Thursday, October 4, 2018

Journey Into Strange Tales: Marvel/ Atlas Horror! Issue 18

The Marvel/Atlas 
Horror Comics
Part Three
June-September 1950
Narrated by Peter Enfantino

Marvel Tales #96 (June 1950)
“The Return of the Monster” (a: Gene Colan)   
(r: Where Monsters Dwell #32)
“The Deadly Dwarf!” (a: Vern Henkel)  
“The Mask of the Mind!” 
(r: Tomb of Darkness #11)
“Don’t Shake Hands with the Devil” (a: Mike Sekowsky) 
(r: Vault of Evil #15) 
“The Witch’s Son!”  
(r: Tomb of Darkness #11)
“The Terror That Creeps” (a: Werner Roth)  
(r: Crypt of Shadows #14)

American author Clifford Armstrong travels to Bavaria to research a book on the Frankenstein myth. Once ensconced, Armstrong discovers that Mary Shelley’s novel wasn’t fiction; the scientist and his horrible creation actually existed and now German scientists seek to resuscitate the creature in order to build a race of super-soldiers. The plan goes awry when the monster is roused from his sleep and murders the Nazis, destroying half the village for good measure. Luckily, Armstrong and his new girlfriend, the lovely Nina Frankenstein, discover a well-placed cache of dynamite and trap the fiendish brute below tons of rubble. Though “The Return of the Monster” is riddled with bad writing (“Cliff… I noticed a pile of dynamite nearby! Do you think…?”) and a bad day at the office for Gene Colan, it’s got an undeniable charm about it; the writer (probably Stan) was obviously more influenced by the Universal films than Shelley’s novel (as is the artist, who throws in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it panel of the Uni-style monster, reprinted far below). Though our narrator exclaims that “the legend of Frankenstein and the monster is finished at last,” I’ll lay money we’ll see another return of the big fella.

"The Return of the Monster"

Wylie the ventriloquist has fallen on hard times and his manager is about to give him the axe when he pairs up with a dwarf named Demo (short for Demon!) and the pair fool the world into thinking Demo is a dummy. All Demo asks for is a 50% cut and Wylie is all right with that when the money starts rolling in. But then the big money starts rolling in and Wylie decides he can do the act with any ol’ wooden dummy. Bad move. But a worse turn of events occurs when the vent decides to kill his mouthpiece. Any chills found in the story are negated by some really bad art and silly dialogue (“I didn’t call you in to give you a job, you little monster! I called up in to give you… death!”), but “The Deadly Dwarf” has more of that 1950s Atlas horror charm nonetheless.

The remainder of the issue is pretty odiferous:
"The Mask of the Mind"
“The Mask of the Mind!” concerns the respected Dr. Hill, who moonlights as a ghoul who’s been robbing the nearby graveyard (wearing an incredibly life-like mask!). Dreadful stuff but a bit of a guilty pleasure if you keep one eye closed and tell no one. A choice snippet:

Police officer: Oh… Dr. Hill! Did you see a ghastly-looking ogre go by here?
Dr. Hill: Why… yes! He frightened me terribly! He ran up that square!

In “Don’t Shake Hands with the Devil," the Publisher of Satanic Tales has a visit from one of Satan’s demons. Sparky isn’t too happy that the magazine’s editorial policy is to show how the wages of sin lead to hell. Satan thinks it’s bad for business. Young Bela saves a witch from the stake and the old crone bestows upon him a guardian angel, "The Witch's Son," for as long as Bela doesn’t try to glimpse the face of said angel. Obsessed with the Sphinx, Russell Sterrett becomes the first man to enter the statue’s bowels and learn its evil secrets. "The Terror That Creeps" could very well be the wordiest horror story in the Atlas catalogue.

How did they sneak this one in?

Venus was a gorgeous blonde heroine/quasi-super-heroine who immigrated from the planet Venus and moonlighted as Vicki Starr, editor of Beauty Magazine. The first nine issues of Venus pumped up the romance angle but, once it became clear Venus was being lost in the swamp of love comics, Stan Lee decided something had to be done and gave the babe an edge. The adventures became more dangerous and Venus locked horns with all manner of evil beings, including the Son of Satan and early incarnations of Thor and Loki. This poor girl even witnessed the end of the world in the subtly-titled, um, "The End of the World!" Of course, what eventually separated Venus from the other glamorous funny book gals was her illustrator, the incredible Bill Everett, who rescued the poor girl from the comic basement when he assumed art and script chores with issue thirteen. Since Venus is a recurring character, I won't be covering those stories other than to recommend you check out Bill's stylish art if you get the chance. I will examine each issue's short non-Venus SF tale, beginning with...

Venus #10 (July 1950)
“The Last Rocket!” (a: Joe Maneely) 1/2

The Imperial Galaxy Government has ordered Helena, Empress of Juna to evacuate her planet to make way for a new galactic freeway (or something like that) but the messenger, Captain Lon Derrick, is impressed with Helena’s moxy and agrees to remain on Juna to fight the Imperials to the death. Being a completist, I had to include this 3-page quickie, the only material  in Venus #10 that merits inclusion in this volume, but I must say that it’s a nice little tale, one that feels as if it’s the opening chapter in a grand space saga. I've always been a huge Maneely fan, going back to the days I was a little Marvel zombie forking over two-bits for Black Knight reprints in Marvel Super-Heroes. No one had a style or paid so much attention to detail like Joe Maneely.

Suspense #4 (August 1950)
“The Man in Black” (a: Gene Colan)  
“The Closing Door” (a: Gene Colan)  
“Two Lives Had I!” (a: John Buscema)  
“The Creature Who Followed” 
“The Man Who Refused to Die!”  
“The Victim!” 

Nasty landlord Angus McTeague charges outrageous rent for his run-down shacks and, when one man speaks up, Angus shoots the man’s mother! The next day, a strange "Man in Black" arrives. Who is the man? Death! Though it’s credited to Gene Colan, this sure looks a lot like Jack Kirby’s early work.

In “The Closing Door," archaeologists searching for the tomb of Takum find that the old guy may still be in business. Yet another boring Egyptian explorer tale. A man of some standing finds himself stalked by an escaped lunatic in a small village north of London. A clever twist is the only plus in “The Creature Who Followed," a crudely illustrated quickie.

"The Man in Black!"

"Two Lives Had I"
Eric Cambell, the nation’s leading expert on schizophrenia may be a victim of the malady himself! Worse, he may be the city’s dreadful strangler. Though “Two Lives Had I” is nothing classic, it does have some fun dialogue: “I seem to be able to think clearly… as yet, so I’m not too far gone! But I wonder what my other self is like! I wonder if… hello, what is this knife doing here in my bedroom?” Very early art by future Marvel superstar John Buscema (he's going to get so much better than he was in 1950).

Jonathan Storm (yes, Johnny Storm!), one of the men who developed the A-Bomb, has so many more designs and inventions springing from his head but each project takes “at least five years to complete” and his doctor has just diagnosed Jonathan with terminal old age. But Johnny is "The Man Who Refused To Die!" What to do? Search for the fountain of youth, of course! Find it, he does, but drinking from the fabled fountain has disastrous consequences. Very, very long and it sure seems we’ve seen this story a million times before. Finally, Lillian Farnsworth wants her hubby knocked off and her new chauffeur, Jim, is the perfect putz for the job. Jim agrees to off the old man and fixes the brakes in the plush ride but, after the crash, he discovers Lillian took the car into town! A breakdown in communication, perhaps? Though “The Victim” is nothing great, the ending is a nice surprise.

The downbeat climax of "The Victim"

Unknown Worlds #36 (September 1950)
"Monster of Moog" (a: Russ Heath) 
“The Strange Car”  (a: Russ Heath) 
“The Prisoner of Time” 1/2
“The End of the Earth” 

UW began as Teen Comics (which ran Archie rip-offs and the early romantic/comedic adventures of Patsy Walker, a character who would be rebooted into the Avenger known as Hellcat), was retitled Journey Into Unknown Worlds with #37, and then re-numbered with the third issue

Famed Cosmic Research scientist, Dr. Arden, has a wild and outlandish theory about the “violent cosmic disturbance” rocking the Earth of 3250AD. Arden is convinced (for some reason) that a “super-brain” has taken physical form and is “probing, searching, groping, disturbing the universe we live in!” Though his comrades in science all think Arden’s theory is stuffed with blueberries, they give him a polite and patient ear. Well, that is, until scientist Paul remembers he has a date with gorgeous girlfriend, Ona Gorn, and exits stage left. Coincidentally, at that moment, Ona is being kidnapped by the very physical brain Dr. Arden had warned of. The alien, a bulbous-headed, turquoise-colored, diaper-wearing little runt named Lod, who hails from the planet Moog, has decided Ona is the one girl in the Universe who fits his profile of “Perfect Wife” and rockets her off to his home planet. Paul and Arden track the snatcher (thanks to a Perimeter Defense Control System that monitors to-and-fro through Earth’s atmosphere) to Moog and interrupt the ceremony just before Lod has a chance to kiss the bride. Order is restored to the galaxy.

Though “Monster of Moog” could be one of the worst-written SF tales to emerge from the 1950s, it’s not without its requisite charms. Dialogue was never a strong point for Atlas SF writers and some of the sequences in “Moog” are a laugh-out-loud hoot. Just before Lod arrives in Ona’s boudoir, the buxom babe muses that “There’s some terrible presence in the room which I can’t detect! I only know it’s here…”  Paul arrives at Ona’s apartment to see a giant fireball bursting through his love’s window and when he enters the building and sees the melted glass, sure enough Paul exclaims, “I know that Ona’s disappearance is linked to that orange streak I saw from the street!” Perhaps my favorite scene though is when Paul, Arden, and their third stooge, Moss, invade the sanctuary/computer room of the alien and wonder what they can do to bring down the reign of the monster:

Paul: Listen, Moss! There’s no time to lose! What’ll happen if you yank that switch over there?
Moss: Nobody can tell! All the devil will break loose, I guess!

Just the men you want fighting for freedom of the galaxy, right?

"The Strange Car" is a forgettable bit of fluff about a con man who steals an alien's hot rod and ends up on another planet. Much better is the enjoyable space opera, "The Prisoner of Time," with its almost Vader-ian villain, Zor, Conqueror of the Universe, and its "Gosh-Wow-Pow" dialogue. Especially appreciated is the dark climax where Zor, fleeing from our heroes, makes his ship jump into Warp Factor Ten (or something along those lines) and accidentally breaks the speed barrier, projecting him and his crew hundreds of years into the future where Zor discovers his destination, the asteroid Polonna, is now a dead rock floating in space. When the ship crash-lands, Zor discovers that to exit the rocket means certain death. Rather than starve, he kills himself. You don't get much darker in 1950 comic books. The GCD hesitantly offers up Sol Brodsky as possible artist.

It was all just
a misunderstanding!
Another gem served up this issue is the pessimistic "The End of Earth." Our planet has just finished its "fourth atomic war of annihilation" and only 300 humans survive, but that number will soon dwindle when the oxygen and food run out. Not to mention the atomic disease running rampant. Desperate times call for desperate measures and our biggest brains send out an SOS to Venus and Mars, begging them to send rescue spaceships. Both planets consider the plea but want to test the war-like Earthlings to make sure there are no traps so, unbeknownst to each other, Mars and Venus send secret agents out to see if Earth attacks. As these things happen sometime, Venusians and Martians land within yards of each other and open fire, effectively ending any hope for a rescue mission. A nice, ironic tale (Mars is the peaceful world while ours is the one given to destruction) filled with fun little twists and turns but hampered by some pretty bad artwork.

Marvel Tales #97 (September 1950)
“The World That Vanished” 
“Beyond the Grave” 
“The Wooden Horror” (a: Mike Sekowsky and 
Christopher Rule) ★1/2 

Noted explorer Anton Carnot has been searching for the elusive land of Atlantis all his life and now, thanks to the last gasps of a dying man, he’s discovered where the writings of the lost continent are stored. Traveling far, Anton comes to the monastery in the “Hidden City of Knowledge” and finds a helpful staff who are more than happy to show the excited man where the sacred scrolls are kept. Only catch is that our weary traveler can never leave the valley. No matter, push ahead. Presented with the lost writings, Anton uncovers the secret behind the sinking of Atlantis. Seems that sorcerer Pir Anthor has been working on a potion for Fex Yalorax, King of Atlantis, that will make the King’s soldiers giants.

Meanwhile, Pir has been having a hard time keeping peasant Kalgantor away from his beautiful daughter and threatens the commoner with death. Kalgantor, in an effort to impress his belle, drinks a carafe of the potion and grows to a mammoth size (luckily, his loincloth seems to grow with him). This comes in handy in wiping out the King’s soldiers and killing the sorcerer but his new size is definitely noted by his girlfriend and she shakes her head (I won’t even get into the sexual innuendo Wertham must have mentioned while discussing this story in his famous expose) and heads for the exit. Depressed, the bachelor heads for the sea, but his massive weight sinks his homeland and, before too long, he’s bigger than Earth itself and floating away into outer space. At story’s end, we discover that Anton Carnot has been deciphering the writings for decades and has resigned himself to (and actually welcomes) his life at the monastery. A thoroughly enjoyable fantasy that reads like one of those Greek mythology tales we all grew up on, “The World That Vanished” is wordy but not boring. The art is better than average; I’d compare the whole package to one of the better DC fantasy stories of the 1950s

"Beyond the Grave"

In the same vein but not quite as successful is the whacky “Beyond the Grave.” In deepest, darkest Africa, witch doctor Moloo envies King Agono’s power and summons up a huge gorilla to kill the man. Moloo becomes king but there’s a pesky voice in his ear that sounds suspiciously like Agono. Sure enough, the deposed, deceased King shows up as the gorilla and informs his murderer that, just before the vile deed, he had his brain and his magic projected into the beast’s body and now he’s here for his revenge. The art is snappy but the script drags where “The World That Vanished” soared.

High atop a mountain in Zagrebe (sic) sits the castle of evil puppet maker Maestro Mikzath, a sorcerer who holds the village below in a grip of terror. The Maestro’s latest evil plan is to create an army of wooden dolls and inject them with life, then use them to amass a fortune. All goes as planned and the stack of greenbacks grows ever higher until one of the dolls kills the president of the local bank and is seen fleeing. The local constable and his cape-wearing deputy head up to the castle but are surprised when a loud explosion rocks the estate. Inside they find the Maestro, dead, but what confounds the constabulary pair is the revelation that Mikzath is, himself, a wooden doll! So who made Mikzath? Puppets and ventriloquist dolls were all the rage in horror comics of the 1950s, with all the publishers getting in on the fad. “The Wooden Horror” is not among the best of the sub-genre but it’s not one of the worst either. It’s actually got some interesting twists, chief among them the reveal and the deliberately open-ended climax; I think the obfuscation works in the story’s favor. Sometimes it’s best not to wrap the whole tale up with a neat expository. I'm not a big fan of Mike Sekowsky's art (in fact, I can't stand its DC-style blandness) but his visuals work here, possibly thanks to the helping hand of Christopher Rule.

Next Issue...
We plead with you to take an
Adventure Into Terror


Jack Seabrook said...

Some of these stories sound like lots of fun, but I especially like those busy covers! I love the covers with stuff running down both sides, like the floating heads on the old JLA/JSA crossover issues. said...

I love to see the whole stories.