Thursday, May 16, 2019

Journey Into Strange Tales! Atlas/ Marvel Horror Issue 34

The Marvel/Atlas 
Horror Comics
Part 19
April 1952 Part II

 Venus #19

"The Madman's Music" (a: Pete Morisi)  

If I was commenting on the Venus-starring chapters in this final issue, I would tell you these are the best of the best; skin-crawling art adorning fun (if more than a touch of ludicrous) scripts. In particular, the opener (of which the cover is the tease), about Venus’ efforts to aid a man contacting the spirit world in order to reach his lost love, is a fabulous fantasy that’s a joy to read from page one to finis (the climax, in which Venus discovers that the man wants to die in order to join his love) works on many different levels. Bill Everett’s gorgeous, and frightening, art could be the best of the Atlas pre-code era. The cover is certainly Top Five All-Time Best. Alas, the story that falls within our parameters this issue, “The Madman’s Music,” is not in league with the titular heroine’s adventures, and the less said, the better. All right. All right. It’s about a clarinet player whose music can’t be heard by anyone but the dead. I warned you.

Strange Tales #6

"Uninhabited" (a: Russ Heath) ★1/2
"The Eyes of March!" (a: Sy Grudko) 
"The Back Door!" (a: Pete Morisi) 
"The Killers" (a: Harry Lazarus) 
"The Ugly Man!" (a: Vernon Henkel) 

The story's been told a million times before (or maybe it's been told a million times since?). Earth crew lands on the moon, where 15 rocketships have landed and mysteriously disappeared, and find nothing there. Nothing that should alarm them. Then, one by one, the crew begin disappearing and only when we're down to our final spaceman do we find out that it's the moon itself that's swallowing up our boys. As I said, the story itself doesn't scream award-winning but the art, by Russ Heath, elevates it to Weird Fantasy-worthy. That's saying something since WF (and its sister Weird Science) pumped out the best science fiction comics of the 1950s (and, some would argue, of all time).

Heath was only 25 years old and had just started drawing for Atlas three years before but he already had a style that separated itself from the mostly generic work being done on the company's anthology books. Oddly enough, his most famous pieces of art may have been the jobs he did for a toy company that ran on the back covers of comic books for several years. "204 Revolutionary War Soldiers! Only $1.98!" screamed the ad and millions took the company up on its offer. There were several variations on that art (one depicted Roman soldiers). Heath's overhead splash to "Uninhabited" is a classic worth framing. It fills the reader with a sense of unease and wonder. What could this guy be running from (or to)?  His climax, where we see our sole survivor being sucked under the moon's surface, while his thought balloon lets us know he can feel something chewing on him from below, perfectly illustrates why, in some Strange Tales, it's even creepier not to see the monster.

"The Eyes of March" is an out-and-out humor story and, for the most part, it succeeds in ticking the funny bone. A poor schlepp goes in for new glasses but, once donned, they show him no one's face but his own. His wife has his face. His mother-in-law has his face. His goldfish has his face. You get the picture. After his wife needles him, he goes back to the optometrist for a new set but exits seeing the eye doc's face on everyone. "The Back Door" is a silly short-short about a salesman who gets fed up with his neighborhood and poaches another guy's turf. Unfortunately, it's a funeral parlor.

Toss this one out
"The Back Door"
Possibly even dopier is "The Killers," about scientists who are working on some kind of atom bomb but, instead, craft a virus "that would enter the body of a human being... and change his personality completely! That human would become a murderous scavenger... whose only aim would be to destroy humanity and take over the Earth for himself and others who would also catch the virus!" The only way to track the infected host is that they cast no reflection. Ace reporter Jason Hudkins cracks the story and wants headline news but publisher/cougar Claire Munson only has eyes for Jason and kills the sensational story. This (and the fact that the old bag despises mirrors) convinces Jason that Munson is the mad killer and he strangles her, thinking he's saving all of mankind. When he holds up a mirror, he discovers that it's he, himself, who casts no reflection!

Never mind that it's a stretch to create a new disease while working on an atom bomb, but I just love the fact that these nutty professors seem to know all about the disease without testing it on anyone. Seriously, how would they know the host would cast no reflection or even that their virus would work in such a way? Those 1950s eggheads were so much more efficient than their professorial descendants. Finally, we have the inane "The Ugly Man!" (with ugly art by Vern Henkel), about escaped con Brock Hines, who's picked up by the titular fiend and granted three wishes. Brock ends up wishing himself back in the pokey after two wonderful wishes become nightmarish.

Spellbound #2

"What's Wrong With Charlie Brown?" 
(a: Al Hartley) 
"The End!" (a: Russ Heath) 
"The Last Tattoo" (a: Fred Kida) 
"Horror Story" (a: Bill Everett) ★1/2

Wanda has a tough childhood in the old country village of Kisvarra. First, her father is killed by a vampire, then her mother is burned at the stake as a witch, then she is forced to hide in the woods outside of Kisvarra, until an ugly old man finds and cares for her. When he dies, he leaves her a fortune in jewels and Wanda uses the new-found wealth to travel to America and, while aboard the ship, she meets the handsome Charlie Brown. Charlie woos her but, mysteriously, won't let her see him after dark. "What's Wrong With Charlie Brown?," thinks Wanda? Well, she finds out, after following him, Charlie is a werewolf. But that's okay, because so is Wanda! A very strange little tale, with nice art, that doesn't seem to know whether it wants to be about witches or werewolves. The final panel comes right out of left field.

In "The End!," actor Carl Danton tries out for a new televised horror show based on Poe's "The Pit and the Pendulum," but soon discovers it's not a play and the director is none other than Edgar Allan Poe himself! Nice shocker with shudder pulp art by the master, Russ Heath; the final twist is not that much of a surprise but is professionally delivered. The closest Atlas has come to simulating Weird Tales.

Alex has been coming to the old hag tattoo artist, slowly but surely getting ready to apply for the job of illustrated man at the local circus, but when his eyes catch the old woman's pile of dough, he snaps and kills her. Taking the money, he goes to see his girl, Lola, to convince her to leave her husband, Bolo, but the giant comes home and throws Alex out. Bolo rips his competition's shirt off as he's leaving and then stares in horror at the tattoo across Alex's chest, a scene of Alex killing the tattoo artist. Later that night, Bolo comes to Alex's place and stabs him to death, remarking that no one will know the identity of the man's murderer. We know differently, however, when we see the tattoo on Alex's back. Obviously similar to Ray Bradbury's The Illustrated Man, which was published the year before this issue hit the stands, and very adult for an Atlas horror story. Kida's art, usually a little too simple for my tastes, works well here.

Leo Grant, editor of Ghastly Stories, just can't get over the authenticity of the stories his top writer, "Mr. Morbid," conjures up for readers. When a problem arises with the checks being paid to Morbid, Leo sees this as a chance to meet Morbid face-to-face for the first time and understand how one man could fill a page with such terror. His search leads him to a graveyard and, just as he's about to put this down to a joke, he's called by Morbid and enters a crypt. There, Morbid shows his editor the characters that have populated his work (ghouls, werewolves, and fiends) and he informs Grant that it's time for him to enter the real world and what better disguise than a horror story editor? Leo feels his face melt and hasn't even got a mouth anymore to scream as he's placed in his coffin.

A fun read from start to finish, "Horror Story" taps into a vein I always seem to find pleasing: the world of the comic book/pulp producer. There are quite a few stand-out panels: the werewolf lying in his coffin, clutching his bone; Charlie Cross, one of Morbid's most famous characters, "the corpse whose face was half eaten away by rats, and who walked the night searching for the woman who murdered him"; the Basil Rathbone-esque Morbid; and the final two shots of poor Leo with his face melting. Echoes of this plot would find its way into John Carpenter's equally Lovecraftian classic, In the Mouth of Madness. All around, one of the best single issues I've run across so far.

Suspense #17

"The Little Black Box" (a: Joe Maneely) 
"Night of Horror" (a: Werner Roth) 
"Norman Was Right!" (a: Goerge Roussos) ★1/2
"Joe's Friend!" (a: Pete Morisi) 
"The Dungeon" (a: Hy Rosen) 
"The Murder Club" (a: Gene Colan) ★1/2
"The Thing in the Shadows" (a: Allen Bellman) 
"The Dead Witch!" (a: Dick Ayers) 

Suspense returns to the 52-page format (with no price increase!) it enjoyed for its first eight issues (this latest upgrade will last until #23) and offers up eight new tales of chills and thrills. But will we actually be grateful for the extra page count?

The old hag wanted to know why her boarder coveted "the Little Black Box," and she wouldn't stop at murder to find out why. After burying an axe in the poor dope's head, the old woman hoofs it out of town and gets a room, preparing herself to discover what was in the Little Black Box. Unbeknownst to the old witch, her new landlord was eyeing that Little Black Box and wondering why it was of such import to the scrawny old thing. He uses his key to gain entry but finds nothing but a room full of little boxes! Knowing that the woman was hiding something worth a fortune, he buries a dagger in her while she sleep and grabs a hunk of the highway, Little Black Box in tow.

Once he settles in to new digs, the man opens the Little Black Box and discovers another little box inside. Obsessed, he keeps pulling out box after box, knowing eventually he'll come to the great treasure deep inside. Meanwhile, his landlord waits outside the door for the perfect time to kill his new tenant and steal his prized possession. Though "The Little Black Box" is a little too long (it could easily have lost one of the murderers and still kept its suspense), it's a fascinating read that never actually gives up its secret (the final panel has a tag that spoils the fun, so ignore it) and actually has something to say about the human condition (we want what the other guy has even if we have no idea what it is he has!); it's tantamount to the kind of tale Rd Serling would dramatize a few years later. Joe Maneely is in fine form; his hags are suitably gnarly and landlords just the right amount of sleazy.

Frat leader Happy Hobart loves to haze the new boys, but when one of his pranks leads to the death of a student, his comrades question Hobart's tactics. Seething, Happy agrees to let the others prank him by tying him to a tombstone in the local cemetery. Bad idea. The boys unwittingly restrain their leader to the wrong tombstone and Happy Hobart experiences his own "Night of Terror!" Next up is "Norman Was Right!," a fun little quickie about millionaire Norman Van Graet, who has his eye on the gorgeous black pantherette at a costume party. His wealthy friends bet Norman he can't successfully woo the buxom babe but Norman, who boasts of the three wives who committed suicide when he divorced them, approaches and wins the attention of the cat. Retiring to the garden, Norman attempts to remove the panther's mask and has a bombshell delivered to his doorstep: she's not wearing a mask! George Roussos knew his way around a female form (even if it wasn't human) and the whole package is a delightful surprise. I'm astonished that so many of these higher-quality strips weren't resurrected for one of the vast number of reprint titles Marvel pumped out in the 1970s, but I assume that has something to do with what original art the company still had in its vaults.

"The Murder Club"
After that, the quality slides with the two similar-themed dogs, "Joe's Friend!" and "The Dungeon." In the former, a man kills his wife on orders from his invisible pal (who turns out, predictably, to be his mirror reflection), and the latter throws the spotlight on one of Atlas' favorite protagonists, the escaped con. Dan Bigley is serving a long sentence but he's had enough of prison food so he decides to break out (in the grand tradition of legendary escapee, The Duke), with the help of his mysterious cellmate. Once Bigley gets on the outside and settled into the hide-out provided by said cellmate, he discovers he's got company: The Duke, who informs him that the ghost of the warden he murdered brings breakouts here to rot. Hy Rosen injects a little venom via a very Joe Maneely-esque art job, but the script is simply too predictable.

"The Dead Witch!"
Like any other Atlas nephew, Bruce Dawson is getting tired of waiting for his rich old Aunt Lucy to die and leave him her millions, but he lacks the spine to seal the deal. One night, while walking through the park and contemplating his problem, Bruce bumps into a stranger who seemingly reads his thoughts and tells Bruce he's got the answer to the Aunt Lucy problem. The weirdo leads Bruce to a castle he claims is the home of "The Murder Club," an organization staffed by members who have committed the cardinal sin for affluence or peace of mind. With the prompting of the members, Bruce finds his hidden confidence, heads home, and strangles Aunt Lucy. When he gets back to the castle to brag of his deed, the other members draw their guns and axes, explaining that the initiation into the club includes death. They are all ghosts, executed for their sins. A really nice job here by Gene Colan, who gives the proceedings a proper coat of black, and a script that, while a bit predictable, keeps the suspense-factor high. The issue, however, does not end on a high note. Two sub-par yarns, "The Thing in the Shadows" (the murderer who hops into a hearse and discovers he's hitching a ride with the guy he just murdered) and "The Dead Witch!" (guy discovers his wife is a witch so he murders her but she haunts him from the grave) give weight to the argument that too much paper was being wasted in the1950s. I will say, however, that Dick Ayers turns in his best art yet on "The Dead Witch."

I couldn't help but display even more
golden age Everett from Venus #19!

In Two Weeks...
37 more tales from
Beyond the Grave!

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