Thursday, May 14, 2020

Journey Into Strange Tales! Atlas/ Marvel Horror Issue 60

The Marvel/Atlas 
Horror Comics
Part 45
June 1953 Part II
by Peter Enfantino

 Strange Tales #19

"The Extra Coffin" (a: Larry Woromay) 
"You Made the Pants Too Long" (a: Fred Kida) 
"The Rag Doll" (a: Joe Certa) 
"The Farmer Takes a Life!" (a: Bob Fujitani) ★1/2
"Look Out" (a: George Tuska) 

"The Extra Coffin" is yet another variation on the familiar tune, "bloodthirsty relatives waiting for Uncle _____ to die" but manages to add not one new element to the cliche. Uncle Gregor has the town coffin maker fit his vulture-like nephews and niece for boxes, insisting that if they do not comply, they'l be cut out of the will. When the boxes are made and the leeches try out their caskets, Gregor seals them in and leaves them to die in the basement. The very definition of tedium.
Equally ridiculous is Stan Lee's "You Made the Pants Too Long," about a dry cleaner, bullied by his richest client, a banker, who creates the perfect invention: a room whose walls close in, becoming a giant press. Never mind that the idea makes no sense, the sadistic banker is so over the top that any wisp of realism flies out the window.

Miss Wilcox is trying to kill the buzz down at the Foster Parent Agency that she's sadistic and cruel to her two charges, Stevie and his little sister, so when an agent visits she shows the woman that she's up-to-date on child psychology. Stevie has taken to beating his little sister for no reason at all (he's actually aping Miss Wilcox!) so Miss Wilcox hands the boy a rag doll and tells him to take out his aggressions on the toy. Stevie rips it to pieces and the agency woman is very impressed. Later that night, after Miss Wilcox delivers her nightly beatings and puts the kids to bed without supper, a giant rag doll enters her room and tears her limb from limb. Yep, it's totally predictable and not very bright but I got a huge chuckle from the scene where the agent commends Wilcox for letting Stevie go Mike Tyson on the doll ("Wonderful, wonderful... this is all going into the report! Excellent application of psychology to the problem of discipline!"). It's no wonder kids from the 1950s grew up to be serial killers. The art is tame and unimaginative, with the panel reprinted above representing the doll at its most ominous. After that, it's just a rag doll unlike Russ Heath's frightening version on the cover.

With the success of EC Comics' triple team of horror, Tales From the Crypt, Haunt of Fear, and Vault of Horror, it seems every other comic publisher, large and small, wanted a piece of the pie. Atlas was not a holdout. However, Stan Lee and his bullpen of nameless writers were no Al Feldstein and Bill Gaines. They could pump out an enjoyable yarn now and then but the majority of their 5- and 6-pagers were merely swipes from or "homages" to the EC Three. Curiously, beginning with #19, Strange Tales had an invisible, unnamed narrator who would comment on the wrap up of the previous story and intro the tale at hand. Why Stan didn't have one of his stable of artists design a mascot is anyone's guess.

One thing Strange Tales didn't mimic however was the rain of blood and mountains of gristle that had made EC (in)famous. Most of the grue was implied or ignored. Take, for example, "The Farmer Takes a Life," a nasty little 4-pager that exists, it seems, only to "one up" a Tale from the Crypt. Luke Purdy, a chicken farmer gets his kicks by chopping off the heads of chickens and ogling them as they do their death dance around the farm. Of course, anyone familiar with this type of tale knows that, by the end, Luke will be doing his own chicken dance around the farm.

The perplexing aspect of the story is that there's no blood. These chickens (and later, Luke) prance around with what resembles a corndog bitten in half atop their shoulders. A couple of panels depict what may be drops of blood spurting but that could very well be feathers. In any event, it's the most gore-free decapitation comic I've ever read (and, believe me, I've read plenty). I'm not sure what I laughed at more: the fact that the hens are holding the farmer down for the axe-wielding rooster or... hang on, did I say "axe-wielding rooster?" You betcha!!!

Carrick, a two-time loser is involved in an accident where he was driving on the wrong side of the road but the other guy was falling asleep. Seeing dollar signs in his mind's eye, Carrick fakes blindness and manages to fool most everyone, but the defendant's insurance company puts private dicks on his tail to see if he'll slip up. Ironically, just before his settlement comes in, Carrick slips up bad and ends up sans his sight and a cool half-million. "Look Out" shines a spotlight on just how far we've come in medicine since the 1950s. How is it no physician can tell this guy is lying? Looking over these five stories, I'm struck by just how average the art is. Only Bob Fujitani looks like he's trying to deliver something worth looking at.

 Uncanny Tales #9

"Time Marches On!" (a: Harry Anderson)  ★1/2
(r: Uncanny Tales #1)
"Like a Chicken Without a Head!" 
(a: Reed Crandall) ★1/2
(r: Uncanny Tales #1)
"Rudolph's Racket" (a: Al Eadah) ★1/2
(r: Uncanny Tales #1)
"The Executioner" (a: Myron Fass) 
(r: Where Monsters Dwell #26)
"Propaganda" (a: Manny Stallman) 
(r: Uncanny Tales #1)

Feeny gets no respect from his colleagues down at the hospital, despite being a genius. He's convinced that the head of an accident patient can be taken from the body while the heart is being kept alive... or something like that. But all Feeny gets is laughter, even from the newspaper reporter who asks for an interview. Feeny shows him what his serum can do to a headless chicken and the reporter is fascinated but when Feeny tries to convince the man he can do the same to a human patient, the writer heads for the exit. In disgust, Feeny tears up the recipe for his formula and takes his head off his shoulders.

The first (of only two) appearances by Reed Crandall, undeniably one of the greatest horror artists of all time. Crandall had been working non-stop through the 1940s and early 50s, including stints at Marvel and Quality (solid runs on Dollman and Blackhawk), but it wasn't until he joined the EC bullpen that he became a name. His first EC-pencilled story, the classic gruefest "Carrion Death," (in Shock SuspenStories #9) appeared the same month as "Like a Chicken Without a Head."  Reed gives Feeny a big ol' hit with an ugly-hammer (maybe a bit too much with those buck teeth) and I love that hilarious climax. Two "headless chicken" stories in one month? They had the weirdest fads in the Fifties.

Mr. Rudolph is running a small inn but he's amassed a small fortune. When Lefty (who has just become fifty grand richer thanks to a heist) comes to Rudolph's for a room, he learns what "Rudolph's Racket" is fairly quickly. With "Rudolph's Racket," artist Al Eadah manages to out-Ghastly even Ghastly; every panel has a sheen of gloom and dust (that splash, complete with giant domesticated rat and spider, is beautifully detailed), and Eadah's final panel, with the old man cleaning up what remains of Lefty, runs the risk of stepping over Atlas's fairly tame line. A simple idea made into something special thanks to the details.

Those stinkin' commies are at it again, this time promoting insurrection with the tribes from Africa. The idea is to ship the Africans to Indo-China and brainwash them into killing and maiming in the name of the "hammer and sickle of communism." The plan goes awry when the clans drum up their unearthly Gods to free them and the monsters gobble up the Reds. Some very nice art from Manny Stallman almost evened out the heavy sighs elicited from the heavy-handed script (hadda be Stan, no?) for "Propaganda."

"The Executioner" is a supremely silly (but nicely illustrated) tale of an axeman called on to do his duty on the unseen narrator, who languishes in his/her cell, waiting for the time to come. In the end, we discover that the narrator is a turkey and it's Thanksgiving. One of the biggest "cheat" tales I've ever read; our writer has the turkey staying in a cell and convicted and sentenced "death" in an almost mock trial. In the final story, "Time Marches On!," a clockmaker is perfecting a time piece that will never stop working. The reason for his obsession is pretty predictable, since this story has been done several times under different names and by different publishers, but Harry Anderson's graphics are so pleasing that you'll surely not complain much while the ride is in motion. The art for the entirety of Uncanny Tales #9 is in startling contrast to that of Strange Tales #19; the roundup of talent here is outstanding.

 Spellbound #15

"Lover Beware" (a: Joe Sinnott) 
"Give Him Enough Rope" (a: Tony DiPreta) ★1/2
"Get Out of My Graveyard" 
"The Miracle!" (a: Chuck Winter) ★1/2
"The Living Dead" (a: Carmine Infantino) 

Angela has had enough of the old fuddy-duddy she calls a husband and, just in the nick of time, she learns of a fish that transforms into a demon and commits murder when it witnesses affection (yes, I know that's a lot to swallow). She sets hubby up for the fall but, too late, discovers the demon-fish is female and so is its target! "Lover Beware" is a little too complicated for its own good but Joe Sinnott seems to be having a ball and we certainly don't get enough Sinnott, do we? My favorite aspect of "Lover Beware" is the owner of the demon, a rare-fish collector that Angela calls "Uncle Chester," a skeaze who may or may not want to get into Angela's knickers but certainly looks svelte in green smoking jacket.

A thief plans a big ruby heist in India and thinks he's got the perfect getaway: a magic rope that allows the climber to disappear when he reaches the top. The robbery goes as planned but the escape not so well. A variation on EC's classic "This Trick'll Kill You!" from Tales from the Crypt #33 (January 1953) but not nearly as good. In "Get Out of My Graveyard," a cemetery guard has a nightly problem with a trespasser. He's sure the man is graverobbing but he can't catch him with any booty. In the end, we discover the creep isn't robbing graves, he's feeding off them. Which is obvious to everyone except the guard!

Akad is a kind and gentle man but he runs afoul of the evil Tu-Fang, who enlists the village witch doctor to craft a magic proclamation. The spell backfires and Tu-Fang is punished for his evil deeds. A quick, fanciful, and enjoyable fairy tale with some sharp art by Chuck Winter. In the finale, the "Horror Story Fans of America Society" is faced with a crisis: the public does not believe in monsters so how do the members convince people to read the stuff? Easy, says the President of HSFAS, just show them. So he takes off his mask and reveals that he's a zombie. "The Living Dead" has the germ of a fun concept but Stan takes the lazy route with the usual "because I'm a vampire/werewolf/ fillintheblank" reveal (very much like the ghoul in "Get Out of My Graveyard"). Infantino saves the story with his usual flair.

 Mystery Tales #12

"The Room That Isn't There" (a: Dick Ayers & Ernie Bache) 
"It's Too Expensive to Die!" (a: Howie Post) 
"Assassination!" (a: George Tuska) 
"The Scavenger!" (a: Manny Stallman) 
"Never Say Die!" (a: Myron Fass & Matt Fox) ★1/2

Death has preordained that Mr. Findly will die at midnight but along come two bumbling thieves to mess with his plans. The thugs rob and kill Findly far short of the midnight hour and the Grim Reaper becomes their "tail," following them and eventually exacting his nasty revenge. Amateurish art and a threadbare, cliched script keep "The Room That Isn't There" from being anything more than six pages of space.

In "It's Too Expensive to Die!," racketeer Mr. Baron has summoned a hitman to his mansion, hoping to hire him for the princely sum of five grand but discovers, too late, the man has been hired by a rival for ten grand to kill Baron. Howie Post has an odd, scratchy style but I like it; it helps make the nasty folks look nasty. Hamid III is a sadistic, bloodthirsty tyrant who collects substantial taxes from his people and reigns with an iron whip. The chief rebel, Mustapha Kamal decides there's only one way to take eliminate this monster and that's a suicide "Assassination!"

Kamal surrenders himself to Hamid, explaining he's weary of the fight and wants the rebellion quashed. When Hamid is least expecting it, Mustapha attacks and strangles him, vowing his choke hold will never be released, even if he himself is killed. Hamid's men ventilate the rebel but, moments after his death, Mustapha's ghost appears and finished the job. A novel idea, delivered blandly with Tuska's stencil-like style (Hamid has the exact same grin on his face in every panel) and a blah climax. In "The Scavenger!," a salvager sets up a phony beacon to draw ships into the reef. Once the boats have been destroyed, the beachcomber sifts through the wreckage and steals what he can for profit. In the end, his beacon is his downfall when he becomes turned around in a storm. The script is a bit confusing but Manny Stallman's art is fantastic; his salvager is a nasty devil.

Anton the farmer lies dying in his bed, with his only hope being Kretchma the old witch. With hope in his heart and every penny he owns in a sack, Anton heads out to the old hag's shack. Kretchma hands the farmer a cup of liquid and promises Anton will live for many more years once he drinks it. Sure enough, the next morning, Anton is strong as an ox and plowing his fields. The extra vim doesn't last however and he starts feeling weary so he revisits Kretchma to find out what gives. As Anton enters the woman's yard, his body begins changing into a tree and the old witch cackles, assuring him he will live a long, long life here in her yard. The finish line doesn't make much sense at all but the mood is deliciously grim and the art is a delight. "Never Say Die!" is proof that Matt Fox could make anyone (even Myron Fass) look good. My favorite shot is the panel, where we learn that Anton is a farmer not from the dialogue but because he sleeps with a pitchfork under his bed!

 Menace #4

"A Vampire is Born" (a: Fred Kida) ★1/2
"Escape to the Moon!" (a: Russ Heath) 
(r: Uncanny Tales #11)
"Genius!" (a: Joe Maneely) 
(r: Journey Into Mystery #3)
"The Madman" (a: Bill Everett) ★1/2
(r: Monsters Unleashed #2)

A vampire awakens after three hundred years to find most everything has changed. Villagers are ready for him so he must move around constantly and finally takes a human guise... as Joseph Stalin! Here that noise? That's the sound of Stan stretching another tired monster yarn into one of his Stinkin' Russkies "cautionary tales."

It's not just the ludicrous final panel that makes "A Vampire is Born" unmemorable, but also the padded "plot" which treads very-familiar territory. "Vampire" is unique in that Stan disposes of the obligatory word balloons (save a few animal noises from a farm) and tells the story completely through captions. The Kida art is pleasant enough, utilizing the giant vampire bat for the main character rather than the suave Count figure. Ironically Stalin died right around the time this issue was hitting stands.

American traitor Joe Borden has stolen a (nicely wrapped) box of the "X" Element; you know, the juice that powers a hydrogen bomb. Joe gets bored and decides he's never seen what the "X" element actually looks like and he's worked a hard day. Why not? So Joe unwraps the package and (fortunately for him) the radioactive substance is nowhere to be found. The Feds are on to him!

Looking out the window, he sees the G-Men coming up his drive and he hoofs it to the roof and then to the local railroad yard where he hops a freight. The next morning's newspapers scream Joe's name and he realizes he's got to get out of town. The Feds want him and the Reds will kill him after they discover he's dropped the "X." Luckily the very same front page carries news of Dr. Ernst Gruber's proposed rocket to the moon, scheduled for the next day. Figuring the moon is the safest place for him, he shows up at Gruber's house and muscles the Prof. into pushing the launch to ASAP. Gruber pushes a couple buttons and Joe, secure in the knowledge that space flight can't be all that complicated, kills the scientist and heads into the missile silo... only to discover the rocket is about three feet tall.

A fine example of Heath's
noir-ish skills
What is so gloriously dopey about "Escape to the Moon!?" Let me count the inanities:

First/ Joe thinks nothing of exposing himself to what might be a highly radioactive substance. simply because "it can't do any harm to see what it looks like!" Really? If this was a two-pager, Stan could have educated his readers to what radioactivity can do in close range.

Second/ Joe decides a trip to the moon is his only recourse since "there's no place on Earth where I'll be safe!" I'll grant him the future may be bleak and Mexico or Jamaica or Istanbul or Arizona may be the only safe, far-from-civilization, spots for him to hide in but I hear the moon has its own difficulties as far as water, air, and food go.

Third/ Even if you're a dumb traitor, wouldn't you wonder why the world's most important experiment is being conducted in a farm silo without armed guards stationed near every pig sty and chicken coop?

And finally/ My favorite - what makes Joe think he can pilot a rocket to the moon (I do love that the final panel shows a sign on a piece of equipment that reads "Miniature rocket remote control panel" just in case Dr. Gruber comes down with Alzheimer's)? I would think the darn thing would have lots of dials and buzzers.

For those reasons and probably so many more that I can't see through the tears of laughter, I heartily recommend "Escape to the Moon!" to those who like their Stan Lee commie rants a little on the softer side. On an intentional hilarity scale, the next story, "Genius!" gets a 7/10. Gerald Morton was a genius since he was a toddler, solving his father's harder crossword clues when the old man couldn't handle them. He grows up, his brain gets even bigger, but the charm wears off and Gerald becomes something of a dick. Perfecting the art of telepathy, he even throws bad vibes across the ocean and causes 800 brain seizures. Just as life becomes incredibly boring, another telepath contacts Gerald, informing him that a brilliant race awaits him on Saturn. It doesn't hurt that the telepath is a babe.

Gerald spends every penny of his vast fortune and builds a rocket to Saturn but, once he gets there, he discovers the whole story was a ruse and the telepath who reached out to him is actually an old crone. Gerald stand on the edge of a Saturnian cliff as the gnarly old thing approaches. For much of its length, "Genius!" is a hilarious put-on, similar to the strips Harvey Kurtzman wrote for Mad, but then Stan decides he has to throw in an outer space trip (a really big deal for 1950s kids) and the climax just kinda sputters out ( i love how grown-up Gerald just steps outside of his rocketship into Saturn's atmosphere with no protection whatsoever!). Stan's dialogue is sharp and funny (especially Gerald's trip to the family doctor) and Joe Maneely's art is, as always, masterful

Nurse Jane Bryant arrives at the castle-top home of the Hagstone Sanitarium, where proprietor Doctor Brimm welcomes and shows her around. They visit the basement where the inmates are kept and Brimm introduces the pretty young nurse to his most violent patient, Thorn, who claims he was attacked by four-armed men while working in a mine. Brimm, of course, dismisses the man's story as a delusion but, the next day when the Doc is "out on a call" (even nuthouse wardens made house calls in the 1950s!), Jane pays another visit to Thorn and hears the story in more detail. Just then, Brimm busts in and Jane shoots him and Thorn, admitting the man's story was true. She doffs her nurse's cloak and we get a good look at her other two arms.

Bill Everett's art is the obvious draw here; His Thorn is a crazed redheaded Bluto. I have to admit to a nostalgic fondness for "The Madman," as I read a reprint of the story in Monsters Unleashed when I was a pre-teen (in glorious black and white!) and thought it was a corker. There are some obvious cheats to deflect your suspicions (the narrative touches on Jane's thoughts as if she were just an ordinary girl thrust into a weird situation and there's no way Jane can hide those other limbs under that cape) but it's an entertaining read nonetheless.

Men's Adventures #22

"Deadline" (a: John Romita) ★1/2
"Beware of the Chair!" (a: Joe Sinnott) 
"The Mark of the Witch!" (a: Bill Everett) ★1/2
"Stranger on a Bridge" (a: Ed Robbins) ★1/2

Rock Winters, heartless publisher of the Blade, puts the moves on his secretary, Liz, but she's not having any of it. Liz quits her job right then and there but Rock isn't satisfied; this woman hurt his pride and he'll see her in the dirt if he has to spend every penny of his vast fortune. He discovers that Liz's father is the warden of State Prison and decides it's high time for his newspaper to do an in-depth report on prison corruption.

In the meantime, Rock's suffering wife, Alice, has had enough of her husband's carousing and offs herself. Seeing a golden opportunity, Rock pulls in some favors from D.A, Bennett, and has himself arrested for murder. This way, he'll get that inside scoop on Liz's pop. Only the D.A. knows there's some chicanery afoot so Rock's trial goes ahead; he's found guilty of first degree murder and sentenced to hang. Rock writes his scoop from death row and Bennett, growing nervous, begs the publisher to come clean and end the farce. Rock stalls until three days before his execution and then calls for the D.A. to visit his cell. The warden brings bad news... Bennett has died in a car crash. With his only alibi dead, Rock hangs.

Stan Lee's script for "Deadline" is preposterous, of course, but there's no denying that it's entertaining. Rock is a tad too sadistic to be believable and I'm not sure a district attorney would risk his career (and doubtless jail time) by manipulating the system in a capital punishment trial! But the twist is very effective and it would be used a decade later to better effect in writer Richard O. Lewis's short story "The Final Chapter" (published in the November 1966 issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine). Rock Winters has a very definite J. Jonah Jameson vibe and look to him though, as far as I know, JJJ wasn't quite this sadistic.

Frankie escapes from the stir and stumbles onto a house in the woods, owned by a nutty old coot who swears he's got a chair in his basement that can transport the con to the future. Frankie jumps at the chance but his destination is the electric chair just before he's fired. The old man is death and he's puling the lever. Yet another lazily-scripted chiller that borrows the twist from "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" but at least Stan had the smart to assign Joe Sinnott to the graphics. "Beware of the Chair!" is almost like three random pieces put together but it does have one panel that made me smile. When the nameless narrator mentions in a caption that Frankie better not forget to ice the old man before he takes off on his trip, Frankie replies "I ain't forgettin'... I ain't forgettin' nuthin'!"

A time machine also figures prominently in "The Mark of the Witch!" An impetuous and bored youth in the 27th Century sends a "Witch's Play Kit" back to 1692 Salem and inadvertently triggers the witch trials when an evil lass named Bridget Hobbs finds the box and uses it to amass a fortune. Bill Everett's art is a hoot (particularly, the 27th Century men who walk around in short-shorts and a green backpack) and the dialogue has a welcomed jokey tone. Last up is the dreary and predictable "Stranger on a Bridge," about a tough guy who holds a gun on an alien one night and, after a series of miracles which produce monetary assets, demands the outer spaceman deliver him to as much gold as he can ever spend. The alien, as bored as I was while reading this story, transports the gunman to a planet twelve trillion miles form Earth where everything is gold. It's a one-way trip. Ed Robbins's art is lazy and uninspired.

Special Announcement!

This will be the final Atlas Pre-Code Horror post for the foreseeable future. Time has become a luxury lately for me, what with working on the new print version of bb, finishing up a book with Jose Cruz on Harvey Pre-Code Horror (which should be out in a couple months -- stay tuned) and now co-writing a book on Manhunt for Stark House Press. Deadlines seem to come at me daily!

Also, and probably most important, with Cimarron Street now tackling our History of Pre-Code Horror Series in print, we decided to leave a little original content for the book. At the present time, I anticipate the second volume of the Pre-Code Project (Atlas) to be published in Summer 2021. Of course, this is the best place to get your news on our publications. Don't be surprised if I pop up in this spot now and then with some bonus material (such as the post-code Marvel SF/Horror titles, which fall outside the purview of our print series). Thanks so much to those of you who followed and, especially to those who commented.


Glowworm said...

Thanks for this ride. If you ever decide to return to it, I'll be back for it as well.
I like "Mark of the Witch" because it's a rather unusual take on the Salem witch trials. The idea of kids in the future playing with something that would be so dangerous if it fell into the wrong hands in the past is amusing to me. Also the design for the witch is awesome.

Grant said...

I've always noticed that there were several of these "Four-Armed Men" stories over maybe a long period of time. Even for a comics line that recycles story ideas, that seems a little strange, almost like some mythology they were inventing. The idea of a man encountering them in a mine makes me think of the infamous Richard Shaver stories.

As Glowworm says, thanks for the ride.
Though I hope things start up again soon.

Peter Enfantino said...

Glowworm and Grant-

Thanks for your support. Providing I can actually catch up on a few of the 90 projects I have simmering, I will be back soon to tackle the post-code Marvel stuff (Kirby, Ditko, Colan, etc.). Hopefully, four or five months should get me back on top of things. I'll post a banner on one of the other blogs when I get ready.

Jack Seabrook said...

Some random things I learned from reading 60 issues of this series:

*Joe Maneely was great

*Joe Sinnott wasn't just Jack Kirby's inker

*Stan Lee hated Commies

*Peter loves Russ Heath

*Even bad comics can be entertaining

*Peter can make anything fun to read about!

Looking forward to issue #61 some day!