Thursday, October 7, 2010

It's An Entertaining Comic! Part 2: Crime Suspenstories

by Peter Enfantino

In the grand scheme of things, Crime SuspenStories (27 issues published October 1950 through March 1955) falls somewhere in the middle of the EC line as far as quality goes but somewhere near the bottom of the heap of the core titles in terms of respect. There aren’t many essays written (or, in the case of Tales From the Crypt, whole books) fondly recalling CSS and most critics (and readers, for that matter) prefer its vastly superior sister title, Shock SuspenStories. That could be because most of the issues of CSS seem, at times, to be slapped together in a hodgepodge of artists and subpar storytelling. There are a handful of superior stories found here, but most run along the lines of:

Librarian Blanche, working overtime, worries she may be the target of a maniac who’s terrorizing her town. Blanche is convinced that the mysterious man lurking in the library stacks after hours is the crazed murderer. We find out in the end that, in fact, Blanche is the maniac and the mysterious man becomes her next victim.
(“Maniac at Large” CSS #27)

As with The Haunt of Fear (and the other EC titles, for that matter), the CSS writers enjoyed “dipping into other sources,” which led to borrowing liberally from such stories as Samuel Blas’ “Revenge” (morphed into “Murder May Boomerang” in CSS #1), Louis Pollock’s “Breakdown” (transformed into “The Corpse in the Crematorium,” CSS #2), and Jonathon Craig’s “The Quiet Room” (see “The Squealer” in CSS #25).

Several stories excel in the art department but fall woefully  storywise. “Two for the Show” (from #17) comes immediately to mind. Will Elder’s stark, almost underground, pencils (which Elder would sharpen fuller a few years later in Mad) liven up what is essentially the same old “Cuckolded husband finally has enough, kills wife, and is done in by a stupid mistake” tale that crammed the pages of Crime SuspenStories. Another story found in the same issue, “Fired,” finds the dream team of Al Williamson and Frank Frazetta wasted in a role-reversal of “Two for the Show.”

Whatever problems the interiors had, one can’t complain about the cover art. Several standout issues include the aforementioned #17 (a man literally blows his own brains out); #6 (a queasy rear-angle shot of a broken-necked man, complete with noose); #19 (a woman being throttled underwater); and the infamous #22, whose beheaded female drew the ire of the Senate Subcomittee in 1954.

"Jury Duty" (CSS #6)
Art: Graham Ingels/Story: William Gaines/ Al Feldstein.
In his indispensable notes to the Crime SuspenStories library, Max Allan Collins calls “Jury Duty” a “wryly humorous but nonetheless creepy excursion into the Ingels/Feldstein universe.” It’s that and much more. The appropriately named Peter Kardoff is hanged by the neck ‘til dead for the crime of murder. His body is cut down and taken away to be buried by his servant, Boris. On the way to the grave, Boris is more than a tad shocked to find out his boss isn’t actually dead. Kardoff has survived the hanging, but is grotesquely misshapen. He sets out on a revenge trail with a slightly skewed view of the path. After several of the jurists are murdered, the remaining jurymen band together and bury Kardoff alive, musing that the act is not murder, since Kardoff had already been pronounced dead.

Gaines and Feldstein’s obvious influence for “Jury Duty” was the 1939 Boris Karloff film The Man They Could Not Hang, but there are also echoes of the Ygor character that Bela Lugosi played in Son of Frankenstein (1939) and Ghost of Frankenstein (1942).

"Out of the Frying Pan" (CSS #8)
Art/Story: Johnny Craig.
Laid up in the hospital, old Charlie enjoys telling his bedridden roommates about the lovely day and exploits of locals outside his window. Meanwhile, Hank Bowers catches his old lady gettin’ it on with another guy, loses his temper and chases the guy down an alley. Hank blows the guy away but sustains a minor injury during the fight, leaving him temporarily blind. The police haul him to the hospital and it’s there that Charlie and Hank cross paths. Listening to Charlie’s descriptions of a beautiful park across the street, Hank conjures up the perfect escape once his eyesight begins to return. Unfortunately for Hank, he doesn’t take into account that old Charlie is actually blind and that the non-existent park is actually a brick wall.

The six-panel first page (an alternative to the usual splash plus) hints at the goofiness Johnny Craig has in store for us in “Out of the Frying Pan.” The double-sized panel depicting Hank’s five foot flight into the brick wall is priceless and draws as many guffaws as anything EC ran in MAD.

"Rendezvous" (CSS #16)
Art/Story: Johnny Craig.
Joe Haines is a free-wheeling playboy stuck in a low-paying accountant’s job. To keep his girlfriend Nickie happy and well-jeweled, he’s been appropriating funds from work. When the boss gets suspicious and voices his concerns, Joe realizes he’s going to have to think up something fast. His salvation comes in the form of a time bomb and a timely business trip. Joe places the bomb in his boss’ luggage just before the man takes off, then flies to the spot in the desert where he’s calculated the crash will occur. Joe gets his expected comeuppance when he becomes part of the crash.
Not a great story in terms of the plotline and the contrivances needed to pull it off (does Joe really think he can dig through the flaming wreckage to cover up any proof of the bomb?), but livened up by what could be one of the most sadistic characters in comics. To cover up his own foolishness, Joe thinks nothing of killing hundreds of lives. It’s also a tough story to read in the wake of 9/11. Back in the 1950s, monsters like Joe Haines populated comic books, not desert training camps and 747s.

"Come Clean" (CSS #16)
Art: Al Williamson / Story: Gaines/Feldstein.
Ralph Jansen is about to be executed for the murder of Lillian Smith, a woman he picked up in a bar for a one-night stand. The prosecution’s evidence consists of the testimony of the landlady who saw him in Lillian’s apartment and his coat, which was seen on a man running from the apartment after the murder. Jansen spends his last months going over the night in his head, trying to come up with a missing piece. Unfortunately for Ralph, the missing piece arrives in his brain just as the switch is flipped. A wild, pessimistic story with no expository final panel. The executioner didn’t do it. No gleeful, guilty sheriff. We know Jansen is innocent, but we never find out who or why Lillian is killed.

"From Here to Insanity" (CSS #18)
Art: Reed Crandall / Story: Gaines/Feldstein.
A murderer terrorizes a poor old woman, forcing her to give him shelter while on the run from the cops. When the police come to the door, he tells her not to open the door and what to say. The O. Henry to this one is that the old lady is deaf and the police know this. How could she be answering questions through the door? The final panel shows the maniac, now insane, giggling in his padded cell. Crandall’s creepy artwork almost out-Ghastlys Graham Ingels. Two sources claim that this was later filmed as an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, but I can find no proof of that.

"More Blssed to Give" (CSS #24)
Art: Bernie Krigstein/Story: Jack Oleck.
A wonderfully told (and illustrated) story about Molly and Stanley Talbot, married for eleven years and, we find out quickly, that’s eleven years too long. We see the two develop their plans to knock one another off in facing panels over the course of seven pages, illustrated by Krigstein in a stark, bare manner. Krigstein’s style must
have been daring for its day, as I’ve not seen any other artist of the time with a design such as his. The comment could be made that his style, in fact, is too...well, stylish... for simple horror/crime comics.

Author Jack Oleck later went on to write the novelizations of the two EC movies released by Amicus in the 1970s, as well as the two fairly scarce House of Mystery prose paperbacks released by Warner in 1973 (with illos by Berni Wrightson!). More importantly, Oleck contributed several highlights of the 1970s DC mystery line (House of Secrets, Weird Mystery Tales, etc.) and the fabulous, undiscovered “Space Voyagers,” a collaboration with artist Alex Nino that ran as a backup in Rima, The Jungle Girl.

"Dog Food" (CSS #25)
Art: Reed Crandall/Story: Oleck.
Sadistic prison guard Lester Hoag keeps his prisoners and his guard dogs equally starved, making an escape next to impossible. With nothing to lose, the prisoners devise a plan to rid themselves of Hoag by baiting the crazed dogs with strips of meat and stealing up to Hoag’s house to kill him. The boss uncovers the plan and baits his own trap.

Most critics (and fans, as well, actually) point to “Foul Play” from Haunt of Fear #19 as the grisliest example of EC gone too far. I’d direct those who like that kind of thing (retro-splatter?) to “Dog Food,” a classic with an unusually nauseating climax by, of all artists, Reed Crandall. To me, Crandall is primarily known for tamer exercises in horror such as “Double-Crossed” in the previous issue of CSS or his later work in the Warren magazines. Don’t misunderstand me, Crandall was a fine artist, with a hand for beautiful line work such as that found in the aforementioned “Double-Crossed” or “Curse of the Full Moon (found in Creepy #4), but those who admire Crandall’s work have to be shocked by the final panel of “Dog Food.” The story itself is maybe a bit too familiar (it’s a swipe of the classic “Blind Alleys” from Tales from the Crypt #46) but it’s all in the presentation as they say.

"Just Her Speed" (CSS #27)
Art: Bernie Krigstein/Story: Oleck.
Marty stole Shirley from Ed and Ed has been tracking the pair for the two years since, finally finding Marty working in a dingy diner. When Ed confronts Marty, gun in hand, the terrified cook knows that if he can only stall Ed for a half hour, a state trooper will come in for his nightly cup of coffee. When the time arrives, the state trooper zooms by the diner chasing a speeding car. The passenger, ironically, turns out to be the adulterous Shirley, with her latest conquest. Another amazing job by Krigstein and Oleck.

NEXT UP: Weird Fantasy


The EC Library: Crime Suspenstories. 5 hardcover volumes. (Russ Cochran, publisher. 1983). Reprinting of the entire series, with story-by-story notes and critique by acclaimed crime writer Max Allan Collins.

Crime SuspenStories (27 issues, EC Comics, October 1950-March 1955). (reprinted by Russ Cochran/Gemstone, November 1992-May 1999).

1 comment:

Walker Martin said...

It's been awhile since I've read any stories in my EC Library and your reviews point out some interesting comics that I want to reread. Another great series that deserves to be published as a book.