Thursday, March 19, 2020

Journey Into Strange Tales! Atlas/ Marvel Horror Issue 56

The Marvel/Atlas 
Horror Comics
Part 41
April 1953 Part II
by Peter Enfantino

 Strange Tales #17

"Danny Had a Dream" (a: Joe Sinnott) 
"Feud!" (a: Jerry Robinson) ★1/2
"The Big Kill" (a: Charles A. Winter) 
"5 Years Too Late!" 
"Father-in-Law Trouble" (a: Dick Briefer) ★1/2

On a rural farm in the future (well, it was the future when this story was written), young Danny dreams of building a rocket and conquering the world. At the same time, two warring factions meet in closed rooms: Russian agents discussing America building military bases on the moon and, across town, American politicians wishing they could convince the Soviets that the U.S. only wants to be their allies and live in peace. Meanwhile, back at the farm, Danny has built a prototype of his rocket which will "conquer the world and drive away fear!" Yeah, I'm still trying to figure out the logic of that as well but he's just a kid so he gets a pass.

Danny inadvertently invents a rocket that can make metal disappear when it's launched. Following the explosion, Danny's angry father tosses the rocket out of the barn, telling his boy never to play with fire again. Through a series of events, the prototype finds its way onto a market shelf at the same time one of the Russian agents is shopping for a gift. Flipping the switch on the rocket in curiosity, the Communist discovers its wonderful powers as the building collapses around him (all the nails in the structure disappear) and attempts to steal the weapon. Luckily, one of our intrepid G-Men is on the Soviet's tail that day and tackles the thief, killing him in the process. After years of research, a giant-size version of Danny's rocket is fashioned by the "good guys" and sent into space as a defensive weapon. When Russia launches an attack from the moon, the rocket is utilized and dead men fall from the sky. All through the Communist countries, the weapon is used and communism is destroyed, ostensibly leading the way for peace and harmony among all men. A wild, wacky and very imaginative tale, one I'd lay money down was written by Stan Lee, Stan's commie-baiting plot devices were used ad nauseum throughout the first couple years of the new Marvel Universe until he reined it in for the most part. Here it doesn't bother me as much. Another wonderful bit of art by Joe Sinnott.

A stranger comes to town just in time to see a McKay shoot a Ratfield dead in the streets. As he tells his story to the sheriff, the stranger hears all about the "Feud" between the two families and then makes a fatal decision. Gorgeous art by Jerry Robinson is the highlight of this Stan Lee-scripted short; the climactic twist is contrived and makes no sense if you stop and think about it... so don't. "The Big Kill" is a silly short-short about the number one killer in the world, but the graphics by Chuck Winter make it almost worth turning those pages. Winter had one of those scratchy, exaggerated styles that would become almost commonplace in underground comix in the 1970s.

Birdie finally gets out of the stir after a five-tear stint and the boys from his old gang want the dough he buried. Birdie's only too happy to accommodate, especially with a gat pointed at his kisser, but the boys are not happy when they pull up to the burial site, a previously vacant lot on Front Street. Now, alas, it's the new police precinct! "5 Years Too Late" has a very clever twist, one that would be utilized in a variant form a decade later for the British film, The Big Job (1965). The great Dick Briefer holds up his end on "Father-in-Law Trouble," about a gold-digger who murders his wife for her money and then suffers a similar fate when her daddy comes a'callin'. 

 Uncanny Tales #7

"Kill, Clown, Kill" (a: Harry Anderson) ★1/2
"The Witch of Landor" (a: Larry Woromay) ★1/2
(r: Chamber of Chills #15)
"The Gal Who Talked Too Much" (a: Bob Brown) 
(r: Tomb of Darkness #13)
"Planet of Death" (a: Howard Post) 
"I Was Locked in a Haunted House!" (a: Joe Maneely) 
(r: Chamber of Chills #15)

Felix the Clown covets everything that belongs to Angelo the Clown... the money, the fame, and the love of the gorgeous Helena (even though Felix has never met Angela, he believes she's just got to be the bee's knees). To attain all these possessions, Felix murder Angelo and takes the stage the next day in Angelo's make-up. The act is a success and Felix can't wait for the next stop on the tour, which happens to be the town where Helena lives. At the 11th hour, Felix gets the nerves and decides that maybe he should actually look like Angelo if he's going to fool this girl. He heads out into the night, looking for a plastic surgeon. The first doc scoffs at the request and Felix kills him. The moment of truth arrives, face be damned, and Felix heads for the carnival to meet Helena. The cops are waiting and, after a scuffle, shot Felix right in front of Helena, who seems oblivious to the excitement right in front of her. That's because... she's blind!

Visuals by "Ghastly" Harry Anderson!

The script for "Kill, Clown, Kill" has holes large enough to pitch a carnival tent in (laughably, Felix decides at about an hour before the fateful meeting that Helena might realize he's not Angelo when he doffs his clown face so he heads out for a procedure that would probably put him in bed for a few days rather than hours!), but Harry Anderson doesn't seem bothered, so why should I? Seriously, Anderson contributes some pretty eerie graphics here. Larry Woromay holds his own as well on "The Witch of Landor," the pedestrian tale of a Duke who uses black magic to bring his ancestors back from the grave to spill the beans on a hidden treasure. He goes back too far and is killed by a gorilla, ostensibly the first of his line. That punchline has been used before and it wasn't very good the first few times.

Hilda talks way too much and it's driving her husband, Simon, up the wall. So, when a scientist offers the chance of a lifetime to Simon, he jumps at it. The egghead will bury Hilda in a time capsule and all Simon's problems will be in the rear view mirror. But this scientist has a sense of humor. "The Gal Who Talked Too Much" definitely falls far into "Check your brain at the door" territory; if you can't put aside all the silliness... well, hang on, that's why we read these things! I especially love when the scientist from the "Preservation of Human Culture" assures Simon that the capsule will contain enough food, water and oxygen to last a lifetime. That should be a pretty darn big capsule, right? Well, look at the panel reprinted here and you be the judge!

"Planet of Death" is yet another substandard tale about an alien race investigating our solar system and stumbling across Earth. As the aliens approach Earth, the ship is fired upon and the visitors deem our world too dangerous to land on. Interesting in that the story is set in 1953 but the UFO is fired on by some force on Earth.

New kid on the block, Lennie Carter, bumps into Specs, who introduces him to the gang down at Pop's soda fountain. The boys all read Marvel Tales, Mystic, and the entire line of Atlas pre-code horror comics (not knowing that, within two years, their entire world would come crashing down on them), but Lennie poo-poos that nonsense as "kid's stuff." Well, Specs lets the new guy know that if he wants into the gang, he'll have to spend an hour  ("from midnight to one p.m." (sic)) down at the ol' Murdock Mansion, long rumored to be haunted. Lennie agrees and enters the house, where he soon bumps into the caretaker, who similarly scoffs at the supernatural.

They have a wonderful conversation but when the hour is up, Lennie excuses himself and meets his new friends down the street, bragging that he made it through the one hour without being assaulted by ghosts. Specs tells Lennie to turn around and the mansion has disappeared! Lennie allows how he'd better start reading more Atlas comic books to catch up on things. "I Was Locked in a Haunted Mansion!" is a supremely silly but entertaining bit of fantasy that went down a different path than I anticipated (I thought the other boys in the gang would reveal they were ghosts) and I'm always up for some Maneely.

Spellbound #14

"Love Story" (a: Joe Maneely) 
(r: Tomb of Darkness #12)
"The Saddest Story Ever Told!" (a: Ed Winiarski) ★1/2
"The Revolt of Wilbur Bixby!" (a: Carl Burgos) 
(r: Where Monsters Dwell #34)
"The Heat's On!" (a: Russ Heath) 
(r: Vault of Evil #13)
"Close Shave!" (a: Fred Kida) 
(r: Vault of Evil #12)

"Love Story" is a silly little thing about an African guide and his wife, living in the jungle, who grow to hate each other with every fiber of their beings. When the guide comes down with "jungle fever," a young doc comes 'round and catches the Mrs.'s eye. Soon, they're planning a murder. Maneely makes the mediocre Stan script seem a bit more digestible.

A scientist concocts a serum that's guaranteed to grow hair on anything but the men who buy it don't think so. Devoid of anything remotely sinister or supernatural, this might not be "The Saddest Story Ever Told," but it's pretty close. The losing streak continues with "The Revolt of Wilbur Bixby!," a cliched and overly long groaner about a henpecked husband who's constantly reminded by his wife that she holds the purse strings in the family and if the little worm won't do everything he's told, he'll eat grass. In the end, through some sorcery, that's exactly what he does. Sadistic sailor Rock comes home to his poor, suffering wife Gertie, only to fall for a dame in a window across the courtyard. He decides to toss Gertie out the window and claim his dame but the stranger has other plans for Rock. Not even the mighty powers of Russ Heath can save "The Heat's On!" from being anything but a complete waste of time and paper.

As bad as the previous three turkeys are, nothing can prepare one for "Close Shave!," a monumentally bad cautionary tale, yet again, about marriage in the 1950s. Crawfish Cobb marries the obese and overpowering Mathilda, who immediately shows who wears the trousers in this family, right down to how the man shaves. Stan must have been having some sort of female issues around this time as most of the women populating the tales found in Spellbound #14 are either shrewish or Satanic. Mathilda and Griselda Bixby are virtually the same cliche: overweight, emasculating, and unattractive. The latter adjective is a perfect summation of this issue.

 Suspense #29

"The Man Behind the Blinds!" (a: Fred Kida) 
"By the Light of the Moon" ★1/2
"Strong as an Ox" (a: Jerry Robinson) ★1/2
"The Raving Maniac" (a: Joe Maneely) ★1/2
"The Man Who Was Going 
 to Destroy America" (a: Bob Fujitani) 

After 29 issues, Suspense closes its doors with a decent last gasp. There's no warning about the axe falling (but back then there never was) but the letters page has vanished. I suspect that the licensing of the "Suspense" label had either lapsed or was about to, and the powers that be couldn't justify the added expense when they already had thirteen other titles jamming the comic racks.

First up is the supremely inane "The Man Behind the Blinds!" A horror story writer rents a room from a strange old couple who keep their son locked up in a room all day and night. The writer's imagination gets the best of him; is is this strange young man a werewolf, a vampire, or a communist? He catches glimpses of the man through the bedroom blinds and the guy looks totally normal. Off his rocker, the author grabs a gun and demands to know what's wrong with the son. The father takes our harried scribe to the window outside and pulls up the blinds. (Groan!) If you ever want to win the argument with the buffoon who claims Stan Lee never wrote a stinker in his whole career, simply offer up "The Man Behind the Blinds!" as proof. How this one made it past the editor... whoops, Stan was the editor. Question answered.

The crew of the first rocketship expedition to the moon have had enough of space life. They're far into a one-year stint away from Earth and they're not warming up to Commander Radd. The moon is a very cold place to live and there's just nothing much to do so, when word comes down that the crew will have to stay a second year, mutiny commences. Lt. Jay and the boys tie up their commander and blast off to Earth, despite the protests of their CO. Not long into the journey, the men turn up the heat and then begin feeling sick. Hoping for a solution, Jay unties Radd and explains the situation. As the two men lay dying, Radd explains that the crew had gotten so accustomed to the cold atmosphere of the moon that any heat would cause them to melt! "By the Light of the Moon" has a ludicrous but effective wrap-up (with some nice, creepy graphics) and I've always loved a good space mutiny saga.

Millionaire Ignatius Strumpp wants to be "Strong as an Ox," so he hires one of the world's biggest brains to come up with a formula to make him just so. A pretty funny Stan Lee script with some fine Jerry Robinson art. "The Raving Maniac" is an odd story about a zealot who busts into the office of an editor of horror comic books (ostensibly Stan, who wrote this script), scolding the man for publishing fairy tales. "Stan" sits the man down and offers his side, explaining that his readers can soak in tales of werewolves, vampires, and ghouls, and forget about the real world for just a while. As "Stan" wraps up his stars 'n' striped-tinged monologue, the men in the white coats storm in to hustle "The Raving Maniac" away, back to the looney bin. But for the over-the-top speech near the climax where Stan once again reminds us how lucky we are not to live in Russia, "The Raving Maniac" is a perfectly adequate reminder of why we read funny books, nicely rendered by Stan's man, Joe Maneely.

If you can get through the similarly jingoistic first three pages of "The Man Who Was Going to Destroy America," you'll find a top-notch twist waiting for you. A commie spy has stolen the plans for "Element X," and infiltrated the army as well. He's to be dropped behind enemy lines, thinking he'll be delivering the top secret plans to Colonel-General Buloff and musing how stupid Americans are, inadvertently feeding the Commie threat. He parachutes from the plane but his chute doesn't open and, just before he hits the ground, decides these Americans ain't so stupid after all! Nothing special about the Fujitani art (it looks as though it belongs to a 1940s strip) but I let out an unexpected laugh during that finale!

Mystery Tales #10

"What Happened to Harry?" (a: George Tuska) 
"The Door!" (a: Gil Kane) 
"Too Lucky to Live!" 
"The Phony!" (a: Louis Zansky) ★1/2
"The Killer!" (a: Al Luster) 

Harry is determined to try out his brand new time-machine (in the shape of an automobile) and nothing will stop him, least of all the real inventor of the gizmo, Lucy, who demands to be a passenger in the machine when Harry takes a test drive. But Harry's not about to share credit for what will go down as the greatest invention known to man so he kills Lucy, hops in the car, and turns the wayback dial to 10. Nothing happens. Oops, Harry realizes, he forgot to plug the darned thing in!

Plug in the socket, Harry takes a trip to caveman days but grows quickly tired of the savages beating at the windshield and decides to head back to the "present." As the primitive beasts set fire to the De Lorean, Harry realizes too late the jungle has no electrical plugs! "What Happened to Harry?" is a genuinely funny (both intentionally and unintentionally) fantasy with a nasty final panel (and the cave men sat on their haunches patiently waiting for their dinner to cool!) and some decent Tuska art. When Harry is introduced as this genius inventor, I was thinking "well, this is going against type," since Harry is a big, muscle-bound thug likelier to be cast as one of Stan's bank heist thugs rather than an egghead. Then the narrator lets us know that Harry is a thief and introduces the real scientist: a gorgeous brunette!

The Duchess of Borazzo has had enough of her husband's amateurish paintings, especially since she is his favorite subject and is forced to sit every time the Duke gets the itch. It doesn't help that the Duke is a miser and won't hand over any of his fabled fortune in gems and diamonds to the Duchess. When the Duke's latest "masterpiece" is a door, his wife becomes convinced that portrait is the door to the hidden treasure. She enlists the aid of the Duke's younger brother, Lorenzo, and the pair poison the Duke and head through the castle to try to find "The Door!" They finally do come across a door that resembles the painting and they enter the room. Inside is a fortune in jewels but, at that moment, water enters the chamber and it begins to flood. The Duchess and her co-conspirator attempt to exit and discover the door is only a painting. I'm not entirely sure what's going on in the finale; whether the Duke had some magical powers we weren't privy to or if, as the narrator hints, "perhaps they are in a dream!" "The Door" gets a thumbs-sideways for its early Gil Kane art and a general atmosphere of eeriness but, as a whole, it's formulaic.

"Too Lucky to Live!" is a one-page joke, stretched to five, about a man who bets his buddy, Mr. Chalmers, that he's so lucky he can walk into any calamity and return unscathed. The finale, where we learn that Mr. Chalmers is death and claims his friend because he's "Too Lucky to Live!" is beyond inane; it's one of those Carl Wessler written wrap-ups that ignores all that came before it and smells so familiar. Wessler's second script this issue, for "The Killer!" similarly mines well-trod trails. This one sees a hitman chasing his prey into a building and onto a platform, shooting the man just as the house lights go up in the theater. He's on a stage!

Two detectives are sent by their chief to investigate a seer who's become very popular for predictions; is the man a fraud or does he have some kind of second sight? "The Phony!" is a darkly humorous quickie that finishes on an even darker (and funnier) note.

Mystic #19

"Help Wanted!" (a: Mort Lawrence) ★1/2
(r: Vault of Evil #6)
"Swamp Girl!" (a: Vic Carrabotta) ★1/2
(r: Monsters Unleashed #3)
"They Dive By Night!" (a: Al Luster) 
(r: Vault of Evil #6)
"Fast Freight" (a: Werner Roth & Carl Burgos) 
(r: Crypt of Shadows #6)
"Bong!" (a: Tony DiPreta) 
(r: Beware #5)

Ol' Scrag is the biggest penny-pinchin' miserly business man in town; he pays his employees pennies for their hard work and then takes advantage of them at every turn. Say, for instance, when Easter rolls around and he promises every one of them they'll finally get their long-promised Christmas bonuses if sales hit the roof. Profits are insane that day and he presents his workers with their bonus envelopes, containing one thin dime each!

Some of the staff walk but those who can't afford to quite their jobs decide to stay and put up with the minimum wages and zero respect. It comes time for Scrag to advertise in the local paper to fill the new vacancies but the old man is so cheap he refuses to use anything in the ad but abbreviations. So, whose fault is it when the want ad reads "Demon. wntd." and that's just what shows up? I must admit to a soft spot for "Help Wanted!" due to childhood nostalgia (but then most comic books you read when you were a kid were great, weren't they? Even the Don Perlin stuff!); I can remember, as if it was yesterday, pulling Vault of Evil #6 (October 1973) out of the spinner rack at 7-11 and being mesmerized by the cover, depicting the finale of "Help Wanted!"

Raise your hand if you were as addicted to the Marvel horror reprint titles as much as I was, haunting all the 7-11s and Stop-N-Gos every month, looking for that new issue of Where Monsters Dwell or Crypt of Shadows, not knowing if this was the month they might cancel the darned things (or, as was the case, so many times, change the title and continue the numbering -- I searched high and low for the non-existent Beware! #9) I'm glad to say the strip still holds up, despite a plot creakier than my old bones, thanks mostly to Mort Lawrence's fabulously exaggerated artwork and that twist ending. It still brings a "gosh-wow" smile to my face. I've said it before but it bears repeating: why haven't I heard about Mort Lawrence? He's in a league with Heath, Colan, and Maneely in my book.

Shades of Harvey?
A Yankee deserter comes across a strange cat drinking at a creek and watches in amazement as the feline turns into a beautiful girl. Parched, he drinks from the same water and turns into a cat. There's a lot of swamp but not a lot of girl (nor logic) in "Swamp Girl!" a below-average thriller with some see-saw graphics by Vic Carrabotta. The cat-into-girl transformation is effective but quite a bit of the rest is near amateurish.

Salvager Gerrick won't listen to the natives, who tell him the lagoon is protected by evil forces and that he should not dive by night. Of course, the tough, salty seaman scoffs and sends his divers anyway. When they don't surface, he suspects that the natives are sabotaging his expedition. He dives down deep and discovers the truth: the lagoon bottom is rife with giant man-eating clams!

Another winner that ended up being reprinted in the same issue of Vault of Evil that sat by my bedside for at least a month or two, "They Dive By Night!," like "Help Wanted!," takes a plot thread that had been used countless times and turned it on its head. Something about Al Luster's art has been nagging me for the last couple months and I think I figured it out; it reminds me in spots of the work of Harvey Kurtzman. Call me crazy, but Harvey had that same slapdash, almost unfinished but extremely effective, look to his work on the EC war titles. The Lusters, DiPretas, and Lawrences of the Atlas bullpen are what keep me coming back with anticipation. Who's the next "undiscovered gem" (at least to me) to open my eyes wide?

There's not much to the 3-page "Fast Freight," about an escaped con who jumps a passing freight train, only to discover it's heading right back into the prison he escaped from! Hugo Walther has money, property, and power but the one thing he wants most of all is the fair Katrine. Unfortunately, Kat's heart belongs to bell-maker Eric Brawne. If there's one thing Hugo can't tolerate, it's noise and if there's one other thing Hugo can't tolerate, it's Katrine's love for Eric. If Hugo murders Eric, he'll kill two birds with one stone! Unfortunately, the assassination doesn't go well; Hugo ends up falling into Eric's vat of boiling bell liquid (!) and his soul is forever trapped in the new city hall bell. "Bong!"

In Just Two Weeks!
29 More Tales of
Astonishing Menace!


Jack Seabrook said...

OK, so what was behind the blinds?

Peter Enfantino said...

Look closer at the panel reprinted, Jack, and you'l see what was behind the blinds.

Grant said...

I was also addicted to those reprint comics you mention, and I've re-acquired as many as I can (and of course come here to see how it all looked originally).

Peter Enfantino said...


I can remember vividly the day I picked up Where Monsters Dwell #1 at Thrifty Drugs in San Jose, California. Must have been late 69-early 70 so I'd have been 8. My ex-wife always had a burr in her bonnet about the fact that I could remember what year House of Frankenstein was made but not remember the exact time my daughter was born. Priorities, I would tell her.

Grant said...

With me the start of it is very close to that, being Where Monsters Dwell # 6.
The funny thing is, there was no way of knowing the name "Groot" and his appearance would become such a big thing in Marvel quite a bit later (he was a ONE-TIME character in one of the reprinted stories).