Thursday, February 6, 2020

Journey Into Strange Tales! Atlas/ Marvel Horror Issue 53

The Marvel/Atlas 
Horror Comics
Part 38
March 1953 Part I

 Menace #1

"One Head Too Many!" (a: Bill Everett) 
"The Man Who Couldn't Move" (a: George Tuska) 
(r: Crypt of Shadows #2)
"Poor Mr. Watkins" (a: Werner Roth) 
(r: Vault of Evil #1)
"They Wait in Their... Dungeon!" (a: Russ Heath) 
(r: Chamber of Chills #1)

According to comics historian, Michael J. Vassallo, in his essay in Marvel Masterworks: The Atlas Era Menace, Atlas's latest title was designed, by Stan, "to give EC a run for its money." Using the best of his bullpen artists, Stan crafted what he considered to be the gold standard of the Atlas pre-code horror line. At least for the first seven issues, Stan stuck to a four-story format, allowing each tale a few more pages for plot development and adhering to a strict diet of Everett-Heath-Maneely. Something happened right around the eighth issue (perhaps sales weren't as robust as Lee had hoped for) and the title became just another spoke in the wheel. Though not wildly successful (the 17th title in the company's horror line), Menace has developed an aura about it over the years and is responsible for the birthing of one of Marvel's better "monster heroes" of the 1970s.

Lou Briggs witnesses a spaceship land in Central Park and the occupants, Martians who have "One Head Too Many," beckon Lou to board their craft. The ship heads into space and the Martian commander tells Lou that Mars was about to attack Earth (the Red Planet has come to fear Man's hostility and impending visit to space) but they've had a change of heart. A war of the worlds would leave both races decimated and so, the Martians wish to meet with world leaders to discuss peace. Lou is to be the go-between. A "space-raft" drops Lou back in Central Park and he immediately gets on the phone to his best buddies to confirm Martians are coming. Lou and the rest of his moon-men will sit on the sidelines while Mars and Earth duke it out and then claim the spoils.

Sure, it's a big hunk of silliness that lays down some whopping cheats in order to deliver the twist in the tail (when Lou first sees the spaceship, he cries out in amazement, "Then there really are such things!" as if he's never seen one before!) but just feast your eyes on that gorgeous Everett art. Only Bill would depict his Martians as rotting two-headed corpses!

Skid Row derelict Willie is shootin' the breeze with his bum-buddies when Mrs. Hunt, a sweet dame, drives up and offers him a job as her chauffeur. Willie may have scotch on the brain but he knows something is up with this broad; still, he can't turn down the C note a week she's offering, so he hops in her car and heads back with her to her pricey brownstone. Once inside, Willie gets the rest of the story when he meets Mr. Hunt, who just happens to be completely paralyzed, and the Mrs. spills the beans.

She wants Willie to murder her hubby so that she can inherit his vast fortune. Willie agrees, providing Mrs. Hunt will marry him after the dirty deed is done. Promises made, Willie loads Mr. Hunt in the backseat of the car and takes him for a drive over a cliff. Things don't go as planned though when Willie becomes trapped in the car as it takes its tumble. We flash forward to Mrs. Hunt's brownstone, where the new millionairess is hiring a new chauffeur to do a side job for her. "The Man Who Couldn't Move" is a bit predictable but on the plus side, George Tuska, at this point in his career, can still pump out fairly effective material. Why would the widow Hunt keep Willie around after the accident? It's not like they'd gotten married yet. Odd.

Harry Higgins is a practical joker but he's also sadistic and slimy and the lovely Cathy down at the library has told Harry to amscray a gazillion times. After one time too many, Cathy finally has enough and quits. Enter "Poor Mr. Watkins," her replacement. Watkins has a gentle demeanor and when Harry discovers the old man has replaced the gorgeous Cathy, Watkins becomes the new target of Harry's nasty pranks. One night, Harry looks up Watkins's address, knocks on the door and yells "Police!" Frightened out of his skull, Watkins opens the door and, after Harry stops laughing, turns into a werewolf. A case of two cliches colliding in one story ("The Jokester" meets "The Meek Monster!"), "Poor Mister Watkins" isn't much in the way of brain food nor is it all that entertaining, but Werner Roth's salacious visuals almost rescue this one.

"They Wait in Their... Dungeon!" is one of those stories you're automatically going to scream "Blind Alleys!" at but, truth be told, this one predates that one by a couple of years. I'm sure there were earlier variations but "...Dungeon!" deals with sadistic Warden Drury, who oversees the "most feared and most hated" penitentiary in the world, the notorious "Drury's Dungeon," an ominous piece of rock lying smack dab in the middle of the ocean (think Alcatraz, only a few hundred miles west). Drury rules over his motley crew with an iron fist and a cat o' nine tails. When the beatings and degradation get to be too much, the inmates rebel and Drury is in quite a bit of trouble. It's all handled with black humor and the stylish renderings of one Sir Russ Heath, so despite the familiarities (has there ever been a friendly prison warden?), I liked it a lot. That climax is so familiar, I'd be amazed if Al Feldstein didn't lift an idea from Stan for once. Karma. So how fares the new experiment its first time out? Not bad. Stay Tuned.

 Journey Into Mystery #6

"Death!" (a: Russ Heath) ★1/2
"Wings of the Vampire!" (a: Ed Winiarski) 
"The Perfect Specimen!" (a: Tony DiPreta) ★1/2
"The Man Who Went Back" (a: Sam Kweskin) ★1/2
"Till Death Do Us Part!" (a: Mort Lawrence) 

Carl Wilcox is obsessed with "Death!" It's not just a passing fancy; no, Carl wants to know what it's like to be on the "other side." To this end, Carl builds a contraption he's sure will reanimate a corpse but, of course, he's going to need a still-fresh body. Only one way that can be insured so Carl goes out hunting. After he knifes a hobo, the would-be Frankenstein takes the still-warm corpse back to his lab and begins his experiment. After hours of fruitless zaps and prods, at last the hobo rises from his slab. Gleefully, Carl Wilcox asks his experiment what death looks like and, with a crazy grin, the man reaches out for his maker and informs him that he'll have to find out himself! Nice, atmospheric Heath art and a humorous finale are the high points of this Stan Lee-penned horror tale. Once again, it seems as though most of the crazed geniuses in the Atlas Universe have the wherewithal to build incredible gizmos and afford amazing electric bills without any evidence of a paying job.

"Wings of the Vampire!" is a supremely silly three-pager about a cowardly policeman in 1800s Europe who locks himself into the town jail every night a vampire takes a victim. Jokes on the inspector though since, it turns out, the bloodsucker keeps his coffin in the basement of the prison.
Equally silly is "The Perfect Specimen!," about an army induction center doctor who discovers one of the men enlisting is a robot. The uncredited writer does his best to subtly lay the blame for this robot invasion at the feet of the stinkin' Commies as any good Stan Lee understudy would. Tony DiPreta finds himself restricted to talking heads and not much more.

Mac Holt escapes the gallows and prison but not before ventilating a couple guards. He makes it to a nearby highway and flags down a passing bus. Exhausted, Mac falls into a seat and then into a deep sleep. Waking, Mac is astonished to see all the passengers, including himself, are decades older. Holding a gun on the bus driver, Mac orders the driver to turn back. Youth retuns to Mac and his fellow riders and he falls back into his sleep. When he comes to, he's back on the gallows but this time the bottom drops out. Yet another rip-off of "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," this one credited to pulpster Carl Wessler (who probably recycled this one dozens of times in his career), "The Man Who Went Back" benefits from the stylish Kweskin visuals but little else. It's never explained why the bus driver would turn around on his route or what happened to the rest of the passengers but perhaps I'm thinking too deeply.

Andrew Starke is a murderous gigolo, having dispatched five elderly women for their fortunes, but Andrew's lifestyle requires that his account be replenished frequently. Which is what brings Starke to the home of Hester Rollins, who insists she has quite the "treasure" hidden in her huge house. Andrew and Hester are quickly married and he begins the task of quietly searching for the "treasure." What Andrew discovers is predictable but satisfying. A large portion of my generous 3-star rating is granted because of the fabulous art of Mort Lawrence who seems, with "Til Death Do Us Part!," to have discovered a way to ape both Gene Colan and Ghastly Graham in one sitting (that splash really does look as though it was torn from an EC, doesn't it?!) a la the chameleonic powers of Howard Nostrand. The script, by Wessler, is nothing new but it'll do in a pinch.

 Adventures Into Weird Worlds #16

"Kiss of Death" (a: Tony DiPreta) 
(r: Journey Into Mystery #12)
"Mind Over Matter" (a: Bill Benulis & Jack Abel) ★1/2
(r: Giant-Size Werewolf #2)
"Flying Saucer" (a: Jack Abel) ★1/2
(r: Supernatural Thrillers #10)
"Surprise!" (a: Jack Keller) 
(r: Uncanny Tales #6)
"The Old Man's Secret!" (a: Jay Scott Pike) ★1/2
(r: Chamber of Chills #12)

Horror writer John Ashby has not had much success of late and his wife, Lillian, is not having any of it. Now, John's doctor tells him he can't okay the increase on John's life insurance as the writer has a bad ticker and could go at any minute. Seeing this as her chance to cash in while she can, Lillian rents an old mansion and tells John it's for inspiration. What she's actually planning to do is dress up as a vampiress and scare her hubby to death. Unbeknownst to Lillian, there's already a vampiress living in the old house! Clunky and awkward, "Kiss of Death" dies early due to a badly-written and 100% predictable script.

"Mind Over Matter"
Fresh off a stay in "mysterious India," Gordon Langley returns home to discuss philosophy and the secrets the Yogi taught him. One of those secrets is "Mind Over Matter." Langley explains to his friend, Allen, that if one simply believes an object does not exist... that object does not exist. Allen scoffs but then does a double-take when Gordon demonstrates by making a chandelier disappear. After experimenting on Allen's bookcase and china cabinet, the house is a mess but worse... Allen reminds Gordon that if the furniture doesn't exist, maybe he and Allen don't either. Too late to unthink that one. "Mind Over Matter" is a short-short delight, nothing too taxing, with a darkly humorous climax. I'd have preferred more Benulis in my Benulis/Abel salad but the art's not bad.

"Flying Saucer" is a silly three-pager about a man who becomes excited at a science fiction film, explaining to his gaping companions that he'd seen flying saucers before. They scoff and argue as they leave the theater and we discover the movie house is on Mars. Mito Vargay loves the young gypsy, Lola, but the gal only has eyes former beau, Stephen, so nasty old Mito murders Stephen and hopes for the best. Unfortunately, Lola does not come around to the fact that now Mito is the only game in town and swears she'll never look at another man's face again. In desperation, Vargay strikes a bargain with an old witch to give him Stephen's face. As expected, the face belongs to the two-month-dead Stephen and Lola (rightfully) rejects the nasty corpse. Some nice (Romita-esque) Jack Keller art but the big pay-off is no "Surprise!" Finally, the best story of the issue brings up the rear. Jacob Abel makes exquisite "weather houses" and his assistant, Hans, wants in on "The Old Man's Secret!" How does Jacob craft such life-like figurines? Abel is unwilling to pass on his knowledge to the younger man so Hans decides to break into his boss's workshop that night... and regrets it. Nice, atmospheric Pike art goes well with a script that packs a twist that's not completely unexpected but certainly delivered with punch.

Brodsky & Burgos
 Journey Into Unknown Worlds #16

"The Hermit in the Hills" (a: Cal Massey) ★1/2
"Scared to Death!" (a: Tony DiPreta) 
"The Masterpiece!" (a: Joe Maneely)  ★1/2
"The Devil's Good Deed!" (a: Al Luster)  
"Deadline!" (a: John Rosenberger) 

Bob Grant of the Daily Reporter is ordered by his editor to head into the Black Hills and come back with a scoop on the flying saucers seen landing in that area. Grant runs into "The Hermit in the Hills," who relates a fantastic story to the beat writer. The Hermit had not only seen the ship land, he'd also come in contact with its pilot, a "big mess o' rotten-smellin' glob" that eats anything it comes in contact with and then assumes its victim's identity. Guess who the latest victim was! The Cal Massey graphics are great but there's no denying that the hook is a monstrous lift from Howard Hawks' The Thing From Another World. Bonus points are awarded to the depiction of the alien, which seems to regurgitate (a la a fly) on its victim before consuming it.

The ludicrously over-the-top "Scared to Death" concerns an amusement ride owner who blackmails an engineer into crafting the world's most dangerous roller coaster. As I've mentioned before, there's a thin line the scripters walked on, with the nasty, conniving (and convincing) killers on one side and the one-dimensional and unbelievable lunatics on the other. Otto, the businessman who won't stop at blackmail, murder, and building a death-trap, just to get one step ahead of the other attractions easily falls into the latter camp. "The Masterpiece!" is an equally silly short-short about an eccentric artist who has just created "the greatest piece of sculpture ever made." The twist is predictable but at least it's got three pages of Maneely attached to its inane Stan Lee script.

Perfume manufacturer Lisa Torgan knows her profits are going south and she needs a new scent pronto. Up pops Satan to offer her a free formula guaranteed to make any man "grasp their loved ones in their arms and hold them tight." Lisa's obviously not done a lot of reading or she'd know there'd be a catch to "The Devil's Good Deed!" Sure enough, any man who gets a nose full of the new perfume grabs his lady up and squeeeeezes! It's all very predictable but it's not a bad read.

Herbert Carvel is a fiction writer but he's just not that good and his editor is about to dump him if Herbert can't find the right hook. Alas, the only idea the pulpster can conjure is a horror story about ghosts and vampires. His editor insists that the two creatures do not mingle but Carvel is insistent and, one night, he invites the editor up to his shack to prove him wrong. One of those really dumb scripts that wastes four pages ot get to a punchline you could see coming from the first. "Deadline!" would be a complete bust were it not for the very stylish art of John Rosenberger, an artist who would contribute only five times to the Atlas pre-codes. Rosenberger's style reminds me of a low-rent Graham Ingels. That's not a slam; Rosenberger's work lacks the detail found in Ingels' comic art but the style and mood certainly stand out from the artists around him.


 Astonishing #23

"His Father's Secret!" (a: Dick Ayers & Ernie Bache) 
"Woman in Black" (a: Chuck Winter) ★1/2
"Pursuit!" (a: Bob Forgione) 
"Hog Attack!" 
"The Hole in the Wall" (a: Ed Winiarski) ★1/2

Author Philip Calvert turns in his latest manuscript, a tale filled with ancient torture chambers, and knocks his editor's socks off. How could this formerly barely-average writer have come up with such a gripping, sensational, and realistic story? The added ingredient is the time machine crafted by Philip's genius scientist pop but when dad gets wind his son has been visiting the dark ages and risks "warping aspects of the future," he hits the roof and makes Philip promise to stay in his own time zone. Son agrees but jumps back into "His Father's Secret" again that night to visit the dawn of man. Faster than you can say "A Sound of Thunder," Philip has screwed up his future. Back in 1953, this might not have been so predictable (unless you read EC Comics or Ray Bradbury) but as a Monday Morning Quarterback, I knew what was in my future as soon as Professor Calvert uttered the words "terrible repercussions." In addition to the tired plot, we have to deal with the pedestrian Ayers/Bache art, mostly composed of Philip gritting his teeth.

Auspicious debut for Winters
Cabbie Jimmy Dawes talks a suicidal "Woman in Black" off a bridge but later comes to regret it. No proper synopsis will do this one any favors since it's made up of one vagary after another (the final twist, a real head-scratcher, has to be seen to be disbelieved). Newcomer Chuck Winter, who will go on to contribute thirty more jobs during the pre-code era, delivers adequate graphics. A woman spends her day running through New York, claiming her husband's shadow is in "Pursuit!"but she killed him there night before. Hunter Eric Kent stocks his ranch with man-eating wild boar in order to experience the thrill of dangerous big-game hunting but, when his half-brother comes to visit, things go awry. The promising "Hog Attack!" takes a turn in its mid-section and can't fully recover before the climactic titular event. A weak issue comes to a close with "The Hole in the Wall" about a vicious convict who's trying to break out but mistakenly exits through the new hole in the basement wall, which turns out to be the incinerator.

Kweskin & Burgos
 Adventures Into Terror #17

"I Die Too Often" (a: Gil Kane) 
(r: Crypt of Shadows #5)
"The Vandals!" (a: Joe Sinnott) ★1/2
"Casper's Boss!" (a: Ken Landau) 
"They Don't Complain" (a: Sam Kweskin) 
(r: Frankenstein #14)
"Red as a Lobster" (a: Jim Mooney) 
(r: Crypt of Shadows #5)

Some nice Gil Kane art keeps "I Die Too Often" afloat. Con Tom Gordon is set to be fried in the electric chair but every night leading up to his execution he dies in his dreams. But are they dreams? The dream within a dream within a dream angle is fine but the climax, where the finally-dead Gordon finds he has to play out his execution even after death, is a little fuzzy.

Four hoodlums break into a museum and destroy everything they come in contact with, wanting only to find something valuable to steal. They finally stumble across a sold gold four-headed snake idol and begin sawing the heads off to take with them. Bad idea. Even thought the story's an old one (even in 1953), it's a lot of fun and Joe Sinnott's manic art is like one of the treasures in the museum. And where is that museum guard?

Casper's wife needs an operation but it's going to cost two grand so he asks his boss for an advance. Mr. Tuft, owner of the Tuft Cigar Company, laughs and blows smoke in his employee's face. Instead of the two large, Tuft tells Casper he needs him to accompany him to a business function up at his hunting lodge for the weekend. Everyone in the meeting smokes Tuft cigars, which makes Casper ill so he takes a walk and stumbles on a shack full of dynamite. Meanwhile, Tuft takes a call informing him that Mrs. Casper has died. When he gives his employee the news, Casper snaps and takes his boss out to the shack for an explosive smoke. Those Atlas heavies, not unlike the bastardly bosses in the comics published by the other guys, can be a tad too heavy at times for believability and that can work against a story's flow. "Casper's Boss" is masochistic to extremes. And how about that convenient dynamite shack out in the middle of the woods? Ken Landau has a rough, but very effective style perfectly suited for a horror story but this was Landau's only Atlas horror contribution. The artist would jump ship and land at ACG in 1953.

"They Don't Complain" is a three-page quickie about an old man who's treated roughly in his hospital bed. The upshot is that he's (surprise!) dead! The poor old guy is the only one surprised about the outcome. Paul loves the sight of a lobster boiling in a pot of hot water. That's what leads him out on a yacht off the California coast, the promise of huge lobsters to torture. There's nothing on Earth that excites him more but his fiancé, Doris, and the yacht owner, Jim, don't find anything remotely exciting about watching the poor crustaceans die in such a horrible way. When Paul witnesses Doris telling Jim to take her away from all this misery, the lobster-man plots murder via hot springs. Unfortunately, the relatives of his clawed victims are waiting for Paul at the bottom of the sea and he ends up "Red as a Lobster." We've had protagonists obsessed with the killing of pigs, chickens, dogs, bugs; so, why not lobsters? Well, that's all fine and good if the trope leads to a well-told story. Alas, as with 90% of the stories that fit that bill, the climax is 100% obvious. The minute Paul shows his proclivity for burned flesh, you know what his fate will be.

Marvel Tales #112 

"The House That Death Built!" (a: Russ Heath)  ★1/2
"Jonah!!" (a: Al Carreno)  
"I'm Waiting for You!" (a: Carl Hubbell)  
"The Third Ghost" (a: Larry Woromay)  

Who knows how the house mysteriously appeared one night on the vacant lot in the sleepy town of Plainville? Certainly not the mayor nor the police chief or even the beat reporter but now they and several townsfolk gather in front of the weird phenomena looking for answers. The reporter is the only one present with enough nerve to enter the house but, minutes later, the crowd hears his screams. The cop goes in to investigate but he disappears as well! Mayor Wormsley contacts Washington and soon the house in Plainville is national news.

Just as a renowned architect arrives, a light goes on inside the house and the man enters to investigate. Once inside, a voice tells him that the building itself is an alien from outer space, the two men who disappeared were food, and the architect is dessert. "The House That Death Built!" starts off so intriguing; it's like a well-written Twilight Zone episode but, sadly, writer Stan Lee couldn't find a satisfactory way to wrap up his little mystery. That's a shame since the crowd dialogue is snappy and Russ Heath's art is, as usual, gorgeous but perhaps I should just be happy that Stan didn't introduce a commie angle for once.

In "Jonah!!," a sadistic sea captain tosses a young man overboard to his death but then gets his just desserts when the whale he kills contains a deadly secret. The climax is predictable but the art is good. Same goes for "I'm Waiting for You!" wherein Burt Muller murders his partner, Jeff, in the woods and then burns his body to ashes. From then on, he sees the dead man whenever he's around smoke. Driven to near-insanity by the smoke-ghost, Muller confesses to his crime in hopes  electrocution will end the nightmarish visions. In the end, Muller goes to hell and sees Jeff everywhere he turns.

Carl Wessler delivers the best story of the issue with the simple, but clever, "The Third Ghost," a retelling of Dickens' "A Christmas Story." Miser Elias Hodge pays his employees pennies and hides millions. When he fires Nicholas Wilkins for subordination, he's visited by three ghosts. The first, Ghost of Christmas Past, takes Elias back to when he was eight years old and cheated his brother out of a toy train. Elias smiles and muses how much he misses those old days and brags that his father never discovered his treachery. Next up, the Ghost of Christmas Present takes Elias to the house of Nicholas Wilkins, where Wilkins and his wife question where they'll get the money to take poor sick little Tommy to the doctor. Hodge only snickers and admits no one could live on the wages he pays.

Giving up, Present Ghost turns the job over to Future Ghost, who shows Elias that soon he will be a pauper, dying penniless. Shaken, Elias Hodge sells all his businesses and properties the next day and stacks the cash in a vault under his mansion. Elias Hodge will never be a poor man now. Dejected, the three ghosts decide to retire. Tantamount to one of EC's "Grim Fairy Tales" or Harvey's "Silver Scream" movie parodies, "The Third Ghost" is a funny revamp of a classic story with a modern twist. Rather than mask the plagiarism, Wessler wisely winks at his audience even, at one point, having Elias mutter to one of the ghosts, "Huh, what the Dickens do you want at this unearthly hour...!" Elias even joins that rare class of nasty Atlas protagonists who escape justice in the end. Larry Wormomay does his best impersonation of Howard Nostrand impersonating Jack Davis.

Next Issue...
Is Harry Anderson just another
Ghastly wanna-be?


Nequam said...

Regarding "Red as a Lobster"-- the Marvel guys must have decided that 3 years having elapsed since the Tales from the Crypt story "Half-Baked" (TftC #40, March 1950) they could safely do their own knockoff version...

Grant said...

I just found Menace # 1 on "Read Comics Online." It's strange that "One Head Too Many" pictures the Martians as sensible when it comes to not having a war, and arrogant at the same time. I mean that panel with the line "Never question a Martian order!"

andydecker said...

I never realized that Stan Lee wrote so many short-stories in the 50s. Is there a number?

Never read much of the stuff, some of the silly monster stories reprinted in later Marvel comics as filler killed any interest. Later I guess the EC story overshadowed this chapter of American horror comics; pre-code horror never accounted to much more as a footnote. Also the limited avaiability of the material in the 80s and 90s prohibited sampling. To be honest, it never seemed that interesting or even readable, and I doubt that I would had spend money for that.

Still it comes as a bit of surprise that Lee produced that much material. I guess he was so successful in spinning the Marvel story that all this effort was forgotten.

Peter Enfantino said...


That ReadComics Online is great. I've downloaded all but a handful of the Atlas pre-codes from a site called More than Heroes that excels in Marvel pre-1961 material. I wish I had the dough to spend on originals but that site makes this blog possible.

I have no number but it's, unquestionably in the high hundreds. There are lots of stories with Stan's name on them (he loved credit, didn't he?) and no credit for artist but I have to believe that a few of the stories slipped through without Stan's name.