Monday, March 19, 2018

EC Comics! It's An Entertaining Comic! Issue 53

The EC Reign Month by Month 1950-1956
  53: November 1954 Part II

Shock SuspenStories #17

"4-Sided Triangle" ★ 1/2
Story by Carl Wessler
Art by Jack Kamen

"In Character" ★ 1/2
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Reed Crandall

"The Assassin" 
Story by Carl Wessler
Art by George Evans

"The Operation" 
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Joe Orlando

Old Farmer Abner has taken a shine to how well his “half-witted” housekeeper Annie has developed into a young woman, but Abner’s crotchety wife Hester always pops in at the most inopportune moments to dampen his flames of passion. Besides, as Annie explains to both of them, she has a boyfriend that she sees on the regular, which burns Abner up in whole 'nother way. But he soon discovers upon following Annie out of the house on one of her nocturnal trysts that her “boyfriend” is none other than the scarecrow overlooking the wheat fields. Reasoning with Annie does nothing to break her from her fixation; she tells Abner that she is convinced the straw-man is alive and will one fateful day prove his love to her. With libido raging like a mighty river, Abner decides to take matters (and more besides) into his own hands when he hunts Annie down again in the fields one night. Back at the farm Hester smells adultery and storms out with pitchfork in hand. She finds Annie lying next to her boyfriend, spent from a glorious moment of passion. Just to prove to the girl her romance is an illusion, Hester takes the pitchfork to the straw-man, unknowingly impaling her husband in disguise.

A "hot and heavy" kiss as depicted
by Jack Kamen.
("4-Sided Triangle")
There’s no question that following the Congressional hearings that Bill Gaines attended in 1954 that his publishing house essentially adopted a “screw it, we’re sunk anyway” attitude toward the New Trend content that remained for that year. Over the last few issues we’ve reviewed we’ve not only seen gradually escalating levels of rampant cartoon violence (not enough for the poor sap in “Forever Ambergris” to devolve into a rotting mess, but he’s gotta get sliced in half to boot) but a surprising frankness towards sexuality. As Peter so aptly highlights below, Carl Wessler took the Puritan-by-comparison “spent” metaphors that Al Feldstein had previously used mainly in the SF yarns and turned them up to 11 with “4-Sided Triangle.” The entire emotional thrust (sorry) of the story is Abner’s unchecked lust for his nubile victim, and were it not for Jack Kamen’s starchy illustrations, this story could very well have delved into pornography under the lascivious pen of a more adventurous artist. Coital relations aside, “4-Sided Triangle” is easily one of Wessler’s best scripts and is made such by the perversity at the heart of its central conceit. We all know what generous lovers scarecrows can be.

Horror actor Bela Kardiff is being given an honorary dinner and award for his years of thespian service in Hollywood with all of his favorite people in attendance. There’s his agent Don, who wrangled Bela into his career-defining role as Frankenstein’s monster; Lawrence, the president of the film studio who told Bela to check his actorly ambitions at the door; Marcel, the makeup artist who designed a suitably horrible visage for Bela; George, the PR man who schemed to make the monster the star of the picture; and finally Sidney, the studio’s treasurer who watched all the money from the movie pour in. They’re all very “good friends” of Bela; Bela the horror star who was eventually left penniless and begging for jobs and being scolded by mothers of frightened children. So tonight at this dinner Bela has decided to prove to the gang that despite his initial reservations, he’s warmed up to the idea of being the great horror villain everyone seems to think he is. You see, Bela has poisoned everyone’s glasses of celebratory champagne.

Jack and Peter assess Jose after
his first 4 months of fatherhood.
("In Character")
If it weren’t for the occasional and passably cute wink to the career of cinematic terror-king Boris Karloff (including a nod to his role as “editor” of some literary horror anthologies), “In Character” would be a complete waste of time. As it stands, it uses the biographical details of Karloff’s life—aside from the plague of being typecast as a monster, there really isn’t too much resemblance to the history of the character’s other namesake, Bela Lugosi—to tell a plodding story of revenge that you know precisely how it will end the minute Kardiff starts pouring the drinks. And I’m not sure what comic book Peter and Jack have been reading, but I don’t see “stunning” or “solid” work from Reed Crandall here by a long shot. Quit drinking that bubbly, fellas!

A rainy night, a loaded heater and a moving target exiting stage right from a ritzy hotel: “The Assassin” is on the hunt! The hired killer tracks his prey through the streets with the patience and perseverance of an old pro, but eventually the wary would-be victim gets the hint and tries giving his pursuer the slip through darkened alleys and bustling subway trains. But still the assassin follows on, even taking to the rooftops to snub out his prey with one well-aimed shot from his gun. Finally, the killer corners his target in a shadowy hovel and plugs him good. Suddenly, lights flash on and screams ring throughout the room. Turns out the assassin has performed the dirty deed onstage in front of 500 shocked theatre-goers.

I do *not* remember this number from Cats.
("The Assassin")
Plot-wise, there’s not much to encapsulate with “The Assassin,” which is fine with me because stories of its type are too rare here in the annals of ECdom. A real-time tale of a cat-and-mouse chase through gritty urban streets to a satisfyingly earned twist ending offers a kind of streamlined, no-frills approach to storytelling that we don’t see here too often what with subplots concerning So-and-So sleeping with XYZ Lover and plotting the murder of their spouse/neighbor/house pet, etc. Evans, as always, gets his noir groove on and frames a number of lovely panels, especially ones that show the assassin’s gloved hand looming in the foreground with his heater at the ready. Ka-pow!

“No honor among thieves” couldn’t be closer to the truth than in relation to the criminal ring made up of diamond mules Allie and Bimmy and their main man Doc Slater. The doc has concocted a particularly ingenious way of sneaking the precious gems past the customs offices that is full-proof: simply perform surgery on the mule and sew the goods inside them like a human purse. (“Rocks in His Head”, anyone?) Their scheme has gone beautifully for several thefts without a hitch, and when Doc Slater gets a lead on some wondrous 92-carat stones being housed at a local shop, Allie and Bimmy do their blasting stuff and snatch them up. To make things “fair” and ensure that the mule chosen to house the goods doesn’t split town, Doc puts both of his henchman under anesthesia and secretly operates on only one of them. But suspicion and greed gets the better of the two goons and they decide to settle their differences with a gentlemanly KNIFE MASSACRE. Doc Slater is a bit miffed at the carpet in his apartment getting so tarnished, but otherwise he’s happy as a clam since he in fact hid the jewels inside *himself* and had orchestrated his partners into cutting themselves out of the deal from the start. Too bad for Slater all the diamonds were phonies, and the residual paste from which they were made poisons the doc and kills him.

My upholstery! *Choke*
("The Operation")

I can’t remember which of my blogging compadres said it (that’s old age for ya), but at one point one of those geniuses made the assertion that bad art in a comic book could sink even the best script. I now submit Exhibit A: “The Operation,” very finely and wittily written by returning sensei Al Feldstein and nearly killed dead in the water by the leaden pencils of Joe Orlando. Orlando’s devolution from one of the company’s most exciting and interesting new artists to Rudy Palais on a bad day is utterly mystifying. What happened? Was Orlando gradually becoming less enthused over his work for EC due to the increasing social backlash the publisher was receiving in the wake of the Congressional hearings? Has what we’ve seen over the last few months been indicative of his desire to distance himself from Bill and Al’s New Trend? It’s been a while since I read my EC history books, but I vaguely recall some anecdotes regarding the shame Orlando’s family felt over his choice of employer. Or is this all just some hot air being expounded by an Internet know-nothing? I’ll leave all of that for the actual experts out there to hash out, but suffice to say “The Operation” could have easily been a much more remarkable story had it been drawn by the Joe Orlando that first showed up at the 225 Lafayette offices. --Jose

Peter: There's a sleaziness to "4-Sided Triangle" that won't be found in too many above-ground funny books; a middle finger to the Senate while the ship was sinking. The story itself is no great shakes--we've seen the horny older man lusting after the gorgeous and nubile young girl countless times just on this journey, never mind in all the other pre-code horror funny books--but it has enough moxie to it for me to classify this as one of the last greats of the New Trend years. It's not enough we witness feeble-minded Annie lusting for a scarecrow ("He can help me! He will! Someday! Someday . . .") but then we're voyeurs while the virgin gets her first taste of life's "little" pleasures (How long would this unwilling creature deprive her? How long this cruel neglect? How long? The answer came suddenly . . . startlingly . . . shockingly. No longer! Now! Now! This was her lover! How true her lover! How good her lover! The straw man . . . the stick and rag man . . . was hers at last!). Was there a more overtly sexual strip, even before the talons of the code? Of course, I've got problems with Jack Kamen's art, but Annie's so damn sexy it's hard to protest too much.

It's hard to see what Bela Kardiff is whining about so much; he's made lots of money off these monster flicks, but that's not enough? And, I get that he's bitter, but did he really have to dispatch the cinematographer, ferchrissakes? Seems a bit extreme. Even though the script may be a tad . . . oh, um, weak . . . at least we get some more stunning Reed Crandall work. "The Assassin" gives us a glimpse of what's to come when the New Trend exits stage left and the Picto-Fiction line begins. No dialogue save the requisite "Choke" and "Good Lord," and the prose is on the cliff looking into Purple Canyon, but the tale is an entertaining one and the twist is solid. Jack is on the money below when he mentions that this would be a good fit for Bernie Krigstein; it feels like a script tailored for BK. Finally, "The Operation" is filled with good and bad: the good being the very clever double-twist in its tail and the bad being the Sheldon Leonard-esque intelligent goon-speak that slows the pace down to a crawl and the really awful Orlando art. Joe was sticking out like a sore thumb among the class of Crandall, Ingels, and Krigstein by this time.

Jack: This is an outstanding comic! "4-Sided Triangle" is a very good story, but why assign it to Jack Kamen? Is he the only one who can draw sexy gals? The cover gives away the ending but it's satisfying nonetheless. I wonder what Johnny Craig would have done with this. I love the idea behind "In Character" but the ending is a letdown, despite solid work by Crandall. "The Assassin" features great noir narration and I love the fact that it's all captions and pictures and no dialogue. This would've been a good choice for Bernie Krigstein. Last of all is "The Operation," with Runyonesque dialogue and a clever but not great plot that ends with one twist too many. Shock SuspenStories was one of my favorite EC comics and, with one issue to go, it's still hitting the high notes.

Tales from the Crypt #44

"Forever Ambergris" 
Story by Carl Wessler
Art by Jack Davis

"Burial at Sea" 
Story by Carl Wessler
Art by Reed Crandall

"The Proposal" ★ 1/2
Story by Carl Wessler
Art by Jack Kamen

"The Sliceman Cometh" 
Story by Carl Wessler
Art by Graham Ingels

"Forever Ambergris"
As Captain Matt Starke waits for his beautiful girlfriend Eileen to emerge from her room, where she's slipping into something comfortable, he thinks back on how they met and fell in love. Eileen was the wife of Starke's first mate, Ben Harper, but when she met Matt, sparks flew. Matt hatches a plan to get rid of Ben and, at the end of a long voyage through the islands of East Asia, Matt sends Ben alone on an errand to one particular island. Ben comes back aboard ship and soon shows signs of having contracted Bubonic plague. He is isolated in his cabin and at the same time a large sperm whale begins to follow the ship, gulping down rotten meat and garbage thrown overboard by the crew.

Eventually, the plague takes Ben's life and he falls overboard, little more than a pile of rotten meat. The next day, the sperm whale vomits up a large amount of valuable ambergris. Starke has his crew collect it and he sells it for a pretty penny when his ship reaches port. The perfume maker sends Starke a bottle of the rare scent made from the whale vomit. He gives Eileen the perfume to put on and, when she emerges from her room, he sees that she is now a rotting corpse, infected with the Bubonic plague. It seems the whale had swallowed Ben's corpse and the disease had passed through to the perfume.

This panel is hard not to like!
("Forever Ambergris")

Despite the overly convoluted plot, a hallmark of Carl Wessler's writing at EC, "Forever Ambergris" is an entertaining story, mainly for the rotting corpse depictions by Jack Davis. If Ben's corpse isn't bad enough--and it is cut in half by the ship's railing as he falls overboard--the final sight of Eileen as a rotting corpse in a tight red dress, her hair put back in a blonde ponytail, is really over the top. It's impressive that putting on plague-contaminated perfume could work its magic so quickly and that she would be so unaware of her condition and appearance as to stand in the doorway, hand on hip in a seductive pose!

"Burial at Sea"
Barney Hoag is enjoying his time as a solitary surf-fisherman in the Florida Keys until he is interrupted by a decrepit old man who tells him to get off his property. Barney, being a level-headed sort of chap, decides to burn down the old ship in which the man lives on the beach, but when he finds a gold coin in the sand, dollar signs dance in his eyes. He murders the old man, finds a treasure map, gets himself rigged up with a deep-sea diving outfit, and heads under the water, looking for the rest of the hoard of gold coins. Instead, he finds a large stone marker with his name and dates of birth and death carved on it; of course, the marker falls on him and pins him to the ocean floor, where he will remain.

If "Forever Ambergris" managed to hold together despite some convoluted plotting, "Burial at Sea" just falls apart. Barney's bizarre reaction to the old man is one thing, but the pre-fabricated grave marker underwater is quite another. Wessler tries to put forth a weak explanation by having the old man remark that he was prepared for Barney's visit, but this just seems loopy. Reed Crandall, usually so dependable, turns in seven pages of art that looks hurried in spots.

("The Proposal")
Pearl Drake is a gold-digger whose latest sugar daddy has left her, so she sets her sights on Howard Ellis, the wealthy, middle-aged bachelor across the hall. Pearl uses her feminine charms on poor Howard so well that soon he surprises her with "The Proposal," telling her "I want you for my wife." Flattered, Pearl heads back to Howard's apartment with him, where he introduces her to Esther, his vampire spouse, who gets right down to having dinner. See, "I want you for my wife" didn't mean he wanted to marry her . . .

The obligatory Kamen story this time out has the usual cheesecake benefits but is otherwise tiresome, though I'll admit I let out a guffaw when the punning meaning of Howard's statement became clear. That alone earned an extra half a star.

Good old Ghastly!
("The Sliceman Cometh")
It's 1793, and the Reign of Terror is in full swing in Paris. Andre Vache, the executioner, makes a deal with the treacherous Jean Courbeau to falsely accuse his brother Claude and execute him. The reward? A thousand gold Louis! Andre accuses Claude, Marat sentences him to death, and Andre lops Claude's head off at the guillotine. And that's when Andre's problems begin. That darn head just won't stay away! Andre tries to dispose of it here, there, and everywhere, but it keeps coming back. Finally, sick of the darn thing, Andre takes a cleaver and chops the head to bits. Bad timing! An hour later, Claude's headless corpse comes looking for his head and, finding it unavailable, he takes Andre's instead.

Ghastly gives it his all here, and the French Revolution setting is welcome, but Wessler once again drops the ball at the goal line. The head coming back over and over is funny but the shambling, headless corpse seeking its head and settling for that of Andre is nothing new.--Jack

Peter: There's not a whole lot to like here. "Forever Ambergris" is no classic, but at least it delivers enough sick twists to sate the appetite. The same cannot be said for the other three sub-par "terror-tales." "Burial" has a reveal that makes no sense whatsoever (how did the old man know Barney's name? Are we supposed to intuit that the codger broke into Barney's car and had a look at the registration, or is he a seer?) but some nice Crandall art. Ditto "The Proposal" (minus the nice art part). "Sliceman" sees the return of classic Ghastly art but bottoms out in the end with a twist we all saw coming. Perhaps the workload was getting to Carl Wessler.

MAD #17

"Bringing Back Father!" ★ 
Story by Harvey Kurtzman
Art by Bill Elder and Bernie Krigstein

"What's My Shine!" 
Story by Harvey Kurtzman
Art by Jack Davis

"Meet Miss Potgold" ★ 1/2
Story by Harvey Kurtzman
Art by Basil Wolverton

"Julius Caesar!" ★ 1/2
Story by Harvey Kurtzman
Art by Wally Wood

Mr. Jiggie doesn’t have the life of Riley by a long stretch: his business is in upheaval, there’s some bratty orphan claiming he’s her Daddy Warbucks, and worst of all poor Jiggie can’t get out of the house for five seconds to attend a corned-beef and cabbage party at his pal Dinty’s place without his bully-shrew of a wife Maggs tearing into him with screams and blows alike. Just to show the reader how serious the damage his wife inflicts is, Jiggie occasionally switches the illustrations over from Bill Elder’s happy-go-lucky Sunday fare to the brutally honest and expressionistic veneer of Bernie Krigstein. His points regarding the sanitized depiction of violence in comics clearly made, Jiggie does what any self-respecting husband and father would do and hires a trio of cutthroat thugs from Krigstein’s side of the fence to victimize his family into cutting him a break.

("Bringing Back Father!")
“Bringing Back Father” isn’t your grandmother’s Kurtzman/Elder collaboration, as it literally introduces a third creative force into the fray that turns the whole dynamic on its head. Jack uses the word “jarring” below to describe the effect, and he isn’t wrong: the switching from Elder to Krigstein really takes you for a spin, especially after reading so many Elder parodies for so long that their goofy aesthetic has kind of seeped into you by now. Krigstein’s depiction of physical mutilation feels so out of place and shocking—think of the “hot and cold shower” effect of the Grand Guignol—that it leaves one almost kind of puzzled how to feel about the story in the end. It *is* funny to a point, but as Peter says the humor is so pitch dark in those moments that you kind of have to wonder about saying if the story was any good or not.

There’s a new game show premiering on the boob tube, and it goes by the name of “What’s My Shine!” Actually, it’s not really a game show at all but a thinly concealed (or not really concealed at all) send-up of the Congressional hearings complete with caricatures of Estes Kefauver and Joseph McCarthy. There’s a panelist named Lana Cheesecake, a kerfuffle made over a doctored picture depicting a “redskin” in action, and a commercial for some crap called “Pow.” Reading “What’s My Shine!” is akin to attending the dinner party of a married couple that decides to passive-aggressively work through their hang-ups right in the middle of appetizers: if only you could find some way to leave. Seeing EC by way of Harvey Kurtzman and Jack Davis taking their fight to the pages of their own parody book on the one hand seems like a reasonable reaction (that married couple really *does* need to talk about their problems), but on the other hand it seems like the wrong time and place to have that reaction (couldn’t the guys have just kept their response in the editorial?). In the end, “What’s My Shine!” is too butt-hurt to come across as genuinely funny.

It's topical!
("What's My Shine!")

Basil Wolverton comes swooping in to save the day (again) by lending the profiles of some of his indelibly hideous ladies to a vote-in contest to name the next spokesperson for Potgold, the dry-dry-DRY beer that gets you blitzed in record time. As much as I enjoy Wolverton’s overall aesthetic, the heavy reliance on his goofy drawings in "Meet Miss Potgold" feels like the cheap filler that this entry is, and I actually enjoyed the jokes written in the bookending “photo ads” even better than the fugly women. Is that Bill Gaines yukking it up in the background of those shots?

"Julius Caesar!"
Comic book parodies (or are they parody comic books?) are so rampant these days that in the short amount of time they’ve existed they have already accumulated a silo’s worth of repetitive tropes and clichés that invariably pop up in every strip. “Julius Caesar” seeks to educate us on the various tools of the trade, including never-ending streams of background fodder or “chicken fat”, anachronistic props and references, guest appearances by detectives and Hollywood cheesecake, and, of course, “DOMM DA DOM DOMM!” After laying waste to each other with tommy guns, army tanks, and finally atom bombs, the friends, Romans, and countrymen that make up the cast enter the tent of Brutus to find the lead conspirator uproariously laughing over an issue of MAD.

Capping off a resoundingly average issue, “Julius Caesar” pulls some funny moves and enters a whole ‘nother level of metatextuality by parodying itself and all its half-bred imitators by pointing out the things that made this publication funny in the first place. The effect is not so very different from reading “Bringing Back Father”: the things that are being said are funny, but the manner in which they’re being said requires a deeper level of thinking than what one might be accustomed to. One thing is for certain though: no one can claim that this publication isn’t 100% full-proof NUTS. --Jose

Melvin Enfantino: Though parodies like "Starchie" highlighted the lack of reality in comic strips, "Bringing Back Father" may be the first of its kind to literally pummel its reader over the head with the fact. Could "Father" be the birth of black humor in funny books? Elder's picture-perfect send-up of George McManus's simplistic art gives way to the brutally-beaten Jiggie and overbearing shrew, Maggs, by the brilliant Bernie Krigstein. If we weren't so startled by the domestic violence, we'd be in tears larfing at Jiggie's perplexed one-liners (after Maggs's dog is killed by a flying plate, Jiggie allows how "in this serious atmosphere, that dog died from being too skinny!"). While "What's My Shine!" and "Meet Miss Potgold" did nothing for me (the former is yet another dig at the witch hunt and the latter is just more of Basil Wolverton's goofy people profiles), "Julius Caesar!" is another winner. Harvey finally focuses the parody microscope on himself and the MAD rip-offs and does a brilliant job pointing out the standbys (bandages and toilet plungers!) and the essentials (Marilyn!) before winding it all up with a hilarious non-ending. Reading the damned thing upside down, though, was a literal pain in the neck. What I won't do for this blog.

Jack:  Another issue of Mad  that didn't make me laugh. Not even a little bit. The switching back and forth between Elder and Krigstein in "Bringing Back Father!" is jarring and the Krigstein pages are painful. What could be more dated than a spoof of the Senate hearings? Lana Cheesecake is the one and only highlight of "What's My Shine!" I love Basil Wolverton, so "Meet Miss Potgold" is welcome, despite the lack of a narrative. "Julius Caesar!" is pretty good in its investigation of lampoon cliches and Wood's art is, as always, spot on, but the whole issue is not much fun to read.

Our kind of party!
("Meet Miss Potgold")

Next Week!


Anonymous said...

I’m a big, lifetime Boris Karloff fan, and much as I love Shock Suspenstories, “ In Character” has always put me off because it so wildly mischaracterizes how Boris felt about his horror career in general and the Monster in particular. Boris was delighted that Frankenstein’s Monster made him a star in his mid-forties after decades of virtual obscurity, and he felt genuine affection toward the character. And one of the favorite parts of his entire career was his three-picture RKO run with Val Lewton in the mid-1940’s. It is true that when the story came out in late 1954, his movie career was in a decline from which it would never recover; after two last shots at Gothic horror with Boris in 1951 and 1952 (the Strange Door and Black Castle), the Universal horror machine turned irrevocably to science fiction, so he never made another movie for the studio after 1953’s Abbott & Costello Meet Dr. J and Mr. H. But by all accounts he really enjoyed getting to perform in the various television series rhat he had throughout the 1950’s and early 1960’s, and in early 1954 he was on the verge of starting the Broadway run in The Lark wth Julie Harris that would garner him his Tony nomination in 1955. Bela Lugosi might have been annoyed with Hollywood’s type-casting of its horror icons in 1954, but not Boris! On the other hand, it is just a story in a comic book, and it does have more verisimilitude than a story about a lecher pretending to be a scarecrow.

— Jim

Jack Seabrook said...

I had the same problem when I read that story, Jim. I reconciled it all by deciding that, since the character's first name is Bela, he was intended to be a fictionalized mix of Karloff and Lugosi. I can accept the character's career problems as much more in line with Lugosi's life, especially as things stood by the 1950s.