Monday, July 31, 2017

EC Comics! It's An Entertaining Comic! Issue 37: August 1953

The EC Reign Month by Month 1950-1956
    37: August, 1953

Weird Fantasy #20

". . . For Us the Living" ★★ 1/2
Story by William Gaines and Al Feldstein
Art by John Severin and Bill Elder

"I, Rocket" ★★ 1/2
Story by Ray Bradbury
Adaptation by Al Feldstein
Art by Al Williamson, Frank Frazetta, and Roy Krenkel

". . . Conquers All!" ★★ 1/2
Story by William Gaines and Al Feldstein
Art by Jack Kamen

"The Automaton" ★★ 1/2
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Joe Orlando

Two FBI agents fetch Dr. Russell Cromwell from the offices of the Atomic Energy Commission and bring him into headquarters for questioning. It seems that the good doctor is not who he purports, having forged all his documentation, but he’s not working in the aid of a foreign power as the Bureau suspects but rather working in service of Earth. An alternative Earth, that is! You see, “Dr. Cromwell” hails from a different timeline of Earth 1953 A.D., a mishap that occurred when he used the time machine he carries in his briefcase for his own “personal pleasure” when he traveled back in time to the period when “the great man” was alive and well and reuniting the nation after a horrible war that pitted brother against brother. When Cromwell is mistaken for an assassin, this allows for the *actual* murderer to shoot the great man in his theater booth, thus ending the reign of peace and universal trust that the great man would have gone on to promote and instead bringing about the creation of Earth as we know it today. Yes, that’s right: the great man was none other than Abraham Lincoln. Pleading with the Bureau to let him continue on his mission to fix his chronological mulligan, Cromwell is kicked out sans briefcase and told to get lost. The FBI director instructs his agent to toss the evidence and to ignore the travel-sticker on the case, the one commemorating Cromwell’s 1953 trip to the “Tomb of Abraham Lincoln, Founder of the Republic of Earth” in the world capital of Paris!

Your pleasure will be the death of us all!
("...For Us the Living")
Methinks “…For Us the Living” would have gone down more favorably had it been presented in a more dramatic medium such as for the stage or screen. As it is, things move a bit too slowly and are capped with a shade too much text for maximum enjoyment to be gleaned in the reading of a graphic funny book, but there’s still charm to spare in this optimistic “what-could-have-been” yarn thanks in large part to the sunnyside-up collaborations of Severin’s pencils and Elder’s inks.

A busted rocket lies sulking in the sands of a desolate planetoid, looking back on happier days through rose-tinted portholes. The rocket fondly recalls its creation as a battleship to aid in the war against the bloody Martians, and delights particularly in the memory of its first captain, Lamb, and his faithful crew. But not everyone on board the rocket is so stout-hearted: Larion and Belloc, two slimy conspirators, are hoping to kill Lamb with the help of a time-bomb that will make it appear as if the ship suffered an accident. But the rocket will not entertain such skullduggery in its hull: for Belloc it arranges a last-minute lobotomy via exploded oil-line, and for the escaping Larion a mishap with the emergency airlock that sucks him out into space. With those bastards taken care of, the rocket thrills at the first rumblings of battle, successfully coming away victorious only to be repurposed into a cargo-shipping vessel on its return to Earth. It’s on one of these dull and soulless missions that it “cracks up” on the desert planetoid and sits rusting away before Captain Lamb arrives on a very special rescue mission, promising his beloved rocket that it will begin life anew soon.

While the Bradbury adaptations have tended to be the highlight of their respective issues, “I, Rocket” is strictly second-tier stuff, too unfocused in its intent to really make an impact. The soapy space operatics dealing with Larion and Belloc’s plot acts as way too much of a tangent from the “A” storyline and only ends up being useful in that it provides us with two gnarly, albeit unseen, deaths for its pair of would-be assassins. The story would have benefitted from more details on the Martian battles, as it could have given us the foundation for the rocket’s war-faring capabilities and its relationship with Captain Lamb better than the random “corrupt crew” business.

Chief, you flirtatious old ass, you!
("...Conquers All!")
An infiltration vessel is sent to Earth from “a distant planet of a far-flung star-system” with the intent of studying humankind and its bizarre customs in order to gauge how easy it will be to invade and conquer the Earthlings. A crew of nice and clean-cut twentysomething aliens who look just like the people of Earth are prepped with a five-minute presentation and some new clothes to blend into the social landscape. The one thing that stumps the aliens in disguise and their older advisors is the humans’ habit of showing each other affection, a bizarre and unwelcome trait amongst the invaders who wear uni-sex clothing and have their children reared in facilities run by robo-nannies. But the concept of affection gradually becomes less and less uncomfortable to them, and soon the male and female aliens are shacking up with one another and rolling in the grass, much to the horror of their advisors. Alas, it soon becomes apparent just what has turned the calculating aliens into love-sick nuzzlers: the Moon, whose romantic rays (apparently) hold sway over all living creatures!

“…Conquers All” is exactly the type of goofball SF story from the pen of Kamen that we would normally deride, but one suspects that Feldstein was more than a little aware of the joke this time around, as can be seen in the genuinely funny moments when the aliens are caught mid-heavy petting by their advisors who shriek like a pair of outraged parents who just caught Johnny and Marie in the backseat of the convertible. Totally frivolous and fluffy, but damn it all if it isn’t at least a little bit fun.

("The Automaton")
XT-751 is a unit of the state, a nameless “cog in a vicious government machine” that gives no credence to his individuality. Despairing of his position and skeptical of the state’s doctrines, XT meets Old Herman one day while walking through the ruins outside the city and is soon convinced that suicide is the only answer despite it being a punishable crime. Nevertheless, XT chugs down some poison he happens to be carrying only to awaken alive and mended in the hospital, ousted by Old Herman. For his attempted self-assassination XT is sentenced to 15 years in the northern labor camps, a frigid hell that he finally releases himself from when he nabs a guard’s rifle and shoots himself in the heart. Only now he wakes up in the hospital with a reinforced heart of “resilient plastic.” No matter, XT will just throw himself out the hospital window. No-go, Joe: the medical staff revives him yet again, adamant on keeping XT alive as he is property of the state and no one may bereave the state of it, not even the property itself. Hang all of that, XT says, I’ll just light myself on fire at my next labor camp. Though the attending physician has just about capped his “Had Enough of It” meter, the hospital brings XT back with one grueling skin graft after another. XT decides to end things once and for all by throwing himself into a molten ladle at a steel-mill. Unfortunately, the molten steel from the ladle is used to create an indestructible robot which now carries XT’s fully conscious mind.

Yeah, I’m not sure about that one either. “The Automaton” seems to be leading us to believe that XT has been a robot this entire time, as Peter alludes below, but those last two panels make me think that the poor sap had his mind/soul re-routed into a robotic body only in the end instead. Either way, this soup-sandwich yarn doesn’t make a whole lotta sense, and instead acts as a nice showcase for Joe Orlando’s growing talents and the various gory demises of one Mr. 751, latest resident of the Twilight Zone. --Jose

Peter catches Jack with the new bare*bones typist.
("...Conquers All!")
Peter: Am I the only one who's surprised that Al treated the climax of "The Automaton" like it was a surprise? After all, the title sorta gives it away, doesn't it? I get the story isn't about the twist; it's about being free to live your life how you want it (did I guess that right?). Well, other than Joe Orlando's bang-up art job, this was really weak. But then so was the rest of the issue. All right, I'll concede that the Bradbury was a fraction above average (say, 2.3 on a scale of 4), but I'm really hoping that Frank Frazetta gets let off his leash one of these days and gives us the vicious slap across the kisser we're all dying for. I'm beginning to side with Jack on his opinion that Al Williamson isn't really doing much. The little panels look pretty enough but they all look alike (heresy! I hear you say). ". . . For Us the Living" has a nice little twist in its climax but, unfortunately, this is a variation of something we've seen before and it's overly talky. Those three stories are Top of the Pops though compared to the silly ". . . Conquers All!" I had to laugh out loud when the doctor explains that the people on Earth look just like the invasion party. Well, of course they do; they're all drawn by Jack Kamen!

Jack: I got a kick out of " . . . Conquers All!" because it was so goofy! Who hasn't tried the excuse "It's a scientific experiment!" when caught making out? "The Automaton" is sad but has a good narrative drive and the art is very strong. " . . . For Us the Living" is way too wordy but by the end I kind of liked it in its parallels to "Back There" on The Twilight Zone. It's hard to go wrong with alternative history but the twist ending is weak. That leaves the Bradbury story, "I, Rocket," which suffers by being narrated by an object (something Peter and I have suffered through enough with the DC War comics). As usual with Feldstein, there's a lot to slog through, but Bradbury's writing is so lyrical that it's painless.

The Haunt of Fear #20

"Thump Fun!" ★
Story by William Gaines and Al Feldstein
Art by Graham Ingels

"Terror Train" ★
(Reprinted from Vault of Horror #12, May 1950)

"Bloody Sure!" ★★ 1/2
Story by William Gaines and Al Feldstein
Art by Reed Crandall

"Hyde and Go Shriek!" ★★ 1/2
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Jack Davis

Marvin Courtney murders his older brother, Luther, for the family fortune at the behest of his other brother, Gilbert, and buries the corpse in the cellar. Upon completion of said evil deed, Marvin discovers that Gilbert has taken a powder with the cash and works himself up into a frenzy. A loud "thum-thump" (like the beating of a heart . . . get it?) has the murderer convinced that the murderee is back to haunt him and Marvin tears apart the walls of the estate looking for the beating annoyance. While destroying the parlor, Marvin comes across a volume of Edgar Allan Poe and loses himself in a re-reading of "The Tell-Tale Heart." Now seeing it must have been nerves and his subconscious mind playing tricks on him, Marvin breathes a bit easier . . . until there's a knock at the door. It's the police, who question Marvin as to what that loud "thum-thump"ing is. One of the cops grabs an axe and tears down a wall, unveiling brother Gilbert and the gobs of money. Marvin breaks down and confesses to the murder of Luther but insists he had nothing to do with the death of Gilbert. The cops believe him but haul him to jail anyway, commenting that the whole crime would have gone uncovered if it wasn't for the beating of Luther's heart, which led them to the body of Gilbert, which . . . Oh, never mind. What a gawdawful, nonsensical mess "Thump Fun!" is! Bill and Al decide to rip off Poe and then, halfway through the proceedings, wink at the reader with a 6-panel re-telling of "The Tell-Tale Heart." Then, when the police show up (for no good reason, but we'll get to that in a second) at the door, they can hear the beating of a heart, and when they unearth Luther, they discover his heart is missing. Why? I don't know. The Old Witch has to explain in a final panel that the cops knocked on the door because they were selling tickets to the "local policeman's ball." Right. Three detectives to sell tickets? Oh, why am I bothering? Even Ghastly phones this one in, with not much more thought than a whole lot of close-up panels. If this isn't the worst EC horror story ever, it's in the top three.

Um . . . yeah . . . if y'all say so.
("Thump Fun!")

A dastardly reprint in an EC comic book? Well, it's not the first time, but I do believe it's the last. Al must have really been up against the wall to allow "Terror Train" to see the light of day a second time but, surely, Feldstein could have come up with a better "treat" (as the Vault-Keeper says on the new splash) than this lukewarm dud. In his original review of Vault of Horror #12, Jack was much more forgiving than I was, gracing "TT" with a full star higher than I did. I'm sure Mr. Seabrook has since seen the error of his ways.

Waldo? Where are you?
("Bloody Sure!")
Despite the protestations of the townsfolk, newcomer Waldo Buckly falls in love with and courts the "Widder Hodes," a gorgeous but mysterious woman who has gone through five husbands in as many years. The superstitious louts have decreed the woman a vampiress (all of her husbands were fed a steady diet of steaks and died "weak and pale"), but she's the apple of Waldo's eye, so he ignores the warnings and proposes. Anna, the widow, explains that she has a young son (also weak and pale) and Waldo quickly assures his beau that he'll make a great father. The couple are married and retire to a scanty shack. Very soon after, Waldo begins to suspect something isn't right and then, one night, he feigns sleep and watches as Anna wheels her son over to the side of their bed and prepares to hook him up to Waldo via a blood-transfusion machine. Shocked, Waldo bolts upright in bed and Anna, sobbing, explains that her boy has a rare blood disease and needs constant transfusions. Waldo exclaims that he knew Anna wasn't a vampire because he's a vampire and it takes one to know one. Another really silly climax spoils an atmospheric build-up but, of course, there are only two or three possible climaxes to a story of this sort and this is one of those. The droopy script is secondary, though, thanks to the art of newcomer Reed Crandall, who somehow melds the eerie ickiness of Ghastly and the uneasy elegance of George Evans and produces something wholly original.

Here I am!
("Bloody Sure!")

"Hyde and Go Shriek!"
Amy and Myron are on to the perfect con-job: Amy has befriended a rich immigrant named Yergo, who has a deep obsession with the novel, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and wants, more than anything, to become Mr. Hyde. Being that Myron is a "second-rate consultant chemist," Amy believes that Yergo will be taken in by just about any kind of scientific mumbo-jumbo talk. Amy drops Myron's name to Yergo and the man snaps at the bait, writing several checks for "research and experimentation." When Yergo comes 'round to Myron's place to see results, the con-man pops a little of this into that and produces bubbling concoctions that impress his prey to no end. Then one day, while putting on a show for Yergo, Myron injects a guinea pig with a harmless mixture of solutions and, much to his surprise, produces the exact results Yergo is looking for! When the man insists Myron inject him with the formula, Myron lowers the boom: he'll need fifty thousand dollars to create an antidote. Yergo at first balks but then pays the price, insisting that Myron drink the solution first. Myron puts on a hammy act of violent behavior that convinces Yergo the formula works and goes away a happy man. Elated that he's just earned fifty grand for a worthless formula and an antidote of baking soda, Myron heads off to meet Amy to celebrate. But along the way, plans go awry when he notices a change coming over him as he looks into a grocery window. Myron has now become Mr. Hyde. Luckily, there's a display of baking soda in the grocery window but, unluckily, Myron discovers the boxes are all empty. Phonies, just like Myron. Amy strolls up just as Myron is losing all sane thought and he whirls on her, insisting this whole mess is all her fault.

"Hyde and Go Shriek!"
"Hyde and Go Shriek!" is an enjoyable little thriller with a solid twist in its tail and the oddity of having a "brain" for a con-man (well, anyone who can lay claim to the title "consultant chemist"--albeit second-rate--deserves big brain status in my book). Al pulls the same trick he utilized in "Thump Fun!," albeit to a lesser degree, of utilizing classic source material within the frame of the story (Yergo quotes from Jekyll as Jack Davis visualizes it for us) but it works this time. Yergo's desire to stomp little girls in the street and beat men to death with his cane is, admittedly, a bit extreme, but it works. In reality, the mark here is actually a worse person than the con artist. --Peter

Jack: I agree with you about the plot of "Thump Fun!" but I disagree about the art, which I think is very fine Ghastly, especially the superb splash panel, in which a skeleton sits on a coffin listening to the Old Witch tell her tale. Reed Crandall also does good work on "Bloody Sure," but I saw that ending coming a mile away--it would have been better to have the climax be the discovery of the child's illness and the mother's secret blood transfusion scheme. The "I'm really a vampire!" revelation is completely unnecessary. I did not care for "Hyde and Go Shriek!," which suffers from some of the shoddiest art we've seen from Davis in quite a while. It also suffers from a lack of imagination on the part of Feldstein, who goes back to the well for the second time this issue and "borrows" from a classic. As for "Terror Train," I still think it's likable but it sure does look primitive next to the stories we've grown used to by August 1953, doesn't it?

Weird Science #20

"The Loathsome!" ★★★★
Story by William Gaines and Al Feldstein
Art by Wally Wood

"Surprise Package" ★
Story by Ray Bradbury
Adaptation by Al Feldstein
Art by Jack Kamen

"The Reformers" ★★
Story by William Gaines and Al Feldstein
Art by Joe Orlando

"50 Girls 50" ★★ 1/2
Story by William Gaines and Al Feldstein
Art by Al Williamson, Frank Frazetta, and Roy Krenkel

"The Loathsome!"
On November 1, 1952, Eddie Simpson is a sailor who happens to be on a ship observing the first hydrogen bomb blast on the island of Eniwetok. A month later, he returns home to his girl Gwenny, and within a year she is ready to give birth. The doctor has bad news--the baby is an atomic freak and Eddie agrees to give her up and tell his wife that she was stillborn. The wee mutant is taken to an orphan's home, where she is raised by Miss Ferby and her nurses, all of whom complain that the child is horrible to behold and behaves terribly. When the girl overhears that Miss Ferby plans to cancel her tenth birthday party, she is understandably upset.

Miss Ferby asks the doctor who delivered the child to come and speak to her. He does so and finds her very intelligent and calm but he agrees to try to relocate her. That night, one of the nurses sees the child sneak out and hide a message in a hollow tree. The nurse, Miss Ferby, and the doctor lay in wait the following night and chase the little girl, who tries to escape the grounds and is killed when she is accidentally impaled on spikes atop the orphanage wall. They find the little mutant girl's note, hidden in the hollow tree, and it reads: "To whoever finds this note . . . I love you."

"The Loathsome!" got me right in the heart! Wood's art is gorgeous, as usual, and every female of a certain age is luscious. The depiction of the mutant child is held back until the last page, and she is both frightening and pathetic, with spindly arms and legs, a little girl's jumper, a misshapen head, and pigtails. The final revelation that she was crying out for love is terribly moving.

Jack's first date.
("Surprise Package")
Leonard visits Martha but she thinks something is different about him. She saw a picture of him squiring another woman about town the month before when he was also with her but he denies any impropriety. She puts poison in his drink but he does not react, so she tells him that she's read about marionettes that can take the place of humans and she thinks that is what he is. Finally, she takes a gun and shoots him, and he finally admits that she's right. The real Leonard is home in bed while six mechanical replicas are out keeping six women happy. He tells her he can still make her happy, but she takes a hammer and bashes the robot to bits. She packs the pieces in a box and ships the "Surprise Package" to the real Leonard before putting a gun to her own temple.

This is one of the worst Ray Bradbury adaptations I've read in the EC comics to date. The story is boring and obvious; we know from page one that Leonard is a robot and Martha just drags out the climax. Why does she put a gun to her head in the last panel? Do I care?

At least there was one thing to
recommend "The Reformers."
Having done their work on Earth, "The Reformers" travel to a new world, looking for evidence of evil to preach against. They are met by an old man named Peter, who gives them a tour and explains that his world is filled with free, happy people and is without evil. They go back to their ship and report to base with a plan to spread evil themselves and then preach against it. Their boss appears on the visi-screen--he is the Devil and he says they won't have much success, since they've landed on Heaven!

Hoo boy, this is stinker number two in a row! Thank goodness for Joe Orlando's art to break up the sermonizing in Al's script. I had a feeling that the guide with the long, white beard named Peter was a certain St. Peter (not Peter Enfantino) but having the Devil pop up in the last panel brought a groan to my lips.

Paging Dr. Wertham again!
("50 Girls 50")
On the first spaceship to journey to a distant star, there are frozen 50 men and "50 Girls 50," all of whom will awake in a hundred years when they reach their destination. Sid, one of the 50 men, had other plans and unfroze after just two years, eager to sample some of the beautiful gals on ice. He thaws out Laura Masters and spends a year loving her before growing tired of her and putting her back in the deep freeze. He then thaws out Wendy, who he thinks is his perfect mate. Prior to the journey, she and he had planned this out--they would be king and queen of the colony. She betrays him and sends him back into the deep freeze, planning to unfreeze her real dream man. But wait! She's in for a surprise, since Sid killed the other 49 men before he thawed her out!

That's a lot of plot to wade through, and I just kept thinking that this sounds like that Jennifer Lawrence movie that bombed last year. In any case, the art is so flawless that it really doesn't matter, though I think it would have been more fun to have this story drawn by Wally Wood, who drew what looks like a scene from it on this issue's cover. Now those would be 50 girls I'd like to see!--Jack

More fine work from
"50 Girls 50"
Peter: Though Seduction of the Innocent wasn't published until 1954, Fred Wertham had been condemning funny books for all of life's woes for years before the heavy-handed and obvious "The Reformers" was published. I knew where this was going the minute the greeter introduced himself as Peter but, forgetting that, the story's deep message is ruined by its dopey climax. The lead-off this issue, "The Loathsome," feels like a Shock SuspenStory; y'know, one of those "oh, the inhumanity that man subjects his fellow man to" morality fables? It's got a heart-breaking end but the pathos comes off as fake. Was this kid actually acting like a little monster or was it all lies on the part of her caretakers? Why would she suddenly write a note that says "I love you" to anyone? I do like the fact that Al and Wally hide the little girl's face until the final page as it kept me guessing as to whether there was a twist coming. Even the great Ray Bradbury had a clunker or two in his vast oeuvre and "Surprise Package" (which began life as "Changeling" in Super Science Stories, July 1949) is one of those clunkers. When our narrator comments that the faux-Leonard "had to be stopped from talking," I clapped my hands and said out loud, "you got that right." And what's with that climax? Is Martha killing herself to ruin the evening of the real Leonard? I'm not on board. The best is saved for last with Al's "50 Girls 50," every man's fantasy turned sour. This one has it all: an intelligent script, gorgeous art, a first-class, cold-blooded monster for its lead character, and a laugh-out-loud twist ending. This was Al Feldstein erasing that line that 1950s funny books shouldn't cross and re-drawing it fifty feet down the road.


Two-Fisted Tales #34

"Betsy!" ★★
Story and Art by Jack Davis

"Trial by Arms!" ★★★ 1/2
Story and Art by Wally Wood

"En Crapaudine!" ★★★ 1/2
Story by Jerry DeFuccio and John Severin
Art by John Severin

"Guynemer!" ★★ 1/2
Story by Harvey Kurtzman
Art by George Evans

Jiker Miller is a “low-down, cheap little punk” in the parlance of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, a real scumbag desperado who makes short work of mugging an old coot out in the middle of the desert before riding into town to slap and make out with the horrified citizenry as he sees fit. The old man, meanwhile, feebly crawls his way back to his cabin where his beloved “Betsy” waits for him; if anyone can put an end to the criminal’s reign, ol’ Betsy can. Just as Jiker has subdued the sheriff and just about everyone in earshot to his will, the old man shows up at the tavern with Betsy at his side, and the old rifle blows two clean holes right through Jiker’s black heart.

That's some slap!
More of a skit than anything else, “Betsy” gets the issue off on a pretty weak hobble in spite of some nice and attractive layout work from Davis. Having been given the reins to write his own material, Jack takes the opportunity to sketch some rough’n’tumbleweed action and also uses any chance he can get to give us close-ups of Jiker’s craggy, corrupted mug. If you don’t see the end coming, with the old man’s interludes about delivering justice in a lawless society ringing bells every step of the way, then these passable eight pages may yield some worth to you.

Also, he's got a cape over his head!
("Trial by Arms!")
During the Dark Ages of yore, heated words are exchanged between Sir Malcolm, the esteemed, and Sir Clyde, the envious, during one of Duke Nigel’s most sumptuous feasts. Just a little competitive banter, nothing more… that is, until the following morning brings foreboding evidence that Sir Gregory of Greymoor, a beloved guest at the feast, has been foully murdered in his chambers and the body disposed of. With multiple fingers pointing at Sir Clyde as the perpetrator, Sir Malcolm throws down his gauntlet as a challenge to engage his fellow knight in mortal combat. The following day brings much excitement as the two warriors face each other in the arena and gamely deliver blows of axe and mace until well into the evening before Sir Malcolm finally delivers the killing blow. All is celebration and good tidings… that is, until Sir Gregory of Greymoor returns from his trip abroad to news of his “death.” Seeing it best to keep the epic story intact, Sir Malcolm closes in on Gregory with sword unsheathed.

“Trial by Arms” is a highly likeable story, one where Wally Wood’s joy at the medieval flourishes can be seen in both his script and art. The master shows an appreciation for humor at turns gentle and wry, not to mention some good alliteration (check out “Grendwyn, goose-girl on Sir Gregory’s homestead”!). While Wood shows no reticence in decorating his panels with speech bubbles thick with flowery, antiquated talk, like Davis his story comes to life the most during the wordless sequences where men are pitted against each other in battles dirty and chivalrous, respectively. Wood goes so far as to dedicate the majority of his center pages to short, choppy panels that replicate the movements and layout of cinematic storyboards, and depending on your mileage the effect will either register as staid or as stunning. Whichever way you slice it, this sequence acts as a dynamic interlude between the theatrical opening chapter and the darkly-humored finale.

Have at ye!
("Trial by Arms!")
Well, I think we've all learned something today.
("En Crapaudine!")
For the crime of desertion, soldiers of the French Foreign Legion at Fort Fleur-de-lis are subjected to the punishment of “En Crapaudine!” Sound painful? It’s even worse than what you’re imagining: with wrists bound to ankles and legs folded under his back, the soldier is forced to lie upon the flag mount in the blazing heat of the sun. This is the fate of our hero, a troop who was defending the fort against the advances of “the wild Touareg” led by the red kaffiyeh-garbed Djebel Ankar when he is suddenly overcome by a wave of desert madness: “Le Cafard! When the cockroach runs round and round in your brain… round and round…” That night the troop takes off into the desert to hunt down Ankar once and for all. He is discovered by the Legion the next day and returned to Fleur-de-lis to receive his punishment. It is only after the troop dies from madness and exposure that his fellows make a surprising discovery: inside his tunic, a red kaffiyeh…

“En Crapaudine,” despite having a title ready-made for sophomoric jokes by regressed degenerates such as myself, is at the polar end of the earlier “Betsy”: tightly-plotted where the former was going through the motions, tense where Davis’ story was just on this side of a tired joke, and legitimately surprising in its final reveal where the ending to “Betsy” was a sure-bet. Jerry DeFuccio is still acquitting himself most admirably in his recent “promotion” to “credited” scriptwriter, and his collaboration with John Severin here results in one of the most memorable premises of the entire TFT lineup, in my opinion. (And I don't see the sketchiness in Severin's art that Peter alludes to below: Severin has done far, far worse before.) From its brutally exotic titular penalty to the vivid portrayal of “le cafard” madness and that shockingly affirming last panel, “En Crapaudine” is one crazy rat.

("En Crapaudine!")
“Guynmeyer” tells the biographical story of a young French ace in World War I who astounds everyone with not only his plentiful victories in the sky but also his amazing escapes from the inevitable jaws of death. Whether it’s having his motor “stopped cold” by enemy fire and having to land his plane within tossing distance of No Man’s Land or being thrown clear of his crashing aircraft as it’s reduced to matchsticks, the incredibly good fortune of Georges Guynmeyer seems as if it will never run out. But on September 11, 1917, a final “miracle” occurs: when a fellow ace lures a batch of German planes away from Guynmeyer, the ace returns only to discover that his chief is missing with no sign of a crash or any indication of his whereabouts. It is as if “the very heavens had swallowed [him] up!”

Jose's interest... it's gone!
Look, George Evans turns in some very, very good work in “Guynmeyer,” but at this point I feel like a broken record when it comes to talking about my opinion of aerial dogfight stories. Even when Kurtzman tries to spin them in a different direction—here, for instance, discussing all the incredible-but-true brushes with death our hero experienced—I still can’t get past the relative sameness that all these stories seem to share. You can only see a guy looking around all nervous in a cockpit only so many times before the effect becomes lost on you. I know: I’m a callous human being. It’s a struggle I must live with every day. --Jose

Peter asks to speak to Jose about
getting his commentaries in on time.
Peter: "Betsy" sticks out like a sore thumb amidst the generally good to downright great stories this issue. The ill-advised Jack Davis oater is just this side of a Mad western parody (Jack doesn't even hide the similarities to High Noon--his Gary Cooper is even named Sheriff Kane!), with a pretty doggone dopey climax if you ask me. With "En Crapaudine!," Severin and DeFuccio tell an involving tale but I can't get past what may be the worst John Severin art I've ever seen (and I really dig Severin); sketchy and ugly. "Guynemer!" is another of Harvey's bio-tales that make me run for Wikipedia to find out more (according to Georges Guynemer's entry in Wiki, his body may or may not have been found and identified). Kurtzman's friendly captions ("Shall we tell the miracles of his victories? There were so many it would be dull!") are tantamount to Uncle Bob telling stories 'round the campfire to a bushel of enraptured pre-teens. The crown jewel this issue is, of course, the legendary "Trial By Arms!" with glorious script and art by Wally! That final line still makes me laugh out loud. Jose and I commented on the "controversy" surrounding the piracy by Howard Nostrand of "Trial" a couple years back when we were chronicling the history of Harvey Comics horror. Interesting that Harvey Kurtzman seems to have been stepping back a bit from scripting chores on TFT and FC, two titles that were exclusively Kurtzman's babies until 1953. Obviously, Mad had become a higher priority.

Jack: According to the letters column, Harvey was in the hospital and the other guys had to pitch in and write some stories. This terrible issue shows just how important Kurtzman was to the title's success! I thought the same thing as you about "Betsy!" and had to look up when "Hah! Noon!" ran in Mad to make sure I wasn't confusing the two stories. You say "Trial By Arms!" is "legendary," but I just found it boring, despite Wood's usual good work. I never liked Prince Valiant, either. The Severin story is at least more interesting than the two that precede it, though Severin without Elder is never as good as Severin with Elder. Harvey roars back with the final story, which is exciting and interesting from start to finish and which features sharp work by Evans. I think this issue shows just how talented Johnny Craig is--Feldstein and Kurtzman could write and draw their own stories, but neither did it as well or as often as Craig.

Jack also has some words of advice for Jose.

Frontline Combat #13

"Pantherjet!" ★★★
Story by Harvey Kurtzman
Art by Jack Davis

"War Dance!" ★★
Story by Jerry DeFuccio
Art by John Severin

"Wolf!" ★★★
Story by Jerry DeFuccio
Art by Wally Wood

"Frank Luke!" ★★ 1/2
Story by Harvey Kurtzman
Art by George Evans

During the Korean War, a pilot nicknamed Cable and a maintenance man nicknamed Cement inspect a Grumman F9F, also known as a "Pantherjet," that has been damaged by a burst of anti-aircraft shells during a flight. The nose needs to be replaced but they don't have any spare noses on the aircraft carrier. Other planes then take off from the deck and engage in an air battle. Though the tail of Cable's jet is severely damaged, he manages to bring it back to the aircraft carrier and land safely, later explaining to Cement that he knew the plane's nose was in good shape and figured Cement could use the part.

My factual summary of this story doesn't do justice to the taut, exciting script and the fine art by Jack Davis, which is improved by the coloring that shows the red light below decks, the darkness at night on deck, and the welcome sunshine. The way these planes take off and land on the deck of a ship is fascinating and the story shows Kurtzman's knack for taking dry details and making them come alive.

In the Pawnee Village on the River Platte, a "War Dance!" ends in Red Knife being chosen to lead a raiding party against the Ponca. Red Knife and his men ride to the Ponca village, but when one of the unarmed Ponca warriors touches Red Knife in battle it triggers a duel between the two braves. Red Knife loses and his people must retreat in shame; he is banished for his failure.

I was taken aback to see an Indian war tale in Frontline Combat and, a couple of pages in, it veers close to Mad territory, but DeFuccio and Severin right the ship and the story ends by teaching the reader some interesting facts about the Indian code of honor.

In the Black Forest in Germany in the 11th century, young Mark Edulblut sends his trained hawk to attack a "Wolf!" that menaces his flock of sheep. Soon, he hears an army approaching and climbs a hill to see his father's castle being attacked by Baron Von Wolffe, whose attacking force has overwhelming numbers. Things don't look good for the men defending the castle until Mark lets his hawk go and the bird of prey attacks the Baron, clawing out his eyes and making him flee to the forest. The ensuing chaos allows the defenders of the castle to turn away the attack.

Is there anything Wally Wood can't draw, and draw well? I thought his story in this month's TFT was dull but this one is exciting, though the climax is predictable.

"Frank Luke!"
WWI flying ace "Frank Luke!" must have had a death wish! His colleagues in wartime told stories of how he destroyed German balloons and planes seemingly at will, until his number finally was up and he was shot to death after downing 15 balloons and three planes in 17 days, along with countless men. Too bad, says one French officer--the war is over, the young ones are dead, and it's time for the old ones to start living again.

Thrilling air battles mark George Evans's sharp work here, and Kurtzman's signature war-weary tone adds some gravity to this tale of an American who flew too fast and died too young. There are also plenty of French words sprinkled among the English to make young readers pull out their French-English dictionaries.--Jack

Peter: "Frank Luke" is a lot like the Kurtzman/Evans collaboration in TFT #34. Both feel like info pieces that entertain. It's got a fabulous finish, with the two Frenchmen telling war stories while celebrating victory and looking forward to what would be a relatively short-lived peace in Paris. "Wolf!" has the obligatory dy-no-mite and detailed craftsmanship we've come to expect from Wally and a gripping story to tell, even with its almost Monty Python-esque climax ("Hey, guys, the boss went that-away, c'mon!"). Neither "Pantherjet!" nor "War Dance!" floated my boat though both had highlights. Severin's art on "War Dance!" is much better than that of "El Crapaudine," and I wonder if he caught a gander at Wally's dialogue-less duel panels in "Trial by Arms" pre-pub, since the battle between Ponca and Pawnee has a similar sequence. "Pantherjet!" comes across as a commercial for the Navy. Harvey was notoriously hands-on when it came to the visualization of his scripts so I wonder why he gave colorist Marie Severin orders for the all-red effect of the first eight panels. I get that the following eight panels were set in all-blue to give the effect of pre-dawn but the all-red confuses me. Am I missing something, fellers?

Jack: Yep. When the color switches from red to blue on page two, a caption says that the ships "bowels" are "illuminated with dull red light."

"War Dance!"

In the next issue of Star Spangled DC War Stories . . .
There's a reason they call them . . . The Losers!


Quiddity99 said...

The Automaton is easily the best story for this month's Weird Fantasy, and one of my faves of the few remaining issues we have for the title. That the ending is a disappointment or predictible I don't think is the point; the true horror of the story is just how terrifying such a future is where the state owns even your life and brings our protagonist back to life over and over no matter how many times he tries to kill himself. I think the story is a clear inspiration for Harlan Ellison's "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream", and Ellison was clearly reading EC's around this time as he actually writes a story from them in an upcoming Weird Science-Fantasy issue.

As for the rest of the issue, the lead story is a decent one, but I can't help but be disappointed by the two middle stories. After some terrific Bradbury horror stories in your last entry (The Lake and The Handler) both this month are quite mediocre and just don't come off as good comic book stories to me. Would have preferred Feldstein going with something else!

A weaker issue than usual for Haunt of Fear although I've got no complaints for Ingel's artwork as you have, it is as good as it usually is here, albeit in a rare Ingels story that features no rotting corpses, vampires or other monsters. Overall the issue comes off as EC trying to "up their image" and get away from their common house plots and the over the top gore that is a thing for EC around this era. Terror Train which is a lot more psychological in nature seems like the logical choice for a reprint if they were to go for one. At least it gives us a new Feldstein drawing of the Vault Keeper! This is the first time in quite a while EC reprinted a story but it is not the last; we will see another reprint in just a few months in Crime #19.

A fairly strong issue of Weird Science this month aside from that Bradbury story; as good as The Automaton is, The Loathsome is even better, being quite a sad and touching story with excellent Wood art. In fact probably the best story we have remaining in Weird Science/Fantasy. The story was actually inspired by a real life incident, although Feldstein added in the atomic mutant element. The Reformers I enjoyed a bit more than you guys did (although I never really understood the usage of Satan at the end), and simply amazing art for 50 Girls 50, which is also a decent story as well.

Including several "shock endings" which weren't always Kurtzman's thing, this issue of Two-Fisted Tales comes off more like a Feldstein edited title than a Kurtzman one; the illness that Kurtzman had that caused that fake Gaines biography in Mad #5 apparently carried over here as he was well enough to only write one story for this issue. I didn't mind the Davis story as much as you guys did; he will write a better story in similar style a few months from now in a Haunt of Fear issue. I'd agree that En Crapaudine is the peak of the issue, and that Severin's quality isn't as good for whatever reason in this story. George Evans does a great job at these World War I ace stories, which we get both for Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat here. As for Panther Jet, I feel that the usage of the colors was likely influenced by what the lights actually look like as Kurtzman was obsessed with accuracy in his stories.

Grant said...

I know he wrote stories of almost all kinds, but I was surprised by the description of "I, Rocket," because of the gung ho, "glories of war" attitude the rocket seems to have, considering that it's Ray Bradbury.
And also going by the description, the war has a real black and white "good guys vs. bad guys" image, which is especially strange when you think about The Martian Chronicles.
Is the original story like this version when it comes to that?

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, guys! I haven't read The Martian Chronicles since I was in junior high school (as middle school was once called), so I don't remember how the tone of the story compares with that of the comic. One of the most interesting things about doing this project, at least for me, is the feeling that the horror comics were, in general, the weakest of the EC line, and the war and crime comics were the strongest. That's just my opinion, but it runs counter to what I had always assumed. I just read Seduction of the Innocent by Max Allan Collins and never realized till now that the EC crime comics (and the hosts of the horror comics) owe a big debt to Crime Does Not Pay.

Jack Seabrook said...

Oops! I guess that story wasn't in The Martian Chronicles. Well, whatever collection it was in, I haven't read it in 40+ years!

Anonymous said...

I like TFT #34 quite a lot. With Kurtzman about to move on from the war titles, it continues the transition towards becoming an adventure comic that began with #33, and this time the effort is quite successful. I'm extremely fond of Severin's New Two-fisted Tales run from issues 36-39, and you can really see the seeds of that run and of the even better run of Valor that ultimately succeeds the title in TFT #34. "Trial by Arms" is fantastic, and it anticipates the great art that accompanies the medieval stories in Valor. Severin always does a good job with the soldiers of the Empire, and the script is much better than those in the Turbridy stories. It is terrific to see Davis do a cowboy story after all that time in Korea; it is fitting that he went back to the genre with which he had begun his work for Kurtzman back in TFT #20. I don't love his cover, but he does much better with the Civil War cover in the next issue.

While TFT stayed strong pretty much to the end of the line, I have never been a big fan of the last five issues of its companion title, and by issue #13 Frontline was pretty much done. George Evans's historical stories have great (and legendarily accurate) airplanes, but other than the upcoming "Yellow" at the end of the TFT run, they don't do much for me as stories, and they're sort of the focus of the last few issues of FC. While "Guynemer" in TFT #34 is the least interesting story in the book, "Frank Luke" is arguably the most interesting story in FC #13. The only things that really grab me about this issue are Wood's contributions; "Wolf" is, as always, beautiful, and I think all three of his Frontline covers are a cut above the two he did for TFT.


Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, Jim! I'm right there with you in loving Wally Wood's art.