Thursday, January 9, 2020

Journey Into Strange Tales! Atlas/ Marvel Horror Issue 51

The Marvel/Atlas 
Horror Comics
Part 36
February 1953 Part I

 Adventures Into Terror #16

"The Man with the Net" (a: Tony DiPreta) 
(r: Tales of the Zombie #3)
"My Name is Death!" (a: Joe Maneely) 
(r: Kull the Destroyer #14)
"One Must Die!" (a: Ed Winiarski) 
(r: Dead of Night #5)
"The Executioner" (a: Vic Dowling & Bob Stuart) ★1/2
(r: Monster of Frankenstein #7)
"It Can't Be Done (a: Sam Kweskin) ★1/2

Toddler Tommy Worth loves butterflies but his father, Roger,  gets off on mounting the poor little buggers and what dad says goes in this household. When Roger invites the local lepidopterists over for tea and to admire his collection, the other enthusiasts deliver a bombshell: Roger is missing the giant butterfly of Argentina so his collection remains impressive rather than awe-inducing. Roger delivers a couple of frustrating blows to the side of his son's head and hops a freighter to Argentina to net himself a mint-condition realmente grande polilla! But, since this is the Atlas universe, Roger finds himself on the receiving end of the stick pin when he stumbles across the fabled butterfly. Some genuinely effective art by DiPreta is lost on this five-page cliche; from the prototypical abusive father to the laughable and predictable finish (how do butterflies stick pins into a board if they have no fingers?), "The Man with the Net" is one dumb story.

Sigmund Graasp is the king's number one... well, we don't know what he is, but he works for the king creating really deadly... well, somethings. Our narrator lets us know early on that Graasp is her father and she was created for evil purposes but we're kept in the dark for three pages because if we weren't, this story would be one page long. Turns out our narrator is Graasp's latest invention, the Iron Maiden. The build-up in "My Name is Death!" is pure cheat, but at least Stan handed his script over to Joe Maneely for our viewing pleasure.

The brilliant, but unattractive, Doctor Zorg, is convinced a human being will do anything, including killing its mate, to survive and his beautiful, but not very bright, wife, Millie is about to provide Zorg with the proof. The nutty professor witnesses Millie stepping out with his zoo-keeper, Jim (who crafts bombs in his spare time!), and the lovers will be fodder for Zorg's studies. That night, Millie places Jim's time-bomb under her husband's bed but the couple are surprised on their way out the door by Zorg, who tells Millie and Jim he forgives their treachery and only wants to have a final drink with them. With what can only be deemed bad judgement, Millie and her terrorist boyfriend agree to the cocktail but regret it when they awaken from a drugged state to discover Zorg has grafted the two together at the shoulder and locked them in a cell located up the mountain from Zorg's estate. A note nearby informs them that a door will soon raise and admit several hungry lions unless the newly-formed Siamese twins use a handy axe on each other in order to fit through the small hole Zorg has left for them in the cave wall. At that moment, up the hill, Jim's time bomb explodes, leaving Millie an admittedly solemn widow but she has no time for that. She's eying that axe.

The only real gem this issue, "One Must Die!" is admittedly a far-fetched loonfest (complete with privately owned gorillas and lions, and zookeepers with a penchant for bomb-building), but it's got a sleazy, delightfully repugnant aroma I just love. Ed Winiarski's scratchy graphics are perfect for the tone. I would swear I've seen that whopper of a climax before (the two lovers, shoulder to shoulder, racing for that axe) but I've read so many of these things that they all seem to blend together in my diseased (or is that deceased?) brain; is it a rip of an EC or am I reliving a childhood read in the pages of Dead of Night? Doubtless, our absorbing readers will remind me. Anyway, the plot is an ingenuous balance of timing and cheat; that bomb goes off long after our writer has dismissed Dr. Zorg from the proceedings and I was surprised he didn't make a finale appearance.

The final two stories this issue, "The Executioner" and "It Can't Be Done," are unremarkable and predictable but at least "The Executioner" offers up some nifty visuals from Dowling and Stuart (nicely detailed a la Maneely). "The Executioner" is the story of Dr. Guillotine and his famous invention and comes off like an encyclopedia entry, while "It Can't Be Done" suffers from truly awful Kweskin art and a deadly dumb twist climax.

 Adventures Into Weird Worlds #15

"Terror in Town" (a: George Tuska) 
"He Who Laughs Last" (a: Sid Greene) ★1/2
"Back from the Dead!" ★1/2
"The Man Who Jumped!" (a: Jay Scott Pike) 

Five years after the events transcribed in "The Vampire Maker" (AIWW #13), the townsfolk of Sobota continue to mourn the genius they murdered, Dr. Gottfried. The scientist's assistant, Kurt, is now town mayor and bodyguard for Gottfried's great accomplishment, the vampire-monster, a fanged and winged monstrosity that hunts down and kills bloodsuckers. Though the villagers are grateful for the protection the monster provides, they're not ready to throw caution to the wind and so Kurt is forced to keep the creature chained at night. When a huge lightning storm hits Sobota and several bodies are discovered, the villagers return to their bad habits and head for the barn the monster is held, torches in hand. As they near the building, the vampire-monster escapes and heads for Kurt's house. The mob bursts in and finds the creature standing over Kurt's dead body. Enraged, they ignite the small shack and watch as their protector burns. With his dying breath, the creature informs the mob that Kurt was actually a robot, created by Gottlieb, and his wiring went whacko when the storm hit, transforming him into a killing machine. A collective "Whoops!"  is sounded as a flock of vampires heads into Sobota.

Though it's just as goofy as its predecessor, "Terror in Town" isn't as fresh or entertaining. The "Kurt is really a robot" reveal is forced as is the immediate regression of the villagers to angry mob; the whole thing comes off more as a badly-executed remake than a sequel. I do like the idea of sequels in the Atlas Universe ("The Brain" and "Return of the Brain" were both fabulously goofy) and the saga of the vampire-monster surely warranted a second chapter but this ain't the chapter we wanted to see. George Tuska does a pretty good Sinnott impersonation (aside from a good script, we're also missing those dynamite Infantino graphics); there aren't too many of those annoying Tuska-isms present. Let's call this a near-miss.

Don Stewart is a practical joker and not one person around him gets the joke. That only prods Don on to bigger and better gags, like putting a spider down a friend's back. How was Don to know it was a black widow? The Jokester's life comes to an end and no one sheds a tear but Don gets the last laugh as his soul ascends to Heaven and the pearly gates. But it turns out the afterlife has a sense of humor as well. "He Who Laughs Last" takes a plot that had already been done to death (and would get several more variations in years to come), but adds an original twist, one the reader won't guess until a few panels before the climax.

"Back From the Dead" is silly nonsense about Carlton Sears, a director who tires of having Wanda Sears, his famous leading lady, "riding his coattails" so he dumps her for a younger actress. Wanda commits suicide but a call from Carlton's producer, telling the director he won't work in Hollywood again if he's not attached to Wanda, forces Carlton to beg Wanda to come "Back from the Dead." Things don't go well for Carlton's next big-budget epic. The writer is a bit vague as to the whys and wherefores of Wanda's resurrection and that only leaves us wanting when the disappointing final panel arrives. "Back From the Dead" is a winner compared to the laughable "The Man who Jumped!," about a poor dope who breaks a mirror and receives seven years of really, really bad luck. Jay Scott Pike contributes some really, really bad art.

 Astonishing #22

"The Iron Head" (a: Sid Greene) 
"The Brain" (a: Sam Kweskin) 
"The Man Who Dug Deep" (a: Sol Brodsky) ★1/2
"The Strange Power" (a: Louis Zansky) ★1/2
"Man Against Werewolf" (a: Howie Post) ★1/2

The sadistic Black Baron owns castles throughout the kingdom and reigns over them with an iron fist but now a "White Knight,"who seems to hold supernatural powers is storming the castles one by one. The Baron takes out his frustrations on his knights, who then torment their squires, and on and on down the line to the slaves, who finally break free of their bonds and revolt. When the White Knight finally reaches the castle of the Black Baron, he discovers what's left of the Baron and his knights. A meandering and disjointed mess, "The Iron Head" is, nonetheless, entertaining and winds down to a grisly climax; that final panel is about the closest an aping of Harvey horror Atlas has attempted. Much is made of the White Knight's "strange magic," but in the end he's no more than a very good warrior.

The Great Mnemo dazzles everyone with his amazing abilities. Nicknamed "The Brain," Mnemo can multiply huge numbers, memorize whole novels, and read and write about issues of Astonishing in mere seconds. But The Brain has one drawback: he loves to spend money he doesn't have. Oh, it's not done in greed or maliciously; it's just that the man cannot seem to get his bills paid. When Mnemo gets the news we all dread, that he has mere months to live, he does what any Atlas genius would do: he sells the rights to his grey matter after death in order to pay his debts. Mnemo proves just how smart he is when he sells his brain to several interested parties at the same time!

Every once in a while, a story pops up in these funny books that confounds my expectations and "The Brain" is one of those. Eschewing the usual path to tyranny and world domination, the Great Mnemo just wants to be known for his brilliance and nothing more. No political aspirations, no bank robberies, no slain wife, just a decent fella who doesn't know how to balance a checkbook. It's hard to  find fault with Sam Kweskin's art as well; it's Heath-esque (which is fitting, since Heath illustrated an earlier tale called "The Brain," a story starring a much more devious chap) and works well with the fanciful script. A light-hearted and fun deviation from the usual nastiness.

Bart Hammer is a very bitter man, but then you would be to if you were once partners with Cal Beech in an oil company. It seems as though any piece of land Cal touches turns into a oil rig and poor Bart can only watch from the sidelines with hatred in his eyes. Then Bart decides he's going to get his riches by forcing Cal into signing the oil wells over to Bart. Then Bart will kill him. Doesn't go as planned and Bart ends up accidentally killing himself. In one last act of kindness, Cal attempts to bury his one-time friend on the man's pitiful piece of property... and strikes oil! The humorous and ironic finale of "The Man Who Dug Deep" works fabulously, as does the ambiguity of the business dealings between Cal and Bart. Was Bart cheated or just a bitter old guy who opted out of the partnership too early?

Russian scientist Igor Nicoli survives a deadly dose of radiation and feels almost a sense of immortality. He can now work on perfecting the weapon that will make the USSR the most powerful nation on Earth. His doctors find Igor's new-found vigor disturbing and warn him that something will give eventually. While walking across the street, Igor is struck by a car and explodes, wiping Moscow off the map.

Surprising we don't get a "By Stan Lee" credit on this one, since "The Man" seemed to spend most of his waking hours conjuring up anti-Soviet scripts for the masses. Perhaps I'm being unfair to Mr. Lee since so many of the funny book writers were catering to the masses at the time but Stan seemed to take glee in conjuring up ironic defeats for the Evil Empire. At any rate, "The Strange Power" does contain a very ironic (and darkly humorous) denouement for the unfortunate egghead. The only dog this issue is the finale, "Man Against Werewolf," a silly quickie about a 15th Czech village that celebrates hunting werewolves. The reveal, that a werewolf family lives amongst the humans, is completely predictable and lame.

 Journey Into Mystery #5

"Fright" (a: Russ Heath) 
(r: Dracula Lives #1)
"Zombie!" (a: Tony DiPreta) 
(r: Dracula Lives #1)
"Condemned!" (a: Carl Hubbell) 
"Innocent Bystander" (a: Dick Briefer) ★1/2
(r: Crypt of Shadows #2)

Drake is a very sadistic man and, before you ask, no, he's not a plantation owner or a real estate agent or a butcher; he's just the owner and manager of Drake's Asylum, home to lots of loonies. It's not enough fun that these unfortunates are behind bars, cold and underfed, no, Drake has his inmates whipped when they've been "bad." At the same time, the funny farm director has been cruel to his wife, taking advantage of her and verbally abusing the poor thing. Well, Drake's reign doesn't last forever and as soon as the Mrs. makes a deal with Kurt, Drake's assistant, our hapless sadist finds himself drugged and behind the same bars he use to leer into. The other inmates are very happy to see him visit but Drake is filled with "Fright."

I was going to cry foul and level accusations of "homage" at writer Stan Lee but then I realized "Blind Alleys" was still two full years away from publication. Still, these poor hard-working men always seem to get short shrift in the pre-codes. Most mind-boggling is that Emma Drake would marry a dirigible like Drake and then fall in love with Kurt who, in the best Heath tradition, looks like a zombie with nothing in his eye sockets! Clearly, this is a woman who has a self-esteem problem.

Small-time hood Black Nolan is on the lam in Haiti; he pinned a burglary on Larsen back in the States and Larsen has finally tracked him down. But no average death has been planned; Larsen employed a real-life zombie to help him get revenge! But Black seems to think he brighter than his fellow shyster and he heads to the graveyard to summon up his own zombie. Things don't go well. The best that can be said about "Zombie" is that hard-working Tony DiPreta seems to make low-budget magic every time out despite his grueling schedule (only Gene Colan had pumped out more graphics for the Atlas titles by February 1953). Still, it's no wonder that this "Zombie" will be over-shadowed by another "Zombie" before the end of 1953 since this one has only bare threads of a plot.

Escaped con Lee Danton looks for a place in the city to hide oil the heat dies down and busts into the shop of an eccentric TV repairman who claims he's invented a TV that can send Danton anywhere in the world he likes. Danton shrugs and figures he might as well give it a try and finds himself teleported to the diamond caves of Africa. The perfect scene for a career hoodlum, right? Well, except that the poor dope can't find the way out. He calls the old man on a device he's been given and asks to be sent to Brazil. That works great until the headhunters spot Danton and chase him into the jungle. Hoping third time will be the charm, the con once more calls his savior and asks to be sent back home. He lands right in the electric chair he was heading for when he escaped. There's no use arguing with the lapses in logic in "Condemned!" (were there two Dantons existing at the same time as I'm sketchy  how this guy found himself back in the chair three seconds before the switch is thrown?), and the art is really cartoony (picture an Atlas tale penciled by E.C. Segar!), but the overall story is mildly humorous and entertaining enough.

In the finale, Emily Weston loves antiques and she craves the rage it brings to her rich husband when she spends every last dime he earns on those old baubles. Pushed past the brink, Eric Watson comes after his wife with a hatchet but is undone by a blow to the head from one of his servants. Later, the evening, Emily is strangled in bed by a bizarre little statue she had bought and Eric is charged with her murder. A quirky, but satisfying short-short that boasts a weak art job by the usually efficient Dick Briefer. "Innocent Bystander" was Briefer's return to Atlas horror after a two year absence (his only previous credit, "The Painted Scarf," appeared in Suspense #5 back in November 1950 -- though the GCD rumors that Briefer worked on "Terror in the Tent" in Suspense #7), but the artist's contributions will be limited to only five more Atlas pre-codes due to his work on the classic "Frankenstein" strip over at Prize.

 Journey Into Unknown Worlds #15

"Wanted... One Werewolf!" (a: Tony DiPreta) 
"Swampland" (a: Jack Keller) ★1/2
"The Unknown" (a: Joe Maneely) 
"The Big Man!" (a: Louis Zansky) 
"They Crawl By Night!" (a: Basil Wolverton) 

"Wanted... One Werewolf!" is an utterly predictable, yet charming despite (or maybe because of) its simplicity. A werewolf is stalking a rural village and the town council has put a price on its head of five grand. That brings out every bounty hunter from there to Timbuktu, all hoping to bring a werewolf pelt back in for the big bucks. Local coward, Seth, really needs the payday but he shivers in his boots at the thought of running across a lycanthrope, so he heads out into the woods with the sheriff, who turns out to be... how did you guess? DiPreta contributes his usual easy-going style of art; there's nothing ground-breaking nor, comes down to it, memorable about his style but it's got such a "comfortable" feel to it and, now and then, he could surprise.

Two toughs head out into the "Swampland" with a pirate's map plotting a course to a treasure trove of jewels and gold. When a glitch in the map forces the men to separate, they spend a grueling week fighting alligators, mosquitoes and bottomless bogs only to stumble across a worse enemy: each other. With bits of humor (these guys must have majored in cartography as the treasure map says simply "swamp" and "big tree!") and amiable graphics by Jack Keller, "Swampland" is a bit of a surprise. Though I'd question whether one week (even in dense swamp brush) would leave these guys looking like Bigfoot and The Heap.

"The Unknown" is a two-pager about an astronaut who heads into space to describe what he sees to those back on Earth but, ironically, is blinded by the sun. For a two-pager, it's good enough but I'd have appreciated more work from the Master, Joe Maneely. "The Big Man" is sadistic carny Phineas, who keeps the stars of his main act, the African pygmies, caged and hungry. When the little guys start to die out, Phineas bullies their "spokesman" to reveal the whereabouts of more pygmies in Africa. In the end, Phineas is surprised to discover he's been sold some bad intel. The ironic finale is forced and when will we see a story about a carny with a heart of gold for a change?

Poor Mike Webster is stuck in the State Insane Asylum where, every night, the crab men roam the halls. The orderlies and doctors won't pay heed to Mike's crazed illusions so it's up to our hero to find out what the crab men are up to. One night, Mike follows the giant human crustaceans down through the basement into a subterranean world where he overhears talk amongst the crabs of taking over the surface world, one asylum at a time. Mike hoofs it back to the asylum and spills his story to the staff, who promptly sedate him and put him to bed. Nearly comatose, Mike can do nothing as a monster approaches his bed, claws at the ready, and the next morning, he discovers he's become one of them. When he shuffles into the doctor's office, he discovers the entire staff are crab men!

Could you picture this story drawn by anyone other than Basil Wolverton (well, maybe Russ Heath could attempt it), whose loony landscapes and transmogrified characters were legend even in the 1950s? "They Crawl By Night" flawlessly juggles chills with chuckles GCD credits Daniel Keyes as storyteller (the same DK who would go on to work on EC and author Flowers for Algernon), which surprises me since I can't see how something like this can be written by anyone other than the guy responsible for the crazed images. Sadly, "They Crawl By Night!" would be the final nightmare contributed by Wolverton to the Atlas line (I assume the lure of Mad was just too great) but let's just be thankful the artist left us with seven gloriously goofy funny book stories that remind us just how much fun these things could be.

Marvel Tales #111

"I Can't Stop Changing!" (a: Jerry Robinson) 
"The Martian in the Kitchen!" (a: Bill Benulis & Jack Abel) ★1/2
"At First Sight!" 
"Horror Under the Earth" (a: Al Eadeh) 
"The Man Who Searched for Satan!" (a: Joe Maneely) ★1/2

In order to win the heart of Helen, the woman he loves, ugly (but brilliant) scientist Brad Torrance strives to concoct a formula that will help him change his appearance into that of one of his handsome ancestors (!). After several failed attempts, Torrance discovers the power ingredients and sees an immediate change in his looks. He phones Helen for a date and heads over to pick her up but hits a few speed bumps along the way. Every few minutes, the brilliant (but obviously flawed) egghead changes into an even older ancestor, culminating in a complete transformation into a fish. While the regression is taking place, Helen marries another man and goes fishing. She catches a really weird fish and comments to her new husband how remarkably familiar this fish looks. "Why, it reminds me of Brad!" exclaims the excited blonde.

Here's something that's been missing around these parts since, I don't know, maybe Russ Heath's "The  Brain!" and "The Return of the Brain!" double-whacko-feature: true lunacy! Brad, not a bad guy but clearly lacking manners when he shouts at his assistant, only wants what every red-blooded Atlas Universe man wants and, also like most AU characters he's got the smarts to get what he wants. It's a truly ingenious potion when you get right down to it; it not only transforms Brad into each successive step in his family's evolution, but it also provides the clothes (or loincloth, when it comes down to it). Most outrageous is when Torrance hits the King Arthur years and sports a full set of armor! No, wait, that's topped by the scientist who looks into his microscope and sees "tracks made by something that drags its belly as it crawls!" Wait, what am I thinking? What about Helen's proclamation that Brad was a sweetheart underneath, even if he was "so ugly" on the outside, while she's staring at her catch of the day? They don't write them like "I Can't Stop Changing!" anymore!

Two friends come home to find "The Martian in the Kitchen!" The ET explains that his planet is dying so he's been sent to Earth to scout for food. He's found lots of it but needs a special kind of seasoning. The two dopes deduce that the alien is talking about mustard and... they're right. The Martian then sprinkles the condiment on the duo and eats them. Pretty predictable right from the get-go but my biggest complaint would be Jack Abel's stifling inks on the usually fun and reliable Bill Benulis.

Equally short, predictable, and dismissible is "At First Sight," about a shy guy who finds true love at the beach. After some frolicking in the water, we discover that the guy is a merman and his new beau a mermaid. At least this one has some nice graphics (GCD guesses the artist may be Cal Massey and, based on Massey's previous work, that's as good a guess as any) and doesn't outstay its welcome. The final two stories aren't worth the paper they're printed on. "Horror Under the Earth" feels like a novel masquerading as a short story. It's not that the elements are any good (on the contrary...), it's just that it feels like we're missing several pages here. Al Eadah's scratchy and ugly art doesn't help. And you don't need the Stan Lee signature on the splash to know "The Man" was behind the red-bashing "The Man Who Searched for Satan!" A kindly professor roams the globe looking for the devil and finds him in... surprise, surprise, surprise... the Soviet Union.

In just two weeks...
Krigstein returns!


Grant said...

"Condemned" sounds like one of the few stories of this kind where the criminal doesn't just MURDER the scientist or magician or whatever after learning about the invention. That seems like reason enough to feel bad for him at the end.

Peter Enfantino said...

Good point, Grant.

Todd Mason said...

I'm sure it has come up before, but I'm particularly struck how Stan Lee and others were particularly fond of filching magazine titles from the pulps for their comics. Common enough when the pulp publishers were doing comics companions to their prose magazines...impudent, at least, on the Atlas folks' part...

Anonymous said...

Apparently, Martin Goodman couldn’t stand Wolverton’s wacky work. There are some letters from Stan Lee in the recent collection BRAIN BATS OF VENUS, all along the lines of « Gosh, pal, I like your stuff just fine, but the boss says nix — maybe if you tried to draw more realistically, and made your people more attractive... » Which — God bless ya, Stan — but that just wasn’t gonna happen nohow, and besides, who wants to see Watered-down Wolverton with all the Weirdness weeded out? Hence, the Crab People story being Wolverton’s Atlas swan-song.


Peter Enfantino said...

It sucks big time that we didn't get more Wolverton in Atlas but, playing devil's advocate, I can see why. Wolverton had an almost perversive style compared to the rest of the guys in the bullpen. Most of the artists I'm being exposed to (as an adult) for the first time (Brodsky, DiPreta, Greene, Benulis, etc.) have their own style but it's a SAFE style. You half expect to find hidden penises in the faces of Wolverton's goofy monsters, right? Atlas had stumbled onto a formula and it was working. Why would Martin Goodman (a business man first and quality-seeker never) want to rock that boat?