Monday, November 28, 2016

EC Comics! It's An Entertaining Comic! Part 20: March 1952

Featuring special guest host, John Scoleri!

The EC Reign Month by Month 1950-1956
20: March 1952

 Shock SuspenStories #1

"The Neat Job!" 
Story by Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein
Art by Jack Kamen

"Yellow!" ★ 1/2
Story by Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein
Art by Jack Davis

"The Monsters!" ★ 1/2
Story by Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein
Art by Joe Orlando

"The Rug!" 
Story by Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein
Art by Graham Ingels

Eleanor married Arthur three years ago even though she didn't like him all that much; she was afraid of being an old maid. He bought a big old house for them and she soon discovered that he had a mania for keeping things organized. After years of being emotionally abused by her nut of a husband, things boiled over one day when a picture fell off the wall and she tried to find a nail to hang it back up. She made a mess of his precious workshop and he really let her have it when he got home. Eleanor learned all too well how to do "The Neat Job!" and killed Arthur with an axe. When the cops arrived, they found that she had chopped him up into bits and organized the pieces in neatly-labeled jars on the workroom shelves.

"The Neat Job!"

The first issue of Shock SuspenStories is off to a bang-up start with a surprisingly good story from Feldstein, Gaines and Kamen. The setup is perfect and, while the pages of Arthur insisting that everything be organized may go on a little too long, the payoff and final panel are worth the buildup.

Colonel Henderson is in a fix--the Germans are surrounding his position and they have cut the phone lines. When a report comes in that his son, Lt. Henderson, is thought to be "Yellow!" by his men, the colonel orders that his son lead the mission to repair the lines. The mission fails and his son comes running back, but a survivor reports that he deserted his men under fire. A court martial is held and father sentences son to death by firing squad. Visiting his son in his cell, Pops tells him that all of the firing squad rifles will be loaded with blanks, so sonny boy just has to pretend he's dead and he'll be left behind. When he's brought before the firing squad, the son seems brave, but when he is shot to death his father comments that he had a feeling his son would meet his end bravely.

Two in a row! We already knew that Jack Davis could deliver fantastic art in war stories, but this is the first outstanding battle tale we've seen written by someone other than Kurtzman. Feldstein and Gaines deliver an exciting tale with a tough ending.

The first spaceship to land from outer space attracts a carload of scientists, but as soon as the Earthmen arrive the aliens announce that they're leaving. When the scientists ask why, the aliens tell a story of horribly deformed mutants being born after exposure to radiation. They take off for outer space and leave two of the mutants behind--surprise--they're human beings!

A swing and a miss! Al and Bill bore us with the oldest sci-fi cliche in the book and Joe Orlando's art continues to puzzle me. After his first few EC stories were so impressive, more recent ones have shown him struggling. If this issue is a microcosm of the EC line as a whole, it's not surprising that the weakest of the first three stories is the science fiction one, since the two science fiction comics are consistently the weakest of the line.

"The Monsters!"
Wealthy socialite sportsman Conrad Cartwright brings his reluctant friend Reggie on a hunting trip and promises to shoot and kill a grizzly bear to give Reggie a bearskin rug. Reggie thinks the whole thing is disgusting. Conrad succeeds in killing and skinning a huge bear, but Reggie wants no part of "The Rug!" That night, Conrad hears what sounds like a grizzly outside. He goes out to explore and is confronted by a massive bear wielding a hunting knife. One thing leads to another, and soon Reggie is shocked to discover a new rug in front of the fireplace--the skinned corpse of Conrad!

Ghastly does his best with a ludicrous script and, though the payoff is obvious from early on, the sight of the human skin rug provides a memorable final panel. But how did the grizzly skin Conrad and display the rug in the cabin in the few moments between Conrad's scream and Reggie's rush down the stairs? That's one efficient bear.--Jack

Peter: I bought a few of the East Coast Comix reprints back in the early 1970s but their cover price (a whopping one dollar when mainstream funny books cost two dimes) precluded my collecting a full run of the series at the time. And I'm not sure I would have been interested in anything but what the Crypt-Keeper and his two cohorts were dishing out anyway. So my first exposure to Shock SuspenStories was when I stumbled over Russ Cochran's slipcased box set in 1981. Despite the steep price, I handed over the bills, took the gargantua home and devoured it. This led to my subscribing to the entire Cochran EC Library and becoming a second- (or third-) generation EC FanAddict. Though I love the horror and science fiction books, Shock, to me at least, is the pinnacle of EC, the most consistently excellent title. An experiment, really, on the part of Al and Bill, to create a variety title combining themes that would normally be found in one of the crime, sf, horror, or war titles. The genre carousel would be tinkered with over the next few issues ("Yellow!" will be the only war story to appear in Shock) and then jettisoned down the line.

This month's issue of Better Homes and Gardens.
("The Rug!")

"The Neat Job" would seem an odd choice for a big screen EC comic adaptation since it lacks excitement or anything resembling a shock until its final moments but Milt Subotsky does an admirable job capturing the gist of the story for Vault of Horror. Terry-Thomas portrays the stuffy and overbearing Arthur and Glynis Johns the frazzled Eleanor. The screenplay remains faithful right up to and including the big reveal (the only major departure is that Eleanor uses a hammer rather than a hatchet) and the scene where Arthur berates Eleanor for invading his work space seems torn right from the page ("Can't you do anything neat? Can't you? Can't you?"). The cops in the funny book seem a tad too restrained to me but one of them delivers what might be the first of the classic "Choke..." sign-offs. Both "The Monsters!" and "The Rug!" are silly exercises in themes that have been covered already. "The Rug," in particular, stretches the reader's patience with Reggie's seesaw emotions about hunting and the reader's guffaw mechanism with that final image of the skinned Conrad still in his hunter's clothes.The clear winner in the premiere is "Yellow," a story so infused with the horrors of war, the reader can be excused for assuming it's yet another Kurtzman masterpiece, rather than a rare foray into the war zone by Al. The story made for one of the better adaptations aired on HBO's Tales from the Crypt in its 4th season. Perhaps it's the comparative lack of sex and gore found in most of the other episodes or the presence of Kirk Douglas as the Colonel that made this one a cut above the rest. Though, as I've stated, Shock is my favorite title, the debut is anything but a stunner. It's going to take a couple issues to get cooking but when it does...

Jose: As the lead story, “The Neat Job!” inadvertently sets the standard for what Shock SuspenStories would become over time, as it would primarily adhere more closely to the treacherous and murderous activity of its “sister” title, Crime SuspenStories, rather than the speculative trappings of the science fiction or horror series, although SSS would retain the Old Witch to fill the final slot with gruesome helpings from her cauldron. It’s an effective tale that uses Bill Gaines’s own notorious OCD habits as its springboard to shape its retributive justice finale. I admit to actually preferring the filmed version to the original comic. Thomas and Johns are perfect in their roles, and the black humor rides high all the way through, including a “brief” bit where Thomas ends up slipping on his wife’s bloomers after she mistakenly places them in his undergarment drawer after doing the laundry! “Yellow!” also had a stellar transfer, this time to the small screen for the HBO series. Both of the Douglases, Kirk and son Eric, give solid turns and Lance Henriksen, as a grizzled commanding officer, is wild fun. The less said about “The Monsters!,” the better. And while the series’s first horror offering, “The Rug!,” might be fairly derided for a hilarious climax that recalls the similar coda of “Gone… Fishing” (VOH 22), it’s all worth it for that image of the towering bear gripping the hunting knife before it goes to town on Conrad’s butt.

John: Is it just me, or does this first issue appear to be assembled from stories cobbled together from existing E.C. titles? On the bright side, "The Neat Job!" is a nice way to kick off the issue with an unhappy housewife doing in her husband in a way that would make him proud. And while "Yellow!" might be more appropriate in one of the war titles, it's one of the better examples thanks to a great story and Jack Davis's art. "The Monsters!" is a lesser effort than we regularly see in the SF titles, and "The Rug!" is one of those tales that only becomes interesting in the final panel.

 Tales from the Crypt #28

"Bargain in Death!" ★ 1/2
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Jack Davis

"Ants in Her Trance!" ★ 1/2
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Joe Orlando

"A-Corny Story" 
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Jack Kamen

"The Ventriloquist's Dummy!" 
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Graham Ingels

For some reason, it's 1928, and medical students Sid and Mel decide that they'll need to dig up a fresh corpse to continue their studies. Across town, Alex convinces George to take a drug that will mimic death so he can be buried and they can split his life insurance proceeds. The simulation of death is carried out and George is quickly buried. Sid and Mel see the death notice in the paper and plan to dig him up. Alex collects $40K from the country's speediest insurance adjuster and buys a car to hightail it out of town. Now, bear with me here. George is buried alive and suffocating, waiting for Alex to come dig him up. Sid and Mel hire an idiot handyman for five bucks to dig up the corpse. When he does so and opens the coffin, out springs George, very much alive. Sid and Mel run away and across the street, right in front of Alex's speeding car, causing a fatal crash. When the students get back to their dorm, they find that the handyman has provided the corpse he promised by braining George with a crowbar and now he wants his five bucks.

Featuring Peter Enfantino as the handyman.
("Bargain in Death")
I don't know if Johnny Craig had a hand in inking Jack Davis on "Bargain in Death!" but some of the panels are much smoother than we've grown used to from Mr. Davis. Feldstein's story is heading in an obvious direction from page two but the ride is a lot of fun and the ending is a wee bit unexpected.

Famous hypnotist Leopold Monetti likes to perform at parties. His best trick is to put his wife Evette under and command her to stop her heart. He brings her out of it with the phrase, "snap out of it!" Leopold meets Selma Appleton at one of these parties and they begin an affair; she soon talks him into killing Evette by putting her under and using the wrong phrase to try to bring her back. Evette is dead and Leopold insists that Selma wait a year before they can marry. On the anniversary of Evette's death, Leopold takes Selma to his late wife's grave to pay their respects. Selma goes nuts with guilt and Leopold yells at her to "snap out of it"--uh oh! Evette's rotting corpse hears the magic words and emerges from her grave to scare the happy couple to death.

How to convince a man to commit murder!
("Ants in Her Trance")
Despite an awful title, "Ants in Her Trance!" has much better art from Joe Orlando than we saw in this month's Shock SuspenStories and Feldstein's story is a hoot. I may be a dope, but I did not see the end coming in advance.

Arnold Everette is a successful businessman who fires his long time employee Carlo Pietro for being too old. Pietro returns to his home in Haiti and mails Arnold a withered tree, which Arnold plants outside his window. Arnold begins to grow younger and more vigorous and the tree also shows signs of renewal. Unfortunately, the reversion does not stop for either Arnold or the tree; the tree ends up an acorn and Arnold passes through adolescence, childhood and infancy to end up a gleam of sunlight.

"A-Corny Story" indeed! The moral is that one should never fire an employee who comes from Haiti.

Larry Douglas is the entertainment director at a resort hotel. He tracks down Charles Jerome, a famous ventriloquist who hasn't worked in ten years, and offers him a job performing. Larry recalls how Charles's career had ended after a dancer had been found killed. Now, Charles agrees to come out of retirement and his act is a hit all over again. That night, a woman is killed near the resort, and Larry tracks Charles down, only to find that "The Ventriloquist's Dummy!" was really a hollow body and the head was a grotesque creature that had grown in place of Charles's hand. Charles cuts off the head/hand and is killed by the sharp-toothed severed head.

You really can't un-see this once you've seen it.
("The Ventriloquist's Dummy")

I knew it was going to come eventually, but this story is the first one in our trip through the EC comics that crossed the line from "fun" to "disgusting." I have a feeling it won't be the last. I seem to recall reading that Ingels had a real problem with some of the stories he was assigned to draw, and ones like this make me see why. --Jack

Jose Cruz on a pleasant Saturday.
("A-Corny Story")
Peter: "The Ventriloquist's Dummy!" has some nice art but suffers from an overlong expository; "Ants in Her Trance" is a tad bit obvious ("Snap out of it!" screamed right over Evette's grave) though it's got a very risqué (for 1950s) bit of fun when Selma nibbles on Leopold's ear; and the hook of "A-Corny Story" was already done before (and I'm sure one of my younger colleagues will name that story) but much better. That leaves the lead-off, "A Bargain in Death," which shows just how much insurance companies have changed in the last sixty years: Alex is paid the full 40K in benefits on the day of the funeral! "Bargain" was very faithfully filmed for The Vault of Horror, starring Michael Craig as George (here rechristened Maitland) and Edward Judd as the conniving Alex.

Jose: This issue seems to be one of several significant firsts, at least to my eyes. With lucky number 28, it feels like all of the artists on hand are really beginning not only to nail down their aesthetics but also show a marked level of polish and sophistication. You could essentially go down the line and say that “Story X” is a classic example of “Artist Y,” a work that could be offered up as a fair representative of all the illustrator’s other pieces for the company. “Bargain in Death!” has the deranged energy and kooky humor that Davis would trade in for many of his opening slots in future issues of Tales from the Crypt, his new nasty niche. “Ants in Her Trance!” finds Orlando transitioning from early scenes of romantic glamour (including some frank sexuality that involves not only that kinky ear-nibbling but a shot of our lovers smoothing out their clothes in an obviously post-coital moment) to melty climaxes overrunning with goopy grue, a trademark particular to his horror stories. “A-Corny Story!” might be just that and feature the fittingly bloodless premise that Kamen was always handed from Feldstein—that other age regression story from the artist that Peter alludes to would be the extra-Freudian “Second Childhood” all the way back in Weird Fantasy #16—but here Kamen’s art looks to be taking on a level of dimension, briskness, and vitality not formerly seen in his static images. My compatriots are correct in noting the extra-dark flavor of “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy!,” a conte cruel that aims to be cruel just for the halibut, but its seedy and visceral power can’t be denied, and it’s impressive all the more that that power can still be felt considering how free of physical violence it really is. This is not the in-your-face stuff of snuff that EC would later dabble in—see the header image of this series nabbed from “Foul Play” for an example—but a carefully composed piece by Ingels that leaves most of its nastiest bits (the “rat-gnawed” victims, the severing of the ventriloquist’s hand) strictly to the shadows. Ingels seems to have intuited that showing that horrible, cancerous, fanged face would be enough for the reader to fill in the rest of the gaps. Boy, was he right.

John: "Bargain in Death!" is a bit of a fun twist; one part insurance scam, one part grave-robbing for fun and profit. Not that we haven't seen them before, but it was an interesting amalgam of the two concepts. No ants in "Ants in Her Trance!"? Sacrilege! Fortunately, the story is fun despite the title. I would have preferred someone other than Orlando handling the art—his shambling corpse leaves something to be desired—but it doesn't get in the way of enjoying the story. We get another bad title in "A-Corny Story", and this time a story to match. "The Ventriloquist's Dummy!" is surprisingly not what readers might reasonably expect it to be. It's not perfect, but it earns points for giving us a unique twist to the ventriloquist dummy sub-genre.

 Crime SuspenStories #9

"Understudy to a Corpse!" 
Story and Art by Johnny Craig

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

Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Jack Davis

"A Tree Grows in Borneo!" 
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Graham Ingels

Oh my God!
An antique trunk!
("Understudy to a Corpse!")
Brad and Alice have just bought a lovely new home but, while exploring in the attic, they make a horrifying discovery: a skeleton in a trunk! Eleven years before, bedridden Cyrus Klitch had cut his miserable nephew, Jeremy, out of his will. Jeremy, for his part, needs his uncle's donations to pay for his own acting classes. When Cyrus reveals that Jeremy has not only been excised but that the handouts end immediately, the enraged nephew hatches a plan. He'll make himself up like his uncle and have Cyrus's lawyer revise the will, leaving everything (naturally) to Jeremy. The old goat isn't too much trouble to suffocate with a pillow and Jeremy replaces Cyrus in the bed, summoning the lawyer for a new will. After the attorney leaves, Cyrus's nurse enters and gives "the old man" his nightly glass of milk. As Jeremy grips his burning throat, the nurse informs "Cyrus" that she'd overheard him one night telling his attorney to make the woman his sole beneficiary and she's tired of waiting! Good, ironic twist (Musical Wills?) caps off the so-so "greedy relative" saga known as "Understudy to a Corpse!" Young Jeremy actually  elicits a bit of sympathy (something most greedy relatives can't seem to buy) from the reader since he genuinely believes he can make the big time with a little help from stingy Uncle Cyrus; for a change, the guy is not a gambler or womanizer. Seems a bit of a stretch that no one emptied the attic in eleven years or smelled some really awful odor. We never get back to poor Alice and Brad but I assume they're not still in that attic as well.

Dr. Howard, Dr. Fine, and Dr. Howard diagnose.
Nora marries Dr. Luther Haines (world-renowned for his skull splinter operations!) for his money and prestige but the doctor's ever-present assistant, the lovely Miss Doyle, has the woman's radar activated. Could this pretty young thing be Nora's replacement someday? Nora decides that no one will be replacing her and so vows to get rid of them both by poisoning her husband's "Medicine!" (he has a kidney condition that dictates a teaspoon of the stuff every day at four sharp and Miss Doyle is always there to deliver the dosage) and pinning the crime on her competition. With the deadly deed done, Nora heads into town for some celebratory shopping but a truck hits her head-on and she wakes up in the hospital in a semi-comatose state. Nora can hear what's going on but she cannot communicate. Once her identity is discovered and her skull splinter diagnosed, the doctors scramble to notify Luther, who shows up quickly with Nurse Doyle in tow. His loving words of comfort and Miss Doyle's concern convince Nora she'd been barking up the wrong tree. As the doctors are wheeling the newly-relieved patient into the operating room, Dr. Haines is reminded to take his daily dose of kidney medicine and, as ether is administered, Nora realizes she won't be waking up. Though Al gets points for not winding it all up with the cliched finale (the doctor and nurse have been planning to kill Nora), he gains none for the silliness found throughout "Medicine!" What kind of assistant is Miss Doyle, anyway? We see her prepping patients, assisting in operations and, perhaps most importantly, taking dictation! Perhaps my favorite moment in this nonsense is when Nora is being examined by three doctors (three doctors!) after her accident:

Doctor #1: Good lord! She's paralyzed! With a skull fracture, that means only one thing...
Doctor #2: Skull splinter! Probably frontal lobe!

What are the odds? Kamen does what Kamen does best--people in stock poses. Most of his characters sneer rather than show anger, sadness, or joy. In fact, if you took the dialogue away from the final eight panels, you'd could easily be fooled into thinking Al had ended with the cliched tryst. Rather than the compassion Luther and Doyle express in their monologues, both characters are sneering as if there's something afoot.

Self-propelled justice.
John Hammond is the idol of millions, an actor who can do no wrong, but his stand-in, Russel Slade, finds that jealousy is eating him alive. After a make-up man comments that Russel could become a star if anything happened to Hammond, Slade decides to change his luck. When Hammond takes a couple weeks off from stardom to vacation at his country lodge, Russel follows him up and confronts him while the movie star is mowing the lawn. Slade shoots the actor and flees but trips and falls, knocked unconscious. He awakens just as the mower "bears down on him." "Cut!" is a simple little potboiler with not much going for it other than a delicious closing pun. Hammond's almost child-like curiosity about the lawn mower ("Often wondered how those things worked!") is charming and a spot-on but subtle put-down of Hollywood life. Davis isn't given much to work with other than talking heads but it's certainly more interesting than, say, Kamen's "Medicine!" job.

Scared? Try petrified.
("A Tree Grows in Borneo!")
In the jungle of Borneo, explorers George and Amos discover a temple topped with a roof made of solid gold. Though the men are there working for a platinum company, all thought of the job at hand flies out the window when faced with such riches. As they prepare to climb to the top of the temple, they stumble upon a gruesome sight: a skeleton of a man buried in the trunk of one of the huge trees. George explains that the natives buried their dead upright in the hollowed trees. Their pilfering is a major success and the two head back to the States, swearing that if one ever decides to return, the other will accompany him. Trust, however, does not seem to be either man's greatest character trait since they buy adjoining properties to keep an eye on each other. Amos runs out of money first but decides he doesn't want to share the wealth with George so he knifes him and shoves his corpse into a hollowed tree. Months after Amos's return from a second Borneo trip, he's wandering the estate when a storm comes up and he takes refuge under a tree. Turns out it's the Amos tree, whose branches reach out and tear George limb from limb. Another weak "greedy explorers" tale, "A Tree Grows in Borneo!" finishes off a rather weak issue of Crime. We've encountered these two exact characters before (only the names have been changed...); all that's missing is the vengeful natives. Even Al seems bored towards the end of the tale since he misidentifies Amos on page 6. --Peter

Thistle kill you.
("A Tree Grows in Borneo!")

Jack: I'm really surprised you were so blase about this issue. I thought it was a great comic book! Craig's cover is gorgeous and his story is, as usual, top-notch work. I'm sure that in all the years of scholarship on EC comics someone has explored the coloring; it is especially effective here, with certain panels rendered in a single color to highlight shadows and light. The Kamen story was surprisingly suspenseful and satisfying, but the Davis story is just plain silly, all a big setup for a ridiculous conclusion: a marauding lawnmower? Seriously? Ghastly's concluding tale is very finely drawn and, like his story in this month's Tales From the Crypt, it makes me wonder if EC was starting to edge into a more graphic and explicit direction.

Jose: This entry from the rogue’s gallery of Crime SuspenStories struck me on the whole as neither truly good nor devastatingly bad, just middle of the road. Craig recycles the “cadaver discovery” gimmick that he used to open “Seeds of Death” in HOF #5 to introduce the main narrative in “Understudy to a Corpse!,” but the results are slightly less engaging here. The story in total feels as if it’s a rehash of elements that the artist put to better use in earlier stories. “Medicine!” barely registers as a blip on the interest monitor, another Kamen soap opera that introduces a promising thread with Nora’s consciousness post-accident that is ultimately failed by the artwork which leaves the villainess’s predicament completely free of suspense. “Cut!” might be diverting fluff, but at least it’s fun, with the second appearance of the “actor assuming the identity of another” theme this issue. The strength of the issue is carried on the shoulders of Graham Ingels, who delivers on the unpredictable “A Tree Grows in Borneo!” The reader can never be entirely certain just what route the story is going to take and how Feldstein plans on returning to the springboard of the tree-entombed skeleton, so that the climax, albeit gruesome, comes as a genuine surprise that uproots our expectations.


The Vault of Horror #23

"A Stitch in Time!" 
Story and Art by Johnny Craig

"99 44/100% Pure Horror!" 
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Jack Davis

"Dead Wait!" ★★ 1/2
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Jack Davis

"Staired . . . in Horror!" ★★★ 1/2
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Graham Ingels

Ever meet-cute in a graveyard? Irma Leechman and Robert Hornsby do just that one blustery November afternoon when they both become acquainted after visiting the adjoining gravestones of their late husband and wife respectively at the town cemetery. The two lonely souls hit it off and, after a few dates, Robert pops the question to which Irma provides her enthusiastic answer. The ending to a perfect love story… if your idea of a perfect love story is a femme fatale’s plot to bump off her new sugar daddy just like she did with her last husband! That’s right; Irma’s a bad girl with a bad jones for Robert’s cool stacks of cash. She’s just looking for the right opportunity to seal the deal, like when Hubby #1 proposed a trek up to the balcony of an old lighthouse during an idyllic trip that ended with him getting a closer look at the ocean than he anticipated. Irma adopts a new tactic with her second marriage and proceeds to nag Robert to death, starting with her revulsion of the grand spiral staircase that adorns his mansion, one that is painfully reminiscent of the setting from her first marital crime. When she denies Robert the chance to visit his old wife’s grave, the little cuckold runs delirious to the cemetery one stormy night and dies from a heart attack upon the burial mound. The two cemetery occupants get to talking and comparing notes before deciding to go and pay Irma a visit. Needless to say, the lady is unprepared for entertaining her new house guests so the cadavers show their disdain by chasing Irma up the staircase—no hiding for her since she had all the rooms on the second floor boarded up in her delirium—and giving her a taste of the ol’ heave-ho over the banister.

Graham Ingels cheesecake: big, bad, and a little butch.
We'll take it!
("Staired... in Horror!")

“Staired… in Horror” is easily one of Al Feldstein’s and Graham Ingels’s best contributions to the EC horror line. It’s fair to say that Feldstein tosses a lot of ingredients into the pot, and that not every flavor comes through as clearly and strongly as the others—Irma’s mania about the staircase, for instance, feels like an element that could service an entire story and one that might warrant more breathing room here—but the writer uses clever and effective means of condensing the narrative’s extended timeline into seven easily-digestible pages. No mean feat, and the fact that Feldstein’s prose and characterization have only become sharper over the last year helps. (Gotta love that bit about the “things deep in the cold earth… whispering to each other.”) On top of all that we have the grandly expressive and Gothic imaginings of “Ghastly” Graham to round out the tale. His shambling corpses might be briefly glimpsed and his stab at cutting off a piece of cheesecake comes across as hermaphroditic at times, but it’s all part of the charm if you ask me. Skip the colored reprints and stick with the B&W hardcover compilation if you really want to see the art sing.

Paging Dr. Wertham!
("99 and 44/100% Pure Horror!")
Ernie Mattson is another in a line of homicidal connivers; the hunky young businessman was the perpetrator of a nefarious knifing that earned him the position of factory manager at the Hudson Soap Company. After years of toiling under the thumb of cigar-chomping Benny Anderson, Ernie decides to trade in the scrap meat-hauling and cake-rendering for a shot at something more supervisory in nature. While Ernie’s killing is common enough, it’s his disposal of the body that’s ingenious: dumping Benny’s remains in one of the giant rending vats, Ernie has his old boss reduced to a dozen soap cakes that he then stores in a locked cabinet at his luxurious apartment for the sake of nostalgia. When Ernie finds himself out of fresh soap and with a hot date on the agenda, he decides to use one of the Benny-cakes during his shower. But if Ernie had listened to Jerome Kern, he’d know that “Soap Gets in Your Eyes.” One thing leads to another, and soon the murderer has broken his leg and drowns to death in the scalding water of his walk-in shower after the Benny-cake clogs up the drain.

“99 and 44/100% Pure Horror!” (try saying that one five times in a row) might be a standard revenge yarn that deals in simple formulas, but I have a fondness for the choice of setting this time out and its inventive—and integral—use in the story. The string of mishaps in the shower leading up to Ernie’s comeuppance may seem rather generic and random, but I actually like them for that very reason. I prefer this type of payback, the kind where Ernie seems to be the victim of simple bad luck, rather than the contrived and literal route that other stories took in punishing their villains.

Zombie-eyed slaves of the starving class.
("A Stitch in Time")
Speaking of villains, few in the EC repertoire come any more one-note than the despicable Mr. Lasch of “A Stitch in Time!” The burly, cigar-chomping (natch) slave-driver of an early-century sewing mill is completely merciless and without an ounce of nuance to be found in his 300 lb. bulk. He maintains a vocal level no lower than screaming, he considers anything not involving sewing to be a waste of the company’s time up to and including breathing that he hasn’t given the OK on, and he thinks nothing of driving one old biddy out of her gourd when he assigns her to sort out scraps of thread after she’s injured her hand on faulty equipment before finally driving the mumbling broad out into the street where she’s run over by a hapless driver. Suffice to say, the other nine ladies under his employ don’t take kindly to this and show the boss their appreciation by sewing his lips and hands together and then leaving him to die in a fire.

“A Stitch in Time!” seems markedly un-Craigian when one compares it to any of the writer-artist’s other horror pieces. Even relative potboilers like “Midnight Snack” (TFTC #24) didn’t suffer from the bland repetitiveness of this sadistic little story. For eight pages we watch as the female employees of the sewing mill confront Lasch with one indignity or hardship after another and—surprise, surprise!—they reaffirm that their boss is a complete jerk with every one of his responses. Even though all this ends with the catalyzing death of the old woman that finally spurs the ladies to enact their brand of justice, the effect of each preceding event never really feels cumulative, as if it’s building toward something. The fact alone that the biddy dies from getting run down by a car literally seconds after Lasch throws her out where everyone can witness the travesty smacks of convenience, and it all boils down to a fairly vicious albeit bloodless climax that comes across as caustic rather than cathartic.

Rough way to treat a guy for dreaming of malted milk balls.

Filling out this issue’s middleweight division is Jack Davis’s second assignment, “Dead Wait!” Unlike what the title may imply, Feldstein’s script is lean and mean even if it doesn’t quite qualify as a fighting machine. We have a main, real-time plot concerning man of dubious morals “Red” Buckley—the way that Davis draws him, there can be no real question as to his ultimate motives, seeing as how he could pass for a GhouLunatic—assassinating former boss and Soelas plantation owner Pierre Duval in order to lay claim to the Frenchman’s priceless black pearl shot through with flashbacks leading up to current events. It takes years of wheedling and building false camaraderie for Red to get to his treasure, but at long last he gets it, along with some valuable getaway assistance from Red’s native manservant, Kulu. Come to think of it, Kulu has also spent years wheedling and building camaraderie as well. But what could he possibly want from Red? The sharpened edge of a machete has the answer after it severs the criminal’s head from his body, earning Kulu exclusive bragging rights amongst his tribesmen as he becomes the new owner of a one-of-a-kind red-headed gourd! As my compadres mention below, Davis pulling double-time on this issue leads to “Dead Wait!” looking a little rushed and rough around the edges at times, most noticeably the cramped delivery of that zinger ending. Still, it’s worth noting that even under those circumstances “Dead Wait!” still manages to come out ahead of some of its competition. Heh, heh, heh.--Jose

Peter Enfantino drowns in this issue's mediocrity.
("99 and 44/100% Pure Horror!")

Peter: Dismal offerings this time out, with the only highlight being Ghastly's nightmarish art on "Staired . . ." All four stories are built around well-worn plots and all four feature very lazy writing. Right from the title, you know what you'll get with the final "twist" in "Stitch." It's just another variation on the "heartless employee" skeleton that EC threatens to run into the ground; very rarely will this plot line work anymore (off the top of my head, I can think of only one exception, the upcoming "Blind Alleys," but that's about it) and the sheer nastiness of the villain becomes almost comical. Why in the world would the protagonist of "99 44/100% Pure Horror" leave the damning evidence locked up in his closet rather than putting it out into the marketplace for sale? "Dead Wait" has a nicely twisted closing but Jack's art is rather sketchy (perhaps because he had to contribute two stories this issue?) and the build-up ho-hum.

Paltry offerings leave Jack Seabrook speechless.
("A Stitch in Time!")

Jack: I love how Johnny Craig uses silent panels once in a while to convey tension. It's too bad his great art and storytelling skills are wasted on a mundane tale like"A Stitch in Time!" "99 44/100% Pure Horror!" has a big buildup but a weak finish; I was frustrated that every bad thing that happened in that shower could have happened with any old bar of soap. It's odd that Davis's art is so much weaker in "Dead Wait!" and it makes me wonder if an uncredited inker is at fault. The boring story is only partly  redeemed by a great finish, but EC is still being a bit coy with depictions of severed heads. Ghastly's story is dull and obvious and it's too bad he can't draw a sexy girl even when he tries.

John: I thought "A Stitch in Time!" was a disappointing use of a ladies' uprising. I guess I was looking for a little more exciting revenge than what they dish out. Jack Davis' art in "99 44/100% Pure Horror!" did nothing for me at all, thought I did it was much better used in "Dead Wait!" Clearly the standout in this issue is "Staired . . . in Horror!" with its amazing Ingels artwork, and not just of the shambling corpse variety. His lounging dame could give Kamen a run for his money!

In Our Next Issue...
We discover that, for some things,
fifty years changes nothing!


Grant said...

I never got decently familiar with the TV version of Tales From The Crypt, but I always remember "Ventriloquist's Dummy" for having Don Rickles as the ventriloquist. (I don't know if it's in the comic version - though it probably is - but his big punch line in the final scene is pretty funny.)

I couldn't help recognizing one inspiration for "Bargain In Death." It's a very short Ambrose Bierce story called "One Summer Night."

Jack Seabrook said...

I like Ambrose Bierce. I read his collection, Civil War Stories, years ago and it was wonderful.