Thursday, August 4, 2022

Journey Into Strange Tales Atlas/Marvel Horror Comics Issue 66


The Marvel/Atlas 
Horror Comics
Part 51
September 1953 Part II
by Peter Enfantino

Men’s Adventures #23

“”Nothing Is Left Alive!” (a: Howard Post) ★★★

“The Bones…” (a: Mort Lawrence) ★★1/2

“The Drowning Witch” (a: Reed Crandall) ★★★

“The Wrong Body!” (a: Myron Fass) ★

“The Thief!” (a: Larry Woromay & Matt Fox) ★★★

A sadistic plantation owner waits out an invasion of army ants in Africa. The third variation in less than four months on the immensely popular “Leinengen Vs. the Ants” by Carl Stephenson, “Nothing Is Left Alive!” is more notable for its stark and striking artwork by Howard Post, who had a style akin to that of Bernie Krigstein and no other Atlas artist. I’m pleasantly surprised Stan allowed such a rough look into one of his funny books. This was Post’s final pre-code work for Atlas though he’d be back four more times in the post-CCA era.

Lord Emsmere has his ancestors’ bones dug up and moved to his family’s graveyard at his castle in England but, too late, he discovers the buffoons accidentally dug up the grave of a vampire! “The Bones…” is a silly four-pager but, like Howard Post, Mort Lawrence has an art style that distinguishes itself from others in the Atlas bullpen. His characters have exaggerated faces (a la the work of Graham Ingels) and his resurrected vampire skeleton is a hoot.

After an old crone is found guilty of practicing witchcraft, the Captain orders her thrown overboard. Just before she becomes shark-bait, the old woman curses the ship to lie still on a “sea of glass” and “attacked by a beast with taloned claws.” Immediately both curses come true. We find out, from the final panel, that the ship is inside a glass bottle and the “beast” is a common house cat. “The Drowning Witch” might be dopey, but 1950s Reed Crandall should be celebrated and Crandall only contributed twice to the Atlas pre-codes (the previous was the very EC-ish “Like a Chicken Without a Head” in Uncanny Tales #9). The panel of the woman thrusting proof of the old woman’s guilt at her Captain, in the form of her ram-headed baby, is both amusing and startling. Reed Crandall will return to Atlas/Marvel after the ceiling caves in at EC for a further 17 contributions.

Hired muscle Beggs is ordered to kill a man named Benny Haskell but the big dope has never killed anyone. Trying to figure out how he can get out of the job, Beggs sits on a park bench and overhears two college boys discussing the radical experiments their professor is conducting. The egghead is convinced he can swap brains between two consenting adults. Bingo! The answer to his prayers! So Beggs goes to see Professor Hargrave at the University and the old goat tells the goon his timing is impeccable; he already has another guinea pig waiting for a brain transfer. The operation goes without a hitch and Beggs wakes up in his new body; the body of… (you guessed it) Benny Haskell. As he runs from the college in fear, Beggs/Benny is gunned down by (you guessed it) Benny Haskell in Beggs’s body. A supremely dumb thriller with awful art by Myron Fass, “The Wrong Body” is very tough to get through. Fass’s art sticks out like a pink toilet when compared to the other five artists this issue.

Gustave has a rare coin stolen from his collection and he begs the German police to find “The Thief!” who stole it before something bad happens. The cops are naturally skeptical but they listen to Gustave’s story: the coin, which belonged to Judas, at first brings good luck to its owner but then systematically destroys that life. The coin, Gustave explains, was handed down from Nero to Attila the Hun to Kaiser Wilhelm and the next owner shall surely live through the same grief all past owners have endured. The police excuse Gustave, have a good laugh, and examine the picture of the man Gustave believes took the Judas coin — a little man with a funny mustache named Schickelgruber. The coins Judas was paid to betray Christ sure seems like a very adult theme for a funny book (in fact, religious themes were very rarely dealt with by any of the publishers) but I’m glad Stan had the spine to give it a try. Doesn’t hurt to have Matt Fox on board, either.

Mystery Tales #15

“The Little Monster” (a: Bill Benulis & Jack Abel) ★★★★

(r: Where Monsters Dwell #28)

“SHHHH!” (a: Dick Ayers & Ernie Bache) ★

(r: Journey Into Mystery #10)

“The Vampire’s Coffin!” (a: Tony DiPreta) ★★1/2

(r: Tomb of Darkness #12)

“The Man in the Tank!” (a: Everett Raymond Kinstler) ★★★

(r: Crypt of Shadows #10)

“Johnny’s Last Jump!” ★★

(r: Where Monsters Dwell #31)

Joe and Helen discover a disgusting, slimy alien creature in their living room and Joe empties his .45 into the thing to no avail. Preparing to be eaten, the couple are surprised when the monster tells them it just needs a place to stay and it’ll pay handsomely for the room and board. As proof, whenever Joe or Helen think about a possession they’d like to have, the item appears right before them. Joe offers the thing their guest room but the creature opts for the cold, dank basement. After several weeks of living high on the hog, Joe and Helen are dismayed to learn their new friend will be returning to his home planet but that he’ll be back with several friends in the future. The happy couple wave at the monster as it levitates up into the sky, remarking about how easy it was to have the thing around, never having to feed it, as we see a backyard filled with human skeletons.

“The Little Monster” is a little gem, an unsettling science fiction tale that brings up the hairs on your neck long before we see that final shocking panel. Yes, I saw the obvious, inevitable invasion coming as the thing was just too good to be true, but the subtle way our uncredited writer and Benulis and Abel let the narrative unfold ratchets up the dread ten-fold. 

Sadistic Captain Banner mistreats his men all in the name of an extra dollar. When he pulls into a European port and spies “The Vampire’s Coffin!,” he knows some museum man back in New York will pay a pretty penny for the relic. He spends most of the money allotted to the crew’s meals on the casket and then uses what’s left to buy rotten vegetables and fruits. Out at sea, the men prepare to mutiny after one of their number dies from scurvy but they have a better plan. The men stake the captain, settle him into the box, and then sell the coffin to the museum man for a tidy sum as “The Vampire’s Coffin with Recently Staked Inhabitant!” 

Though the greedy, cold-blooded sea captain angle has been done to death, I just love Tony DiPreta’s visuals, all the while knowing I come off as highly critical of artists with a similar, sketchy style. There’s just something disturbing about DiPreta’s execution that the others miss out on. A thief murders an old man and, running from the local sheriff, hides in the water tank located at a nearby railroad station. The posse scours the area but can’t find their man but, once a train arrives, the water begins to lower in the tank, making it impossible for the killer to hold onto the rim. “The Man in the Tank!” has a pedestrian build-up but a fabulous twist ending and benefits greatly from a rare appearance by artist Everett Raymond Kinstler. This was, in fact, the only story Kinstler contributed to the Atlas Pre-Code Horror titles (he drew a five-pager for Western Tales of Black Rider #31 in 1955); he was, predominately, an Avon and Dell man before giving up comics work entirely and turning his attention to portraits (including those of several American Presidents) at the close of the 1950s. His style has always reminded me of early Ditko.

Hard case Johnny robs a safe and kills its owner. On the run from the cops, he stops at a bridge and leaps over the side. Too late, the dope realizes that the river has frozen over. That was “Johnny’s Last Jump!” Next up, “SHHHH!” is a jumbled mess made even worse by Dick Ayers’s awful graphics. An American scientist is kidnapped by Nazis who then (for some strange reason) travel to Moscow to present their package to their commandant. The professor has been working on a formula that transforms humans into supermen and he’s only too happy to vaccinate the entire Red Army if asked nicely. Being this is Soviet Germany (or something like that), its commanders are too smart for that, so they inoculate one soldier as a test. The man devolves into a gorilla, which naturally upsets the Nazis. What makes it worse is that the professor has been delivering airborne samples out his cell window and the entire population has become apes. Turns out the Nazis grabbed the wrong guy, as the label inside his shirt (“State Insane Asylum”) attests. Nothing in the four-page running time of “SHHHH!” makes any sense at all, from its alternate-reality USSR to its nuthouse occupant capable of ground-breaking serums. This is just dumb.

Mystic #23

“Don’t Shrink Sam’s Head” (a: Hy Rosen) ★★

(r: Vault of Evil #6)

“The Perfect Planet” (a: Ross Andru) ★★★1/2

“Hugo” (a: Pete Tumlinson) ★★1/2

“Mother Knows Best” (a: Sol Brodsky) ★★

(r: Chamber of Chills #10)

“Every Dog Has Its Day!” (a: Manny Stallman) ★1/2

(r: Crypt of Shadows #6)

Sam is super proud of his Chamber of Horrors, stocked with vampire skulls and stuffed werewolves and all sorts of rare paraphernalia, but the one thing Sam’s museum lacks is a shrunken head. His buddies remind him that no Chamber of Horrors is complete without a shrunken head and Sam knows they’re right, but he’s too damn chicken to venture into Jivaro territory and get his own head shrunken. Word is the tribe has even learned how to shrink a head without separating it from its body!

So our intrepid collector visits goofy genius, Professor Zukor, who can do anything and, sure enough, affixes an invisible shield around Sam’s head that will ward off any shrinking nonsense. With his defensive shield up, Sam finds an empty Jivaro village and, hoping the residents are off hunting, begins ransacking the shrunken booty. Alas, the tribe return just as our dopey adventurer is making his getaway. Sam tells the chief there’s no way his head can be shrunk and the chief tells him if that’s so, Sam can take home a souvenir on the house.

Later, at Sam’s Chamber of Horrors, the proud owner shows off his new acquisition to his bewildered buddies and we see that Sam’s head stayed the same size but the rest of his body shrunk! “Don’t Shrink Sam’s Head” is a humorous little bit of nonsense with some nice Hy Rosen art. It’s never explained how Sam is supposed to breathe or eat with this bubble around his head but what made me snort out loud was the quartet of buddies who sniff and pshaw the vampires, werewolves, and the Quasimodo skeleton but castigate Sam for the absence of a tiny noggin. 

In the year 2300, the Earth has slipped out of its orbit and slowly, but surely, nears the sun. Scientists have approximated that we have only six months before life on Earth is extinguished. The only surviving explorer ship arrives with bad news: all the planets the crew landed on were uninhabitable; every other ship was destroyed in space by meteor showers. The commander explains that there was one Venusian satellite they were not able to explore due to engine trouble and the government hitches its only hope to that unknown planet. 

The crew is briefed and the only ship capable of flight, the Star-1, is serviced and fueled and readied to go. With a round trip travel time of three months, the crew know they’ve got to land, study, and return in a jiffy. While the Star-1 makes its journey, the surviving inhabitants of Earth will be readying an armada of space arcs ready to blast off the moment the Star-1 returns with good news. Since communication will not be possible, Earth’s commander insists that if the Star-1 does not return, mankind is doomed.

The all-male crew lands on Venus and finds, to their utter delight, “The Perfect Planet,” one capable of sustaining life for Earth’s population. The Captain orders the men back into the ship and they ready the take-off, only to discover the rocket has no power. The engine has gone kaput and, without tools and machinery, repair is impossible. Knowing the arcs will never launch and that Earth will burn to a crisp in a matter of months, the men sit and ponder the extinction of mankind on “The Perfect Planet.” Unless…

A last-panel caption box promises an “astounding sequel to this tale” in the following issue of Mystic (which actually ran in the October 1953 issue of Astonishing), so I assume a happy ending is in the works but we’ll have to wait a bit to get to that. “The Perfect Planet” is a stirring, imaginative science fiction tale in the tradition of When Worlds Collide (and the “World Burnt to a Crisp” scenario will be filmed nearly a decade later as the classic The Day the Earth Caught Fire), with a dead-serious tone we’re not used to seeing in an Atlas SF tale. If I have a quibble, it’s with Ross Andru’s patchy art; this is an epic that shouts “Russ Heath!”

“Hugo” Borgman is the greatest stage director in all of Germany, perhaps the world, but he can be very demanding of his actors. When he stumbles on busboy Paul Sterling, Hugo is convinced he can make him into a star. The role Paul must fill is that of a double-amputee war vet but even after much berating, Hugo can’t get the kid to emote properly. After his firing, Hugo trips down the stage steps and the other actors gasp as they see that both of Paul’s legs are wooden. A sly satire on what was then the newly emerging world of method acting. Tumlinson’s art is appropriately noir-ish. 

In the three-page “Mother Knows Best,” a woman tries to explain to her young daughter what the sea was like before a comet destroyed the moon. And in the dreadful finale, “Every Dog Has Its Day,” vicious miser Ebenezer Koch poisons a poor pooch he believes is onto the secret stash of money he hides in his basement. Ebenezer falls victim to some good ol’ fashion justice when the rest of the dogs in the neighborhood gang up to put Koch in the ground. 


“Suppressed Desire” (a: Bernie Krigstein) ★★

“The White Bones” (a: Al Luster) ★★★

“Fenton’s Face” (a: Gene Colan) ★★1/2

“This World is Ours” ★★★

“Goodbye Forever!” (a: Joe Sinnott) ★★1/2

Psychiatry has always held a fascination for housewife, Genevieve Browne so, even though her therapist tells her she’s just fine, she continues with her weekly sessions. After a particularly helpful meeting with her doctor, Genevieve decides it’s not she who needs the help but her stuffy, stupid, penny-pinching husband, Herbert, so she talks her hen-pecked hubby into making an appointment. The session obviously helps the man as he goes home that night and strangles Genevieve. “Suppressed Desire” is a supremely silly melodrama with large logic holes (for some reason, Herbert sprouts fangs and pointed ears after he spills his heart to the doc) but it enables us one more viewing of the unmistakable Bernie Krigstein style. It’s a shame he’s confined to talking heads.

In “The White Bones,” two explorers, searching for uranium in the Congo, split up with each man taking a section of the jungle to sift through with Geiger counters. When the men meet back up at night, each suspects the other of holding out. Suspicion grows and violence ensues. “The White Bones” is a lot of fun, with each man’s successively higher mistrust almost becoming comical. This is one strip where Al Luster’s cartoony art actually works given the tone of the script.

Fenton Feeney has a nothing face and the fact that no one will acknowledge him is driving him nuts. Deciding the only way everyone will get to know “Feeney’s Face” is to become a movie star, Feeney signs up with a talent agent and begins acting lessons. But you can’t manufacture talent and, after a very short time, the agent throws up his hands in defeat and gives Fenton his money back. In a rage, Feeney murders the man and then heads for Hollywood, where “Wanted For Murder: Fenton Feeney” signs are plastered all over the city. “This World is Ours” is a clever short-short about two ants planning world domination and the little brat who (literally) steps on their plans.

A plantation owner pays a “zombie master” to cart away his wife so that he may run away with his mistress. Too late, he discovers the mistress has the same idea for him. There are a handful of artists in the Atlas Pre-Code Era that enhance any story immensely, regardless of the quality of script, and one of those few is Joe Sinnott. There’s nothing abstract or showy about Sinnott’s work, it’s all plain and clear right before your eyes, but there’s a malevolent evil buried deep inside each one of Joe’s panels. It’s a shame that once the Marvel Superhero Era took over, Sinnott became the go-to inker for Jack Kirby and his pencilling duties pretty much fell by the wayside

Strange Tales #22

“The Untouchable!” (Bernie Krigstein)  ★★★

“What Happened on the Moon?” (Bill Benulis & Jack Abel) ★★★

“The Voice of Death” (Bob McCarty) ★★★

“Too Good to Be True” (John Forte) ★★

“The Corpse That Wasn’t" (John Buscema) ★

On a “six-month oil-survey” job, Boyles quickly learns about the local superstitions when he whips an “untouchable,” a native whose shadow can mean death. The script for “The Untouchable!,” which is engaging but abstract, is secondary to the penciling talents of Bernie Krigstein, in his 22nd and final appearance in an Atlas pre-code horror comics. He’ll reappear post-code and post-EC for a run of 24 more stories before having a falling-out with (who else?) Stan Lee (over a four-pager entitled “The Phantom of the Farm” in World of Fantasy #9). These were the types of strips Krigstein excelled at, populated by eccentric and exaggerated characters with “condensed” faces and evil, glaring eyes, and we are more the richer for Bernie’s involvement. 

After four space exploration ships explode in space, a smug and egocentric scientist builds the perfect robot, one who can think and feel just like a human being, but without the fatal flaws encountered in a long space trip. The nutty professor builds a perfect rocket ship to house his mechanical marvel and then launches it into space. Once the robot lands on the moon, however, he cuts off contact with his creator, builds a factory where he constructs duplicates of himself and readies an armada of spaceships to invade Earth. Evidently, the smug father has given birth to the equally egocentric metal son. 

“What Happened on the Moon” is not only graced with a clever script (by Bill Frohman), but also by energetic and sparse visuals by Benulis and Abel. Most of the backgrounds in the scientist’s lab are a simple black, giving the panels a stark, disturbing vibe.

Opera singer Don Rugero delights in terrorizing the neighborhood adjoining his opera house with the high notes his voice achieves. Glass shatters, dogs howl, men plead for mercy, but to no end. The Don will not be deterred. Out one night with his squeeze, Lenora, Rugero gives her a display of his frightening range and, while doing so, shatters the eyeglasses of an old man. The codger walks out in front of a truck and is killed. Displeased, Lenora tells Rugero the date is off and she no longer wants to see him. Rugero laughs it off and insists he'll be asking her father for her hand in marriage the following night. As promised, the vocalist arrives to meet pop, the famous surgeon Dr. Edward Fenton. The good doctor's better days are obviously behind him and we prey he doesn't practice anymore since he can't seem to remember anything that's been said minutes before. Lenora arrives in time to remind her old man that she wanted Rugero tossed out on his ass and asked to never darken their door again. Enraged, The Don practices his scales and the "La-Ti-Dooo" is enough to shatter the priceless Ming Vase Dr. Fenton had just purchased, as well as bring the hallway chandelier down on Rugero's head.

Knowing that time is of the essence, Fenton and Lenora drag Rugero out from under the broken glass and "perform an emergency operation" in the doc's office. The surgery is a success but days later, Lenora remarks to her dad that he seems distracted, as if something is on his mind. The nutty professor scratches his head and says, yep, there was something he was trying to remember about the operation and... suddenly, he leaps from his chair and races down to the opera house. Alas, too late to stop Rugero from performing his first aria after being sidelined and hilariously shattering the glass plate Dr. Fenton placed in The Don's head! Whereas EC would have shown the broken glass protruding from the man's noggin, artist Bob McCarty simply showed Rugero's overturned corpse. No blood.

If Charley Sear didn’t have bad luck, he’d have no luck at all. He loses every cent he earns in penny-ante dice games but his luck changes when Satan pops up in a deserted alleyway and guarantees Charley a winning-streak. Twenty straight “seven”s later, Charley is rolling in the dough. Unfortunately, the goons putting on the dice games don’t cotton to Charley’s new luck. An odd little story in that Satan makes his cameo and then never reappears, even for the predictable finale. The art for "Too Good to Be True," by John Forte, is sparse but effective.

Al and Nick, two underworld murderers take the day off and head for a carnival (as any hood would do); while strolling the boardwalk, they decide to have their fortunes told by the Swami Rashudra (even though both hope the seer won’t see too much). After the Swami is finished, the boys take a ride on the roller-coaster and, deciding Nick knows too much, Al tosses him out of the car at a great height but Nick’s ghost haunts Al until Al commits suicide. Turns out the Swami and Nick have put on a big show: the fortune teller injected Al with a hypnotic drug and he’s hallucinated the whole affair. Deadly dumb, “The Corpse That Wasn’t” (perhaps the most vague Atlas story title ever— the corpse that wasn’t… Fried? Circumcised? Mannered?), is the only stumble in an otherwise above-average issue of Strange Tales.

Uncanny Tales #12

“The New Tenants” (a: Bill Everett) ★★1/2

(r: Journey Into Mystery #9)

“Dead End!” (a: Tom Gill) ★1/2

(r: Uncanny Tales #2)

“Devil’s Island” (a: Paul Reinman) ★★1/2

(r: Crypt of Shadows #10)

“Bertha Gets Buried” (a: Sam Kweskin) ★★★

(r: Vault of Evil #10)

“The Man From Outer Space” (a: Bob Powell) ★★★

                                                           (r: Weird Wonder Tales #3)

Penny-pinching real estate agent Adam Grange bilks old people out of their money and leaves them with houses that fall apart in a matter of days. His assistant, George, wants to go to the police and report the swindler but Grange holds a secret over the young man’s head. When Grange sells a rat-trap with dangerously weak floorboards to "The New Tenants," George finally breaks down and puts an end to the old man’s career. Some typically fabulous Everett art and a climax that allows the guilty to go free (well, the lesser evil at least).

Genius Erwin Forbes is fascinated by time travel so he whips up a device that can send him into the past. He sets the way-back-machine to just a dozen years prior and, sure enough, he lands back in 1941. Giddy with his newfound power, Forbes can’t help but look in on his younger self. He breaks into his own house and accidentally awakens Young Erwin, who thinks he’s a burglar and attacks. Old Erwin accidentally kills Young Erwin and then wonders if he’ll fade away. This is the type of sci-fi story EC always nailed and “Dead End” is a wee bit too much like one of those (and the plot would be done to death in the future); Erwin is supposed to be a big brain but doesn’t contemplate what might happen if he disturbs his own past? 

Pierre loves the Madam Suzette but she only has time for him when he brings her pearls. The money gone, Pierre turns to murder and ends up on “Devil’s Island," where he discovers that Suzette has not been true to him while he rots in prison. He writes to her, claiming to have found the world’s largest pearl and Suzette comes running, not realizing she’s walking into a trap (read that as: big clam). “Devil’s Island” is a nice hot toddy of a thriller, relaxing and enjoyable, with some very fine Reinman work.

Bertha is a lovely woman but she’s also a slob and it’s driving her husband nuts. When he makes a trip down into the basement, the simmer becomes a boil and he orders his wife to clean up after herself. To make matters worse, he sees a strange man leaving the house one afternoon and becomes convinced Bertha is carrying on an affair. In a rage, the man strangles Bertha and buries her, ironically, in the basement under her debris. The next day, our protagonist returns home to find the cellar door pulled back and enters to find a man digging up the basement floor. The man explains that Bertha wanted to surprise her husband and hired him to lay down a cement floor and, just as soon as he digs out the dirt, he’ll get started.

There’s a nostalgic haze clouding my critical view when it comes to “Bertha Gets Buried,” as it was the cover story for the very first Atlas pre-code horror comic book I ever laid my eyes and hands on. Long story short, I found Uncanny Tales #12 in a dollar box at a local comic shop in the mid-1970s, plunked down my hard-earned dollar bill, and took it home to absorb. “Bertha Gets Buried” was a fascinating little drama, the likes of which my 12-year-old eyes had never seen before. Being a very tidy kid, I could understand our (unnamed) lead character’s aversion to filth but I was also bothered by the fact that “Bertha Gets Buried” for no real fault of her own. That climax put the cherry on the top. Sam Kweskin delivers a near-perfect Bill Everett imitation (with flashes of Gene Colan — how does Kweskin do it?).

Kindly Jeb Farmer lives out on his beloved farm with wife, Mamie. Now, Mamie is not a fan of the hard work that goes into being the wife of a farmer and she’s constantly complaining that she could use a couple extra pairs of arms (pay close attention to that!) to help her in her daily chores. One night, a UFO crashes into Jeb’s barn and a wounded alien staggers out of the ship. Jeb takes “The Man From Outer Space” into the house to patch it up, ignoring Mamie’s complaints that “I don’t have enough work to do… now this! Too bad I haven’t got six hands instead of one pair…” (pay real close attention to that!). The farmer and the alien become quick and close friends but, once the stranger is healed, it must return to its home planet. But before it does, the thing leaves behind a gift. The final panel, of the six-armed Mamie, is inevitable given Mamie’s constant drone, and very reminiscent of the nurse/alien from Bill Everett’s “The Madman” (Menace #4) but the story itself is genuinely sweet and the complete opposite of most 1950s alien tales. That spaceship is a little small for intergalactic travel, no?

In Two Weeks!


Jack Seabrook said...

This sounds like a good batch! It's nice to see great artists like Crandall, Everett, and Krigstein involved.

Anonymous said...

That bit with the guy being used as a beam made me laugh out loud. What a foolproof plan! Bodies never decay, right?