Monday, March 5, 2018

EC Comics! It's An Entertaining Comic! Issue 52

The EC Reign Month by Month 1950-1956
 52: November 1954 Part I

The Vault of Horror #39

"Deadly Beloved!" ★★
Story by Carl Wessler
Art by Johnny Craig

"Top Billing" ★★1 /2
Story by Carl Wessler
Art by Reed Crandall

"The Purge" ★★
Story by Carl Wessler
Art by Bernard Krigstein

"All for Gnawt" ★
Story by Carl Wessler
Art by Graham Ingels

"Deadly Beloved!"
On assignment from Hearth and Home Magazine, writer Ed Leeds finds himself with an overheated radiator in the middle of a Louisiana swamp when he happens upon a dilapidated mansion, overgrown with ivy and muck. Interested, Ed makes his way into what he believes is a deserted estate, only to find that the interior has been burnt out from fire and a gorgeous dame named Eloise walks the hallways. Eloise explains that the house was gutted in a fire ten years before and that she was its only survivor. Ed finds himself enchanted by Eloise's beauty and fast falls under her spell. The pair wander through the house and Ed narrowly avoids tragedy at just about every turn, including accidentally firing a rifle off in the direction of his beautiful hostess. When the midnight hour approaches, Eloise explains how she wants Ed to be with her always and the reporter suddenly realizes the stunning blonde isn't exactly what she claims to be. Eloise didn't survive that fire and now she's lonely; she'd like Ed to join her in her ghostly perambulations but, of course, Ed has to die first. The suddenly un-lovestruck reporter runs screaming from the estate and drives out of town, only to return later that night, knowing he can never get Eloise out of his mind.

A whole load of good stuff.
("Deadly Beloved!")
Ninety per-cent of "Deadly Beloved!" is soap-opera drivel, awful purple prose filled with gobbledygook like I've the feeling I've known her all my life, yet I know we've never met except, perhaps, in some forgotten dream, but two aspects save it from collapse: Johnny Craig's ultra-cool, ultra-creepy, ultra-sexy visuals and that haunting final story panel where Ed faces his destiny (shoulders hunched with fatality). Craig certainly had a way with the women, as his splash of co-host Drusilla testifies, and his display of Leeds's nightmarish see-sawing between what's right and wrong is brilliant. So why would the editor of a swanky rag called Hearth and Home send a reporter out to the middle of a swamp?

Blye, Nash, and Winton, three unemployed Shakespearean actors, come across the Woltham theater backstage door one night and, suddenly, hope shines down on them. Entering the stage door, they find a motley crew performing Hamlet (and not doing a veddy good job at it) and having a bit of a kerfuffle on the side; someone keeps stealing the props and it's enraging the lead.

Sensing a production in need of an actor, Winton approaches the director and is immediately hired. Enraged, Blye heads up to his friend's dressing room and bashes his brains in with a sash weight. When he tells Nash that Blye has had a case of the jitters and headed back home, he's aghast that Nash has the audacity to volunteer his services to the stage director. Another trip to a dressing room and suddenly Blye is the last actor standing. And yet another prop goes missing. Retiring to his dressing room, Blye discovers the prop manager loping around, promising to open his goodie bag for the actor. When Blye has a look, he's shocked to see a sack full of human heads. Convinced he's seeing things, Blye heads for the window for some fresh air and the sign at the front of the building has him suddenly rethinking his career. The director and lead burst in to announce that Blye has been given the role of "poor Yorick . . ." Undeniably silly, yes, but entertaining as all heck. It's like one of those really long jokes that ends with a groan of a punchline (I mean, where in the world would you find an "Insane asylum for actors?") but you can't help smiling. The detail in some of Crandall's panels is mind-boggling (check out that splash above), a trait that the artist will become famous for in his work for Warren.

Krigstein's magnificent splash.
("The Purge")
Wrongly accused as a witch, beautiful maiden Alicia lies in the king's dungeon, waiting for execution, but a last-second stay from the king himself fills her with hope. His majesty has obviously taken a fancy to the wench's fine wares and, soon, the king admits that if Alicia can undergo "The Purge" and be cleansed of the devil, she will be his queen. To cleanse Alicia, the king commands his sorcerer, Keselrood, to use all powers at his command in seven days or the wizard will lose his head. After many arduous and painful rituals, Alicia is pronounced "cleansed" by Keselrood and taken to the king's quarters. Alicia looks around in amazement at the riches that will soon be hers but her joy is short-lived when the king reveals himself to be a werewolf. [Say what?] [Yep, a freakin' werewolf!] [Well, what the hell does that have to do with the first five and a half pages of story?] [Nothin'!]

Verily, we are presented with the grandest conundrum: a beautifully-illustrated, well-written five-page story with one page of painfully bad expository. "The Purge" is, in fact, wrapped up with what could very well be the stupidest twist ever concocted for an EC tale. I was half-expecting we'd get a reveal that mirrored that of "Witch Witch's Witch!" (from Vault #36), where the accused is actually a witch, but Carl, in a very Wessler-like way, defies expectations. No clues are dropped and the only reaction a reader can have is "WTF?" Why would this king spend so much time and energy on "cleansing" Alicia only to rip her to shreds? Couldn't he eat "Satan-ised" meat? It's like telling a joke with the wrong punchline and the sad part is that the deadly dumb denouement takes a bit of luster off the exquisite Krigstein visuals. Some historians have thrown mud at the theory that EC was so obviously higher in quality than any of the competitors but just one look at a BK-illustrated strip scotches those theories.

True, it's a shocker cuz we never saw it coming.
Doesn't make it a good shock!
("The Purge")

Millie Mumford's been through four husbands and only has three grand to show for it. Obviously, her plan of "wed and then dead" is not working, but she decides to give it one more try and answers a "lonely hearts" ad for an old man who owns a sprawling estate and just wants someone to share it with. When Millie arrives at the estate, she's more than a bit surprised to see a run-down shack sitting on an overgrown lot. Alvin Tuttle ushers Millie in to his "quaint" house and asks her to sit on his sofa so they can get to know each other. As she sits, she hears a sickening snap and crunch under the sofa and Alvin joyfully raises a dead rat caught in a trap, explaining that the place is overrun with the damn things and just needs a woman's touch. Disgusted, Millie storms out and heads for a local bar, where the bartender lets on that Alvin Tuttle is worth four hundred grand and he keeps it somewhere in the house. Swallowing her pride and envisioning a golden ticket in her future, Millie races back, makes amends, and agrees to marry Tuttle. Months later, despite scouring the house, Millie still has no clue where the bounty is located and decides violence is the only solution. She threatens to wring Tuttle's neck and the poor old man confesses that the money can be found in the basement behind a large rock in the wall. The portly princess races down the stairs, dislodges the stone and finds several metal cases. As she's hauling out her new-found wealth, a steel trap closes on her arms and she's stuck. Alvin descends the stairs and opens the metal cases, revealing the skeletons of his former wives, all greedy money-chasers just like Millie. As Alvin says his goodbyes, the rats move closer to a very large meal. Poor Ghastly, loaded down with lousy script after lousy script. He does his best to make "All For Gnawt" at least "lookable" (even if it's nowhere near readable) but the tired plot and nagging logic lapses (so, no one ever reported any of Alvin's wives missing?) sink this one fast.

Jack: Late-period, New Trend EC comics are starting to remind me of late-'60s, early '70s DC Horror comics in that the scripts are weak but the art is stellar. Hmm, what do both periods have in common? Carl Wessler! Craig's art is fine on "Deadly Beloved!" but I knew the gal was dead very early in the story. Likewise, Crandall draws beautifully in "Top Billing" but the punchline was obvious way before it was revealed. I can't say the same about "The Purge," which at least had an unexpected finale, even if it was out of left field. Krigstein's art is lovely to behold. Not so lovely is Ghastly's art on the last story, which also ends with a questionable conclusion that doesn't exactly make sense. This series is limping toward cancellation like a corpse shambling through a graveyard.

Crime SuspenStories #25

"Three for the Money" ★★
Story by Otto Binder
Art by Jack Kamen

"Dog Food" ★★★
Story by Jack Oleck (?)
Art by Reed Crandall

"Key Chain" ★★★
Story by Jack Oleck
Art by Bernie Krigstein

"The Squealer" ★★
Story by Jack Oleck (?)
Art by George Evans

"Three for the Money"
Bank manager Joel Thatcher has been murdered . . . twice! Joel's wife, Nan, discovers his body in the study, a bullet hole in his forehead and a knife protruding from his back. The corpse has been slain by two different assailants! Just as the realization of this fact hits Nan, she witnesses two men escaping through the backyard and calls the police. The very-observant Constable Stebbins (who wears a natty sheriff's badge on his lapel) asks Mrs. Thatcher to come downtown the next day and answer a few questions. The grilling elicits the information that two men were competing for the attention of Nan: Joel's colleague, bank clerk Henry Dickson, who's been taking the lovely Nan out for lunch and a little hand-holding (but all innocent enough, contends the widow), and George Bakersfield, caretaker of the Thatcher summer lodge (and ace knife-thrower), who's professed his love for the young beauty and sworn he'll give her what she wants. Very quickly, the incredible Constable Stebbins breaks down the two men and has them ratting each other out. The only chore left is for the coroner, who must determine which weapon committed the crime and which was merely the "dessert." When both men commit suicide in their cells, the state is saved the money of a trial and Stebbins explains to Nan that no autopsy is necessary, which sends shivers of joy up the widow's spine since the real murderer is Nan Thatcher, who poisoned her husband shortly before her beaus added ornaments.

Oh, for the glorious 1950s, when autopsies weren't the necessary unpleasantry they are today. The twist is really not that bad, but "Three for the Money" sure takes a long time to get there and what we have to wade through  is the same old soap opera crap that Jack Kamen seemed destined to illustrate. That horse has been beaten into microscopic atoms so I'll only say that this is just as average as the last JK strip I had to snore through (and, by the way, why does Jack's knife-wielder on the cover have cat's eyes?).  It might have been nice if (the usually reliable) colorist Marie Severin had actually read the caption that read . . . "The next morning, I dressed in black and went into town to the Constable's office." before settling down to color Nan's dress blue! Any suspense as to whether Nan was an innocent is burnt to a crisp along with the paper in the fireplace (we later learn it was her forged suicide note for hubby, but we know she's up to something) on page 2. Blah!

"Dog Food"

"Dog Food"
Prison camp guard Lester Hoag is a sadistic sumbitch who rules over his inmates with a swift baton and a pack of hungry mutts. Any prisoner foolhardy enough to attempt an escape ends up as "Dog Food"! When Lester's masochistic ways lead to the death of Toleman's buddy, Andy, the hardened inmate, plots Hoag's death via hidden meat scraps and a sharpened butter knife. Lester gets wind of the assassination plot and swipes the meat scraps, leaving Toleman at the mercy of the dogs, but the hardened jailbird uses the knife to cut pieces off himself in order to get to his torturer. This is some seriously nasty stuff in both script and art department. Oleck seems to revel in Lester's brutality but then, it suddenly occurs to this jaded reader, that's where EC was heading towards the end. The nastier the better, I says. It's a vicious piece but it's effective thanks to Reed Crandall's unwavering penciling hand. That final panel is very reminiscent of Crandall's other gore classic, "Carrion Death" (from Shock #9). You can question the plausibility of a man carving off enough flesh to bare his ribs and still have the strength to wield a knife with any intent, but you can't question the quease factor.

"Key Chain"
Con-artist Unger slithers into town and ingratiates himself with the residents of a swanky hotel; he's in search of easy prey. The mark comes in the form of socialite Mrs. Hodges, who keeps over one hundred thousand dollars' worth of diamonds in a bank vault. Unger convinces the woman he's a diamond man and that her collection is under-insured; Hodges quickly agrees to bring her diamonds to her apartment for Unger's inspection. With a bit of clever subterfuge, the con manages to acquire a dupe of the master key for the hotel and heads for a lock shop to have a key made. He pickpockets the owner as he's shutting down for the evening and heads in to use the key machine, locking himself into the shop. When a beat cop walks by, it unnerves Unger enough that he upsets a board of blanks and drops the shop key in the detritus. The muck-up only gets worse with every moment's passing. Next morning, the shop owner finds Unger babbling amidst thousands of blank keys and wonders why a man would break into a locksmith shop, especially one with a broken front door. As with most of the stories we've seen illustrated by Bernie Krigstein, "Key Chain" is a cut above most of the author's previous work. Oleck ups his game with this interesting and ironic character study. I could have done without the final O. Henry panel; better to have left us with the image of a beaten Unger, sitting in a sea of keys. Krigstein continues to dazzle, portraying even innocuous incidents (as in the panel above, of Unger standing on a corner waiting for the key shop to close) with a flair seldom found this side of Will Eisner.

"The Squealer"
Cops Ed Zimmer and Bert Bransen have got a great thing going, collaring hoods and then putting them to work on the street. The boys in blue pocket three-quarters of all hauls and the perps avoid jail time. The plan goes swimmingly until Ed gets a panicked call one night from Bert, who's just beaten a confession out of a young hood. The beating goes awry and the suspect ends up dead. Zimmer arrives at the precinct to find the dead boy is his own son, Jerry. George Evans's gorgeous art for "The Squealer" stands head and shoulders above Oleck's cliched and heavy-handed script; Jack even throws in a rotten childhood and a busted marriage to justify Ed Zimmer's behavior. The only reason Jerry's murder is a surprise is that we're not privy to his secret life of crime. Odd that this muckraking tale (there are bad cops in the world?) isn't being dumped into the pages of Shock. Still, it's hard to dismiss a funny book story so nicely illustrated. --Peter

Jack: When you have three stories well drawn by Crandall, Krigstein, and Evans, why in the world would you put the Kamen story first and have him draw the cover? Like this month's Vault of Horror, this comic excels in the art department (except for Kamen) and doesn't quite reach as high with the stories. "Three for the Money" has a dopey ending, "Dog Food" has a ludicrous finale, "Key Chain" is cool but the last panel is superfluous, and "The Squealer" is predictable the closer you get to the last page. Still, this is a decent comic and continues to show that (at least in late 1954) the crime books were better than the horror books.

Oh, so that's why Ed is such a rotten guy!
("The Squealer")

Panic #5

"Tick Dracy" ★★★
Story by Nick Meglin and Al Feldstein
Art by Bill Elder

"Panic's Dictionary of Sports" ★★
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Jack Davis

"Spots Before Your Eyes!" ★
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Joe Orlando

"You Too Can Hook a Zillionaire!" ★ 1/2
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Wally Wood

"Tick Dracy"
"Tick Dracy" has one heck of a case on his hands and it hits very close to home. Someone has been slashing the face of Dracy's gorgeous wife, Mess Falseheart, every night in bed. Tick promises Mess he'll get to the bottom of it even if he has to murder every one of his arch-enemies (including the evil Aircraft-Carrier-Noggin!). Unfortunately, the list begins to dwindle as Dracy eliminates them one-by-one and each of them confesses they had nothing to do with Mess's mess. In the end, it's revealed that Dracy himself is the unwitting culprit; since the 'tec has a razor-thin face (which explains why no one ever sees him head-on), he's been violating his wife's kisser at night with a goodnight kiss!

Finally! We finally get a strip in Panic that could easily be slotted into MAD and no one would know the difference. Oh, Bill Elder has come through for us with his giggly panels but the scripts have not been up to snuff . . . till now. I've got a feeling that's due to the addition of humorist Nick Meglin to the Panic staff (years later, Meglin would become editor of MAD); it might have given Al a much-needed helping hand with the funny stuff. And there's lots to laff at here: Mess's gruesome transformation from cute blondie to slasher-film victim (at one point the poor girl wears a bag over her head); Dracy's grotesque arch-enemies (in addition to my fave, Aircraft-Carrier-Noggin, there's also Raisin Puss and Shivery, a villain who lives inside a refrigerator); the birds that make a nest in Junyor's thick moptop; and, of course, the dead-on barbs aimed at Chester Gould. Could this be an omen of good things to come?

"Tick Dracy"

Well . . .

Strop, You're Killin' Me!
("Panic's Dictionary of Sports")
"Panic's Dictionary of Sports" is a sometimes-clever send-up of sports jargon. It also, at times, makes you yearn for Henny Youngman. Like when golfer Slamming Sammy Divot calls for his "caddie" and an automobile appears or when Yogi swings at a "foul ball" and it reeks or when a basketball player "dribbles" across the court or . . . I hope you get the picture. If not, there are about sixty more. Only Jack Davis could illustrate this one. "Spots Before Your Eyes!" is an embarrassingly unfunny look at TV celebrities like the weatherman, the gardening expert, and the sportscaster. I'm not exaggerating when I say this is about as funny as a "Re-Elect Trump in '20" bumper sticker; there's not a half-hearted smile in sight. And Joe Orlando's art is gosh-almighty ugly, boys and germs; could it be intentional?

"You Too Can Hook a Zillionaire!" takes us right back to where we started from before I got so darned hopeful about this issue. "Zillionaire" is another Al movie parody that elicits exactly one laugh from this here jaded funny book reader and that one, when the movie producer calls for a "non-communist screen writer so we can get to work on the script," becomes less funny when you realize it's the first in a series of jabs at the comic book police. One full star of my star-and-a-half rating is awarded for Wally Wood's recreation of Lauren Backache's exquisite rear end. Sexist, yes, but I swear my bad jokes are better than the ones found in Panic. -Peter

Oh, that Lauren Backache!
("You Too Can Hook a Zillionaire!")

Jack: "Tick Dracy" is the only ray of light in this otherwise recyclable issue. I liked the unrelenting attack on Chester Gould, with little, descriptive boxes in every panel, and I laughed at Dracy's long hair when his hat flew off. The villains didn't make me laugh, nor did the dated references to Jackie Gleason. As for the other three stories, they were just plain terrible. By the end of the Orlando piece, I was just scanning because I realized that there was no point in reading every word. I thought having Wally Wood illustrate a spoof on a Marilyn Monroe movie would be better, but even he seems uninspired this time out.

Piracy #1

"The Privateer" ★★★★
Story Uncredited
Art by Reed Crandall

"The Mutineers" ★★★
Story Uncredited
Art by Wally Wood

"Harpooned" ★★ 1/2
Story Uncredited
Art by Angelo Torres

"Shanghaied" ★★★ 1/2
Story Uncredited
Art by Jack Davis

Britain is at war with Spain, so Captain Ballard James has his ship registered as "The Privateer," allowing it to attack Spanish ships and collect their treasure. The first attack is so lucrative that Captain James soon doesn't care whose ship he attacks. He and his men go on a rampage, attacking ships and coastal cities and collecting loads of treasure, becoming pirates rather than privateers. Finally, his ship attacks what appears to be a merchant ship, only to sail right into a trap: the other ship is a pirate ship masquerading as a defenseless vessel and, in the battle that ensues, Captain James is killed and his ship ransacked.

"The Privateer"

I did not have high hopes for Piracy; I thought it would be a desperate attempt to find a new topic to replace the rapidly fading horror and crime titles. Boy, was I wrong! The GCD does not provide writing credits for the stories in this issue, so I don't know whom to praise for the plotting, captions, and dialogue, but Reed Crandall's art is excellent and the story is thrilling.

"The Mutineers"
In 1854, Frank O'Hara signs on as first mate of the clipper Lorna J, run by brutish Captain Matthew Bollard. O'Hara is repulsed by Bollard's whipping of a sailor named Rico, so Bollard makes O'Hara take 48 hours' watch with no relief. Aided by Scotty, the cabin boy, O'Hara survives the ordeal, but four days without wind have the rest of the crew restless and angry. A hurricane blows up and the captain punishes the crew by allowing the sails to be torn in the storm; when it is over, Bollard orders the tired men to climb up and mend the sails. After an exhausted sailor falls to his death, the rest refuse to work, leading to another whipping by the captain. Soon, half of the crew turn into "The Mutineers," and a huge fight breaks out. When it ends, Bollard punishes Scotty by sending him up to the crow's nest. He falls to his death and that is the last straw for what remains of the crew. They sneak off in a long-boat and leave Captain Bollard to run the ship alone as it heads toward storm clouds.

Is there anything Wally Wood can't draw well? Nary a many-tentacled monster or flimsily-gowned maid in sight, yet he delivers another action-packed story of high seas adventure. It's not as good as "The Privateers" but it's close.

On the whaling ship Eban Dodge, things are tense. It's 1854, and they're looking for whales off the coast of New England. First mate Martin Ericson is jealous of Captain Mathew Strong and, when a whale is spotted and the crew heads out in a long-boat after it, Ericson sees this as his chance to get rid of the captain and take over the ship. The whale is "Harpooned" and Ericson makes sure Strong is caught in the rope line and dragged into the water after the thrashing whale, but when the whale finally surfaces and destroys the small boat, Ericson finds himself "impaled on the harpoon pole sticking out of the whale's back."


This issue of Piracy is a feast for the eyes! "Harpooned" is not as heavy with plot as the two stories before it, but it moves smoothly from start to finish and the denouement is satisfying. Williamson and Torres have a style that is more fine art than comic art; it's nice to look at but it lacks the muscular excitement we saw in the Crandall and Wood stories.

Captain Henry Walton waits in his ship in San Francisco Harbor for the rest of his crew to arrive so he can set sail, but when a Mr. Piggot shows up with three men who have been "Shanghaied," Captain Walton recognizes one of the unconscious drunks as the man for whom he has been searching for twelve years. A dozen years before, Walton had been a budding author who had been shanghaied himself while in San Francisco. He was forced to become a sailor, thus beginning an illustrious career that eventually found him the captain of his own ship. Now he has finally found Mike, the man he swore to kill for forcing him into a life at sea. Mike finally awakens from his drunken stupor and Captain Walton confronts him--and thanks him for setting him off on the career that has made his life a happy one!

A surprising and wonderful ending caps a highly entertaining story of revenge that turns out to be something else entirely. Who better than Jack Davis to illustrate a tale filled with drunken sailors, madams, and a writer who becomes a seaman? This is a great finish to a terrific comic!--Jack

Peter: As I approached the reading of an entire 32-page comic devoted to pirates (and the first issue of seven, to boot!), I thought, "Oh, this is not going to be good." Such a pessimist am I. It's early, of course, but Piracy may very well become the great adventure comic that Two-Fisted was supposed to be. All four tales are high-quality reading in both the script and art departments, with both "The Privateer" and "The Mutineers" earning four-star ratings from this funny book fan. "Harpooned" could have been comfortable in the pages of Shock and "Shanghaied" is unlike any story we've yet encountered on this journey. Piracy #1 gives me hope that the phoenix is rising even before the ashes have cooled.

Next Week!
More Blazing Battle Action
When Rock Tries to Tame a Tiger!

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