelated events. It's only when Al tries to tie those threads together that the story unravels.

"The Escaped Maniac!"

One dark and stormy night, Bert is out driving in the countryside when he stops for a hitch-hiker. The man is disheveled but friendly enough until the radio broadcasts the news of "The Escaped Maniac!" Suddenly, Bert has every reason to fear his new passenger. Or does he? Right from the get-go, this one is 100% predictable but I do give Al a bit of credit for not cheating . . . much. Readers in 1951 might not have seen that climax coming but we hardened veterans of pre-code horror comics nail the "surprise" a few panels in. The less said about the Roussos art the better.

"Partnership Dissolved"
Meat wholesaler Herman Winkler has seen profits dip low and the end seems near until Dr. Paul Merrick barges into Winkler's office with a wondrous new serum that transforms the toughest meat into tender filet mignon! Doc explains that the formula works in the same way as the human digestive system, breaking down the tissue and leaving it "partially digested." All that Doc asks is fifty percent of all profits and Herman is glad to agree since the serum will reap big rewards for the failing company. But two million dollars is so much more than one and, inevitably, Herman decides he needs the "Partnership Dissolved!" and that his new partner must disappear. He traps Doc in the meat locker until the poor man freezes to death then dumps the body into a vat of the solution, smiling while contemplating even more riches. Back in his office. Herman takes a tumble and his secretary helpfully fetches him a glass of water from the decanter on her boss's desk. Too late, Winkler discovers that he's been given a full glass of the serum and he quickly breaks down into a "dark putrid mass!" The 47th retelling of a partnership gone awry is elevated to "Very Good" status solely by Ghastly's art. Winkler is nothing more than a framework of every other greedy businessman who offed his partner because the stack of cash just wasn't high enough (when will these guys learn?). Highlight panels include Winkler's draining of the liquid after dissolving Doc (we don't see anything suspect but we sure imagine we do!) and, of course, the climactic puddle ("The form of his blackening body dissolved into a dark putrid mass! A foul, rancid odor wafted upward from the quivering, seething pool!"), reminiscent of "Baby . . . It's Cold Inside!" (from Vault #17). --Peter


"Partnership Dissolved!"
Jose: Craig’s somewhat light-hearted approach to the crime story with “Out of the Frying Pan…” is an interesting change of pace if not entirely winning. Pork-faced Hank Bowers is clearly meant to be closer to caricature than character, and I can’t help but detect shades of Cartoon Network’s Johnny Bravo in him. I didn’t really have any problem with either Feldstein’s script or George Roussos’s art in “The Escaped Maniac!” albeit how predictable and square they were. Al had the sense here to stick to his convictions, and I think with a more imaginative artist on hand “Maniac!” could have made for a modest, moody little suspenser. The same cannot be said for “A Trace of Murder!” which only becomes more ludicrous with each successive panel. The 1950s were apparently a very special time, a time when cops were incredibly dumb and children were insanely strong. To have been able to live back then. Ingels pulls through with a tale worthy of his nickname and an ending that holds back no punches. The warring business partners bit might be showing its staleness by this point, but reinvigorating it with meat-eating serums and Ingels’s art at times makes it all feel new again.

"Out of the Frying Pan . . ."
Jack: Craig's story is brilliant and serves as another fine example of how to make story and art so co-dependent that one is incomplete without the other. My favorite moment in the Kamen story is when Feldstein censors the names of the common household ingredients used to make an untraceable poison. It's nice to know that the creators of EC Comics were so concerned about protecting their readers from harm. There are few things that get me more excited than a story setup involving an escaped homicidal maniac in the middle of nowhere, so I did not mind the above-average art from Roussos. The fun part of these stories is all about guessing who the killer really is and this time it was pretty obvious. The Ingels story starts with a setup that is both clever and disgusting and the plot and conclusion are satisfying--not so much a tale of revenge as one of carelessness.


Craig
The Vault of Horror #22

"Fountains of Youth!" ★ 1/2
Story and Art by Johnny Craig

"The Monster in the Ice!" ★ 1/2
Story by Al Feldstein and Bill Gaines
Art by Graham Ingels

"Gone . . . Fishing!" 
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Jack Davis

"What the Dog Dragged In!" 
Story by Al Feldstein, Based on a story by Ray Bradbury
Art by Jack Kamen

There is very little in Betty’s life for her to take comfort in, and perhaps her blindness and invalidity can be viewed as strange mercies that she should not be forced to see the cracked and miserable walls or pace the worn boards of her desolate apartment. The only source of warmth and companionship she has in this world is Jerry, her trusted dog, on whom she literally depends at times to bring her her weekly vittles. It is on just such an errand that the hound is run down by a car driven by philanthropist Roger Cartwright. Roger takes the still-living dog to the vet and then later nurses it back to health. His fondness for the animal is doubled when he returns Jerry to his owner; he is clearly smitten with Betty but fears revealing his full identity lest she think that he merely viewed her as a charity case. Soon the two of them are seeing each other regularly at the prompting of Jerry’s trips to Roger’s house, and on his last visit Roger proposes marriage. Fate rears its ugly maw, though, when a truck hurtles into Roger’s automobile right after his departure. Betty sinks into a deep depression, not knowing what became of her intended, and Jerry’s recurring journeys to Roger’s place from which he returns empty-pawed only sicken both of them even more. Finally Jerry takes off for several days and, just as Betty thinks she is totally alone in life, the dog comes back, his fur heavy with rank graveyard earth. It seems Jerry hasn’t come back empty-pawed this time. Just in the doorway, Roger waits be reunited with his betrothed.

“What the Dog Dragged In!” aims for fairly low-hanging fruit when it comes to gaining the audience’s sympathy—our protagonist is a woman struggling to live on her own who is both blind *and* crippled, with only a lovable pup to call her friend—but it can’t be denied that even obvious heartstring-pluckers such as these can be played with skill, as they are here. Kamen’s art is as nicey-nice as ever, even going so far as to making Betty, a lady who clearly has limited resources in more ways than one, look like all his other fresh-from-the-beauty-parlor heroines when the story heavily implies that Betty likely doesn’t ever leave her tenement, but it’s the emotional strength of Bradbury’s original story and Feldstein’s “adaptation” of it that carries it through. The pain of the final scenes between Betty and Jerry are made palpable through the prose, the dog’s frustration and despair that it can’t get the only thing its master desires a sure-fire throat-clencher. The fact that Jerry does end up fulfilling Betty’s wish in the most horrifying way possible only makes the ending feel that much more scalding to the touch.

"Dammit, did you let him into
our boxes of EC comics again?"
Two geologists stationed out in the “barren frozen waste that is the Arctic” tire of the superstitious claptrap of their Eskimo guide who insists that a certain range of tundra is cursed by the presence of a terrible monster whose gruesome face is said to drive man to madness. Hearing this, the two white guys naturally conclude that it’s something they should most definitely investigate. They stumble upon the monster-cicle and then chip out the hazy block of ice which imprisons it to take back their cabin base. They naturally give the frightened-out-of-his-mind Eskimo guide the task of chiseling the remains out of the ice and, just as they’re musing about the possibility that the Creature which Mary Shelley spoke of her in famous “novel” Frankenstein was actually a living, breathing creation, they are alarmed by the sound of the Eskimo’s delirious screams. Their guide has been reduced to a gibbering mess and the man in the ice—whoever or whatever it was—has headed back into the wild. The geologists spring a fishing hole-trap for it, but one look at the monster’s ghastly (Graham Ingels) face is enough to seal their doom and ensure their own freezing death in the ice before more white guys show up days later and decide they should most definitely investigate. A flimsy if intermittently intriguing narrative provides low-res chills. Ingels admirably takes on the task of re-imagining the Creature for an audience to whom Boris Karloff’s portrayal had been the defining image, and if his stab at Shelley’s misshapen man loses some of its gravitas, it certainly can’t be denied that his version is clock-meltingly ugly.

"Fountains of Youth!"
Johnny Craig is up to his old bag of tricks (which means that they’re all interesting and new tricks) in “Fountains of Youth!,” a sedate, almost Val Lewton-esque “mystery” where the sudden, incredible deaths of young women in the company of a wealthy, veiled madam reveal the latter for the ancient lullaby-singing, vitality-sucking beast that she is. This is one of Craig’s more urbane stories, a tale set in the contemporary here-and-now of 1951 that could have easily been translated to the small screen as an episode of The Twilight Zone. (One could say it was, in a way, in episodes such as “Long Live Walter Jameson” and, especially, “Queen of the Nile.”) I also love Craig’s inventiveness and looseness with his Vault-Keeper, like the shot of V-K casually lounging back as he chortles over the plot’s morbid developments. It’s moments like this, a good deal of them facilitated by Craig, that went a long way in delineating EC’s GhouLunatics from other horror hosts of the era and ingraining them deeper into the social consciousness.

We got chins that could go on for days!
Whereas it’s typically Kamen left with the dog scraps each issue, Jack Davis muddles through the six pages of filler that is “Gone … Fishing!” before delivering us to the bizarre albeit entirely expected punchline. Right from the second that our fish-conscious pal Steve makes his entrance into the story with the line, “I’m opposed to fishing on moral grounds,” we know that our cast of two are here to act only as ciphers rather than fully-rounded characters. There’s none of the nuance here that Feldstein brought to his script for “The Trophy” (TftC #25), a tale that similarly preoccupied itself with Man’s debatable hierarchy in the kingdom of the beasts. Instead we have our enthusiastic sportsman giving us the technical run-downs of the various forms of fishing and our sympathetic dissenter to occasionally comment “Eww, that’s gross” before God or Allah or the Flying Spaghetti Monster sees fit to pass judgment upon the sportsman in the form of hooking him on fishing line apparently being reeled in by Davy Jones. “Gone … Fishing!” could almost pass as EC parodying their own formula. --Jose

The reel lesson? Stop eating candy you found in the freaking sand.

Craig!
("Fountains of Youth")
Peter: "Gone . . . Fishing!" is the most ludicrous morality tale we've yet discovered on our journey; it's not the sentiment but the execution which makes it so harebrained. Steven objects vehemently to the mistreatment of the fish and yet he accompanies and stays quite a while with sadistic angler, Max. The tale is actually 20% morality tale and 80% an instructive course in Fishing 101. Halfway through, I knew what the twist would be (what idiot wouldn't?) but when it came, I wasn't prepared for the silliness  of the scene. Who hooked Max? Who cares? Feldstein, in his interview in Tales of Terror (Gemstone, 2000), tells a very funny story of attending a theater one night and seeing a short film entitled The Fisherman that ripped off "Gone . . . Fishing!" Ray Bradbury must have smiled when he heard this story.  "Fountains" is an average horror tale, no more or less; a variation on the plot was used to better effect in the Universal-released The Leech Woman (1960). Al's "sequel" to the "Mary Shelly" (sic) novel is an interesting take on the Monster and has the same kind of claustrophobic vibe that enriched Who Goes There? Ghastly's creature is best kept to the shadows though, as when it emerges and gives us a full-facial, I doubt this Monster (with its cumbersome boar-ish tusks) would elicit more than giggles from an Eskimo. Winning the coveted Best-of-Issue this time out is "What the Dog Dragged In!," another of Al's "homages" to Ray Bradbury ("The Emissary" from Dark Carnival, 1947). The remarkable aspect of this shocker is that there's no villain (in fact, Roger's such a saint he tucks hobbled and bandaged Jerry into bed!). What fate awaits Betty when the corpse comes a' callin'? In Bradbury's tale, the main character is a bedridden boy and the climactic visitor is the boy's kindly teacher, who had died sometime before.

Show of hands for those who think Ingels is amazing.
Jack: As usual, the Craig story is my favorite. He really delivers the goods in the shock panel at the end when we finally see the aged Madame Dubois without her veil. Ingels and Kamen switch places in this issue for a change, with Ingels coming second and Kamen coming fourth. Ghastly really excels at splash pages; witness this one, where the Old Witch's cauldron is supported by hands sticking up out of the water. This story features some of the best straightforward artwork I've yet seen by Ingels, though the final shots of the monster's face are disappointing after all of the buildup about how horrible it looked. Davis's story is, as Peter notes, a great primer on surf fishing with a conclusion that is funny but unexplained. Kamen's story adds another disappointing ending, where we get only a tiny glimpse of Roger's decaying corpse. I read that Bradbury's story left this to the imagination, but in a visual medium such as comics we need a little more visual stimulation.

John: Aside from the final panels, I could hardly stand Craig’s artwork in "Fountains of Youth!" For me, the story didn’t make up for the art’s shortcomings, either. "The Monster in the Ice!" earns points for making an effort to teach kids that there was a lot more to the novel Frankenstein than they saw in the Boris Karloff film. While one can pretty much see where "Gone . . . Fishing!" is going from the get-go, it still has some charm. ”What the Dog Dragged In!" delivers more fantastic Kamen art and a fun story, but like "Madame Bluebeard" from this month's TOC discussed above, they should know by now that we're not going to be satisfied with a single (let alone a partial) panel of the decayed corpses coming back for love or revenge. We want our 10¢ worth, dammit!

Next Week!
Jack and Peter take a real hard look
at the Best and Worst of DC War Comics in 1966
Only 12 cents at your local newsstand!


No comments: