Thursday, March 7, 2019

Journey Into Strange Tales! Atlas/ Marvel Horror! Issue 29

The Marvel/Atlas 
Horror Comics
Part 14
February 1952 Part I

Adventures Into Terror #8

"Enter... the Lizard" (a: Harry Lazarus) 
(r: Weird Wonder Tales #9)
"The Parasite"  (a: Bill Walton) 
"You Can Only Die Once" (a: Manny Stallman) ★1/2
(r: Beware #5)
"The Miracle" (a: Bill LaCava) ★ 
(r: Dracula Lives! #1)
"The Ones Who Laugh" (a: Joe Sinnott) 

Doctor Charles Barris leads an expedition, which includes his fiancé, Kim, and (unbeknownst to Charles) Kim's lover, Brad Colton, into deepest, darkest Africa in search of the deadly Devil Lizard of Buango. Does the lizard actually exist? Good question. Legend has it that these creatures secrete a "weird" poison and the Doc just has to examine these secretions and share with the medical world his important findings. The crew come across the track of a giant lizard and, in true Atlas femme fatale fashion, Kim shrieks and grips tightly to Brad. The cat's out of the bag and Charles pulls his rifle on the couple, threatening to kill them for their adultery, but before the crazed man of medicine can get off a shot the trio are attacked by the giant Devil Lizard of Buango! Brad is bitten by the reptile and the Doc shoots it with a tranquilizer, then tells Kim (who's nursing the badly-injured Brad) that he's leaving them here to fend for themselves. Good luck!

Months later, as Dr. Barris sits in his lab, beaming with pride over the progress he's made in studying rare giant lizard spit, when the door flies open and in walks a badly-mutated and very perturbed Brad (who leaves a layer of skin on the knob as he closes the door!). The semi-Alligator man explains that Kim was eaten by a lion but that he managed to escape the fetid hell and make his way back to civilization, but now he's cursed with shedding his skin several times day and crawling on his stomach all day is getting him down. Barris explains that he understands the properties of the venom and that he can cure Brad but the witch doctor pulls a fast one on the naive young man and gives him an overdose of Buango Juice and Brad becomes a full-fledged Devil Lizard for the Doc's collection. Even as Barris smiles and pats himself on the back for getting full revenge, Buango Brad flicks his tongue and muses that someday Dr. Barris will be careless and when that day comes...

First of all, let me explain that four-star rating. Most of the Atlas yarns I read have very little enthusiasm behind them or derive the bulk of their plot line from some other source, be it Universal monster movies or Ray Bradbury tales, but "Enter... the Lizard" seems to be fueled more by either alcohol or a really good joke. The natural inclination, when thinking about inspiration, is to point to The Alligator People, the wretched but beloved low-budget SF flick starring Lon Chaney, but that flick didn't come out until 1959. "Enter... the Lizard" is a compact and never-less-than-enjoyable five pages of pure wack, perfectly visualized by Harry Lazarus, an artist I'm usually not all that fond of, but whose style perfectly meshes with the loony-tunes script. We don't want Graham Ingels for this job, no sir.

So many great moments: the doc whirling on the young lovers, rifle in hand, suddenly forgetting he's here to land the big lizard ("So, this is what's been goin' on while I was busy with my research!"); the crawling alligator-like Devil Lizard of Buango suddenly standing on two feet and launching itself at Brad like a jr. T-Rex; the revolting, but hilarious scene where Brad leaves a layer of skin (like a full-hand glove) on the Doc's door handle; Brad's hurried expository about Kim's run-in with a jungle king ("She was clawed by a lion, and when I felt this coming on I left her to die in the jungle and hurried back to civilization... forget about her... will you help me!"); and, last but not least, Brad's gradual descent into lizard life and speedy loss of gorgeous red hair. The last panels explain that Brad has lost every human memory except that of getting even (that one "revenge" cell in your brain is really strong, I guess), putting to bed five fabulous pages of bonkers storytelling and, again, reminding me why we love(d) these things so much. Oh, and I wouldn't doubt for a second that Stan remembered this story when he needed a new villain to fight his Amazing new superhero in 1963

"The Parasite"
Nothing in the four stories this issue that follow can even come close to matching the sheer joy I felt reading  "Enter... the Lizard" but there are snippets of interesting material scattered to and fro. "The Parasite" has some creepy Bill Walton noir art (similar in style to early Gene Colan) and an offbeat plot (prisoner tells guards his cellmate has an extra head sticking out of his torso that wants him to commit murder) but the dopey climax (the extra head is an emissary from Mars, here to lead an invasion, so of course he picks an inmate??) ruins whatever suspense the first two acts build. "You Can Only Die Once" loses any surprise by giving away its twist in the title (guy keeps botching his suicide but that's because... surprise!... he's already dead!) and its Manny Stallman art is hard to look at without skimming. "The Miracle" wastes creepy LaCava art on a two-pager about a dope who changes places with a ghost. Joe Sinnott reminds us why he's one of the favorite Marvel artists with his work on "The Ones Who Laugh," an otherwise forgettable variation on the overworked "man notices everyone else around him acting strange and then discovers it's because they are all aliens" motif. The story does reward the patient reader with a shocking, downbeat climax (knowing he's the last man on earth and the aliens are going to breed him to be food for their invasion, the protagonist leaps off a cliff) but then there's the problem of staying awake through the first five-and-a-half pages.

"The Ones Who Laugh"

 Astonishing #9

"The Little Black Box" (a: Bob Fujitani) ★1/2 
"Who Dares to Enter?"  (a: Joe Maneely) ★1/2
"Where is Death?" (a: Don Rico) 
"The Luck of Louis Nugent" 
"The Scientists" (a: Harry Lazarus) 

Meek-as-a-mouse Gerald must deal with a monster of a wife and a dead end job and the pressure is mounting. Now he's dreaming of tying Belinda to the railroad tracks. Then one day a strange little package comes to him at work in the Post Office's "dead letter" office, a "Little Black Box" that somehow seems to change colors every now and then. Gerald becomes fascinated with the package and hides it in his overcoat to study at home. Unwrapping the package, he finds a curious camera-like gizmo that has the ability to duplicate objects Gerald points it at. Our hero gets the idea of cloning himself and then running away from Belinda to parts unknown with duplicated cash. Just then, the rightful owner of the contraption, Astro, from the year 2000, enters and tells Gerald he must get his invention back to the future but he has to take all the duplicates with him. Both Gerald claim they're the original so Astro picks at random and the real Gerald disappears into a void, musing that at least he doesn't have to deal with Belinda anymore. "And wait'll that guy I left in my place meets Belinda... Hah!"

"The Little Black Box" is a light-hearted little fantasy, the kind that Robert Bloch used to conjure up in his spare time for Imaginative Tales, with some primitive, but pleasing, art by Bob Fujitani. It's a nice change of pace that Gerald doesn't get to follow through on the murder of wife, Belinda, though he does contemplate it quickly near the climax. The final panel, a white space save for Gerald's proclamation about getting the better end of the deal, is pretty darn funny.

"Who Dares to Enter?," another three-pager that wastes the talents of Joe Maneely, tells the story of yet one more reporter who stumbles onto a haunted house. "Where is Death?" is another shorter piece, this one about sadistic seaman Kim Larsen, a sailor who has no problem killing or stepping to the front of the line for lifejackets when the ship is going down. Larsen's rep grows very strong after he's the sole survivor of the wreck of the Bengal Queen and his services come at a high fee. The captain of the Eastern Moon hires Larson but a few days out Satan appears before his favorite son and warns him that the ship will crash and Larson needs to get off. Larsen scoffs at the Prince of Darkness but, sure enough, the boat strays into the Sargasso Sea and Larsen is doomed to drift forever. A meandering 4-pager that doesn't seem to know where it's going; the funniest bit is when Satan (completely red, with horns, a cape and, ostensibly, a tail) confronts Larsen and the dopey tar asks, "Who the blazes are you to talk to me like that?" I like Don Rico's work; it's moody and noir-ish and (I've probably already stated this but...) it looks a lot like early Colan to me.

"The Luck of Louis Nugent" has been nothing but bad since his mother died in childbirth at the base his father was stationed at. Let's see, there was the train accident on the way home that left dozens dead, Louis' best friend who accidentally shot himself to death, the college dorm fire, and I'll bet you can guess where Louis was on the morning of December 7th, 1941! After months of disaster follow Louis and his platoon, a bright idea hits him and he deserts to the Nazis. Only Louis' C.O. and father know the truth. Well, you and I know as well. I'm not sure I've read a dumber story and feasted my eyes on blander and more boring art but the damn thing has a sly, parodic charm to it. I can almost see this as a skit on Saturday Night Live, with Dan Ackroyd narrating. The escalating disasters will cause you to giggle endlessly. How could our writer have missed the perfect final panel, that of Louis' body in Hitler's bunker?

In the finale, three scientists discuss how traveling back in time could affect the outcome of our present and future. Professor Green isn't buying the "butterfly effect" and sends a small brass ball hurtling 200 years in the past before his colleagues have time to halt him. The ball disappears and flies through time, eventually hitting an 18th-Century tailor on the head and killing him. The ball returns and Green offers proof that nothing has changed (well, except for their Victorian dress). Excited by his success, Green sets the way-back machine for 330 BC and the ball flies again, this time cutting in half the idol of Athena in Greece and halting the war with Babylon. The ball returns and the boys are, again, flush with success and exclaiming that nothing has changed (well, except that "The Scientists" are now dressed in togas and work near the pyramids. One final experiment for the day finds the ball hurtling through space to the dawn of time and cracking the first reptile to step out of the sea across the noggin. Reptiles become gun-shy and never again leave the safety of the water. When the ball returns, all three scientists observe it from the safety of their swamp. Direct from his success with "Enter. The Lizard!," Harry Lazarus gives us another five pages of sheer joy and laughter. Yeah, sure, Bradbury did it first (and better), but Ray's version was about as funny as a blind date with Charlie Sheen, so this particular variation sits just fine with me. According to GCD, Satn re-used this plot for "Those Who Change" in Amazing Adult Fantasy #10 (March 1962). I'll let you know what I think when we get to that issue in about ten years.

 Adventures Into Weird Worlds #2

"The Iron Door" (a: Joe Maneely) 
"The Eyes!" (a: Werner Roth) ★1/2
(r: Chamber of Chills #15)
"The Thing in the Bottle!" 
"When a World Goes Mad!" (a: Al Hartley) ★1/2
(r: Weird Wonder Tales #1)

In 4467 AD, man no longer has to worry about mundane chores like turning on the light switch or rising from your La-Z-Boy to visit the men's room. Thank Karra, the Mechanical Brain operates everything, from the underwater train trestle to the ships that take vacationers to Mars or Venus. An absolute paradise. Then one day it happens. The Brain shuts down and the couch potatoes begin to drown or perish without oxygen. Mass panic ensues, until a man named Vashto steps forward and tells the government leaders he's been off in a faraway land learning mechanics and he's certain he can fix the problem if he can get behind "The Iron Door." At first hesitant, the leaders eventually give in and open a portal which hasn't been cracked in the 2000 years since Karra built the Mechanical Brain and sealed it away from prying eyes. Vashto enters and finds an old man standing before the machine. He blasts the stuffy old codger and then exits the building, explaining to the government leaders that the saboteur has been eliminated. But, with his dying breath, Karra explains that the assassin was actually an emissary from Saturn, sent to kill him and pave the way for an invasion.

A wildly imaginative and (unfortunately prescient) science fiction tale, "The Iron Door" features groovy Maneely graphics and a whole lot of nice touches. The uncredited writer (Stan?) subtly alludes to the future with Karra's final monologue ("Vashto was our enemy, but you hadn't the brains to see it! I'm responsible! Karra made you give up thinking! This then is the price we must pay for making the machine our God... extinction") as well as to the past (the government symbol looks suspiciously like a Nazi logo), all the while taking stock in the growing trend of laziness and religious fanaticism ("Praise be to Karra, who invented the Mechanical Brain which feeds us and clothes us, warms us, cleans us and heals us! Through it we speak to one another! We have no existence without it!"). I complain about the really bad horror tales Atlas was pumping out by the tons but, when you stop to think about how many titles were being published (a mere 8 at this time but, within a year, that number will jump to 13!), it's a wonder a gem like this was even possible.

Coming back to Earth, we have the utterly predictable "The Eyes!," about a man who discovers a race of mutants living amongst us, who possess eyes in the back of their heads. When the creepies give chase, the man finds sanctuary at his best friend's house until... you guessed it, he discovers his bosom pal is one of them! Rinse. Wash. Repeat.

In "The Thing in the Bottle," a tough guy on the lam rents a room in a flophouse and discovers a bottle in his closet that comes equipped with a wish-granting genie. His first two wishes make him a handsome and wealthy man but his third, to be a genie, makes him miserable. This guy has to be the world's stupidest man, not taking into consideration that genies live in bottles! Some really rough art here. Finally, we get "When a World Goes Mad," a decent "what-if" about a science professor trying to teach his thick-headed students the theory of relativity and using a story about a giant monster in space who uses planets as snacks. The gargantuan cloud beast is eaten by an even larger creature in the end, thus supporting the egg-head's theory that there's always something bigger out there. The students laugh it off until the head out of class to discover a giant hand reaching for them. Despite the inevitable and utterly predictable final panel, I liked "When a World Goes Mad" and Al Hartley cooks up a goofy cloud-monster (think The Old Witch with a vapor trail) that keeps those pages turning and the smiles coming.

Marvel Tales #105

"The Spider Waits!" (a: Fred Kida) ★1/2
(r: Fear #11)
"In Little Pieces" 
(r: Monsters on the Prowl #21)
"The Red Face" (a: Harry Lazarus) 
(r: Where Monsters Dwell #18)
"The Drop of Water" (a: Gene Colan) ★1/2
(r: Monsters on the Prowl #21)
"The Man Who Vanished!" (a: Joe Sinnott) 
(r: Where Monsters Dwell #18)

Neither "The Spider Waits" nor "In Little Pieces" mine new ground. The former concerns a man who is deathly afraid of spiders but just loves to kill them. He meets a gorgeous dame in a bar and... I'll let you guess the rest. Fred Kida's art is easy on the eye and the obligatory "giant spider with a woman's head" panel is pretty creepy but Heath's fabulous cover promises terror that's never delivered. Ben Maijus discovers he has the power of life and death in his hands when he rips up photos of business rivals and they drop dead within 24 hours. Now on to that nagging wife.

Maurice Vallou has just been told by his sweetheart, Cecile,  that she's going to marry Maurice's cousin, Claude, instead. Maurice is a wealthy man and anything can be bought at Mardi Gras time in New Orleans so he hires a well-known assassin named Raveau to murder Claude. Raveau tells Vallou that he'll be dressed as Satan at the Mardi Gras and for Maurice to nod in the general direction of the man he wants killed but, come parade time, Claude and Cecile don't show up to the designated spot. Maurice bumps into his assassin and the man offers him a ride in his carriage. Once on board, Maurice discovers he's bumped into the real Satan and earned himself a fast track to hell! "The Red Face" has a very obvious twist but the story's humor (the panel where Stan loses his balance onboard the carriage and his hooves are revealed to Maurice is a hoot) and great Lazarus art make this an enjoyable read.

A scientist discovers that the tear drop he collected from a statue in the park, thirty years before, is a universal solvent. He's ecstatic beyond measure until he realizes he can't find anything to hold the substance, which eats through everything. Eventually, the scientist theorizes, it will dissolve the Earth. There's not much rhyme or reason to the three-page quickie, "The Drop of Water" (if the substance eats through everything, how is the professor able to capture it in a test tube and keep it there for decades?), but it's got the quickly-evolving art of Gene Colan, who's transforming his style right before our lucky eyes.

Willis Striker takes a fishing vacation the same time every year and stays at the same cabin every year. This year, though, when he shows up, the manager tells him there's an evil old man staying in the cabin and he can't get rid of him. His groundskeeper, Jud, went up to evict the old codger and never came back. Now, the manager is convinced the creepy old guy is in league with the devil. Willis heads up to the cabin and confronts the (admittedly homely) dwarf (albeit, dressed in his Sunday best) and, after a few cross words, the hunchback scampers off. Willis notices a nasty tree growing in front of the cabin and decides he's going to take it down but, after chipping a few pieces off and noticing the sap looks like blood, he leaves well enough alone.

But, then again, maybe he didn't. Striker discovers the sap has infected his arms, giving them a nice green tint. Promising himself he'll see a doctor the next day, Willis hits the sack but can't get to sleep so he rises for a smoke, only to discover he's entirely covered with green foliage and his limbs have become... limbs! Thinking that if he destroys the other tree outside, he'll revert back to jolly old Willis Striker, the half-crazed tree-man grabs an axe and heads out the door. Once he hits the ground though he becomes rooted and realizes the other tree must be groundskeeper Jud! As the transformation into gruesome tree concludes, the creepy hunchback returns to tend to his garden. Brilliantly gross and extremely disquieting, "The Man Who Vanished!" (a really dumb title) is a Joe Sinnott masterpiece. Striker's quick transmutation is so effective, we've forgotten al about the fact that we have no idea why this is happening or how long the cabin manager will wait to call the police. He's going to run out of paying customers eventually, you'd think. Who is the nattily dressed hunchback and why does he reserve his powers for that particular cabin? I want to know more! Stephen King tried a variation on this theme a couple decades later in "Weeds" (later filmed for the awful Creepshow), but that's not nearly as much fun as "The Man Who Vanished."

In Two Weeks...
Stan Lee beckons you...

1 comment:

Jack Seabrook said...

Some fun stuff here. I like that Marvel Tales cover.