Thursday, March 21, 2019

Journey Into Strange Tales! Atlas/ Marvel Horror! Issue 30

The Marvel/Atlas 
Horror Comics
Part 15
February 1952 Part II

 Suspense #14

"Death and Doctor Parker" (a: Russ Heath) 
"We Meet at Midnight" (a: Allen Bellman) 
"The Last Man" (a: Mike Sekowsky) ★1/2
"The Hide-Out" (a: George Klein) 
"Out of This World" (a: Joe Certa) 

Dr. Parker kills his mentor, the great bio-chemist Crandall Hart, and steals Hart's serum of eternal life. Injecting himself with the formula, Parker destroys all of the older scientist's notes and then settles back to enjoy a long and leisurely life. Unfortunately, the cops arrest Parker for Hart's murder and sentence him to 99 years but the Doc's jailhouse rants convince them the con is insane and he's committed to an asylum. Parker escapes en route and begins a life on the run, visiting exotic countries and devising his plan for world domination. Nuclear war wipes out most of mankind, leaving only savages, and Parker is forced to hide in alleys and beg for food.

Ten centuries pass and our dopey villain (still wearing the same pants he wore in the 1950s!) has grown weary of life, wishing he could curtail his existence, but mutants capture him and place him on exhibit in a freak museum. War between the planets breaks out and Dr. Parker's cage is vaporized, leaving him a free man once more, but he becomes king of an empty world. As even more time passes, the world becomes overgrown with jungles and insects grow to a massive size. A swarm of giant wasps tears Dr. Parker from limb to limb, eating his skin and leaving only his bones, his head, and a heart. The head giggles and the heart beats.

If Atlas veers from suspenseful horror and tame monster yarns into the much more sleazy and gory offerings that would become a standard for Harvey, EC, and Master (publisher of the infamous Dark Mysteries), then I would point to "Death and Doctor Parker" as the moment the worm turned. Deliciously delineated by the master, Russ Heath, "Doctor Parker" not only winds its way through several wonky scripted twists and turns but also holds so many visual surprises as well. Parker grows old with the years (but, since his body doesn't fall apart despite being viable for over one thousand years, I would say he ages in "reverse dog" years) and we see his body fall into decay, his exposed chest mere ribs and scant flesh. His journey is wrought with distractions and obstacles that would have a normal man on his knees in tears but Parker just shrugs at his 99 years sentence and exclaims, "you have no idea how humorous that is, judge!" The final panels, of Parker being ripped to shreds by mutated insects, are sheer genius and our last glance at the fragments is laugh-out loud funny and chilling at the same time.

The crazed finale of "Death and Doctor Parker"

Alas, the rest of the material this issue is not even close to the standard set by "Death and Dr. Parker." The plot of "We Meet at Midnight" (man in a car wreck visits a house, meets death, discovers he's really dead, wakes up at crash scene thinking he's had a dream, visits a house...) is taken whole from "Reflection of Death!" (Tales from the Crypt #23, May 1951) and the art by Allen Bellman isn't nearly as stylish as Al Feldstein's.

"The Last Man" has an intriguing premise: Jimmy builds a fallout shelter for him and his girl, Pam, but said dame wants to die with everyone else when the big one falls. As they're arguing, the attack occurs and Jimmy hightails it into his vault, which is equipped to keep Jimmy safe from radiation and giant wasp mutations for forty years. When the time expires, Jimmy (now an old man) rises from his tomb to explore what he believes will be a vast wasteland, only to discover gorgeous, gleaming skyscrapers and flying cars, along with a still-young and gorgeous Pam, tending to her multitude of children. Seems as though the big attack wasn't so big after all and humanity has discovered the secret to happiness and eternal youth while Jimmy has been moldering in his underground hole with his Ritz crackers and old Playboys. Depressed, he heads back to his fallout shelter to die alone. A very thoughtful, deep script (with some silliness, yes) that almost seems to demonize Jimmy for his zeal to remain alive through a holocaust. It is amazing that Pam never thought to knock on Jimmy's iron door and let him know everything was ok (perhaps she thought he was a dingbat and que, sera, sera) and that the developing committee that erected all those skyscrapers around Jimmy's mountainside tomb never thought to level the nuisance.

"The Hide-Out" is three pages of fluff about a crook who takes refuge in a department store and discovers a party going on. Turns out the mannequins come to life at night and celebrate life; the thug's rude interruption dooms him to a life of wearing bad clothes in a Macy's window. I'll say this though: reading these quick three pages beats the hell out of watching Mannequin. Finally, Kupert Boggs III, the rich SOB of "Out of This World" wants to conquer space and he'll spend every dollar he's amassed to secure that feat, but flying to Saturn is a difficult task and even Earth's greatest brains are failing to find a solution. Finally, a small man enters Boggs' office and tells him he's got a rocket warmed up and ready to go; the duo blast off into space but halfway through the trip, the little man doffs his disguise and allows how he's a man from Saturn and Boggs is his trophy. The final panel shows the disgruntled billionaire in a cage at a Saturnian zoo. That's a final image that's been used quite a few times over the decades. I love how these space explorers in Atlas comics never seem to have to notify their government that they'll be lifting off in a rocket to outer space.

 Strange Tales #5

"The Room Without a Door" (a: Joe Maneely) ★1/2
(r: Chamber of Chills #16)
"Little Man Who Was There" (a: Jim Mooney) ★1/2
(r: Crypt of Shadows #16)
"The Trap" (a: Manny Stallman) 
(r: Tomb of Darkness #14)
"My Brother Harry" (a: Tony DiPreta) 
(r: Crypt of Shadows #17)

Obsessed with time travel, nutty Professor Wilkins has turned his back on science and instead seeks the "truth" through black magic. His colleagues all plead with him to stop the madness but Wilkins won't listen. One day, he sees an article in the newspaper about the relative of Roxanna Narrse, a famous witch who was burned at the stake in 1692. The old woman, Albitra Narrse lives in an old house that, she claims, contains a "Room Without a Door," and Wilkins makes it his goal to attain the old house. He pays the back taxes owed on the rickety mansion and has Albitra tossed out on her ancient behind. Wilkins tears the house apart until he finds the fabled "room without a door," a small box covered with wallpaper. He breaks the box open and is transported back in time just as he always had hoped. Unfortunately for the professor, he ends up in 1692 and he's burned at the stake as a witch. Nonsensical and clumsy but enjoyable nonetheless if only for Joe Maneely's art. Albitra Narrse is about as crone-ish as you can get.

Dennis Ames has a shadow, a ghoulish figure, that follows him everywhere and leaves death and destruction in their wake. During the war, Dennis encounters the man in his foxhole and, after he flees, the hole is bombed. Encountering the figure on a train, Ames gets the willies and disembarks, watching as the departing train crashes in flames. And so on and so on. Dennis grows weary of the mounting death toll and drifts around the country, trying to shake the man but he finally decides to come home. Hitching a ride on a truck, Dennis sees his wraith along the side of the road and, as the driver is pulling over, Ames grabs the wheel and crashes the truck. On the operating table, Ames opens his eye to see the surgeon is... yep, Dr. Spectre! "The Little Man Who Was There" is another of those quickies that makes absolutely no sense (why is this figure following Dennis and what exactly does the final operating table scene mean?) and makes no apology for the shortcomings. How did Stan keep track of these titles so as not to use them over and over?

Equally baffling is "The Trap"about a man, named Kane, stuck on a flight that heads into outer space. The man parachutes to Earth (!) and finds his life a jumble. Kane knows people he's never met before and can anticipate events before they happen which is great but that's not really what the story is about. This guy is a gambler, he embezzles funds from his company and when his boss finds out, Kane murders him, is executed in the electric chair, and wakes to find it's all a dream. Well, sorta. It's all done in Tarantino-esque non-linear fashion, which would be a dazzling effect if the story was any good.

Space travel becomes so much easier in "The Trap"

In the last story this issue, "My Brother Harry," Phil has had enough of his wife, Margie, and her nutty brother, Harry, who has a bit of a wild imagination. Every night, Harry sits on the sofa and talks to his dead mother's ghost, a ritual that has Phil tearing out his own hair and beating his lovely wife. One night, after tea, Phil and Margie have a particularly nasty spat and Phil heads down to the local dance parlor, where he meets up with his regular squeeze, Lola. While on the dance floor, Phil doubles up and collapses. When he awakens, he hears the doctor tell Lola that Phil has been poisoned. Enraged, Phil bolts out of the bed and heads out the door without so much as a by your leave, racing home to even the score with Margie but, once he gets there, Margie won't give him the time of day. Harry, though, tells Phil he hears him perfectly. A nice little final snippet of dialogue saves "My Brother Harry" from being a total waste of time. We never do find out who poisoned Phil's tea (though Margie does tell Harry that "Phil's not coming back!") and, oddly, Harry's mother never makes an appearance.

 Venus #18

"The Little Man" (a: Manny Stallman) 

Ex- WWII pilot Ryan thinks he's tough stuff so he accepts a job from Anything Inc. to find “The Little Man” for the richest man in the world. Seems this billionaire saw the smallest man in the world years before in the jungles of Africa and really must add the freak to his collection of oddities. Things go south for Ryan when he discovers that the witch doctor in Bali Bali must have a blond man to make a little guy and Ryan is the only blond around! For a four-pager, “The Little Man” is a lot of fun and I really didn’t see the twist coming ’til it was right on top of me. Even better is the lead-off “Venus” story, “The Sealed Specters,” wherein the titular goddess contends with a Tunnel of Love packed-full of demons. Some jaw-dropping art from Bill Everett on this one. That cover reminds me of Amando de Ossorio's Templar Knights in Tombs of the Blind Dead.

Just a taste of the Everett goodies found in Venus #18

Journey Into Unknown Worlds #9

"The People Who Couldn't Exist!" 
(a: Mike Sekowsky) 
"The Spaceman" (a: Allen Bellman) 
"Don't Kill Me Twice!" (a: Werner Roth) 
"Beyond Time!" (a: Pete Morisi) ★1/2
"The Four Walls" (a: Joe Sinnott) ★1/2

The first manned expedition to Pluto expects to land on a deserted barren landscape but, instead, they find a town just like "back home," populated with very familiar faces. Dead wives, children, and mothers run from houses to greet the explorers; when prompted, the relatives just shrug and give no explanations, simply inviting their loved ones in for endless nights of partying. The space travelers get used to the cozy atmosphere very quick until they start becoming ill, as if they hadn't had a meal in weeks, and a terrified voice over the phone sends the Captain racing to the local hospital. One of the crew, Benson, has gone blind and has discovered the secret of Pluto: the planet itself has hypnotized the crew into thinking they've landed in paradise. As his men die around him, the Captain heads for the rocket ship to warn the oncoming second expedition of the danger but only a nonsensical message is received by the nearing ship.

The truly awful splash
"The People Who Couldn't Exist" is a perfect example of the highs and lows of Atlas science-fiction. Though the completist in me forces coverage of the SF titles, I'm  not ignorant of the fact that it was in the horror tales that the company excelled. Still, "The People..." is a hoot from beginning to end and I sure wish I could ask the writer a few things about the script (not that he'd remember). First of all, how is it that the men suddenly find it safe to remove their helmets and spacesuits on a planet that, according to scientists, falls to almost 400 degrees below zero on a warm summer day? What is the planet's motive for fooling and, ultimately, killing these space travelers? How could you not realize, until it's far too late, that you're starving and severely dehydrated? Most important of all, should we care about my nitpicks as funny book fans? That last one is easy. Nope, not at all. Not when you've got a wonderfully entertaining and loony yarn such as "The People...," so entertaining in fact, that I barely realized I was wading through Sekowsky-Swamp. Loaded with choice dialogue and amusing captions ("We were all overjoyed to see our loved ones... but still a little worried... The men began to relax a little... after they got used to the idea of dining with the dead") and graced with one of the funniest final panels I've yet read on this journey.

The rip-snortin' finish to "The People Who Couldn't Exist!"

Reynolds, "The Spaceman," accepts a secret space trip on the "Stardust" for a whole lot of money, but then regrets his decision when he discovers the ship is aimed at Betelgeuse II, a star that would take 35 years to reach. When he confronts the Captain, he's told that the trip will only take a matter of months since the ship is taking a convenient "time warp" short cut (see handy scientific explanation reprinted here) and our hero goes back to counting his money. But it turns out the Captain wasn't entirely forthcoming when Reynolds lands back on Earth and finds that, though he's only aged 6 months, Earth has seen 70 years go by; Reynolds' love, Joan, is a 95-year-old grandmother! Despondent, Reynolds heads back to the "Stardust"for another run. Though Allen Bellman delivers the most amateurish art this side of Manny Stallman, "The Spaceman" does contain a few moments of genuine pathos, as when our spaceman faces what once was the apple of his eye and then heads back to port with his head hung low. But, my goodness, Speedos in space?

Four people are all snatched from the moment of death but then reappear on a future Earth with no answers and a feeling of constant dread. Then, one by one, they begin to die in the same manner they passed the first time around. The answer comes too late and only one "survivor" is graced with the explanation: scientists from the future were monkeying with a time machine and accidentally teleported the four doomed individuals to the future but now, to insure that nothing disrupts the space/time continuum (or something along those lines), the eggheads must rectify their mistake. "Don't Kill Me Twice" starts out as your average, cliched "I beat death" yarn but veers into a different playground altogether with its surprise revelation. It doesn't all come together cleanly in the end but the finale is effective and downbeat.

Two quickies round out the package this time out: "Beyond Time!" has very nice Heath-esque illustrations by Pete Morisi and tells the tale of a scourge that winds its way across the Universe, snuffing out planets, stars, and suns for nourishment. The last planet standing, Excto, manages to capture its combined knowledge and condense it into a very small ball and then eject it far into space. That ball becomes... Earth. Pretty risqué for a 1950s funny book to turn its nose up at Creation and offer up its own (admittedly reasonable) explanation for how we got the ball rolling. Unless I'm mistaken (which happens frequently around here), this only the second time we've seen art from Morisi (the first being "The Waiting Grave," back in Suspense #6, March 1951) and I'm looking forward to more from the artist (next up: Strange Tales #6 next month), but it looks like the bulk of Pete's work appeared in the Charlton horror titles (a company that I will get around to some day!) according to this (incomplete) checklist. "The Four Walls" also contains some dazzling art, this time by future Marvel superstar Joe Sinnott, and has a very Bradbury-esque flavor to its script about a man trapped on mars who finds a house that adapts to his needs... or so he thinks. Nice twist in the tail I never saw coming. Not a bad issue of Journey Into  Unknown Worlds!

The shocking climax of "The Four Walls"

In Two Weeks...
Peter wonders just how much madness he can take
as Marvel adds two more genre titles!


Will said...

You know I'm sure I read about a short story similar to The Last Man. Unfortunately other than the premise, I can't remember anything about it.

Anonymous said...

"The People Who Couldn't Exist" sounds like a direct steal of the plot of Ray Bradbury's "Mars is Heaven" (no, moving the scene from Mars to Pluto doesn't make it new and original. . .), and "The Four Walls" sounds like a swipe from A. E. van Vogt's "Enchanted Village."

Denny Lien

Peter Enfantino said...

The boys at Atlas, much like the boys at EC, were never above ripping off (read that as homaging) the classics as well as their own stuff!