Monday, January 16, 2017

EC Comics! It's An Entertaining Comic! Part 23: June 1952






The EC Reign Month by Month 1950-1956
     23: June 1952



Kurtzman
Frontline Combat #6

"A Platoon!" 
Story by Harvey Kurtzman
Art by John Severin and Will Elder

"War of 1812!" 
Story by Harvey Kurtzman
Art by Wally Wood

"Ace!" ★ 1/2
Story by Harvey Kurtzman
Art by John Severin

"Bellyrobber!" ★ 1/2
Story by Harvey Kurtzman
Art by Jack Davis

A platoon is made up of many parts, and big Ed Daley, machine gun operator, is one of the cogs that make up the vast clockwork. He and his fellow soldiers are inching their way across Korean territory one frosty early morn when one young scrapper inquires why Ed, with all of his vast army experience, steadfastly turns down the captain’s repeated offers to give Daley a sergeant’s rate. “I don’t want no responsibilities!” Ed tells him, quoting that the rate would indeed give him a raise in salary, but it would also entail a hike in obligations and with very little glory to boot. Ed would much rather worry about his machine gun and keep his life simple. But life becomes anything but simple when an enemy mortar lands right on the heads of the captain, the lieutenants, the sergeants, and all the squad leaders! At the drop of a helmet, Daley immediately takes control of the situation and whips his assistants into an assured, fighting mood just as a raging horde of enemy soldiers barrel their way. Miraculously, the Americans mow down the offense and send the survivors running for cover. Later, a wounded captain puts Daley on the spot again, calling out the machine gunner’s heroism and rallying spirit as evidence for a much-needed promotion. But you know Ed: it’s the simple life for him!

First picture: What in tarnation...?!
Second picture: I GOT THIS.
("A Platoon!")
The Severin/Elder magic is at work again in “A Platoon!,” a solid tale whose only misstep is depicting the practical immolation of the captain and his pals before revealing later that ol’ Cap managed to get out of the multiple explosions in one relative piece. Still, this is a minor quibble among a lot of very fine other points that are in the story's favor. "A Platoon" is the rare EC war story that depicts a fairly happy ending, with the boys heading off for the next leg of their advance and Ed contentedly hefting the machine gun on his shoulder, but it’s a conclusion that feels earned. Even with playing up Ed as our hero, Kurtzman and the artists keep the story from ever dealing in simple absolutes of good and bad. The creeping advance of the Koreans, followed by their howling rush onto Ed and his gunners, seem to mark them as the malevolent Goliath figure to the outnumbered American Davids, but the reader is brought back to reality and the casual viciousness of war when a sole Korean troop, blindly unaware of the deaths of all his buddies, breaks through the platoon’s ranks only to find himself alone amongst the enemy. He is then summarily executed by their heavy artillery. It’s a little detail, but one indicative of the constant strain of humanism that Kurtzman brought to his war stories. Just like that, the defined marker separating “enemy” from “hero” begins to blur.

"War of 1812!"
During the “War of 1812!,” a wounded Shawnee warrior, Ki-wi-ex-kim, huddles down in the bloody snow recounting the sorry events that brought him to his current state. A large congregation consisting of English red-coats, led by General Proctor, and Native American tribes ranging from the Miamis of Florida to the Wyandots of Canada, led by their wisest and bravest of chiefs Tecumsah, waits for the imminent arrival of the “Shemanthe,” a veritable country of vengeful white men from Kentucky who come bearing appropriated Indian weaponry to avenge themselves on the indigenous people for killing and scalping their own brethren in previous battles. The odds don’t look good for the congregation, but like Ed Daley before him in this issue Tecumsah unites all his warrior brothers with hearty assurance and sage guidance, giving his men all the bravery they need to face the overwhelming numbers of the enemy. When the “Shemanthe” arrive, the forest turns into a slaughterhouse. The British forces are savagely trampled, General Proctor taking to the hills, and though they fight valiantly the Native Americans wage a grim battle. Their hearts “turn to water” at the sight of their great chief being felled by a bullet and, with the rest of his frightened brothers, Ki-wi-ex-kim runs into the swamp in retreat. He now waits for death to claim him from his own bullet wound, but just as he is contemplating the incredible contributions of Tecumsah, a lurking “Shemanthe” introduces the warrior’s scalp to his long knife.

Another of Wood's incredible dioramas.
("War of 1812!")

We’ve seen the “dying narration” tact used before in the previous issue of FC (“Big ‘If’ ”), but the approach feels new and is delivered with effective solemnity in “War of 1812!” I myself had little knowledge of this particular historical event, and instead of the inundation of facts and statistics that Kurtzman’s classroom presentations sometimes have we get an account that feels more emotionally charged than others of its type. Wally Wood’s art goes a long way in aiding this cause, though his pencils have graced the pages of other pre-20th century “battle capsules” that were less than stellar. It’s hard to find a moral foothold in this particular story and, I suppose by extension, this particular war. The “Shemanthe,” as far as we are told, are essentially getting payback for the family members who were not only killed but mutilated by the Indian tribes. This doesn’t pardon their retributive actions, but it does make one question the notion that Ki-wi-ex-kim is our de facto hero/victim by virtue of his lamenting narration. Like the doubting soldier from “Custer’s Last Stand” in this month’s Two-Fisted Tales who followed through on orders despite what his gut was telling him, Ki-wi-ex-kim can’t be entirely seen as an angel. (“Who can in war?” Kurtzman likely would ask.) This marks his brutal, sadistically-timed fate at the hands of the “Shemanthe” not as a stinging injustice but as the (unlikely) final revolution in a vicious cycle.

"Ace!"
The two stories that follow are otherwise stable efforts that are hampered by some truly lackluster art by John Severin and Jack Davis. In “Ace!,” WWI fighter pilot Harry Chesterfield is close to bagging the kill of his fifth German, an accomplishment much-lauded amongst his merry, sporting British comrades. When Harry spots two roaming German albatrosses that look too good to be true, he quickly finds out that they are. After successfully gunning one of them down, he’s attacked by four fokkers that have been lying in wait for the American. Back at the British base later, the usual dinnertime banter is somewhat subdued as all the pilots regard Harry’s empty seat at the table. Kurtzman’s script clips along at a nice pace, using repetition to effectively bring us back to the jolliness that the pilots treat their whole “hunting” affair, but Severin’s illustrations, especially of his human cast, are too pencil-thin and desolate for my liking. It hampers what is essentially a very good story that casts a cloud of stark reality over the glib attitude of treating war as just another chess match on a bigger scale.

The aims are not quite so pointed in “Bellyrobber!” Sergeant Boon acts as chief chef for a company of soldiers stationed out in one of the arid stretches of Korea. He is humorously known amongst the troops as being a notorious hardass, barking orders and frothing at the lips come every meal-time. When Boon and his assistants return to the mess-camp one afternoon, they sense an intruder in the tent and advance with weapons and curses raised. It turns out the interloper is a young Korean child, alone and completely hungry. Boon takes an immediate shine to the tyke, whom he nicknames “Shnooker,” and over the next few weeks furbishes the kid with everything from food to tailored military clothes. The troops note the marked improvement in Boon’s demeanor and hope that the trend will continue. Heading back to the mess-camp on foot, Boon detects yet another intrusion, only now the trespassers are genuine Korean soldiers, both of whom are cut in half by gunfire from an overwhelmed Boon. As the troops coming to his aid find out, Boon’s assistants have been murdered, as well as another man. “Not much of a man,” Boon gasps. “Just a little half-pint of a man! Just a little Shnooker!” Boon the hardass shortly resumes business as usual.

"Bellyrobber!"

As Peter notes below, “Bellyrobber!” has a bit of wild variance in tone, but I think this stems more from the juxtaposition of narrative and illustrations rather than just the narrative itself. Taken on its own terms, the story is another of Kurtzman’s heart-wrenchers, a swift kick to the solar plexus that shows how warfare spares no man or creature, and how happiness and purpose can sometimes have an incredibly short shelf-life. It’s only when that story is accompanied by Jack Davis’s slapdash, against-form renderings that it feels like “Bellyrobber!” is trying to come off as a slightly comical affair. Sadly, this is mainly due to the reductionist, Yellow Menace depiction of “Shnooker” and the two Korean soldiers. For whatever reason (or whomever’s fault), Davis takes a more distastefully broad approach to the ethnic characters that goes against the sensitivity and realism that he’s brought to past efforts. (“Bellyrobber!” is far from being his first yarn set in Korea or greater Asia.) This definitely doesn’t seem like the fair representation that Kurtzman would have wanted in the story either. So what happened? That factoid, if there is one, is likely lost to the ages, but in either case it knocks “Bellyrobber!” back a few spaces on the board when it could have easily been a flawless victory.--Jose

Lil' Petey Enfantino finds out Mom
threw away all the Mike Shaynes.
("Bellyrobber!")
Peter: I'm not sure what to make of "Bellyrobber!" Like M*A*S*H, its message is "War is hell but it can be funny, too," I guess. I didn't think it was comedic and Davis's Shnooker borders on the racial stereotypes that carried on into the DC war comics (Jerry Grandenetti, I'm looking at you), with his big teeth and slanted eyes. Much better are the other three stories in this issue, which all deliver the history lecture and pathos at the same time. In particular, "War of 1812!" is a grueling battle story with an unflinchingly cruel final panel. Kurtzman does a great job of taking us from the highs to the lows of a World War I "Ace!," always bringing us back to that round table and its "knights." Not a great issue, but the best war title of the month.

Jack: When Ed tells his platoon leader that he doesn’t want to be a sergeant because he doesn’t want responsibilities, he makes a lot of sense. Kurtzman then shows us just how useful the experience of a long-time soldier like Ed can be when the officers are suddenly killed and Ed has to take command and stop an enemy attack. Severin and Elder’s art is perfect for these gritty war stories and the end, where Ed happily resumes his role of subordinate, is entirely in keeping with his personality. The “War of 1812!” is a war I know next to nothing about, so this issue’s boring history lesson is made slightly more interesting by its novelty. Wood’s art is tremendous and the ending is brutal, even if not shown in all its gore. Severin without Elder is great, just not as great as Severin with Elder, and “Ace!” features the usual Kurtzman irony. The story is predictable but well told. “Bellyrobber!” is heartbreaking and Jack Davis shows both an ability to wring great emotion out of a situation and a welcome discretion in the panel showing only a partial view of the dead child.

Sgt. Seabrook feels the hurt, too.
("Bellyrobber!")


Feldstein
 Weird Fantasy #13

"The End!" ★ 1/2
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Wally Wood

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

"Home to Stay!" 
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Wally Wood

"Don't Count Your Chickens . . ." 
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Joe Orlando




"The End!"
A high-power telescope reveals that a comet is hurtling towards Earth.  Before it can collide with Earth it disintegrates, but the massive radiation leaves all life on our planet sterile. In another generation, all life will vanish. Is this "The End!?" Two scientists are, luckily, working on a time travel machine and devise a plan to go back in time before the comet and transport virile men and women to the future where they can repopulate the planet. They build their gizmo on the site of what once was Grand Central Station, citing the large amounts of foot traffic as the main reason. Unfortunately for the two well-meaning geniuses, they find their portal is located inside the Men’s room! Hilarious final panel and very controversial for its time, since toilets were a taboo subject (note that the only nod to the fact that it's a men's room is the word "MEN" on the door) in mainstream media. Wood's art is customarily excellent (Wally continues to predict that men will wear capes in the "future").

Woops-a-daisy!
("The Trip!")
Scientist Lon Masterson has been hired by the SCA (Space Colonization Authority) to come up with a way to transport animals to Earth's colonies on other planets. Seems that animals can't survive the g-forces that occur during take-off and landing, so Lon creates a machine that freezes its subject in a matter of seconds and then thaws out the animalsicle on the other side. While all this serious science stuff is going on, Lon falls in love with his new assistant, Edith, and decides to leave his wife. The timing couldn't be more perfect for the nutty professor and he proposes to Edith that she join him on "The Trip!" The SCA nixes that idea but Lon is too clever to play by the rules, so he freezes Edith and stores her among the other freezer-section items. Masterson might be a genius but he's not light on his feet and, while decanting Edith, he trips and drops the frozen beauty, reducing her to thousands of ice cubes. A very funny climax (the second in as many stories!) but Jack Kamen's pedestrian art drops the rating at least a half-star. I couldn't help, while gazing at that last panel (where the mayhem happens off-screen), wondering what a horror artist like Davis or Ingels could have done with the final image. I suspect the tame tie-up wasn't intended to be subtle but turned out that way because Bill and Al knew Kamen couldn't pull off the nasty.

"Home to Stay!"
A rocket pilot of the future continually promises his wife and son he’ll give up the interplanetary life but, like an addict, he can’t fight what he craves. Every couple of years he comes home to see his growing son. One night, the boy wishes on a falling star that his father will come “Home to Stay!,” not knowing the star is actually his father burning up in Earth’s atmosphere after a rocket mishap.  A powerful tale with a tragic climax, the kind of experience you won’t get from any other 1950s comic company, "Home to Stay!" is the infamous story that earned a letter from Ray Bradbury, who saw right through Al's "adaptation" of the author's science fiction tales, "Kaleidoscope" and "The Rocket Man." Once Bill Gaines sent a check to pay for the cribbing, Bradbury suggested that the company legitimately adapt his stories in the future and that's just what EC did.

Peter Cottontail's really let himself go.
("Don't Count Your Chickens...")
While scouting for treasure on a family Easter egg hunt, little Teddy happens across the most beautiful egg he's ever seen! His parents agree but are perplexed since it's not one of the prizes they hid for Teddy to find. That night, the magical orb begins to glow and issue orders to the astonished lad; Teddy follows instructions and takes the egg to a hidden cave where no one will be able to find it. The next day, Teddy finds the egg has hatched and out pops a gruesome little monster, one that exercises mental control over the boy and orders him to bring it meat. Day after day, Teddy brings the thing larger amounts of food but when it tries to influence the boy to bring live animals, its hold on Teddy is broken. The boy's parents notice how different their son has become and send him off to summer camp, leaving the monster to forage for itself. It's not long before the local gendarmes notice that farm animals are being devoured and the (now huge) monster is spotted in a field. The army is ordered in and the creature from space is burned to a crisp. The following Easter, thousands of children across the countryside find lovely, multi-colored eggs in their annual search. "Don't Count Your Chickens
. . ." is a silly yarn, to be sure, but an enjoyable one. EC very rarely dove into the "giant monster terrorizes the world" genre, so this is a treat. The climax foreshadows the trend in SF films to have the evil creature defeated only to discover there are more. Usually, "The End" was followed with a "?" Joe Orlando's art still looks a little too much like Wally Wood or Al Williamson (who will make his EC debut in August's Weird Science) but, more and more, his own style is peeking through. It's no wonder this was the first (and only) issue of Weird Fantasy that East Coast Comix reprinted back in 1973; it's a high-quality choice. --Peter


When you wish upon your Dad . . .
("Home to Stay!")
Jack: “The End!” shows how great EC science fiction stories can be: an engaging story, superb art, and a twist ending that is unpredictable and eminently satisfying. With “The Trip!” we are quickly brought back to reality, as Kamen’s art is the same as ever and the script is barely interesting enough to carry a reader to the silly conclusion. Edith is a real trooper but why doesn’t Masterson thaw her out once he’s safely in space? Those six months would have gone much more quickly. “Home to Stay!” shows the value of stealing from the best, though why any Rocket Man would leave a wife who looks like Elaine, I’ll never know. Jack Kamen may be known for drawing gorgeous gals, but Wally Wood seems to have the corner on that market, as he would show decades later with DC’s Power Girl. “Don’t Count Your Chickens . . .” makes me think that Joe Orlando often seems to get the dregs of the scripts—this one has nothing new and the ending is no surprise.

Jose: “The End” is one of EC’s more complex and high-minded SF tales, thoroughly exploring the notion of  an Armageddon-by-radiation with a mature sense of gravitas that was rare in both Weird Fantasy and Weird Science. The fact that all this ends with an absurd mishap that borders on a juvenile joke makes it all the more perfect. I read “The Trip” only a few days ago from this writing and all I remember is how the title was a clever tip-off to an ending we’ve already seen previous versions of. “Home to Stay” comes across as an emotionally powerful and blackly ironic story, but I kept getting nagged by the fact that it was a blatant rip-off of Bradbury’s works. I wonder if I might have taken to it more warmly if it had been an official adaptation. I will say that Feldstein expertly melds the two stories together, linking their shared themes and essentially using "Kaleidoscope" to comment and further enhance the tragedy already inherent in "The Rocket Man." I was hoping that “Don’t Count Your Chickens…” would go in a more gonzo, inventive direction along the lines of its telepathic-Easter-egg beginning, but it eventually transitioned into a standard issue, B-picture dénouement that was just okay.


Ingels
The Haunt of Fear #13

"For the Love of Death!" 
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Graham Ingels

"Fed Up!" ★ 1/2
Story by Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein
Art by Johnny Craig

"Minor Error!" 
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Jack Kamen

"Wolf Bait!" 
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Jack Davis

Morton Macawber is a lonely man who enjoys attending funerals, admiring the respect and love shown to the deceased but lamenting the likelihood that he will not receive the same treatment when he dies. He decides to take matters into his own hands and, “For the Love of Death!” he murders an old man and arranges to take his place in the coffin. He basks in the comfort and attention but does not reckon with the fact that the old man chose to be cremated.

"For the Love of Death!"
Ingels’s art is outstanding and the story chugs along nicely until we get toward the end, where it becomes predictable—in fact, I thought we just saw this surprise ending in another story, but I scanned the last few posts and didn’t see it, so maybe I imagined it.

Sandra was just the sexy sidekick in a sword swallowing act when she met Alec, who was “big, broad-shouldered, almost handsome.” He took her away from the act and got her signed as a solo sword swallower, but she never made it big. He, on the other hand, hit the big time in spades—he ate and ate and ate till he was the size of an elephant. Sandra tried to save her money to buy a “neon sword” to jazz up her act but, when Alec found her hidden wad of cash and spent it all on more chow, she got “Fed Up.” She decided to teach him how to swallow swords and, when he swallowed a good, long one, she tied his hands behind his back and left him alone, telling him not to belch or the blade might pierce his chest.

Johnny Craig usually writes his own stories, thank goodness. This tepid tale by Bill and Al doesn’t do his drawings justice. I’ll leave it to my colleagues to point out any X-rated inferences in Sandra’s ability to swallow long objects.

Translation: Jesus H. Christ!
("Minor Error!")
Why does the sickly boy never leave his house, wonder the three lads from the neighborhood, and why does the mean man who lives in the same house venture out every night with a carton? Does it have any connection to the murdered man whose body was completely drained of blood? The trio investigate and conclude that the man is the vampire. They sneak in and drive a stake through his heart but discover their “Minor Error!” when they find the sickly boy asleep in his coffin in the basement.

How disappointing to get through an entire Jack Kamen story and not see one single slinky female! This vampire bit is already as old as the hills. Did anyone think for one minute that the man was the vampire? Has there ever been an EC story where the kids/townsfolk/suspicious spouse picked the right culprit? These stories define the term “filler.”

"Wolf Bait!"

Five people huddle in fear on a sleigh as it races through the snowy steppes in Imperial Russia. A hungry wolf pack chases the sleigh, which has fifteen miles to go before it reaches the safety of a town. On the sleigh are a man who is going to meet his bride-to-be, a woman with a baby going to meet its father, an old man going to meet his daughter, and the driver, who has a baby at home. The last two bullets in the young man’s rifle hold off the wolves for a while, as does the package of meat the old man carries. But with a few miles left to go, the wolves are once more upon them and there is only one thing to do—throw one of the five to the hungry pack as “Wolf Bait!” The horrible deed done, the sleigh heads off for town. But who was the human sacrifice?


It’s not often that a story in one of the EC horror comics really makes me think, but this one did it. I’m reminded of the story “The Cold Equations,” where a stowaway had to be jettisoned from a spaceship to save the rest of the travelers, and also of the last episode of M*A*S*H, where the Korean woman smothers her own baby on the bus to keep it from crying and endangering everyone else. So which of the five was thrown overboard? I think we can rule out the driver, since he had to drive the sleigh. My vote would be for the old man, since he’d lived longest, but I think they want us to think the baby was tossed to the wolves. --Jack

When is a sword just a sword?
("Fed Up!")
Peter: "Wolf Bait!" is a wildly original classic of suspense and terror that grabs you with its icy fist and never lets up, right to its (deliberately) ambiguous climax. Al provides just the right amount of back story for all four (five, if you count the little bundle of joy) characters--enough to make you care about each one of them--rare in a seven-page story. So who got dumped out of the sleigh? I would have guessed the child but the very adult-sounding "Eeaaaaaaaah!" points to one of the four adults. It's not Ivan, as the vehicle doesn't slow a beat; chances are they wouldn't throw the woman overboard; and Netzka has his whole life (as well as a pin-up babe) to look forward to, so my money is on the old guy with the package of meat. Who disagrees?

The other three stories are a varied bag of ho-hum ("For the Love of Death!" is built around the flimsiest of excuses and a twist ending that's already been done), so-what? (Craig's art on "Fed Up!" is nice but the revenge angle is skimpy), and nice try. The latter proclamation, foisted on "Minor Error!" is heartfelt, as I thought, even though Al's outcome is broadcast pages from the finish, that final panel ("W-we . . . we made a mistake!") is a keeper. For once, Kamen's by-the-numbers stencils work like a charm, probably because there's not much heavy lifting and nary a fang in sight.  It's a very Bradbury-esque charmer.

Jose: “For the Love of Death!” is a drolly Gothic tale with some very fine pencils by Mr. Ghastly. Feldstein stuffs his story with whimsical names that tickle the tongue: “Macawber,” “Wiggenbottom,” “Fenwick,” “Phineas,” “Nickelbury”! It’s like a telephone book right out of Dickens. I also love the fact that only in an EC tale will you find someone like Morton who never considers that maybe getting out more often and becoming more cheerful company will ensure him plentiful mourners at his funeral. No, the only way to get that is to hijack some other poor bastard’s final rites. Naturally! I love this kind of yarn and hope that there will be plenty more to come. I started to worry for a bit that Craig was slipping after finishing “Fed Up!,” but a quick check on the script credits accounted for this skimpy tale. To be fair, I think this is far from the best of Craig’s art that we’ve seen, too.  Young whippersnappers like me who grew up watching Are You Afraid of the Dark? on Nickelodeon Saturday nights will recognize that that program’s first-season episode, “The Tale of the Nightly Neighbors,” pretty much pulled a Feldstein-Bradbury play in adapting “Minor Error!” to television. They got it better the second time; watch that instead of reading this snoozer.

“Wolf Bait!” is a whole ‘nother bucket of chopped meat though. Feldstein brilliantly stages the exposition and suspense in this one, providing a snippet of backstory for each of our harried sleigh riders, just enough for us to root for them, before dragging us back to their bloody plight with the ravenous wolves, a terrifying situation for which the reader needn’t suspend any disbelief to really appreciate just how screwed everyone is. Feldstein takes a page from Frank R. Stockton and forces us to ponder a “Lady or the Tiger”-type question as the tale fades to black. My cohorts seem pretty sure of themselves in guessing that the old geezer was the one to get the boot, Peter even going so far as to say that it’s unlikely it was the baby due to the complex scream that punctuates the tell-tale panel. Here’s my counter-argument. Do you notice how that speech bubble remains unattributed, just kind of hangs there? That would lead me to assume that it could have come from anywhere, not specifically the tossed victim. So isn’t it possible that the scream could have come from, say, a new mother, a mother that has just seen her first-born torn from her bosom and tossed to the slavering fangs of the wolves like the little package of meat the old man had sacrificed earlier? Yeah, I know. I’m a sick puppy (that's why we keep you around the dungeon! --Peter).

Jack Davis shows why Wally Wood and
Jack Kamen had nothing to worry about.
("Wolf Bait!")


Kurtzman
Two-Fisted Tales #27

"Luck!" 
Story by Harvey Kurtzman
Art by John Severin and Will Elder

"Custer's Last Stand" ★ 1/2
Story by Harvey Kurtzman
Art by Wally Wood

"D-Day!" 
Story by Harvey Kurtzman
Art by John Severin

"Jeep!" ★ 1/2
Story by Harvey Kurtzman
Art by Jack Davis

Sometimes, the only way to smoke out a North Korean sniper is to push your "Luck!" and the lieutenant seems to be just the man to test the boundaries. He's as fearless as they come while stepping out in front of sniper fire in order for his men to get a bead on the enemy. Taking out tree-climbers, dirt-huggers and, finally, an entire hut full of marksmen, the squad can do no wrong. But just as the Colonel pulls up to congratulate the Lt. and his men, a dying sniper takes aim and ends the Looey's "Luck!" This is more of an incident than a story (in fact, Harvey begins the tale with a note that he'd picked up the tale while visiting returning soldiers at an army hospital) and, while it has a bit of an impact in its climax, there's really nothing much to it other than the usual fine job by Severin and Elder.

"Luck!"

Thanks to History teacher Harvey Kurtzman, we're all ringside at "Custer's Last Stand." "Pieced together from evidence recorded at the battlefield in Montana," the tale brings us deep into the thoughts of a simple soldier, riding with Custer but not believing in the general's philosophies or strategies. Those of us who paid attention in History class (or should I say, those of you who paid attention) know how this ends so it's only a matter of filling in some cracks with preaching. Call me nuts but I couldn't get Neil Young's "Powderfinger" out of my mind while reading "Custer's Last Stand."

"Custer's Last Stand"

The crew of an L.C.A. (Landing Craft Assault) head for shore on "D-Day!" but the voyage is rife with errors and unforeseen glitches that threaten to put a crimp in the Allied plans. The men make it to shore but their grapnels are soaked with water and several never make it to the top of the cliffs. Resorting to ropes, the men make the climb and ready themselves for combat. Like "Luck!," "D-Day!" is not a story with three acts (or even two acts, for that matter); we come in towards the tail-end of the first assault on the beaches and leave our protagonists before the "real action" begins. But, unlike "Luck!," I thought there was substance to "D-Day!" and, for once, Harvey's schoolroom lecture paid off. We've all seen that opening in a dozen war movies but I learned a few new things about that day.

"D-Day"
Korean War, June 1951. Brand new G.I., Fisher, and a brand new "Jeep!" The two seem to bond in an almost supernatural way. The accelerator jams just as Fisher, his Sergeant and Captain come upon a road block and the jeep flies through the debris, just missing a barrage of machine-gun fire. Luck? The jeep stalls on the way to delivering ammo. The vehicle behind passes and is blown to kingdom come by a land mine. Coincidence? Unfortunately, the good luck runs out for jeep and driver when Fisher and the Sarge head out looking for casualties and are bushwhacked by a Korean sniper. Fisher dies and the jeep never starts again. "Jeep!" is dangerously close to the kind of silly "living machine" stories that Bob Kanigher loved to write so much for DC in the 1960s. What saves it from being too silly is Jack Davis's gritty artwork (in particular, that no-punches-pulled panel to my left) and a fairly effective climax. In all, an issue of TFT that didn't knock me out of my socks. --Peter

Jack: I can’t get enough of the Severin/Elder combo, and “Luck!” is a great story, told with a paucity of words and a surfeit of irony. I know the lieutenant was on our side, but it seemed like he almost deserved what he got. “Custer’s Last Stand” is more boring than the usual history lesson story, despite technically fine art by Wally Wood. The decision to have a soldier tell the whole series of events in thought balloons is monotonous. Kurtzman and Severin show us an interesting aspect of the “D-Day!” invasion, one I had not thought about but one which makes perfect sense. It’s amazing the invasion worked as well as it did! In our DC War Comics blog posts, we sometimes run across stories where a piece of equipment is given a life of its own. None of those stories is as good as “Jeep!” in which Kurtzman and Davis make a compelling argument for a four-wheeled vehicle with a heart and soul.

"Jeep"
Jose: I had a thought similar to Jack’s while reading “Luck!” From another angle, say that of the snipers in the hut bombed to Kingdom Come, the devil-may-care Lieutenant could very well be the villain of the piece, our one surviving gunman delivering the much-deserved, ironic blow to the braggart in the end. Of course, Kurtzman has made it a point of examining identical stories from both angles throughout the war titles, showing how even those who Americans had traditionally viewed as the enemy were in fact human beings given to their own acts of heroism. An American coward gets his own licking in “Custer’s Last Stand!,” and while it’s interesting to frame the story through the eyes of a soldier who, for all intents and purposes, is just like us (an outsider to the General’s own psyche), the constant thought-narration is, as Jack says, kind of droning. I really couldn’t access “D-Day!” as a story at any point. It read more like a laundry list of factoids than a full narrative, however informative those factoids were. “Jeep!” is a return to the tragically poetic ending that Kurtzman had practiced regularly in the earlier issues of the war titles. I must be in a chilly mood, because the emotional warmth here couldn’t crack through my armor this time around. Davis’s opening and closing images are quite the stunners, though.


Wood
Weird Science #13

"A Weighty Decision" ★ 1/2
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Wally Wood

"Saving for the Future" ★ 1/2
Story by Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein
Art by Jack Kamen

"He Walked Among Us" ★ 
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Wally Wood

"Say Your Prayers" 
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Joe Orlando

Major Jeff Allan is tapped by the General to lead up a super-secret, super-cool mission cryptically dubbed “Operation Moon.” As commanding officer, he will guide a rocket voyage to Earth’s satellite along with two crew mates, Hanson the flight engineer and Forbes the radar operator. The still-in-construction rocket is to be built to exact weight specifications; in order to store enough fuel for a round trip, the vessel’s operating system, the provisions for the crew, and the waistlines of the three men need to be cut down to the bare essentials. As all the planning and prep take place for the momentous flight, Jeff befriends and then begins to woo Mirna Bargson, daughter of the eminent scientist who has charted the entire voyage. Mirna isn’t keen on the sorry survival prospects that her father predicts for the crew, so in a bid to be with her fiancée she secretly stows herself away in the food locker prior to take-off. Relieved of a large chunk of fuel halfway through their flight, the crew tries to determine how they can make the return trip. The possibilities, though grim, are obvious: each man is integral to the operation of the ship, and with Mirna gone their chances of seeing Earth again would be better. The two lovers share a tearful goodbye before Jeff dispatches her to the cold, breathless sea of space.

"A slim chance. You catching my meaning here, Tubby?"
("A Weighty Decision")
“A Weighty Decision” picks up traction in its last third as the space voyagers face the moral quagmire of sending one of their own to their death, but this section still feels a bit too cold to really register with the reader. Obviously this is a story development that is meant to strike an emotional chord in us, but aside from that dewy-eyed farewell there isn’t much emotion to be seen on any of the astronauts’ parts. Feldstein’s story would’ve benefited from less boring shop talk about the rocket ship and more focus on the weighty decision of its title. Tell us the ship has exact weight specifications and then move on.

Lloyd Brewster and his mighty-fine assistant Ellen are happily pumping away at monkeys (don’t ask) one fine day when Ellen bemoans, “Oh! How long shall we go on with this pretentious pretense of ours, Lloydy-Lou? Why can’t we just wake up one day and have a life together far and away from your divorce-denying shrew of a wife?” That line of thinking gives the good doctor a good idea: let’s quit giving the monkeys all the happy juice and use it to put us both in a state of suspended animation. Lloyd proposes that five hundred years should give them enough time to escape his wife’s wrath—ya think?—but, more importantly, it’ll afford them a handsome return on Lloyd’s bank account when the compounded interest builds up over the centuries and leaves him a millionaire in the 26th century. A hideout is staked, a (ridiculous) method for administering the drug is determined (see below), and the two lovebirds awaken to lay claim to the now-infamous bank account and live a life of luxury. But, as it turns out, the national anthem for the world of the future is “Down with the Sickness,” as the entire populace of the earth becomes infected and is killed off by… the common cold! Humankind’s immunity to the virus had died out centuries before, so Lloyd and Ellen are left with their millions to stew together on a dead planet.

"And next he's going to write a Weird Science story!"
("Saving for the Future")

The less said about it, the better. This is clearly a tale that has no idea what it wants to be: typical Kamen yarn about a philandering scientist fudging his experiments? Typical Feldstein apocalypse scenario? Typical Kurtzman schoolroom lesson? All of the above? That it is, and it certainly is a typically bad SF story. It is good for a few laughs, though, and for that reason merits an additional half star.

Kraft is dispatched by the Galactic Exploration Authority to share the wonders of mac’n’cheese study and categorize all the lifeforms upon a new alien planet for a period of four years. Kraft is exploring for all of five minutes when he stumbles upon a race of incredibly human-like beings. Everything from the architecture of their city to the cut of their wardrobe is reminiscent of Earth’s civilization circa three millennia ago. Kraft isn’t in his robe disguise for two seconds before he’s performing “miracles” like healing a sick boy and feeding starving lepers through the benefit of his advanced science. It all looks like a load of witchcraft to the high priests of the city, though, and Kraft is summarily sentenced to death when he shows no signs of relieving his aid. Unfortunately for Kraft, help is nowhere on the way: the ship that dropped him off got a kiss from a raging asteroid on the way back home. It isn’t for another three thousand years (hmm…) that another group of explorers touch down on the same planet and note the presence of a strange talisman adorning many buildings and pieces of jewelry. It is a religious symbol of the messiah, explains the planet’s wise leader, the square talisman representing the stretch rack upon which the holy martyr was killed.

All hail the Lord High Priest, Ozzy Osbourne!
("He Walked Among Them")

Yeah, the Jesus allegory may be older than the hills in this type of story, but “He Walked Among Them” at least has the decency of never overstaying its welcome. And even if we see the payoff coming the minute that Kraft “heals” the sick child, I think the story still has timely power of showing us that certain bastions of mankind—or, at least, a very human-like alienkind in this case—naturally fear what they do not understand, and they fear that thing especially if it resembles a threat to said bastion’s power. The story acts a good excuse for Wally Wood to fire up his imagination and flourish the panels with all manner of indelible details and wry touches. I like the predominance of slithery, Jurassic-looking reptiles lording over the forest but I especially dig the epic, skull-adorned, bat-winged, heavy-metal-as-hell throne room of the hooded high priest. I can’t imagine any of these stage dressings were in Feldstein’s original script. This is the kind of visual extra mile that Wood would take in almost all of his assignments, but particularly his SF yarns.

The staff at bare*bones e-zine begin to
show signs of reading too many comic books.
("Say Your Prayers")

Prepare yourselves, Earthlings. Alien invaders are readying our planet for colonization and our brave Editors at the offices of Weird Science have the first scoop as was revealed in the rough translation of the invaders’ original field report! Bfun and Glun are two insectile beings who guide their ship to a lonely stretch of farmland on Chdnar, their word for “Earth.” The two chatty mantises are pleased as punch to see that the planet is home to an advanced civilization, but they’re doubly overjoyed to find the terrain is much like theirs back at home. Coming upon a dull-eyed cow, Glun is suddenly overcome with hunger and, promptly decapitating the creature with his mandibles, he invites his comrade over to feast. They’ve just barely dug in when an old drunkard comes tottering down the path in their direction. The aliens hide but are shocked to find that the old man doesn’t scream at spotting them but instead curses the empty jug of moonshine he’s carrying and turns on his heel to leave, tossing a sheet of paper behind him. Tickled with curiosity, Glun and Bfun examine the paper and receive the fright of their lives. They make a bee-line for their home planet and warn the members of their council that Earth must never be conquered lest complete annihilation be rained down upon their kind. Just what did the paper show? A flier showing a “giant” human with his collection of speared and mounted praying mantises.

Yeah, “Say Your Prayers” is a pretty silly affair and one that depends upon a high measure of coincidence, but I’d be lying like a rug if I said I didn’t enjoy it quite a bit. Orlando’s style is a really great match for these whimsical SF tales. His mantis-beings are the natural stand-out here, cartoonish and cuddly-looking one page and unnatural and blood-chilling the next. I feel like the bizarre circumstance of the old man carrying a random flier promoting friendly relations with the praying mantis could have easily been fixed if the geezer was a bug exterminator who had a stash of cards or posters advertising his business that just happened to fall out of his pocket. That would’ve been (at least a little) more conceivable, and would have made more sense in regards to the aliens’ fright. The flier they find is urging humans to be friends with their buggy mates; wouldn’t that have just convinced them to give the invasion a shot? --Jose

This is your brain on EC science fiction.
("He Walked Among Them")
Peter: "Saving for the Future" could very well be the single dumbest story we've come across on our journey (and hopefully it won't be topped in the future). How many scientist/professors have lousy marriages in the EC universe but manage to score a babe for an assistant? Too many, I says. Isn't it a bit of an elaborate plan Dr. Brewster hatches simply to escape a little scandal and the ire of his wife? Yes, it is. Why would anyone, especially a big brain like Brewster,  take the chance that civilization will even exist in 500 years? No one should. What bank would hand over twenty million to a guy who should have died five centuries before? No bank I know of. The inanities pile up as you turn the pages. I do like how Lloyd and Ellen make exactly the same exclamation coming out of suspended animation as they did going under (He: "U-U-U-N-G-G-G!" She: "GASP . . ."). Not quite as dumb, but still pushing the envelope, is "A Weighty Decision," wherein the daughter of a scientist proves that the apple falls in another yard altogether by stowing away on a weight-sensitive spaceship. I give Al points for the downbeat ending but then I have to subtract points for Al's dopey finale to "Say Your Prayers," where a drunk who happens to be carrying just the right pamphlet to stave off an invasion by outer space bugs. The only bright spot this issue is "He Walked Among Us" which is, at least, readable and provides the return of Wally's capes.

"And then we'll wake up with CANCER!"
("Saving for the Future")
Jack: When I mentioned "The Cold Equations" above while discussing "Wolf Bait!" I had no idea we'd see the real thing in the very same month! As in the story by Feldstein and Davis, "A Weighty Decision" leaves the reader thinking, "What would I do if faced with the same situation?" It's a tough call. Probably better never to have fallen in love at all! The most interesting part of the dreadful "Saving for the Future" was the lesson in compound interest, while I groaned at "He Walked Among Us," yet another variation on the old "ancient astronauts" theme. "Say Your Prayers" was the umpteenth variation on the alien misunderstanding story and it reminded me of the recent Orlando tale where the tiny alien spaceship landed in a hot dog. It's funny--before we started this project, I assumed the EC horror and science fiction books were the classics, but reading them all, month by month, I'm preferring the crime and war books.

Next Monday
Sgt. Rock gets all patriotic and stuff
in the 96th Colon-Cleansing Issue of
Star Spangled DC War Stories!
Be there or be a Commie!

No comments: