Thursday, January 23, 2020

Journey Into Strange Tales! Atlas/ Marvel Horror Issue 52

The Marvel/Atlas 
Horror Comics
Part 37
February 1953 Part II

 Mystic #17

"The Vampire" (a: Ed Winiarski) 
"Hate!" (a: Bill Everett)  ★1/2
"Behind Locked Doors" (a: Vic Carrabotta) 
"Who Am I?" ★1/2
"The Silent Stranger" (a: Tony DiPreta) 

Little Teddy stumbles upon a dead body while he's out playing catch. When the cops arrive, they note how pale the corpse is and Teddy runs home, joyfully proclaiming he's just been witness to the victim of "The Vampire!" His father threatens to whip him but mom prevails and the tyke heads upstairs to bed. Meanwhile, mom and dad recline in their coffins, deciding what to do with their precocious brat. Nothing makes sense here; vampires sleeping at night and a kid who must be ten not knowing his mom and pop are bloodsuckers? And why isn't the kid a vampire? And how do the undead procreate? Oh, my head is hurting. "Hate!" has all the problems "The Vampire" does and more. A man bumps into his next-door neighbor and hates him on sight. Everywhere he turns, the guy is right there. In an effort to clear his mind of stress, the poor guy heads out West to stay at an exclusive hotel only to find his roommate is... you guessed it. Way too many coincidences and, let's face it, four pages does no favors for a scripter who actually wants to tell a story.

Psychiatrist/snob Roger Denby has only one goal in his life: to become an aristocrat. To attain this lofty goal, Roger brownnoses all the elite at the Austrian hotel he lives in. One night he makes acquaintance with a brooding man who claims that, despite his nobility, he will never live up to his father’s legacy. Roger spots an easy mark, so he lures the man back to his place for a session of hypnotherapy. Once the young man exits the hypnosis, his demeanor changes completely and he’s sure he can follow in the footsteps of his father, Count Dracula. "Behind the Locked Doors" has a cute idea for a plot and some nice art by Vic Carrabotta.

Ernie has been waiting hand and foot on old Jacob for over a year, hoping the old man would keel over and leave Ernie his fortune. Now, Ernie’s decided he can’t wait any longer and offs the old codger. The fortune turns out to be five hundred bucks, but Ernie’s never had that kind of dough before, so he's on cloud nine. When the cops show up at his door, Ernie figures the jig’s up and scurries off to a back-alley plastic surgeon for a makeover. When he gets home, he finds the cops at the door again, but this time they catch up to him. Turns out they’re not the fuzz, but PIs, hired by Jacob’s lawyer to find Ernie so he can claim the million bucks the old man left him in his will. Now all he has to do is identify himself! "Who Am I?" has a genuine twist that surprises. The GCD gives no possibles for artist here. The splash sure looks like Everett but the rest of the art is too sloppy for Bill.

The Hungarian village of Borgy is being terrorized by a vampire. The two fattest men have been murdered and the third fattest, Emil Reiner, the town cobbler, is reminded by all his neighbors that he's next on the  buffet. The townsfolk suspect that "The Silent Stranger," a newcomer to Borgy (who walks the streets with a violin case) is the bloodsucker but police have no evidence and will not initiate any action until they do. That night and the next, Emil is stalked by the stranger but manages to get away. Two others are murdered in his place. Finally, the silent stranger catches up to Emil and, try as he might, the poor cobbler cannot get away. The stranger pulls a wooden stake out of his violin case and stakes the real vampire in Borgy: Emil the cobbler! Even though "The Silent Stranger" has a predictable finish, one built upon a boatload of cheats, I semi-sorta liked it and I'm a sucker for the laid-back art of Tony DiPreta.

 Mystery Tales #8

"The Madman!" (a: Tony DiPreta)  ★1/2
"A Killer in the Street" (a: Paul Reinman) 
"This House is Haunted!" (a: Ed Winiarski) 
"The Wooden Man" 

No one else on Earth can play Hamlet like thespian George Wright but upstart understudy Henry Roscoe (the producer's cousin, of course) demands that he himself should play lead. When the idea is poo-pooed, Roscoe begins a campaign of terror designed to drive Wright insane, but when Roscoe accidentally kills Wright's wife, the veteran actor actually finds his understudy a part in the play... as Yorick! Extremely ludicrous (how about... even though the director knows Wright has killed Roscoe -- and hidden his head somewhere! -- he feels it safe to let him go on with the performance!!) and cliched, the only thing worth spending time on in "The Madman!" is Tony DiPreta's art.

Detective Steve Braddock is assigned to the mad killer who is stalking the city streets, murdering any fine young woman who happens to be wearing a red dress. When Steve's wife buys a red dress, he begs her to get rid of it for obvious reasons but she refuses so he kills her. Because Steve was the mad killer all along! Utterly predictable bit of idiocy, another of those slapdash scripts that delivers a "twist" built on cheats. Steve narrates "A Killer in the Street," dropping dialogue like "The boys kept turning up leads and we kept following them... but we didn't pick up the killer," observations designed to throw us off the scent but, in hindsight, make very little sense. Even dopier is "This House is Haunted," about four men playing poker in a spooky old house and the man who's coming to take custody of the old place. The "twist" is pretty much given away in the splash and the art is silly and crude. Regardless of their crude styles, Paul Reinman and Ed Winiarski were two of the most utilized artists in the Atlas pre-code era (Reinman edging Winiarski by one with his 47 contributions), I assume because they could whip these babies out fast.

"The Wooden Man" puts a perfect capper on one of the lousiest issues we've yet dissected. Chick Black is a midget/dwarf/insanely tiny man who's discovered the perfect way to get into unwary households and rob them of their valuables: he disguises himself as a ventriloquist dummy and waits for someone to pick him up and take him home. When a caper goes awry, a dying watchman reveals that a little man shot him and the papers scream "Dummy Robber Wanted for Murder!" Aboard a train attempting a getaway, Chick is discovered by a pair of precocious brats who borrow the baggage man's hacksaw to settle a bet. Is this little guy made of sawdust or wood? "The Wooden Man" scales an infinitely high level of ludiocrosity. Nothing about it makes sense. How long would it take for the average-IQ parent to detect a pulse or creating from a wooden dummy? Just how small is Chick Black? I can't tell you since his scale changes from panel to panel. And, to top it al off, who's going to remain quiet while he's cut in half, even to avoid detection by the cops? Sheesh, this is a quartet of losers I'll be happy to forget quickly.

 Spellbound #12

"What Happened to Mister Snively?" 
(a: Russ Heath) 
(r: Vault of Evil #5)
"On the Spot" (a: Paul Reinman) 
(r: Vault of Evil #5)
"The Diet of Donald Moore" (a: Sam Kweskin) 
(r: Vault of Evil #5)
"The Gas Man" (a: Louis Zansky)  
"My Friend the Ghost" (a: Tony DiPreta) ★1/2
(r: Vault of Evil #5)

Mister Snively, the town butcher may seem like a kind-hearted man who will do anything for his customers but, in reality, the portly old codger is hoarding canned food, bought off the black market, and stashing it in his basement. Snively does not intend to be left without provisions when the Russkies finally drop their bombs. When the day comes, and the dirty Reds evade our defenses and Snively's Butcher Shop is a direct hit, the heartless miser is safely ensconced amidst his tons of canned food. A pity he forgot to bring a can opener! "What Happened to Mister Snively?" is another of Stan's red-baiting vignettes (well, Stan never actually labels them Russkies but the jets have a familiar look to them) but at least this one has a humorous bent and that ironic twist had me cracking a really big smile. "Snively" may just be a second cousin to Burgess Meredith's book-loving sociophobe from "Time Enough at Last."

"On the Spot" concerns Lee King, Broadway star and giant ego, who's cheesed at the spotlight man for shining that spot on anything but Lee. After the big-headed star discovers the spot-man is tilling Lee's girlfriend's garden, Lee goes bonkers and kills the man. After he's convicted and sentenced to death, King manages to break out of prison but a lone searchlight (manned by the spot-man's ghost) finds Lee and he's ventilated by the guards. Some nice Reinman art here but the script is lukewarm and the finale's "irony" is "spotted" a mile away.

In the short-short, "The Diet of Donald Moore," the titular pipsqueak (but all-around nice guy) tries everything under the sun to stay healthy; fad diets, weight lifting, and vitamins do nothing for him. Then Donald Moore tries a concentrated intake of chlorophyll with less-than-surprising results. Predictable is the fate of "The Gas Man!" as well. A woman tries to talk her "gas man" boyfriend into killing her rich husband; gas guy says no, so she kills the old man anyway. She gets caught and sentenced to death. Her beau is the man who turns on the gas. Dreadful.

When Kennth Reese is disinherited from his stepdad's millions, he swears to come back and haunt the old man. An odd threat, you might say, but then Kennth proceeds to kill himself in a car crash and come back from the grave to scare pops to death. A straightforward ghost story you're thinking? Think again, as when you get to the final panels you'll discover that Kenneth never really died in that car crash, instead receiving an injection of morphine from his friend, the family doctor, to bring on an "appearance of death" (hey! don't look at me like that! I'm only reporting what I read!). Joke's on Kennth though, when the doc confesses to injecting his buddy with poison. Yep, Kennth is really dead! No wonder he'd been having bad dreams! "My Friend, the Ghost" is the kind of lunacy I love to stumble upon; sure, it ventures into Scooby-Doo territory but the sheer scope of Kenneth Reese's plan alone is enough to make you smile. Then there's Tony DiPreta's art, which perfectly captures the vibe of this low-budget Universal-International spook show.

 Strange Tales #15

"Mary and the Witch!" (a: Bernie Krigstein)  ★1/2
"The Last Word" (a: Larry Woromay)  ★1/2
"Don't Look Down" (a: George Roussos) 
"Afraid!" (a: Sam Kweskin) ★1/2
"He Walked Through the Wall" (a: Vic Dowling & Bob Stuart) ★1/2

Gold-digger Mary Sharp, once one of the most gifts make-up artists in show-business, sinks her claws into the most talented magician on Broadway, Carl Butler, but it's soon evident that it's Carl's mother she needs to befriend. You see, Carl's ma is a witch and Mary wants to master the art of magic in order to fill her own coffers. But Carl's old lady sees right through her son's new flame and warns her to keep away from the black arts. Undeterred, Mary makes herself up to look like the old woman one day while mom is in town in order to fool Carl into spilling the beans. Just then, a group of townsfolk bust down the door and accuse Mary of witchcraft and burn her at the stake.

"Mary and the Witch!" is jumbled (Mary's masquerade makes very little sense nor does Carl's unexplained disappearance mid-way through the narrative) and the climax is a head-scratcher (the setting is contemporary but witches are burnt at the stake?), but this dopey bit of nonsense is entertainment, nonetheless. And it's always a treat to see the Bernie Krigstein magic.

Neither Davis nor Nostrand...
Wilbur only married Minerva for her money; Minerva knows that, but demands her husband stay true no matter what, or he'll be cut off from her fortune. Wilbur's got a chick on the side, gorgeous stripper Gloria, but the dope is convinced the dame is mad for him and not all the extra green he carries. When Minerva finds out about Gloria, the expected fireworks are set off and Wilbur is left penniless, with Minerva promising never to speak to him again. Once he tells his girlfriend the free ride is over,  Gloria's true colors are shown and an enraged Wilbur strangles the hussy. He hoofs it back to Minerva to beg for forgiveness and a few grand for a good lawyer but, true to her word, Minerva remains silent. The police enter and Wilbur confesses, only to be surprised when they tell him they were here to take Minerva's body to the morgue. She'd died hours before! The only aspect worth noting about "The Last Word," a very weak suspenser, is the Jack Davis-inspired Woromay art. Clearly, Howard Nostrand wasn't the only artist who'd been admiring Davis's work over at EC.

Wealthy Mr. Benson is afflicted with a nightmarish case of acrophobia, so extreme that his bed seems to him to be miles above the bedroom floor. The street curb resembles the Grand Canyon, His butler's getting tired of carrying him from room to room and suggests a psychiatrist. The doctor assures Benson that he can't be cured until he faces his fear. To that end, Dr. Enfield places the terrified man in a chair and begins to tip it towards the floor. Ignoring Benson's screams of fear that the floor is miles below, the doctor spills him to the floor. Moments later, Benson's butler and doctor are flabbergasted to discover that he's dead, flattened like a pancake. What happened at the climax of "Don't Look Down?" Who knows? Why did it happen? Who knows? Benson himself tells us he hasn't been that great of a guy to the people around him so I suppose he's being meted out a bit of Twilight Zone-style justice but since we haven't seen any sadism on his part (we're introduced to him mid-terror) it's tough to feel it's a case of just desserts. We're also never told whether this has been an ongoing phobia for the man or it's just recently introduced. And where is his family? A lot of questions unanswered, I know, for a story I'm recommending but the visuals more than make up for the shortcomings of a 4 page story. It's hard not to feel the man's terror when we see his slippers several stories below him on his bedroom floor. To me, all the vagaries only add to the enjoyment of the tale.

The issue ends with the silly short-short "Afraid!," about a monster who enjoys reading horror stories before bedtime, and "He Walked Through the Wall" about a bank robber strong-arming a scientist who's conjured up a gel that allows the applier to walk through solid walls. Only problem is, the crook isn't told the balm has a time limit. 

 Suspense #27

"If!" (a: Fred Kida) 
"Storm Warning!" (a: Ed Winiarski) 
"Terror in the Tropics" (a: Sam Citron) 
"The Man Who Killed Himself!" 
"Hall of Mirrors" (a: Dick Briefer) 

Burt meets a gorgeous dame named Lenore one night while walking home from work and the young lady seems immediately smitten with Burt as well. "If!" Burt had walked Lenore home he would have discovered her father is a werewolf and her mother is a vampire. Which makes Lenore part vampire and makes Burt dinner! But he doesn't walk her home; instead he walks in front of a truck. A really dumb variation on the "choose your path" story that goes nowhere very slowly.

Alex Mugwump is the world's worst weather forecaster. No matter what he predicts, the opposite happens. Tired of being a laughing stock, Alex builds a weather machine and begins changing the climate to fit whatever he forecasts. After an unprecedented string of bullseyes, Alex is the talk of the town; everyone wants to know what Mugwump thinks about the day's weather. But the bloom is soon off the rose, since everyone knows weather is really not that important. In fact, after hearing that exclamation for the umpteenth time, Alex Mugwump loses his temper with the world and begins building an ark. "Storm Warning!" is a change of pace that's good for a few smiles; it's a tale that would fit in nicely with one of the Atlas humor titles of the era (Crazy, Riot, Wild, and Snafu) and features adequate Winiarski visuals.

Since her husband is the only doctor on a plague-ridden island, Hilda Channing must contend with the uncomfortable swelter and the never-ending buzzing of the giant flies that swarm just outside her screened windows. Hilda is going slightly mad. When hubby informs her that he's to be on the island until the disease is wiped out but, on the bright side, he's just taken out a life insurance policy on himself to the tune of 25k, Hilda finally sees a way off the island. She squeezes the arsenic out of the flypaper and serves it to her husband in a salad but (talk about bad timing) a swarm of nasty buzzers breaks through the screen and makes a meal out of Hilda. Abysmal art (some panels almost look pasted together) is not the only problem with "Terror in the Tropics." It's a mass of cliches and ludicrosity (these flies can kill you within minutes!), resembling something from one of the lesser companies.

Just as bad is "The Man Who Killed Himself," about a starving artist on a ledge given a second chance by a fellow painter. The roles soon reverse and we're left with a wholly irrational and head-scratching denouement. Gavin is the best distorted-mirror maker in the land, but he's been making time with Fifi, the carnival owner's girl, so the next mirror will be the last he makes for Arnold's Carnival. Flush with anger, Gavin heads home to his workshop where he whips up a special formula he's "translated from the hieroglyphics on the pyramids of Egypt," and concocts a mirror unlike any he's ever created. Mr. Arnold is impressed too until he experiences the full effect of the new glass. "Hall of Mirrors" is the best story in an otherwise poor issue, mostly because of Dick Briefer's exaggerated and creepy art and the sheer wonk factor of the script. I always love how these laborers always hide a dark secret or nasty hobby. Gavin sure doesn't look like the kind of guy who'd fancy deciphering ancient symbols.

Uncanny Tales #5

"Fear!" (a: George Roussos) 
"I Can't Stop Killing" (a: Sol Brodsky) ★1/2
"Plague" (a: Jim Mooney) 
"The Both of Me" (a: Vernon Henkel) 
"The Men Who Fly" (a: Vic Carrabotta) 

On the eve of a Soviet military strike, the United Nations gathers its most famous eggheads together and asks what should be done. Professor Sigmond Gnoth raises his meek voice and suggests that the greatest weapon is "Fear!" The next day, the UN drops a bomb on Moscow, but the darn thing just sits there. Russian scientists hypothesize that it's an atomic weapon, it's a germ warfare bomb, yada yada yada. The entire Russian population panics, with thousands committing suicide. Before long, chaos reigns and the Premier blows his own brains out. Moscow sends a telegram to the UN, proclaiming the Cold War over. Back in Washington, Professor Gnoth reveals to his higher-ups that the bomb dropped was an empty cylinder. Fear ended the war! Another Stan Lee essay on just how dumb and vicious the Commies were back in the 1950s; almost laughable in its simplicity. The idea's a good one but, unfortunately, telegraphed early on. That leaves us with George Roussos's by-the-numbers but perfectly adequate art, which makes "Fear!" a perfectly average 1950s horror funny book strip.

Fargo wants to know where the mine is that Laird has been pulling gold from and murder will not stop him, so he heads out to Laird's shack deep in the desert and asks the old man to make him his partner. Laird tells Fargo that he'll consider the prospect (pardon the pun!) after he reads Fargo's palm to discover what kind of man he really is. After the reading, Laird tells Fargo a partnership is not in the works because Fargo will be dead soon. Enraged, Fargo ventilates the old miner and then ransacks the shacks until he finds a map, ostensibly to the gold mine. Fargo heads even deeper into the desert towards the X on the map but must stop first at a small oasis and drink deep. After filling his stomach with the cool water, he notices the rock with the Danger... Don't Drink... This Water is Poisoned message on a nearby boulder. An odd one that pretty much sputters out with a weak twist and some truly awful Sol Brodsky visuals. A shame since it starts out fairly well with an engaging dialogue between Fargo and Laird.

Simple-minded janitor, Jarick, believes the mannikin in the window of the European store he cleans is alive and in love with him. When the city is ravaged with "Plague!" and the streets empty, Jarick tucks his lady love under his arm and flees for safety. Along the way, he falls into a pit dug for plague victims and his wax beauty is stolen by two passers-by who admire the dummy's shiny baubles. Jarick curses the robbers with death and then dies himself, a victim of the plague. Later, when the thieves remove the manikin's jewelry, they discover the tell-tale black spots and realize, with horror, they have caught the plague from a wax dummy. Though the plot is "something borrowed..." it has a certain melancholy to it that I found entrancing, and I can't deny a (very small) lump rose in my throat at the climax.

Two-bit hood Harry Dolan happens onto the perfect alibi for his crimes: Walt Terry, who could be Harry's twin and, as long as he's got a bottle in front of him, happy to go along for the ride. Harry robs shops at night while Walt sits at a bar, witnessed by several upstanding patrons and one unruly bartender. Harry warns Walt to quit elbowing the bartender but Walt is his own man so, one night after a particularly harrowing robbery where the cops have tailed him to the bar, Harry discovers that perfect alibis can sometimes be disastrous. Vern Henkel's rough and scratchy doodles gives Sol Brodsky a run for "Worst Art" award this issue and "The Both of Me" is basically a padded one-liner, but the story has an undeniable charm and a grimly humorous finale.

Would-be scientific genius George has devised a machine that will eliminate gravity and allow man to achieve all kinds of questionable goals: building houses in the sky, flying without the use of planes and, best of all, traveling to other planets (!!!). He excitedly tells his best mate, Hal, that he's about to pull the switch and test his new contraption but he's got a few more wrinkles to iron out. When the big night arrives and George pulls the switch, Hal calls in a panic, telling George he has to postpone the big event. Explaining that it's too late, George listens in horror as Hal reminds him that, without gravity, the Earth will crack like an egg. Which it does!

"The Men Who Fly" is just what we needed right now, a good old-fashioned end of the world story, delivered with a healthy dose of humor and a perfectly wonky art job by Vic Carrabotta. George is not your average Atlas mad scientist; he truly believes he's helping mankind reach that next plateau. Never mind he never thinks to consult with real scientists. At this point, the Atlas artists seem to have fallen into three camps: 1/ the guys who are pumping them out fast and devoid of anything approaching style (Citron, Brodsky, Winiarski); 2/ the crude but efficient and randomly approaching brilliant (Carrabotta, Mooney, Reinman); and 3/ the guys with a style all their own, who make even the lowliest of scripts readable (Everett, Heath, Colan). Regardless of who handles art chores, the majority of Atlas pre-code horror is still head-and-shoulders above the mild-mannered and infantile output of most of the other companies, even on a bad day (Mystery Tales #8 and Suspense #27, please take a bow).

In Two Weeks...
Is Menace the
crème de la crème?


Grant said...

I wonder if "Fear" is the darkest Red Scare story in any of these comics, with all those suicides? After all, Russian civilians are supposed to be the Russian government's victims, not the "good guys'" victims.

Peter Enfantino said...

Tough to say at this point. There are several more "Red Scare" tales coming up very soon.