Thursday, January 10, 2019

Journey Into Strange Tales Atlas/ Marvel Horror! Issue 25

The Marvel/Atlas 
Horror Comics
Part Ten 
September/October 1951

 Mystic #4 (September 1951)

The Stranger  (a: Mike Sekowsky) ★1/2
The Forest of the Living Dead 
(Manny Stallman & Joe Giunta) 
The Devil Birds (a: Basil Wolverton)  
The Man Who Cheated Death  

Ed writes books on the supernatural but that darn girlfriend of his, Laura, keeps interrupting him, wanting him to do girly things with her, like dancing (yeccchh!). Ed accidentally conjures up the Demon of Death, a spirit that takes the form of a loved one, while researching and the monster plays havoc with his love life. "The Stranger" has a good twist ending but it's interminably slow for the first six pages. Sekowsky’s primitive doodlings don’t help.

Ainsley Carson has ruled the “Purple Forest” since he scientifically altered the trees within the forest to kill and maim anyone who wandered into its midst. Now, years after last seeing her father, Druselda Carson, the daughter of the mad forest ranger, sends her fiancé David in to have a talk with her estranged pop. When Carson starts in on the loony “the woods are alive” speech, David does a 180 and heads for home only to find the old man isn’t as crazy as he sounds. The trees wrap their branches around the young man’s throat and begin to squeeze the life out of him. He’s saved only when Druselda wanders into the scene and the trees, thinking the girl to be her long-dead mother, drop David and strangle their master instead. Though the script for "The Forest of the Living Dead" is confusing and downright gibberish at times, the art is rather perky. Manny Stallman pumped out some excellent work for the competition at times and seems to be heading in that direction here. Perhaps the final words of the young couple, while surveying the climactic carnage, sum this one up best:

David: “It’s difficult to understand!”
Druselda: “Let’s not try, darling!”

Even after scores of explorers have disappeared into the Nevada desert where the first H-bomb was tested and, even after the old man had warned them of giant devil birds, scientists Brian Stover and Keith Adams venture into the hot zone, searching for their friend, the lost photographer, Randy Benson. What they find is a landscape from hell, ruled over by vulture-like creatures and a huge chasm in the earth. Brian is nudged into the abyss by one of the giant birds and, as he’s falling into the bottomless hole, a strange metamorphosis takes place and the man become a giant vulture. A peace of mind comes over Brian as he swoops down on Keith, hoping his friend will join him soon. No art in funny books was more stylized and distinguished than that of Basil Wolverton’s and that schizo-vision serves “The Devil Birds” well.

While his ship is sinking, Captain Frost cheats death by stealing another man’s life vest but, days later, he’s visited by death himself, who says Frost will live another fifty years but must live the life of the man he stole the vest from. Frost is ecstatic until he’s trapped in Africa with a flesh-eating disease and realizes he’ll have to live in pain and misery for five decades. "The Man Who Cheated Death" is forgettable, but enjoyable, fluff.

Joe Maneely
 Suspense #10 (September 1951)

"Dance of Death"  (a: Russ Heath) ★1/2
(r: Uncanny Tales #7)
"Trapped in Time"(a: Rudy Palais) ★1/2 
"The Shadow" (a: Al Hartley) ★ 
(r: Frankenstein #15)
"Too Many Murders" (a: Rocco Mastroserio) ★1/2
"Tiger Man!" (a: Norman Steinberg) 

Dancer Eddie Baxter is a perfectionist but he's also an unknown and he's hoping the big dance contest will change all that. But there's a problem... he has no partner. He auditions several dames but all of them have two left feet. Luckily, Eddie runs across an ad in the paper from a woman seeking a male dance parter; in no time he's meeting the gorgeous Marla and discovering she's just the ticket. Eddie fans hard for the babe but she remains at arm's length, insisting they should be no more than partners and, anyway, she's involved at night and can't see Eddie outside the practicing. Even a day at the beach doesn't defrost the icy Marla but it does reveal to Eddie that the girl sure can take the sun without burning (hmmmm)! The night of the dance arrives and the couple win easily, but Marla can't seem to stop dancing, whirling Eddie right out into the park where she finally reveals her secret. She's a vampire looking for the perfect dancing partner and she's found him. Fabulous Heath art (Marla really is gorgeous!) divert attention away from the weak script. Too many unanswered questions (if Marla's a vampire, why can she go to the beach during the day but she's not available at night?) at the climax, which is too bad since the build-up is lively and suspenseful. Still, this is a better-than-average Suspense tale.


"Too Many Murders." Not enough good art.
Murderer Joie Castello signs up for a suspended animation project to avoid getting caught by the cops but, in the end, he finds out the whole experiment was cooked up by the cops in order to get Joie to confess. Here's one that defies logic; all the coincidences and lucky breaks (and expensive lab equipment!) that lead to this dope's arrest would never occur in the real world. A pity that artist Rudy Palais has no room under all the bulky word balloons to work his horror magic. Palais is probably best known for his stellar work for the Harvey horror titles, including dozens of their drippy, gooey covers. Here, in "Trapped in Time," that talent is wasted. At least only three pages are wasted on "The Shadow," a groaner about a magician (The Great Shodini!) whose shadow can murder. "Tiger Man" is no better; its tale of a sadistic big-game hunter contains nothing interesting or original.

"Tiger Man"
Ken is an amazingly ambitious man. He knows where a legendary treasure is buried on Mount Cragmore and, to find it, he's invented a machine that allows him to eavesdrop on the past. Conjuring up images of the Jonas Blake expedition, the previous treasure-hunting team, allows Ken and his two investor-friends to follow the trail right to the gold and, hopefully, avoid the tragedy that befell the Blake party. On the way up, Ken discovers that Jonas got greedy and murdered his two partners; not a bad idea, thinks Ken and, when he gets to the top of Cragmore he's on his own. Unfortunately for the bright but-not-too-bright fortune hunter, the cliff the gold is buried on is built on less-than-solid ground and Ken tumbles down the side of the mountain, buried in an avalanche just like his predecessor. "Too Many Murders" starts out intriguingly enough but quickly degenerates into inane nonsense, capped off by a laugh-out-loud final panel (reproduced here) where Ken warns the reader not to kill anyone to claim the treasure, all while he's buried under tons of rubble. Rocco Mastroserio's art is very crude and sketchy, certainly not horrible, but nowhere near as effective as some of his work for Warren a decade later ("The Rescue of the Morning Maid," with art by Rocco,was one of the greatest horror stories Warren published in the 1960s).

 Astonishing #6 (October 1951)
"The Coffin" (a: Bill LaCava) 

As is our custom with Astonishing, we'll flip right past those beautifully-illustrated Marvel Boy adventures by Bill Everett (the first one this issue has MBoy running afoul of a magician who bears an uncanny resemblance to Namor) and dwell on the sole fantastic tale, "The Coffin," yet another weak variation on Poe's "The Premature Burial." This time out, millionaire Milton Whitestone, afflicted with catalepsy, equips the family vault with a telephone and instructs his wife, should he die, to answer any calls from the grave. Being a 1950s wife, Sylvia wants the dough and no strings attached so, after her husband's obligatory funeral and "rise from the dead," the woman ignores the incessant ringing. Luckily, Milton expected such behavior from his spouse and had a second line installed, this one a hotline to his lawyer, who arrives in the nick of time to dig out his client. Mitlon, justifiably upset, exacts ironic revenge on his greedy wife. If you're paranoid about being buried alive, why would you consent to a below-ground burial in the first place? Milton's a dope and he deserves what he gets. The final panel throws in an out-of-the-blue supernatural angle as well. Bill LaCava's art is rushed and crude, among this a tale to avoid.

This issue closes out Marvel Boy's run in Astonishing and, next issue, the title will feature only short horror yarns. MB's next appearance will be as the Roy Thomas-rebooted Crusader in Fantastic Four #164, but that's a story for the Marvel University boys.

Yes, this is really bad!

 Strange Tales #3

"The Shadow!" (a: Joe Maneely)  
"The Man Who Never Was" 
(a: John Romita & Les Zakarin) ★1/2 
"Invisible Death" (a: Mike Sekowsky) 
"The Madman!" (a: Joe Maneely) 
"Voodoo" (a: Bill LaCava) 

George and Dick are always fighting over gorgeous Iris and their rivalry reaches a zenith when George pops Dick a good right and warns him to stay away from his girl. Not one to accept defeat, Dick heads to Iris' house for their date but is crestfallen when the girl refuses to answer his knock. On his way back home, Dick notices his shadow is acting strange, darting to and fro, before it leaves him for good. After Dick tries Iris on the phone without success, he requires the trail of his shadow, following it down into the cemetery, where a service is underway. The bewildered young man recognizes Iris at graveside and quickly realizes the funeral is his; George killed him with that right hook and then was executed for his crime. "The Shadow" proves you can have two below-par stories with the same title in one month -- not a goal one strives to achieve but one interesting enough to mention. If nothing else, these 1950s horror stories shows us that justice was delivered much quicker then -- located right next to Dick's freshly-dug grave is that of George, who had already been given a trial, convicted, and buried before Dick could be laid to rest. That has to be a record. Joe Maneely's art looks nothing like his incredibly detailed work a couple years later; in fact, if it wasn't signed by Joe, I'd scoff at the credit.

Joe Maneely, please come home!

Roger Hunt is asked by his old friend, reporter Jerry Bramley, to meet him at a local diner and, when Roger arrives, he finds Jerry in a flustered state, spouting nonsense about a friend they knew in school named Paul. Seems Paul was a scientist, working on a theory that Death actually "exists in a tangible form" and got too close to the Reaper. Now, Death is wiping out all traces of Paul, including the memories of all who knew him. Only Jerry seems to be able to remember his missing buddy and, soon, Jerry vanishes off the face of the Earth. Is Roger next? "The Man Who Wasn't There" is a solid suspenser that only has a few lapses in logic (having all traces of Paul disappear reaches a ridiculous level when the building he lives in vanishes!) and a pretty grim climax. Sadly, John Romita, Sr.'s talent is buried under Les Zakarin's inks and yet another case of overburdened word balloons.

Planet Mondu sends an invasion fleet (cloaked in invisibility) to bomb both the US and USSR, sparking a war between the unwitting nations. Only "the blind science wizard," Kevin Scott and his equally blind (but gorgeous) assistant/soon-to-be-wife Moira can stop the "Invisible Death!" 6 pages of sheer lunacy, cornball dialogue, and awful art don't always make a great read. This one feels like the "pilot" for a really bad Challengers of the Unknown spin-off, with its superhero scientist and porky alien assassins. Blind wiz Scott somehow manages to fly a spaceship and destroy an entire alien militia with nothing but his smarts and white cane. "Voodoo" is a limp noodle about a man who sees a witch doctor about offing his wife and "The Madman!" is a cute two-pager about a crafty poltergeist in a boarding house.

Bill Everett
 Venus #16

"Thru the Lens" (a: Joe Maneely) 
(r: The X-Men #88)

Raf, an astronomer on a planet a thousand light years from Earth gets a little overtime at work when his boss insists he stay late and witness an occurrence on a star a thousand light years away. Meanwhile, on Earth, Professor Marston shows off his new invention, an engine that runs on water. Unfortunately for the professor, his former aide (extremely angry for being axed) breaks into the lab and destroys the engine. The destruction sets off a chain reaction in our atmosphere which leads to the entire destruction of Earth. As the distant star explodes and goes out, Raf tells his impatient girlfriend they can finally go out for a night on the town. This one’s a little tough to follow (it took me a couple of reads to figure out the whole “water = armageddon” thing and then decided I really didn’t need bother, not when you’ve got art by the great Joe Maneely to gawp at. But this one really could have used a couple more pages.

 Journey Into Unknown Worlds #7

"The Men Who Conquered the Earth" 
(a: Russ Heath)  ★1/2
"Escape from Death!"  (a: Joe Maneely) 
"Planet of Terror!"  (a: Basil Wolverton) ★1/2
"The House That Wasn't There" (a: Paul Cooper) ★1/2 

A well-meaning but bone-headed brilliant scientist tries to bring together the nations of the world by creating a catastrophe that only brotherhood could overcome. The egghead shoots an "atomic spear" at the planet Mars and pulls it closer to Earth, thus making it easier for the war-like citizens of that planet to gas up their low-range spaceships and conquer our world. Unfortunately, the big brain didn't count on the warriors of Mars to bring all their big guns with them and, very soon after the invasion, it's apparent that no amount of Earthling hand-holding will repel the slaughtering aliens. After he's captured, our hero/dunderhead tricks one of the Martians into taking him back to his lab where he reverses the "atomic spear" and lets Mars return to its proper place in the galaxy, stranding the not-too-bright Martians on a planet where they have no food and the air is too polluted for them to breathe.

The next day, as the professor sighs and shrugs his shoulders, the world gets back to dividing race and borders. I had to Marvel at all the silly science going on in "The Men Who Conquered the Earth," and I'm not even good at science. No one else in the scientific community noticed the large beam of energy flowing through outer space nor the fact that Mars somehow dislodged from its orbit? How the heck did this guy harness enough energy to magnetically pull an entire planet out of its neighborhood? If you're a Martian getting ready to conquer a planet, do you wait until you arrive to realize you haven't brought any snacks with you? Oh, and why would a race of BEMs want to overthrow a planet they can't live on? "By the beard of Oog," as one of the head Martians exclaims, it makes no sense. That doesn't mean it's not a heck of a lot of fun, as most of the Russ Heath-illustrated Atlas tales have proven to be. There's a dynamic sense of exhilaration to Heath's work that's unequalled in the field, whether he's working in horror, SF, or war comics.

"Escape from Death"
At only three pages, "Escape From Death!," doesn't have the room to blossom into any more than a quick showcase for the talents of the legendary Joe Maneely (now, this looks like the Maneely I fell in love with as a kid reading the "Black Knight" reprints in Fantasy Masterpieces). It's about a death row tough who's convinced his gang will save him, but it's Satan who comes to collect him after the switch is thrown. The final story in the issue, "The House That Wasn't There" is a lifeless and overly long fantasy tale about Ed Miles, an ambitious mailman who will stop at nothing to become postmaster. Unfortunately, for the carrier, a goofy couple who can jump in and out of time and space, have decided that Ed is the only man for the job on their street. There's some loopy twists here (as though Grace Slick, high on whatever she used to pump out "White Rabbit," stumbled into the Atlas offices one lunchtime and got hold of a typewriter) but the narrative is sooooo slow and boring that you won't care if there's a bit of imagination in every 20th panel.

A pair of space explorers land on Saturn, searching for a previous, lost expedition. What they find is a "Planet of Terror!," ruled over by a god named Mokog. When the men are brought before the mighty Mokog by savage Saturnians, they discover the fierce, large-headed creature is actually Leo Gorman, leader of the doomed expedition the men are searching for, who took advantage of some low-IQ aliens to become master of the world. Mokog is shot and killed and the spacemen are allowed to leave Saturn in peace. An obvious "homage" to Wizard of Oz, "Planet of Terror" has the oddities and unique touches found only in the work of Basil Wolverton, but the story lacks excitement and adventure. When it comes to guessing storyteller or artist credits, I'm useless, but the very style of Wolverton's art and nature of the grotesqueries that populate his panels leads me to believe that he wrote his own stories. Prove me wrong.

"The House That Wasn't There"

 Adventures Into Terror #6

"The Return of the Brain" (a: Russ Heath) 
(r: Giant-Size Weewolf #4; Curse of the Weird #3)
"You Can't Escape" 
(r: Giant-Size Dracula #4)
"The Dark Room!" ★1/2
(r: Vault of Evil #17)
"The Girl Who Couldn't Die!" (a: Paul Reinman)  ★ 
(r: Giant-Size Chillers #1)

In the sequel to the mind-melting saga known as "The Brain," we discover that the disembodied head of evil Nazi genius, Otto von Schmittsder has used its amazing pogo-sticklike ability to hop aboard plane and, later a moving van bound, coincidentally, for Otto's destination: the lab of US government secret genius/ scientist/ inventor/ babe Gilda Spears, whose use of valuable chemicals badly needed for our country is particularly interesting to our favorite noggin. Otto worms his way into Gilda's brain, enslaving her to do his bidding, which includes framing one of her colleagues. Luckily, Gilda has a handsome boyfriend, Steve Manners, who also happens to be an ace FBI agent. Steve intercepts letters Gilda has written to the USSR (under Otto's command), giving away some behind-the-scenes secrets, and confronts her. The Brain does some quick thinking and orders Gilda to murder Steve but her love is too powerful and, after an unfortunate benson burner accident, the lab goes up in flames. Steve and Gilda embrace, knowing that tomorrow is a new day, unaware that the Brain has hopped out a back window and is planning his next adventure.

Just as much brainless fun as its predecessor, "The Return of the Brain" is almost critic-proof thanks to its sheer dopiness. Otto's limberness, despite not having limbs, is astonishing; we witness leaps into moving trucks, atop high shelves, even into a woman's hat box aboard a plane, with agility an Olympic pole-vaulter would envy. As with the first installment, Russ Heath's art here has a whole lot to do with our enjoyment. Otto's noggin isn't simply a menacing head; it's evil, scary, and hilarious all at the same time, often highlighted by a pink or yellow glow depending on von Schmittsder's mood, I suppose. Sadly, this was the last of the "Brain" series but, with a little imagination, you can almost see him bouncing from alleyway to alleyway and making it, finally, to the White House in November of '16.

In "You Can't Escape," a crazy fella breaks the fourth wall by letting me know he's going to get to me through the funny book I'm reading. No, seriously! This guy writes a script, pays an artist to draw it (hopefully someone with a little more pizazz than the uncredited hack who pumped this out), then pays a printer a bundle to print one copy so that he can sneak the story into the latest issue of Adventures Into Terror for me to pick up on the newsstand. And it works! A cute idea that smacks of deadline doom. A small boy comes to stay with his mysterious Uncle Helas, who lives in a castle high atop the cliffs of Zornhiem, unaware that the man is a practitioner of the dark arts and conjures up giant snakes from "The Dark Room!" Amateurish art and cliched script doom this one.

"The Dark Room"

Fake swami Larry Benson has been bilking lots of dough from poor old Mrs. Evans, who only wants to see her dear departed niece, Louise, a few more times. For that luxury, she contributes heavily to the charity of Larry and his sweetheart, the lovely Sandra. The charity, of course, is the lining of their pockets. Larry handles the front end of the ruse and Sandra handles the visual and vocals of Louise, completely fooling the poor old woman, and everything goes smoothly until the real Louise appears from the spirit world and throws a monkey wrench into the couple's plans to build their "temple of spiritualism." Sandra believes Larry's been working too hard but has a chance of heart when she discovers that Louise was actually an axe murderer. Unfortunately, she receives this news after Louise has lured Larry to a dark mansion and shows him her weapon of choice. "The Girl Who Wouldn't Die" contains another of the Horror Comics Top 20 Cliches (the fake oracle), but then manages to whip up a couple of sly surprises to keep the interest. Paul Reinman's distinctive style helps enormously, with the final panel, of Louise delivering the killing blow, a standout.

Marvel Tales #103

"Touch of Death" (a: Paul Reinman) ★1/2
"When Time Stood Still" (a: Ross Andru)  ★1/2
"Behind the Mask" (a: Jerry Robinson)  
"The Ink Blots!"(a: Manny Stallman)  

Gravedigger Walter loves money, lots of money, and he'll do anything to gain more of it. So, when a strange voice offers Walter as much cash as he can imagine if he'll only dig up a casket, the greedy dope starts digging. He comes to discover that he's unearthed the "Black Magician of the Dark World," and the grateful spook makes good on his promise, giving his savior the gift of King Midas. Only, with Walter, everything he touches turns to dollar bills. Eventually, Walter learns what Midas learned: greed is not good. A particularly rough Reinman job here to go with a ho-hum script, "Touch of Death" is really not very memorable and, since it sticks right with the Midas myth, not very surprising.

Speaking of weak art, our old DC war buddy, Ross Andru, puts his... unique... stamp on the SF tale, "When Time Stood Still," wherein brilliant professor Gene Handley accidentally concocts a formula that halts time for 24 hours (the elixir works so well it freezes a cat in mid-leap!) and then, naturally, uses his discovery to rob lots of banks. The poor sap is undone by an even smarter professor who deducts that the guilty party would be the only man to have eaten in the last 24 hours and a handy-indy PH paper proves to be Handley's downfall. The final story in the issue, "The Ink Blots!" continues the trend of weak art this issue, spotlighting the "talents" of Manny Stallman, an artist I never could get into while reading the Avon and Harvey horror books. Stallman falls into that "wiggly" category where characters almost resemble spineless jellyfish rather than humans (yes, a lot like Rocco Mastroserio and Jerry Grandenetti). The story, about a magician who takes a mute boy under his wing and then pays dearly for it, is not all that bad, and it's got a smart twist in its tale but it's hard to get past those squiggles.

Morose at the Mardi Gras, Charles Roll perks up a bit when a vendor convinces him to buy one of his life-like masks. Roll opts for one resembling vanished billionaire, J.P. DuPont, and agrees to have the mask back by the end of the night. Roll has a blast disguised as the money-man and then neglects to return the mask, heading for homestead. His landlady awakens him the next morning and is astonished to see DuPont in Rob's bed. Once the news gets out, Roll decides he may be able to pull off the con of the century "Behind the Mask," and slides into DuPont's life. After a bit of a honeymoon learning all there is to learn about being a corporate giant, Roll/DuPont grabs the reins and never looks back, becoming more and more of a heartless SOB every day. Then one day, the old vendor arrives at Charles' door, demanding his mask back. Roll ties the man up and decides he's going to kill him but, by the time he returns the man has escaped. Too late, Charles learns the old man had used his marvelous mask-sculpting skills to impersonate DuPont's butler and his "day of reckoning" is delivered. very imaginative and nicely illustrated by Batman vet Jerry Robinson,

"Behind the Mask" is one of those rare Atlas tales that convinces you that you're heading down Street A when you're actually swerving toward Street B. Yep, it's somewhat reminiscent of "The Masks" from Twilight Zone, but I doubt writer Rod Serling had time to peruse Marvel Tales for ideas. You do have to check your brain at the door a bit (but then, have we had many stories during this journey where we didn't) when the idea is trotted out that a mask is so well constructed it could fool every person who knew DuPont prior to his disappearance. I'd think authorities would at least want to take fingerprints.

In Two Weeks!


Jack Seabrook said...

Peter, thank you for reading all of these comics so we don't have to! Your summaries and comments are very entertaining. I was thinking that "Wow, only a dime for these!" but a dime meant a lot to a kid back then. I started reading comics when they were 15 cents and that was at times hard to scare up!

Peter Enfantino said...

But you SHOULD be reading a lot of these, Jack. I'm sure your fans would appreciate your commentaries.