Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Interplanetary Episode: The Sequel!

by Larry Rapchak

In late 2002, while attempting to learn more about the mysterious artist Kenneth Landau, I discovered that "Interplanetary Episode's" appearance in January of 1960 was NOT its first; it had, in fact, served as the cover story of ACG's Adventures into the Unknown #61 (Jan-Feb 1955) which was, I believe, the final pre-code issue of this particular title.

And here's the original splash-panel, drawn (and signed) by Kenneth Landau in late 1954. Compare and contrast with the 1960 version shown in part one.

Was the roulette-wheel thing a part of Landau's original drawing, or was it grafted on later? The "wheel of fate" idea mentioned in the text has very little bearing on the story, and it was eliminated in the 1960 version. But Landau's crackling lightning and millions of little scratch-marks for the background give us a preview of the crazy, out-of-kilter feel of the story.

However, things get really interesting upon discovering that most of the 1955 version's crucial plot set-up—the brutal mistreatment of the simpleton Simon by the townsfolk—has been entirely altered from what one sees in the 1960 version! Yes, totally re-drawn by another artist and, oddly, softened a great deal in its emotional impact!

That's right—the Pre-Code version of the story as it appeared in January, 1955 was much more mild and inoffensive than its CODE-era reissue in January, 1960!

Here are a few samples which illustrate these changes along with a bit of a spoiler (as if anyone is going to run out and track this thing down): the climatic outcome of the story is the result of Simple Simon's gradual realization that the people of Earth are, in fact, basically cruel and not worthy of salvation. Thus, the entire plot hinged on our seeing Simon's kindly nature and trust in humanity ultimately destroyed by his personal encounters with the evil townspeople.

So here, in 1955, are a few re-drawn panels from page 2 which illustrate some of these encounters; Simon first rushes to the aid of a stereotypical Italian hot-dog vendor, who has made the mistake of peddling his wares in front of the local butcher shop. The butcher, being a jerk, goes berserk and knocks over the vendor's cart (big deal), as Simon rather sanctimoniously comments: "Folks are good... even if they don't think sometimes." (Oi!) Next, Simon happens upon a big thug stealing a lunch box from a little kid. Again, big deal.

But here are the same two panels, as seen in the 1960 version:

A few things leap out at the reader. The artwork of these two panels is on an entirely different stylistic plane than the first version above; they were obviously drawn by Landau. This meant that the version published in 1960 contained Landau's original artwork. The panel on the right is an example of the artist's quintessentially creepy, sardonic, cartoon-y stylization of his characters, recalling the famous tragic/comic masks that represent opposite poles of human nature. At this point early on in the story, you're not quite sure if you're supposed to be laughing at the main character or not.....

As the 1955 version progresses, (page 3 of the story) Simon finds a wallet which he intends to return to its rightful owner. Problem is, those nasty townsfolk spy him with the wallet, assume he's the one who stole it, and are instantaneously transformed into a lynch mob. In a very one-dimensional, contrived way, this sequence establishes Simon as a sympathetic (and a fully rational, seemingly normal) guy whose only quirk is that he happens to look like a bum.

BUT WHEN THE STORY APPEARED IN 1960, HERE's how the plight of the pathetic Simple Simon unfolds... in Landau's original panels from the same position on page 3:

Here, Simon's "folks are good..." line, spoken to his little 4-legged pal, acquires a whole new sense of pathos. I can't begin to describe the way that this portion of the story left me stricken... for lack of a better word.... numb... when I first read it. Landau's (and the author's) original conception of Simon as helpless, pitiful, and intellectually primitive reaches far deeper into the conscience of the reader than does the silly attempt to sanitize the story in its 1954-55 re-write.

AND HERE, back in 1955, is the final panel of Simon's interaction with the townsfolk, just prior to the first appearance of the aliens:

CONTRASTED with the 1960 version of the same panel, another Landau image that fried my poor young mind:

From this point on in both the '55 and '60 versions, the stories are identical, except for a couple of flashback panels near the end, as Simon recalls his encounters with the residents of Miller's Gap.

A few thoughts, questions, etc:

1.) I'm not particularly knowledgeable about the comics industry; I'm aware of the major controversy which led to the establishment of the Comics Code, and I'm sure that the turmoil during the 1952-54 period left publishers to deal with the impending censorship in any number of ways (the E.C. "New Direction" titles, for instance). I assume that the reworking of "The World That Was" after Landau had completed it was one of many examples of a publisher's last-ditch attempt to placate the incoming Code regime.

2.) It's fascinating to observe the ludicrously bad attempt to match the artistic style of the 1954 re-drawn panels (I'm certain that ACG staffer Ogden Whitney was the culprit) with Landau's unique originals. One assumes that the re-written/re-drawn work was done quickly, and that Landau was not available (or perhaps unwilling) to revise his original work.

3.) Also intriguing is the fact that, under the incoming new Code guidelines, the entire story should have been scrapped, since the alien plot and the final outcome of the story were considerably stronger than anything that would be sanctioned during the ensuing period of censorship. However, in salvaging the story for publication, the folks at ACG knew exactly which specific panels had to be jettisoned---those which depicted the brutal treatment of the retarded main character at the hands of the vicious townsfolk. And I am living proof of the effect of those images upon a sensitive young mind...when they were finally published six years later.

4.) How bizarre is it that ACG chose to publish Landau's ORIGINAL, UN-EDITED artwork in 1960!!? WHY??? If, say, they were behind schedule and needed to fill the issue with a previously published story, why in heck would they not simply reprint the "softer" 1955 version with the Whitney redrawn panels?? Why would they choose to unleash the raw, disturbing ORIGINAL Landau images on an unsuspecting Code-era readership that had been lulled into accepting the "horror-lite" material of the day?

I realize that the case of "The World That Was/Interplanetary Episode" wouldn't even register as a miniscule speck on today's comic consciousness...but it sure is fascinating. As far as I am aware, virtually nothing is known of artist Kenneth Landau, who was but one of a sizable stable of artists cranking out their work as part of the thriving comic book industry way, way back in the early 1950's; I would imagine that, barring some sort of extremely lucky break, very little will ever come to light about Landau himself... and certainly nothing about the bizarre and unsettling story that has served as the topic for this article.

In retrospect, I'm sure that, had I seen them, the typical pre-code comic book skeletons, vampires and zombies would have freaked me out in a fairly predictable way. But nothing could have prepared me for the effect of Landau's pathetic, emaciated simpleton—those skeletal, black eye-sockets weeping tears of grief over his mangy little pooch, just prior to his being pounded by his tormentors; you would have expected that vicious punch from the neanderthal farmer to have pulverized the poor kid into dust and blown him away along the dirt roads of Miller's Gap, Kansas, for all his life was worth; it's so damned upsetting. But, luckily for Simon, things would change dramatically when those repugnant yet noble aliens appeared. And even though, from that point on, the story brightens considerably, I could never begin to shake the emotional trauma of the opening scenes, so devastatingly effective were they rendered.

A powerful and deeply disturbing experience for me, one that fascinates and frightens me more than 50 years later.

Author's Note: I would love to hear from anyone who has any insights into this story and/or artist Ken Landau (no, he was NOT Martin Landau in his pre-acting days, as was sometimes rumored). With the non-stop pressure/deadlines under which the the comics industry operated, I'd be surprised if the story-line of "The World That Was/Interplanetary Episode" was original; it was probably "adapted" from an existing story, or perhaps patched together from more than one. Any information would be greatly appreciated.

Larry Rapchak


Walker Martin said...

By the way, both versions of this story are reprinted and discussed online. I found it by going to google.com and typing in "Interplanetary Episode Pappys golden age blog". Scroll down to number 691 and the two versions are there. He agrees the post code version is more effective.

Peter Enfantino said...

Proof that the internet is the greatest thing that ever happened to collectors. Soon we won't even have to shell out for any of these comics. They'll all be downloadable for free.

Jack Seabrook said...

Excellent article, Larry!

Larry Rapchak said...

Thanks, guys.

Incidentally, back in 2002, I contacted Michael Vance, author of the book "Forbidden Adventures", a history of ACG publications. He was the one who tipped me off to the earlier (1955) version of the story. But he had no info to offer on whatever became of artist Kenneth Landau, nor did he have any specific info on the curious tale of "Interplanetary Episode"---specifically WHY it was re-released in its original, far more shocking version DURING the Comics Code era; it's a mystery that, I'm afraid, will go unanswered.

What I find so remarkable about the story is the very fact that the TRUE HORROR of the narrative is in the treatment of the pathetic main character BY HIS FELLOW HUMANS! When ACG decided to hastily downgrade the horror element in the story just prior to its 1955 release, did they revise and re-draw the hideous aliens? NO--they revised (in an incredibly lame manner) and softened the first half of the story...the portion that deals exclusively with the interaction between the all-too earthbound residents of Miller's Gap, Kansas. ACG knew VERY WELL how powerful and disturbing those panels might be to sensitive young readers, most of whom would be able to take the alien scenes in stride.

How ironic that Landau's aliens--so incredibly ugly and repugnant in appearance---actually provide the RELIEF in the story; their arrival signals the beginning of Simon's salvation from his hellish existence. Thus the hideous aliens, whose mission it is to incinerate the inhabitants of some entire, unamed planet, are in reality the GOOD GUYS, so thoroughly corrupt and evil are the residents of Miller's Gap by comparison!

What do you guys think of the quality of the story itself? Could it have been wholly original for its ACG release(s)? Or is it likely a rip-off from some other un-credited, earlier source? To a guy who admits to having very little knowledge of the total, overarching output of comic book story material over the decades, this particualry story strikes me as an amazingly strong one---and that's BEFORE Mr. Landau brought it to life with his uniquely disturbing artwork.


Peter Enfantino said...

While I have no particular knowledge about pre-code sf/horror comics, nothing would amaze me, Larry. Interplanetary Episode could be wholly original or it could be yet another comic book rip-off. I just got through reading (on the fabulous website, Digital Comic Museum) "End Result" in Harvey's Tomb of Terror #14 (March 1954) about a fleet of Lartesians (from the planet Lartes II) who conquer Earth and on a whim bring back to Lartes II the only two surviving human babies. The babies have flu germs however and...stop me if you've heard this before. Nice art though.

Walker Martin said...

I liked the story though I have come across the plot about aliens picking the wrong life form as representaive of Earth. For instance there was a story about the aliens thinking dogs were the highest form of life because people walked behind them and picked up their waste, etc.

Larry mentions Vance's book FORBIDDEN ADVENTURES, which I somehow missed, so I went to ABE books and prices range from $89.00 to over $200.00. However ALTER EGO reprinted the entire book in issue number 61. I just ordered it for only $5.00 plus postage.

As Peter says, the internet is great for collectors. Before the internet I used to carry around a want list that would choke a horse. Now, I've found just about every want thanks to ABE and ebay.

Peter Enfantino said...

Thanks for the tip, Walker. Alter Ego is, indeed, a gem. I never miss their Halloween Specials. Off topic but another genre of comics I'd love to read a definitive piece on is the war comics. In particular, DC's war comics. There was an index to DC's war comics put out years ago but I've yet to see a critical work on them. Have you guys?

Walker Martin said...

Peter, I have a copy of WAR STORIES A GRAPHIC HISTORY by Mike Conroy(2009), which is the closest to a history of war comics that I'm aware of. But it covers all sorts of war comics, not just DC. Amazon.com has it discounted to $19.00 but used copies are available even lower.

Peter Enfantino said...

Thanks for the tip, Walker. I've just ordered the book from Amazon. Merry Christmas!

Ed said...

Ken Landau moved to LA by the early 1960s. he was the first (former) comics pro that Mark Evanier (who lived in his neighborhood) ever met.

Maranee Landau said...

Maranee (Landau) McDonald here. This was a very interesting read of my fathers art, his "disturbing" creatures, et al. I most love the many compliments of my fathers artwork. I am in the process of writing a book about him, his life and what it was like as a cartoonist and comic book artist in the 50s through the 80s. My beloved father passed away in July 2012. I've acquired ALL of his collection of comic books, his own classic artwork, as well as multiple strips, that never sold. Some of what I am seeing here on your page, I do not have. Unfortunately, an estate sales person, that was supposed to make sure I had all of his artwork (I got 99% of it btw) was supposed to put it aside for me. She was a crook and that's the way it goes. So, my question is this....how can I get copies of ALL of his work. I want to put prints of it in my book etc. I have contacted Mark Evanier and he and Shaun Clancy (who writes for Alter Ego Mag) have been so kind and helpful. But if I am to have what I need, I need to get to work now. Any information on these matters, can be emailed to me at Maraneem@Gmail.com
Also, he and my mother lived their entire lives in West LA. Not just the 60s as was told above. He lived in NY, in the early 50s for only a short time. Mark wasn't in our neighborhood either, he had a class with my older brother, in Highschool and my brother, Rick told him what my father did and arranged an introduction. This is per Mark, btw. Thanks for any info. Maranee Landau