Thursday, December 8, 2022

Journey Into Strange Tales Issue 75: Atlas/ Marvel Horror


The Marvel/Atlas 
Horror Comics
Part 60
February 1954 Part II
by Peter Enfantino

Marvel Tales 120

“The Commissar” (a: Gene Colan) ★★1/2

“Too Smart for His Age” (a: Tony DiPreta) 1/2

“What Would You Do?” (a: Jack Katz)

“The Baby-Sitter!” (a: Chuck Winter) ★★★

“Nothing Ever Changes” (a: Tony DiPreta)

“The Commissar” is a brutal and sadistic ruler who finds joy in giving his villagers pain. But the lowly villagers have a plan to unseat their czar and it involves the Commissar’s new aid. Some great Colan work here but the script is microwaved; cobbled together from several of Stan’s past anti-commie scripts. 

The Shannons find a beautiful little blonde baby on their doorstep and “adopt” the tyke but the kid seems to be something more than he appears. Within days, the toddler is reading Shakespeare and painting family portraits but he turns out to have a dark side as well. Using what amounts to voodoo, the imp stabs his parents to death and then goes outside, where he’s picked up by a flying saucer. He flies back to his home planet and tells his people the invasion should be a cinch. Ah, the naive 1950s, when anyone could adopt a baby found on a stoop! I’m not sure why but the splash for “Too Smart for His Age” hints at vampirism with a bevy of bats. No such luck.

One half of a siamese twin juggling act commits murder. Now the judge has to decide how to send one-half of a man to the chair. “What Would You Do?” Well, if you’re asking me, I’d tell you to avoid reading this inane claptrap. It’s too late for me. Luckily, there’s “The Baby-Sitter!” to wipe that bad taste out of my eyes.

It seems like years since Tom and Mary Blake had a night out, so they’ve hired a baby-sitter and they’re heading out for their favorite restaurant, Romano’s! But then an old crone shows up to the door and Tom starts to worry. Mary tells Tom to stop acting like a worrywart and they get out on the road. But Tom can’t stop worrying and when he asks his wife if she saw the sitter’s work card, Mary gasps and admits she was so excited about their night out that she never asked for ID. What follows is a hilarious obstacle course on their way back to the house. When they finally get home and race upstairs, they find the baby-sitter tied up and terrorized by the two young Blakes. Tom sighs and takes out his wallet.

The finale is so out of left field, you can’t help but giggle (maybe even an extended giggle), and it’s only at the climax that you realize that there is not one element of this story that can be held up as “horrific” (unless it’s the misfortune of being a parent). It’s still a great read, easily the best this issue.

For our second-half of the DiPreta double feature, we’re given “Nothing Ever Changes,” a low-budget time travel tale about John, a man who dreams of living in the time of the Crusades. Tired of listening to his wife nagging him to find a job, John answers a peculiar ad in the paper for a “man tired of this day and age’ (that’s some coincidence, eh?) and meets up with a professor who’s invented a time travel gizmo. John tells the egghead about his dream and the man send him back to 12th-Century England, where John has a wife who nags him about being lazy and finding a job. Yep, John discovers that, even with time travel, “Nothing Ever Changes!” The threadbare script is about as predictable as it gets but the real problem here is DiPreta’s awful penciling; a lot of the work here is rough and sketchy.

Mystic 27

“Who Walks with a Zombie?” (a: Russ Heath) ★★★1/2

(r: Tales of the Zombie #4)

“The Furnace!” (a: Al Eadah) 1/2

(r: Uncanny Tales #4)

“Where Dragons Swim!” (a: Art Peddy) ★★

“A Grave Mistake” (a: Vic Carrabotta)

“Survival” ★★★

Ken Hardin arrives on the strange island in the West Indies, looking for his fiancé, Jane, a novelist who’d come to this remote burg to find inspiration. Ken is met at the pier by an odd man who identifies himself as Dr. Peoule and discloses some bad news: Jane is extremely ill. Ken scoffs at the doctor’s prognosis but, once he sees his love up close, he’s stunned at her appearance. Jane resembles a zombie, staring straight ahead as if not even noticing her fiancé in the room. Later, the girl wanders out the door in a dream-like state and Ken gives chase.

Jane leads her lover down to a graveyard and falls to her knees, digging at the ground. Finally, she comes up with a manuscript; Ken quickly skims it and discovers a novel about a female writer who comes to an island only to discover a mad doctor who’s transforming the locals into zombies. Just then, Dr. Peoule emerges from the shadows, gun in hand, and explains that both Ken and Jane must die in order to keep his secret. Suddenly, the graves around the doctor open up and a horde of zombies reaches out. With the doctor dead, Ken turns to find Jane gone, off to find “eternal peace.”

Rather than go the the maudlin trail, the uncredited writer of “Who Walks With a Zombie?” leaves us on a genuinely solemn note. Ken’s mission to save his true love proves fruitless; there’s nothing to be done for the girl now. That sadness emanates from the panels thanks largely to the fabulously expressive and unique artwork of Russ Heath, represented here in an Atlas horror title for the 66th and final time. That’s a void that Stan would be hard-pressed to fill. After “Who Walks With a Zombie?,” Heath would concentrate his energies on Atlas and DC war titles (and make his mark in that genre as well). I would happily go out on a limb and proclaim Russ as Atlas’s greatest artist.

In the simple “The Furnace!,” a sadistic sea captain gets his comeuppance. Little Johnny comes back from the beach with a whale of a story but mom, dad, and brother Billy are too engrossed with the news to pay attention to the excited boy. Seems there are a host of sea monsters swimming towards the coast of California and bombs won’t stop them. Johnny tires of being ignored and runs out of the house back to the beach. As the family looks on, the newscaster excitedly proclaims that the day has been saved, all the water in the ocean has dried up as if someone “pulled the plug out of the bottom of the Pacific!” Still immersed in the news, Johnny’s family doesn’t notice the boy with the huge plug standing in their living room. Three-page stories barely crack a smile but the climactic panel of “Where Dragons Swim” certainly accomplished that, if nothing else.

Superstitious killer Tony Rye is on the run from the cops but finds the time to kill black cats and knock down ladders in his way. The end comes when he’s attacked by corpses in a graveyard. Tony swears he ain’t being taken alive so he pops a cap in his own noggin, just before the lights go on and it’s revealed that Tony has, in fact, bumbled his way onto the set of a horror movie. It’s “A Grave Mistake” that Stan thought this story was good enough to see print. Awful Paul S. Newman script and equally dreadful Carrabotta art. 

In the not-too-distant future, Earth has conquered Venus and shipped its populace to another planet, using the few remaining Venusians as slaves. But then, one day, an armada of ships manned by the outcast Venusians attack and take back their planet, leaving surviving Earthlings to fend for themselves in the hills. Before long, the few left living resort to cannibalism. “Survival” is a grim, dark fable with no true moral other than “man will do anything to survive.” The art is scratchy and equally grim, a perfect visualization of the dark, nihilistic script (the GCD surmises the uncredited art is the work of Harry Anderson).

Spellbound 19

“Who’s Knocking at My Door?” (a: Cal Massey) 1/2

“Peek-A-Boo!” (a: Bob Powell) ★★

“Witch Doctor” (a: Tony DiPreta) 1/2

“The Firing Squad” (a: Al Luster) ★★★

“Off His Rocker!” (a: Bob Fujitani)

Dr. Oliver Clements has been asked by top scientists to create a ray beam that can transmit a message to Mars (where intelligent life has been discovered). The egghead happily dives into his work but discovers, upon first testing, that he’s created a beam that could destroy all life on Earth. Doing what comes natural to an Atlas scientist, Clements activates his ray beam (while he sleeps in an induced coma so that he survives the “radioactive shock”) and gleefully awakens, knowing he’ll be the only man left on Earth and he can rob all the banks and jewelry stores at his leisure. Then… there’s a knock on his door. Another blatant rip-off of Fredric Brown’s “Knock,” “Who’s Knocking at My Door?” is silly and over-complicated sci-fi tripe. What would the last man on Earth do with money and jewels?

Astronauts bring back a mysterious flesh-melting substance from Mars. Scientists are studying the ooze when the Reds send a spy in to steal the stuff, thinking it must be some kind of weapon. Boy, those commies sure were dumb. Bob Powell, handling chores on an Atlas story for only the second time, is the perfect man for “Peek-A-Boo!” No one was better in the 1950s at visualizing melting humans, as Powell demonstrated on almost a monthly basis over at the much gorier Harvey Comics horror titles. An arrogant millionaire searches for paradise and thinks he might have stumbled upon just such a place in “Witch Doctor.” As is usually the case in the Atlas Universe, the paradise isn’t as advertised. Neither is the story.

Ho Chang is selling out his neighbors for an acre and a cow but, very soon, the tables will turn and Ho will be No Mo’. Al Luster has a style akin to Harvey Kurtzman, so “The Firing Squad” obviously has a very Frontline Combat-style vibe to it. The art more than makes up for the warmed-over Red Scare propaganda script. Bob Fujitani lends his irritating art to the tedious “Off His Rocker!” Caleb has been his uncle’s accountant for years, working his fingers to the bone while the old man rocks in his chair and keeps an eye on his nephew. Having had enough, Caleb tosses the old man out the window and kicks back, waiting for the inevitable inheritance. Unfortunately, the old man has other ideas and the incessant creaking of the rocking chair leads Caleb to madness. Other than “The Firing Squad,” this is a disposable issue of Spellbound.

Strange Tales 25

“The Final Hour” (a: John Forte) ★★1/2

“In Disguise!” (a: Myron Fass) ★★1/2

“The Last Man on Earth” (a: Art Peddy & Jack Abel)

“The Long Sleep!” (a: Charles A. Winter) ★★★

“No Place to Go” (a: Mac Pakula) ★★

In the year 2500, man has conquered the galaxy, built robots to do his dirty work, and has generally become bored with his success. Chief emperor Kaza orders a new fleet of warships to be built and, despite the protests of society’s pacifists, blasts them off to the edge of the “outer galaxy” to conquer whatever they might find. Turns out Kaza should have listen to the peaceniks after all since all the explorers find is a very pissed-off black matter which absorbs the spaceships and then heads to Earth. All mankind dead, the robots rise up to rebuild. A bit ponderous and preachy at times, “The Final Hour” is saved by a bleak finale and some strong dialogue.

Earth sends a gorgeous woman “In Disguise” to Mars to steal top-secret war plans but the mascara and lipstick don’t fool these smart Martians and our girl is arrested and brought before the Emperor. That’s when things get interesting as the woman strips down to reveal a metal undercoat… she’s a robot! Terrified, the Martians give up their documents and the robot heads back to her spaceship. There, in a clever double-twist, it’s revealed that there’s actually a woman below the metal!  “The Last Man on Earth” is a dopey three-pager that attempts to answer the question, “who was knocking on the door that belonged to the last man on Earth?”

One of the staples of the EC Comic that Marvel decided was fair game was the fairy tale. EC's version of Hansel and Gretel (Haunt of Fear #23, January-February 1954) revealed that the cuddly tots lost in the woods and terrorized by a witch were actually ghouls out looking for edible flesh. Atlas decided that fairy tales were working for EC so they should work for Strange Tales, and one of those stories, "The Long Sleep,” tackled the Rip Van Winkle legend. Bookkeeper Silas has been embezzling funds from his employer for five years when, one day, the boss orders him to have the books out as the auditors are on the way. Knowing they'll doubtless discover ten thousand missing, he leaves his wife and son and heads up into the high country, inexplicably convinced he can become a modern day Rip Van Winkle and sleep for twenty years while the trouble blows over. 

Silas stumbles into the hidden valley where he's quickly found by a race of little men. They offer him a brew and, sure enough, Silas is out like a light. Unfortunately, when he wakes only a few minutes later, he's paralyzed and the little men are standing him up in a field alongside nine other men. To his horror, he finds out too late that the little men love their lawn bowling. A wacky, nonsensical bit of fluff that is quite entertaining and works where so many other publishers failed in the “Grimm’s Fairy Tale” department. That final panel, of the giant bowling ball rolling down the valley, is an image only comic books could pull off successfully. Oddly enough, the gorgeous Bill Everett cover touting “The Long Sleep!” has nothing to do with this story.

“No Place to Go,” serves up yet another tale set in the then-distant future. Earth has seen no wars in fifty years and has become overcrowded, so in an effort to alleviate the burden, spaceships blast off to the other planets to look for readily-available real estate. Alas, the other worlds have the same problem, so the only solution is a galactic war. Mac Pakula has a rough, scratchy style that serves “No Place to Go” very well, much better than the script, which starts out promisingly but then resorts to silliness in its final panels.

Uncanny Tales 17

“I Live With Corpses” (a: Mort Lawrence) ★★

“The New World” (a: Paul Reinman) ★★1/2

“The Replacement!” (a: George Roussos) 1/2

“Tomorrow I Die!” (a: Chuck Winter) ★★1/2

“From Out of the Night” (a: Gene Colan) ★★★

Jeb Nimrod has been the caretaker of Crag Hill Cemetery for years and looking after the dead has become a bit of a bore to the old dog. One night, his front door bursts open and a man carrying a briefcase asks Jeb to hide him from the cops; if he does, there’s a cool grand in it for him. When the cops arrive, Jeb puts them off the scent but, just before they leave, they let the caretaker know that the man on the lam stole a million and a half dollars from a local bank.

After the cops leave, Jeb notifies his new tenant that his fee has just been raised to three-quarters of a million. The thief informs Jeb that the money is traceable and he wouldn’t be able to spend it anyway. When the old crab asks him how he’s going to spend his riches, the man tells him he’s made a deal with a scientist. The egghead has invented a time travel machine and the thief will be transported fifty years into the future. Jeb stabs the man to death and heads to the scientist’s place to work out a new deal (yes, I know there’s absolutely no way Jeb could find the professor’s lab but let’s just ignore that small detail).

The scientist agrees and Jeb skips fifty years of hard labor and lands in an idyllic setting with his million in cash. But this old dope is in for a rude awakening: fifty years into the future, money is no longer used and everyone is put to work to earn their living. Jeb is given a job in… you guessed it, Crag Hill Cemetery. “I Live With Corpses” is dumb as dirt but bits are entertaining and might bring a smile to even the most hardened Atlas horror fan. The time machine gimmick comes right out of left field and it’s amazing how quickly Jeb accepts the plan. Mort Lawrence’s art is nicely creepy but the lengthy six-panel expository (crammed with word balloons) is cringe-worthy. 

Visitors from Mercury land on Earth and advise our President that if man does not stop warring, the planet will be reduced to dust. The Mercurians blast off and leave humankind to get on with what we do best. Three wars later, Earth is exactly as described by the aliens: an empty wasteland. Two survivors, one man and one woman, then begin to repopulate the planet and centuries later, the process begins again. “The New World” is a tight little five pages of moralism that, unfortunately, falls apart in its finale, a very silly and nonsensical wrap-up that contradicts the intelligent build-up. 

The supervisor of the torture-chambers of hell isn’t getting all he can out of his men and he can feel the powers-that-be at his back, waiting to replace him. Even with some extra special hot lava dunking, the super loses his job. And that’s how Stalin became Hitler’s replacement in hell. Dreadfully dumb stuff, “The Replacement” is contrived and silly from the onset, with Hitler kept in shadows at all times so that we don’t know who he is. But we do, don’t we? The Roussos art is just as bland and lifeless as the script.

In “Tomorrow I Die!,” astronaut Burt Hansom manages to steal a “squealie” from Mars and barely escapes with the creature onboard his spaceship. Burt gets down to business with the platypus lookalike, who can tell the future, immediately and asks his first question: “When will I die?” 

“Tomorrow at nine o’clock in the evening,” answers the creature. In a daze, knowing the thing can’t lie, Burt asks the circumstances of his death. “In your own home… the walls and ceilings will fall in on you!” With a smile, Burt informs the little monster that he’ll be cheating death simply by avoiding his house at all costs. Unfortunately, death arrives at the given time when Burt’s vehicle runs out of gas and he crashes into… his own home! Yes, that climax has been used before in several different variations (the tale where a man is told by a fortune teller he’ll “die in a fall” and avoids any activities, only to be killed by a falling chandelier, comes immediately to mind), but the idea is cute and Chuck Winter’s talking red platypus is a hoot.

Suffering from writer’s block and facing a deadline, author Harry Spade takes a break from his useless brainstorming and heads out into the woods for a walk. Unbeknownst to Harry, a small UFO has landed nearby and its occupants, two large flies, are looking for a host to latch onto. One of the things dissolves into Harry’s body and, suddenly, the writer is hit with the greatest science fiction idea of all time. There’s this author who has writer’s block… “From Out of the Night” is a very clever SF tale, with Colan’s trademarked noir graphics and a fabulous final panel, all revolving around a very simple gimmick.

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Grant said...

I asked before whether there were many space stories where Earth people - as opposed some particular country - were the bad guys, and "Survival" really helps answers that question.

The description of "Peek-A-Boo" surprised me a lot less. It's usually accidentally funny in a story when bad people steal weapons from the "good" people in the Defense Department. And I'm sure that's still very popular in SF stories, not a "back then" kind of thinking.

Jack Seabrook said...

A Fredric Brown reference!