Thursday, April 18, 2019

Journey Into Strange Tales! Atlas/ Marvel Horror Issue 32

The Marvel/Atlas 
Horror Comics
Part 17
March 1952 Part II

 Spellbound #1

"The Stuffed Shirt" 
"Step Into My Coffin" (a: Martin Rosenthal) 
"The Eye That Never Closed!" (a: Dick Ayers) 
"The Man with Two Faces" (a: George Roussos) ★1/2
"Horror of Crag Island" (a: Jay Scott Pike) 

Welcome to the first issue of Spellbound and Atlas' 14th genre title; Spellbound will last 34 issues (through June 1957) and feature some standout covers. This one, for instance, has a lot of drama going on. Talons reach for a terrified man in a coffin while a gorgeous dame enters through a trap door. What the heck is going on? Could "Step Into My Coffin" be as tantalizing as its teaser?

Hunchback taxidermist Eric Dunton hires a new assistant, a handsome young stud named Rocco, and immediately regrets the decision when Eric's girlfriend, Helen, and Rocco start giving each other "the eye!" Unfortunately for Eric, Rocco is giving Helen more than just the eye and he stumbles in on them while they're making love and laughing about Rocco's embezzling skills. Eric strangles Helen and mounts Rocco on the wall in the basement and then gives himself up to the police. Atlas moral #326: Hunchbacks are not the brightest bulbs in the cabin and the gorgeous dames that take their money and spurn their love are equally dim-witted. "The Stuffed Shirt" is nothing more than a build-up to a "shock," but you'd have to be just as dim as Eric and Helen not to see the twist coming from the word "go" since Eric is a taxidermist! EC was infamous for these kinds of stories (the butcher's wife who arranges her husbands pieces in the shop window, etc.) that exist only for the "ironic" kill. Best lines of dialogue come in panel one, when Rocco meets his new employer for the first time:

Rocco: The employment agency sent me! They said you needed an assistant!
Eric: What are you staring at me like that for? Didn't you ever see a hunchback before?

"No" is the answer to my opening question regarding this issue's fabulous cover. No, "Step Into My Coffin," a bad "Premature Burial" rip-off can't hold a candle to Sol Brodsky's nightmarish scene. It's a dreary, badly-illustrated snoozer about a couple facing bankruptcy who try to pull off the husband's faked death for insurance money. As is often the case with women born under the Atlas sign, our heroine is actually two-timing this dope and lets him rot in his coffin after she collects the dough. My least favorite Atlas horror artist is Dick Ayers but I would probably give a fair shake to an Ayers-illustrated tale of terror if it had a decent story. Alas, "The Eye That Never Closed," a bottom-of-the-barrel scraper about a man who kills his uncle and then must live with his (literally) cock-eyed curse, is not that story, so I don't have to figure out ways of recommending a story with awful art just yet. This is truly wretched stuff, in both plot (a rip-off of Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart") and art, with Ayers contorting the protagonist's body in all manner of unfortunate poses (in the panel at left, the dope almost seems to be fencing without an epee). For Atlas' horror line to mature and flourish, it would have to sever ties with its poorly-illustrated past and, clearly, the company wasn't ready just yet.

In "The Man With Two Faces," a handsome hold-up man is having a hard time making a living since anyone he holds up will remember his gorgeous face. His solution is murder but that's getting to be too much work. While mulling his future as a successful crook, he breaks into a rich doctor's house and, while admiring the doc's expensive paintings, ends up staring down the barrel of a .45. He gets the drop on the doctor but the old man makes him a bargain: he'll give the gangster masks to disguise his handsome face if he'll leave him and his paintings alone. Masks in hand, our heartless protagonist kills the doctor and heads out the door to test out one of the masks. It doesn't go well. Another boring mess in what is shaping up to be one of the single worst Atlas horror comics I've yet read.

Well, they always save the best for last, don't they? And while "Horror of Crag Island" would never be mistaken for a Tale from the Crypt, it does have some nice touches that save it from being just as bland as the four stories preceding it. Eliot Larch discovers that the island owned by Old Man Hubbard contains a huge amount of gold and Eliot is bound and determined to get the crazy old lech to sell him his property. But Hubbard is not interested in Larch's offers; in fact, the only thing that stirs the old guy's blood is a black cat that crosses their path. This guy is super-superstitious! The light bulb goes off over Larch's head and faster than you can say "Scooby-Doo!," he's in a ghost get-up and haunting the poor old-timer. The plan backfires on Larch though, when Hubbard warns the sailor who brings him his supplies every month that the island is haunted and the sailor assures he'll warn all other boats to keep their distance. In rapid succession, Larch's disguise spooks the old man, he falls from a cliff and dies, and Larch's boat is struck by lightning and burnt to a crisp, leaving the dope with a couple weeks of supplies. No boat will come ashore, despite Eliot's flares, and he dies of hunger atop the largest mass of gold this side of a rapper's mouth. Though, as I said, it's not a great strip, it succeeds at a low entertainment level, which is just fine sometimes (especially given the rest of the contents of Issue #1), and the final two panels, which feature Eliot dying of hunger while a vulture (who flew in straight out of a Mad strip) looks on, are aces ("I ate all the food Hubbard had in the house... I even ate the black cat...")!

 Mystic #7

"The Tomb" (a: Gene Colan) ★1/2
(r: Vault of Evil #11)
"Out of the Night" (a: Jim Mooney) 
(r: Journey Into Mystery #8)
"The Man Who Made a Wish!" (a: Vernon Henkel) ★1/2
(r: Crypt of Shadows #8)
"Beware... The Bees!" (a: Mort Lawrence) ★1/2
(r: Chamber of Chills #12)
"The Thinking Machines!" (a: Werner Roth) 

Silas Worth is a crotchety old millionaire who is so convinced that his nephew and wife are vultures, waiting around for the old man’s death, that he fakes his own death in order to “rise from the dead” to see their disappointment. Problem is, Silas does too good a job of killing himself. "The Tomb" is a ho-hum story enlivened by early Colan art; atmospheric, but almost unrecognizable from the classic work Colan did for Marvel in the 1960s.

Much better is "Out of the Night," wherein writer Lee Duncan heads for his cabin, away from the sweltering city, but can’t seem to find the peace necessary for cranking out a story. A very ugly bug keeps buzzing at Lee’s screened window, night after night, but the strange thing is, it keeps getting bigger. Lee decides that’s his story angle: writer encounters growing bug, the bug becomes huge, breaks through the screen and kills the writer working on a story for Mystic Magazine! Cute gimmick and nice Mooney art, with a nasty climax.  I can vividly remember reading this story for the first time as an 11-year-old, in 1973, when it was the cover story for Journey Into Mystery #8, and constantly checking my window to make sure it was tightly shut!

The rest of the issue, alas, lacks the spark found in "Out of the Night." In the weak "The Man Who Made a Wish!," Clarence Hopkins is sick of being poor so he makes a pact with the devil for ten thousand bucks (this was the 1950s). Problem is, he’s contracted a rare disease and he’s being paid the ten grand for donating his body to science! Next up, "Beware... the Bees!" finds money-hungry Casper Green slaving for a beekeeper who’s working on a formula to offset the side effects of a bee sting. Dreaming of dollar signs, Casper steals the formula and drinks it, leading to some un-bee-lievable and groan-worthy changes. Werner Roth's visuals are just about the only reason to turn the pages on "The Thinking Machines!" In the near-future, machines destroy the human race and the last man on Earth climbs a high mountain to get away from the killers. An interesting build-up but the story falls flat with its weak climax.

"The Thinking Machines!"

 Suspense #16 (Spring 1952)

"Alone in the Dark" (a: Fred Kida) ★1/2
(r: Dead of Night #8)
"My Coffin is Crowded" 
(r: Crypt of Shadows #15)
"The Place" (a: Pete Tumlinson) ★1/2
"The Corpse" (a: Frank Sieminski) 
(r: Weird Wonder Tales #8)
"Backstage Madness" (a: Ogden Whitney) ★1/2
(r: Where Monsters Dwell #33)

Poor little Donnie Dugan, left alone with his Uncle Claude while mummy and daddy go to the movies. Usually, Donnie's parents lock him in his room so Uncle Claude won't disturb him but they must have forgotten tonight because the heavy footsteps outside his door alert little Donnie that danger is near. Ever since he can remember, Donnie has been terrified of his Uncle Claude; that may be due to the horrifying fairy tales the man tells him. Now, Uncle Claude enters the room, pulls out a long blade, and tells Donnie he's going to kill him at the stroke of midnight. Mummy and daddy hurry home but, just before they enter the house, they hear screams from upstairs and hurry up.

They find poor Claude, ripped to shreds, and their darling little werewolf standing above the corpse. "If only he'd been a vampire like us!," exclaims Pop. "Alone in the Dark" has a nice suspenseful build-up but a silly pay-off. Even though this is a funny book and probably wouldn't venture into such territory, the manner in which Uncle Claude comes to Donnie's room and croons "You're all alone tonight... with me!" subtly implies Claude may be a pedophile. Of course, the inane final panel, where the parents chastise Donnie for feasting on his uncle because they were planning on drinking him dry themselves, begs several questions. If Claude knew the family was a bit off, why did he stay? Why did mom and dad leave the little wolf with someone they knew to be dangerous? Am I dissecting this silliness too much? Fair point.

Gus is offered a bizarre way of getting out of the stir: smuggled out in a coffin next to a dead guy! Since Gus, a lifer, was in on the Crenshaw payroll heist, he knows where the loot is buried and the outsider wants half for Gus's freedom. As soon as the coffin is buried, the stranger will dig it up and Gus will be a free man. Despite his aversion to corpses, Gus agrees and the deal is done. Now, Gus lays six feet under, waiting to hear those first tell-tale scraping noises. Getting antsy, Gus lights a match and discovers the guy in the box with him is -- surprise! -- the smuggler! Even though the climax of "My Coffin is Crowded" can be seen from afar, it's still quite effective (though you will wonder why the guy was in the coffin in the first place since he was supposed to be someone located outside the prison) and the final panel, of Gus screaming from his coffin, is a keeper. The plot for this was ripped off for an episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour called "Final Escape" a decade later.

In another dimension (or on another world... or in a dream... or...), your crimes are punishable by banishment to "The Place." What is "the place?" Well, that's the question that plagues good citizen John, so much so that John finds it hard to do his work at the food bank. When the aching becomes too much, John sets fire to his load of grain and is sentenced, at last, to "the place." The gates are closed and John falls through space and time until he lands on... Earth! What might have been an interesting premise is nipped in the bud by its own brevity (only four pages) and, thus, too many unanswered questions (where in the solar system is the world John originally comes from?). The presence of a science fiction tale in the middle of four horror stories is a bit startling. Will Atlas continue to cross-pollinate? "The Corpse" is a quickie about a sailor who murders one of his comrades for millions in gold sunken to the bottom of the sea. When he dives down to get the bounty, his air hose becomes tangled in... the dead man's corpse! Some nice Frank Sieminski art livens the cliched proceedings.

Actor Philip Carleton is sick and tired of being typecast in plays about monsters. He's also extremely jealous of the success of fellow actor Gary Benton. A golden opportunity, in the guise of the play "The Ghoul of Gravesend," arises and Philip talks Gary into taking the juicy lead role, knowing that Benton "becomes" his character. The plan is that Carleton will goad his buddy into murdering his co-star and then all the prime roles will be his for the taking! But Gary Benton gets so into his role that he strangles Philip! Ogden Whitney's style is about as "pulpy" as they come but it certainly does the trick.

 Astonishing #11

"The Last of Mr. Mordeaux" (a: Joe Sinnott) 
(r: Tomb of Darkness #16)
"Freak" (a: Bill Walton) 
"Reign of Terror" (a: Sy Grudko) 
(r: Crypt of Shadows #18)
"The Hound Dog" (a: Myron Fass) ★1/2
"The Day Harrington Died" (a: Bob Fujitani) 
(r: Chamber of Chills #18)

Booted out of his fancy country club for questionable aristocracy, Mr. Mordeaux vows to visit the town where the Bordeaux Castle is located, and bring back proof of his royal blood. When he gets there, all he finds is a pack of torch-bearing villagers, ready to burn a cursed Mordeaux at the stake! Finally reaching the family castle, Mordeaux discovers his long-missing family in the depths of the basement. A fabulous Lovecraftian tale, "The Last of Mr. Mordeaux" is dripping with atmosphere and a suitably creepy art job by Master Sinnott (Mordeaux has almost-impossibly bug eyes and no eyebrows befitting a doomed Lovecraft protagonist).

In "Freak," Colonel David, "the world's smallest midget," grows tired of circus life and hungers for a normal size. His prayers are answered when he happens upon a newspaper piece on a scientist who's working on an experimental drug designed to make cells grow faster. The Colonel holds a gun on the doc and forces him to test the serum on the suddenly-aggressive dwarf. The drug works too well and soon David returns to the circus as "the world's tallest giant." There's a sleazy ooze to this one and the art isn't great; it never ceases to amaze me how calm and cool Atlas protagonists can turn on a dime and become gangsters. Even worse is "Reign of Terror," a ludicrous yarn about a criminal who somehow eludes capture despite being seen numerous times in the act. The final panel reveals the shocking secret: he has another face on the back of his head! This "shocking development" would be used at least a half-dozen times throughout the years by Atlas and its competitors and, I've got to say, the other five + have got to be better than this. I believe this is artist Sy Grudko's debut on the Atlas horror charts (though the essential site AtlasTales thinks Sy might have had a hand in some of the crime stories published in Justice), but we'll only see a few credits for Grudko in the future. His style is very reminiscent of a whole lot of other hacks (think Dick Ayers) who pumped out work in the 1950s.

A grumpy old woman gets off on killing canines but one of her victims turns the tables and begins haunting her. But for the nasty business of the woman poisoning the mutts, "The Hound Dog" could have easily fit into one of the Atlas humor rags of the time (especially with its cute climax, where the woman finds out the dead dog has six ghost puppies!). In the closing story, "The Day Harrington Died," Hugo has been planning the murder of his diamond partner, Jim Harrington for quite a while but the perfect opportunity has not arisen. Until now. While on the "jungle island of Seakomo," Hugo steals the ruby from the statue of the fearsome god, Valulu, and pins the crime on Harrington. The natives come to call, find the ruby on the terrified man, and sacrifice poor Jim. Satisfied he's got the biz to himself, Hugo celebrates... until the actual Valulu pays a visit. It's a typical jungle revenge yarn (and there are hundreds of those to come along the path), and Bob Fujitani's art is workman-like, but for the abrupt and delightfully creepy two panels revealing Valulu.

Adventures into Weird Worlds #4

"The Village Graveyard" (a: Russ Heath) 
(r: Giant-Size Chillers #1)
"The Man Who Lost His Head" (a: Tom Gill) ★1/2
"The Passenger" (a: Martin Rosenthal)
"The Miser" (a: Bill LaCava)
"The Face of Death" (a: Bill Everett) ★1/2
(r: The Bill Everett Archives #2. Fantagraphics, 2013)

Adventures Into Weird Worlds #4 is one of the dozen or so Atlas issues I don't have access to, but I was able to read three of the five stories via reprintings. When I do get hold of a genuine WW4, I'll read and report on the remaining stories.

Wealthy Carl Dekker has heard the secret of eternal life is buried beneath an old house in a desolate village and he means to own that house. Once inside to inspect, Carl is confronted by a ghoulish specter but he believes it to be the work of the local superstitious peasants who are against Dekker's plan of leveling the old house. Later, another spirit materializes in front of him, but this time it's a radiant, gorgeous ghost who convinces Carl he can have her love and eternal life if he abandons his plan. Intrigued, Carl orders the workmen to halt their excavation and leave and then the beautiful spirit shows the arrogant millionaire exactly how he can "live" forever. "The Village Graveyard" doesn't have much of a story (we've seen the war between the pompous rich and the angry dead before) but what it does possess is an eye-popping display of visuals courtesy of the wondrous Russ Heath, who can make anything readable. One thing that bugged me throughout the story is that we never hear exactly what Dekker's plan is. Sure, he tells us he's going to tear down the house and clean out the accompanying cemetery, but then what? A spa/resort? A private bungalow?

Clyde Harding, a bloodthirsty hunter heads up into the hills to get himself a bear head for his study but he comes across a much better prize, a giant alien creature that appears to be lining itself up in the hunter's sights. Then the tables are flipped and the creature nails Clyde and takes him back to his spaceship, where Clyde sees several human heads in boxes. Yep, you guessed it! The monster is a head hunter as well and Clyde Harding is "The Man Who Lost HIs Head!" Some groovy graphics from Tom Gill, an artist I'd not heard of before and quick research shows that Gill was the co-creator of Atlas short-lived western title, Red Warrior (January-December 1951), but is known primarily for his long run on Dell's The Lone Ranger. Gill's alien creature is pretty creepy (although the writer asks for "tentacles" and Gill delivers claws) and that final panel is a doozy!

The final story of Weird Worlds #4 I have access to, "The Face of Death," is the deliciously dopey tale of Donald Drake, beleaguered but rock solid handsome, who is trapped in a town dying of plague. People are literally dying all around him and he decides the best thing to do is go home, shut his doors and windows, and keep the riffraff out. His buddy, Hank, tells him he's a fool; if death wants to find him, it'll find him. Drake assures Hank he'll be fine and heads home but, two panels later in real time, Don is bored and decides to throw a party, inviting only friends he knows aren't infected (despite the fact that both he and Hank were inside a room with a couple dozen dead or dying!). The get-together is a real wing-ding but the highlight of the evening is when Hank and Don meet a gate-crasher named Marcia, a woman so beautiful the plague is forgotten instantly. Hank and Don immediately vie for the girl's attention but it's the host who wins out and gets the victory kiss. Smooch over, Don grabs for his throat, turns green, and falls to the floor. Marcia reveals herself to be death!!!!

Oh, ho, never saw that one coming, did you? "The Face of Death" has two attributes to recommend it (and little else): it's illustrated by the incredible Bill Everett and possesses a sly tongue-in-cheek atmosphere (at least I'm hoping that was the aim of the writer) and some hilarious dialogue. Donald Drake spends two pages telling his buddy, Hank, and the reader that he's terrified of death ("the very thought of death was a frightening, formidable thing!" -- "Just the very thought of death scares the wits out of me") and has to "lock himself in his house till this horrible epidemic is over." So what does he do to ease his nerves? He throws a party! The panel of Don, on the phone inviting "people I know who haven't been exposed to the plague," is funnier than anything I ever read in EC's Panic! Wasn't Don in the same room we were in on that splash page? But my favorite line of dialogue comes from the gorgeous Miss Death herself, as she explains her arrival to the horndogs, Don and Hank:

"Hello -- You're Donald Drake, aren't you? I'm Marcia Lane... I guess you don't know me, and I wasn't invited, but... well, gee... I saw your lights and  I... I haven't been to a party for so long, what with the plague and all..."

More fabulous Heath from
"The Village Graveyard"

In Two Weeks...
Susan gets a playmate and we get...
a four-star story!


Glowworm said...

"The Man Who Made a Wish" may be dopey and predictable, but there is one amusing bit to it that kills me. The Devil in question who immediately appears to grant Clarence's wish, is a kindly faced, chubby fellow with red hair slicked up into two "horns" and a red suit. He insists to Clarence that he's nothing like what people imagine him to be--even claiming that he's NOT after his soul, and that it's always so difficult to convince people that he's really the Devil. The best line out of him is when Clarence asks if he really is the Devil. "Certainly! And it is ridiculous that nobody believes me! I'll just have to get one of those Devil costumes they sell in your store!" Never mind Clarence, I want more stories centered around this version of the Devil. He's hilarious!

Jack Seabrook said...

Entertaining as always! Spellbound is my favorite cover this time around. And that plague story looks great.