Monday, June 10, 2013

Do You Dare Enter? Part Three: July-September 1969

The DC Mystery Line 1968-1976
by Jack Seabrook, 
John Scoleri
& Peter Enfantino

Cover by Mike Sekowsky & Nick Cardy
The Witching Hour 3 (July 1969)

"The Turn of the Wheel!"
Story by Don Arneson
Art by Alex Toth and Vince Colletta

"The Death Watch"
Story by Alan Riefe
Art by Jack Sparling

"...And in a Far-Off Land!"
Story by Steve Skeates
Art by Bernie Wrightson

Peter: Most DC mystery stories are framework built upon the twist ending, merely seven pages of exposition and whatever character development can be mustered before delivering the slap to the reader's face: "Gotcha!" This may have spoiled me, in a way, because when "The End" comes and the writer delivers a "Nice to see you, please come back" rather than that needed slap, it's mighty disappointing. Don't get me wrong; if the writer has delivered a well-told tale, I don't need to find out that the protagonist's wife is really a vampire and she's the one responsible for the strange deaths in the village, but if the entire intent is to deliver a shock it better be a good one (or at least not one told time and again). Neither "The Turn of the Wheel" nor "... And in a Far-Off Land" deliver a "shock" ending but both are saved by exceptional artwork and the occasional glimpse of brilliance. In what appears to be 16th Century (?) Europe, villagers have finally taken all they can stand from the bloody Klaus the Cruel, a sadistic nobleman who uses a wheel to mete out his tortures, and bust into his castle to steal the instrument of their misery. When the townfolk gather to destroy the wheel, they discover that it holds the souls of all who've been murdered by Klaus so they give it a new coat of bright red paint and then (here's where the story loses me) mount it on just about every wagon in town. A series of calamities befalls Klaus every time he tries to transport a member of his family to the castle. After Klaus himself is injured in a coach accident, he realizes what's been going on and has the wheel brought back to his castle and mounted above his bed. Bad move. Alex Toth perfectly evokes the squalor of the village and his scenes of the various coach mishaps are exciting rather than tedious. The story, however, is disjointed and missing some details. The concept that the wheel has trapped the souls of its victims is a fascinating one but is mentioned and then dropped in just a couple of panels. After each accident, did some villager sneak into the carnage, detach the wheel, and then mount it on another carriage or did the ghosts themselves do the switcheroo?

Jack: The art carried this story for me. This is the best I've seen from Toth since we've started reading these titles. There are a few spots where he uses silhouettes of humans to block our view of what's going on behind that are quite impressive. I was able to suspend my disbelief and not worry about how the wheel got from carriage to carriage. I think it was the villagers' doing, since the various mishaps were separated by spans of time.

John: Unlike you, Jack, I wasn't enamored with Toth's art, which left little for me to enjoy in this particular tale.

Coulda been a Conan contenda!
Peter: Steve Skeates's "...And in a Far-Off Land" tells the story of an earthman who is teleported to another planet to fight a battle for a peaceful race. Elements of John Carter and Conan obviously permeate the story but the interesting reveal here is that our hero is, in reality, a murderer serving a life sentence. Once he's defeated the vicious Lafhrds (the four-armed monsters preying on the unarmed pacifists) he's given a choice by the wizard who brought him: remain and protect or return to life in a cell. The newly-forged barbarian makes his choice and the last panel sees him sitting in his cell, wondering if it was all a dream. Though not a "shock" ending, the finale still gives the reader pause: did the man make the right decision? Wrightson's art here predicts the much more refined King Kull story he would pencil for Marvel's Creatures on the Loose #10 in March 1971. Roy Thomas, the writer and editor of Conan the Barbarian, had to have seen this story when initially selecting Bernie Wrightson to pencil Conan (an opportunity that fell through for Wrightson when Thomas instead assigned Barry Smith to the title), as there are several panels (in particular that one to my right) that eerily predict the "look" of Conan. "The Death Watch" is a three and a half page bit of fluff about parents gathered around their son, mangled in a car accident, to see if he'll survive an operation. The twist is that the mom and pop are actually ghosts hoping the son will die and join them in Ghostville.

Jack: Once again, I dug Cynthia's story the most! It reminded me of a DC comic I had as a kid about Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser (Sword of Sorcery 4, Oct. 1973). I never quite understood what was going on but that weird name stuck in my head. I guess it was supposed to be Welsh, or Celtic. The Lafhrds reminded me of Fafhrd. In any case, the Wrightson art is great and the story is interesting. I was surprised that the convict chose to go back and serve his time rather than stay where he would have been happy. Kind of stupid, if you ask me. I was also surprised by the ending of "The Death Watch," when it was revealed that mom and pop were ghosts. I guess I'm easy to fool!

John: As I've said before, Wrightson's art is enough to make any story worth reading. In this particular tale, it did seem like his backgrounds were far less detailed than normal. Perhaps working under the pressure of a deadline? In any case, the art is once again the high point to this otherwise uninspired John Carter knock-off.

Cover by Neal Adams
House of Mystery 181 (August 1969)

"Sir Greeley's Revenge!"
Story by Otto Binder
Art by Frank Springer

"The Siren of Satan"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Bernie Wrightson

Peter: "Sir Greeley's Revenge!" is an almost Dickensian ghost story about a homeless boy befriended by an elderly man of wealth. The old codger takes a shine to the young orphan to the dismay of his money-hungry relatives. When the old man dies, the vultures begin to circle but they didn't count on the boy having a guardian spectre. Writer Otto Binder made his name writing the adventures of the original Captain Marvel (Shazam!) in the 1940s but the real feel of this story can be traced to the author's pulp roots. Binder co-wrote the popular "Adam Link - Robot" series that appeared in Amazing Stories from 1939-42.

Jack: I liked "Sir Greeley's Revenge!" quite a bit. Springer's art takes some getting used to but he really gets the feel of the 19th century, especially in panels like the one where the angel of death wraps itself around Sir Greeley's house. Having the boy become a piano prodigy and then basing his inheritance on his ability to play a perfect piece in concert is clever; not surprisingly, the greedy relatives try to ruin his hands with a series of athletic tasks, such as horseback riding and wood chopping. When Sir Greeley's ghost kills the relatives by turning their avarice against them and burying them in a pile of gold, I was reminded of D.W. Griffith's famous film, A Corner in Wheat (1909--if you watch it here, check out the scene that starts just after the 11 minute mark to see what I mean). I don't know if Binder was thinking that, but the echo was there for me.

Peter: The artwork of Bernie Wrightson is the obvious draw of "The Siren of Satan," an otherwise cliched and drawn-out mummy tale. This is our first real look at Wrightson's growing mastery of horror art and he doesn't let us down.

Jack: You're right--for some reason, Wrightson kicked it up a notch with this tale. We've seen his art before but not like this. On a side note, the house ads showed me some covers this month that bring back great memories of some of the very first comics I ever read!

John: Yeah, another nothing story elevated by Wrightson's amazing art. If you compare this to his work in Witching Hour #3, you'll see the lack of detail in the background in that prior tale is much more detailed here. Unfortunately, contributions from Sergio Aragones were few and far between this time out.

Cover by Neal Adams
House of Secrets 81 (September 1969)

"Don't Move It!"
Story by Mike Friedrich
Art by Jerry Grandenetti and George Roussos

"House of Secrets"
Story by Bill Draut
Art by Bill Draut and Joe Orlando

"Aaron Philips' Photo Finish!"
Story by Gerry Conway
Art by Jack Sparling

Peter: After being the home for lukewarm science fiction tales and spotlighting the adventures of Mark Merlin (aka Prince Ra-Man) for 80 issues, House of Secrets disappeared from newsstands in October 1966. Wanting to add to the fledgling mystery line, Joe Orlando added a The to its title and abruptly switched formats a la House of Mystery. The change is so radical that fans of the "old look" HOS could be excused if they rummaged right past it on the comic rack. Issue #80 featured a rather silly Jack Sparling cover highlighting another of the HOS heroes, Eclipso, whereas #81 showed the reader just what editor Joe Orlando had in mind: a typically atmospheric "child in peril" scene by Neal Adams. Perhaps House of Mystery had experienced an initial bump in sales in that first few months and Orlando hoped to confuse comic buyers with this very HOM cover. The transformation from hero to horror continued on the inside as well. The trio of stories served up in the "premiere issue" tell the origin of the House of Secrets itself. "Don't Move In" is a confusing tale of a house, ripped from its foundation and carted away on a flatbed, that has a thing or two to say about its own predicament. Grandenetti's art is typically frenetic, with the action threatening to burst from its panels. "House of Secrets" is one of those "meet the mascot" stories that introduces Abel (brother of HOM mascot Cain) to his future home. Abel had previously appeared in DC Special #4. The finale, "Aaron Philips' Photo Finish!" is about an unscrupulous journalist who takes unflattering (and image-damaging) photos and then blackmails the subjects. He meets his match (I think) when he visits the House of Secrets and has his own picture taken by... who knows? The tale ends mid-punchline perhaps because future Marvel super-scribe Gerry Conway couldn't come up with a satisfying finale and decided to leave it deliberately murky. Not a strong start for the title.

Jack: The moral of the first story has to be: "Location, Location, Location!" It's funny that I like Jerry Grandenetti's art so much in the DC war titles but I don't like it here. It's almost unreadable to me in this story. I agree with you that Abel's debut as caretaker is underwhelming. He tells Cain that he's going to spin a yarn but then out comes Gerry Conway's dud about the photographer. I hope this title gets better. So far, Abel could not come close to beating Cain in a storytelling contest, much less Cynthia.

John: They go to great lengths to make the house look like a spooky face (ridiculously angled upstairs windows for eyes), but even had that been effective, by the 50th panel, it's enough already—we get it! I'd be interested in knowing if using Abel in his own mag was in the works back when we first met Cain next door in The House of Mystery.

Cover by Nick Cardy
The Witching Hour 4 (September 1969)

"A Matter of Conscience!"
Story by Gerry Conway
Art by Jack Sparling and George Roussos

"Disaster in a Jar"
Story by Alan Riefe
Art by Pat Boyette

"A Fistful of Fire!!"
Story by Gerry Conway
Art by Jose Delbo

Peter: The fourth issue of The Witching Hour proves to be the weakest so far. Only one of the stories, "Disaster in a Jar," is worth the paper it's printed on. It's an amusing tale of a scientist who creates a face cream that erases age and wrinkles from its user's face. The genius soon becomes a wealthy man and decides to invest his money in a sure-fire winner: wig companies. Soon after, it's discovered the wonder cream also renders the user bald! Pat Boyette's artwork is the closest I've seen to his masterpiece, "Rescue of the Morning Maid" (from Creepy #18, January 1968), a story I've mentioned before and will probably mention several more times during this journey. His old women, in particular, have a very disturbing quality to them, one that never ceases to raise the hair on the back of my neck. Also mildly amusing is this issue's framing device, wherein our three witches play welcome wagon to their new neighbors "across the swamp." When the patriarch doesn't give the desired answer to the question "Which story was the best?" Mordred and Mildred send the family's house rocketing into space.

John: There was s glimmer of hope when I turned the page to see, "A Fistful of Fire!!," as for a split second I thought we were getting a tale illustrated by the great John Severin. Sadly, that was not to be the case. Chalk up one more collection of mediocre tales from our three sisters.

Now we know why he could
play that guitar so fast!
Jack: I agree that this issue was a letdown. Gerry Conway's two stories were particularly lacking. The third story, about a judge in Salem in 1692 who discovers that a warlock is more powerful than the witches who have been persecuted, confused me. One thing I did like, however, was the cameo by Mordred, the teller of this tale, who pops up in one panel as one of the Salem witches. Another panel features a witch who looks strangely like Eddie Van Halen. By the way, we should give poor Gerry Conway a break--he was all of 16 years old when these comics were published!

Boyette - Underappreciated Master!

Peter: Pay close attention to the poor protagonist of "A Matter of Conscience." When Harvey H. Harrington first visits Tamroth, professional "exorciser," to seek help with his poltergeist problem, the man's face is covered in bandages. With each progressive panel, the Band-Aids seem to decrease in number until Harvey's face is entirely free of dressing!

Jack: I think Sparling got tired of drawing Band-Aids, much like the occasional, overworked Marvel artists would leave some webs off of Spider-Man's costume when they thought no one was paying close attention.

John: Unlike you two, I didn't find that particular story worth delving into. But then that could be said of pretty much ALL of this stories covered in this installment of "Do You Dare Enter."

More incredible Wrightson from HOM #181

And Coming Next Week!


AndyDecker said...

Thanks for the scans. It is really interesting how different Wrightson's art is when it is colored; I think the b/w version of the Showcase presents edition is better.

I knew that Conway was young, but not that young. Wow.

John Scoleri said...

I'm with you, Andy. I can't think of an instance we've seen so far where I'd prefer the colored Wrightson story to his original black and white art.