Thursday, November 15, 2018

Journey Into Strange Tales! Atlas/ Marvel Horror Issue 21

The Marvel/Atlas 
Horror Comics
Part Six
March-April 1951

Sol Brodsky
 Suspense #7 (March 1951)

"I Was Locked in a Mansion with... Murder!" 
(a: Gene Colan) ★ 
"Behind the Mask"  (a: Don Rico) ★1/2
"The Web" 
"Terror in the Tent!" 
"The Phantom!  (a: Murphy Anderson) 
"Dracula Lives!" 

John Morgan, banker, has been threatened with death and the only man that can help him is famous criminologist Harvey Keats, who answers Morgan's plea for help with speed and understanding. Morgan has been sent a letter claiming he will be murdered at precisely 11 PM so Keats has the banker shut himself in and stay away from the doors and windows. But a wacky cast of characters keeps intruding on the scene of the impending murder. Could one of these newcomers be the murderer in disguise? Is it lovely Cora, niece of banker Morgan? Or his ominous butler, Louis? What about the neighbors, the Smiths, and their impromptu drop-in visit?

No sh*t, Sherlock!
The lights go out, screams are emitted, goosebumps raised. In the end, we discover that it's Harvey Keats, himself, who is the madman responsible for the note. Possibly too much criminology? Who knows? No valid reason is given but "I Was Locked..." is a loony bit of fun that doesn't quite wear out its welcome; it's Agatha Christie performed by the cast of Petticoat Junction. The dialogue is priceless ("John, we have to face facts! Someone intends to kill you tonight! Perhaps someone in this very room! Or perhaps some unknown party!") and the characters so deadly serious, you can't help but smile and go along with the joke.

Martha Stokes believes all the cards are stacked against her and if you consider her husband's fiery car crash, she might just have a point. Joe Stokes is burnt beyond recognition and must face life "Behind the Mask" and Martha tries to behave for as long as she can but a woman simply has to have lovin'. Enter old boyfriend Bob Masters, who has a foolproof plan to make Martha a happy woman: he'll knock off Joe and assume his identity (after all, who'd know any better if Bob wore the mask?). Since this is an Atlas crime story, things don't go as planned and Martha's left holding the mask. Some nice, atmospheric Don Rico art here; the plot is nothing new but the twist is a clever one.

Murder in the jungle and mistaken identity are the plot threads of "The Web," a crudely-drawn but ironic and effective chiller with a killer of a final panel (left). "Terror in the Tent"is yet another awful big top tale, this one concerning a nutty hypnotist and the spell he holds over his daughter. "Tent" switches gears so many times, engages in the rare "flashback within a flashback," and gives no explanations for its oddities. It also sinks under the weight of its amateurish art, some of which is just above stick-figure level.

Alice Carter is a sleep-walker and her evil husband, Henry, is capitalizing on that shortcoming by planting clues all around that his wife is "The Phantom!," a serial arsonist who's been terrorizing the area. Lucky for Alice that ace cop Frank Cooper is on the case since the detective manages to add one plus one and divide it by five, multiply that by twelve, and add three cups of sugar and deduce that the Phantom is no woman but a man who's setting up his wife! As with "Terror in the Tent," the art here is professional but hardly exhilarating.

The unknown artist of "Dracula Lives!," on the other hand, might well be someone who usually worked on funny animal strips; the guy certainly didn't know how to work up suspense. But then he wasn't given much to work with either. Horror author Sandor Xaviar is approached by a man named Tartoff who claims Dracula is alive and searching for him. His entire family has been hunted and fed on by the legendary Count and now Tartoff is appealing to the writer to help him survive. After spending several pages wandering around the city searching for coffins and bats, it comes as no surprise to the reader (especially after reading the similarly baffling reveal of  "I Was Locked in a Mansion...") that Xaviar is actually Dracula. There's no explanation for the previous five pages but Stan (or whoever wrote this drivel) obviously decided all that was needed was that final panel reveal of fangs and the kiddies would smile. "Dracula Lives!" might be a great title for a black and white zine but, as a 1951 Atlas horror story, it bites.

The puzzling (to put it mildly) denouement
of "Dracula Lives!"

Bill Everett
 Venus #13 (April 1951)

"Invasion from Mars!" (a: Dave Berg) ★ 

Our girl, Venus, faces the deadly challenge of the King of the Living Dead, quashes an armageddon initiated by the mad Major Dark, and gets a little help from Thor (not the version we've come to know) battling a creeping death that oozes from a giant clam. But we're really interested in is --

Movie promotion man Skip Richards stumbles onto a faux-hoax; Martians have really landed during the heavy advertising blitz for a new sci-fi flick. Now Skip can’t get anyone to believe his story. Not a well-written quickie (“I have here in my hands the most startling news ever printed in my newspaper! Yet I don’t know whether to print it or not —“ Huh? Make up your mind!), “Invasion from Mars!” is illustrated by Dave Berg, who would go on to become one of MAD’s most popular satirists.

The inane "Invasion from Mars!"

Bill Everett
 Astonishing #3 (April 1951)
"Fright!" (a: Bill LaCava) 

The first two issues of Marvel Boy were illustrated by Russ Heath and Bill Everett, two of the greatest Golden Age artists in comics. So what led to the retitling to Astonishing?  It wasn't a spur of the moment decision as every page of MB #2 came with reminders at the top notifying readers that the next issue would be titled Astonishing. "Les Daniels, in Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades... (Abrams, 1991) believes that American kids weren't ready for the deep subjects (including atomic annihilation) explored in Marvel Boy. "All things considered," Daniels writes, "it's no surprise that the Marvel Boy comic book lasted only two issues." Well, to be fair, Marvel Boy limped along for another 4 issues, all lovingly illustrated by Everett, before being nudged out of his zine and into hibernation (he had, in fact, lost his appearance on the cover by issue #6). MB would be rebooted by Roy Thomas as The Crusader in Fantastic Four #164 (November 1975).

The one non-Marvel Boy short story this issue is "Fright!," a fairly effective thriller about a newspaperman who spends the night in “Murderers’ Row," a popular feature at the local wax museum. There, he is attacked by a maniac, who has replaced his own wax figure in order to hide from the police. The reporter’s throat is slashed but, oddly, the next morning the maniac is found in little wax pieces on the museum floor. So, was it really the murderer or just the reporter’s nerves?

The head-scratching finale of "Fright!"

Adventures into Terror #3 (April 1951)

"I Stalk by Night"  (a: Mike Sekowsky) 
"House of Horror" ★ 
"Murder at Midnight!" ★ 
"The Living Dead" (a: Jay Scott Pike) ★1/2 

In “I Stalk by Night!,” a judge dismisses the testimony of a man who claims a pair of gloves made him kill, but then has to admit the man may be right when he tries on the gloves and kills his own dog. Barely readable and not helped at all by some truly awful Sekowsky graphics. “House of Horror” is a snoozer about a young American tourist who stumbles into a house full of werewolves on a dark stormy night. The protagonist of "The Living Dead," Lydia, falls under the spell of the evil Dr. Bornich, who must replenish his supply of blood and hormones every few years in order to maintain his eternal youth. Luckily, boyfriend Roger is on the case.

The very bad "I Stalk by Night"
"The Living Dead"
Willie is walking down the street one night when he’s accosted by a skeleton wearing a robe; the man of bones insists that Willie is the gravedigger he’s been looking for and offers the man the job. Jumping at the chance to earn a hundred bucks for doing grunt work, Willie gets down to business at the cemetery but quickly finds that there are some strange goings-on afoot. Turns out Willie has been a bit of a womanizer and the three girls he most recently womanized have all killed themselves and seek revenge. What better way than to grab Willie while he’s working? A wretchedly awful script (written by future DC war scribe Hank Chapman) paired with equally dreadful artwork, “Murder at Midnight” has some gloriously bad dialogue and some startling plot twists as its only saving grace. Halfway through the story we find out that not only has Willie been using these women and discarding them, but he had a hand in their fate (“I never showed the letter that Flo wrote me because she took her dive, so nobody knew it was because of me and nobody’ll ever find out! I had enough trouble the time I gave my German Luger to that Hartley dame when I left her! An’ when I ditched that Mary Burns babe they almost traced those poisoned pills to me! All dames are suckers for a smooth line of chatter… an’ good looks like mine!”). Ironically, Willie is digging his latest conquest’s grave and thinks, “That’s a laugh… me havin’ to dig a hole for Flo! I’ll make it nice and deep so her trip’ll be shorter!” If you're saving up to buy a pre-code Atlas and you care about the quality of the stories more than the grade, avoid this issue like the plague.

The gleefully moronic "Murder at Midnight!"

In only fourteen days...
We'll open The Black Dungeon!


Jack Seabrook said...

Those covers for Venus and Astonishing are pretty sweet.

Anonymous said...

"Dracula Lives!" certainly sounds as though it were, ah, "inspired" by Robert Bloch's "Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper."

Denny Lien