Monday, August 26, 2013

Star-Spangled DC War Stories Part 9: February 1960

By Corporals Enfantino and Seabrook

All American Men of War 77

"Big Fish--little fish!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Irv Novick

"Diary of an Ace!"
Story by Bob Haney
Art by Bill Everett

"T.N.T. Yardstick!"
Story by Hank Chapman
Art by Mort Drucker

PE: Young Mickey thinks he's in for a life of loneliness at the orphanage until a kind family adopts him. His adopted brother, Harry, teaches him to swim and stay underwater for long amounts of time and, when the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor, the boys naturally sign up to be frogmen. Unfortunately, there are no places open for the boys and they're drafted into the army. While en route to battle, their ship is sunk and Harry is killed. Mickey swears he'll get revenge against the submarine with the shark design on its prow. When he rescues a battalion of his own men, the army gives him one wish and he quickly asks for a reassignment to frogman duty. Soon after, Mickey ("the Little Fish") gets his pound of flesh. I was geared up not to like this one, as the constant drone of "little fish, little fish!" was getting on my nerves, but I was pleasantly surprised at how engaging the story is. Harry's death is a surprise I didn't see coming and I found myself rooting the "little fish" on.

JS: As did I! So much for no death in these code-approved war stories. This one tugs at the heartstrings when the orphan is adopted and taken under the big brother's wing. The only false note occurs near the end, when Mickey manages to knock an oncoming torpedo off course by means of a shoulder block. I think the little fish would be fish food if he were hit by a torpedo.

PE: Bill Everett contributes his only DC war story, "Diary of an Ace," one of those "split screen" stories where we see each side of the battle from "our" perspective and the enemy's. The enemy, in this case, being the arrogant Baron Hugo Von Hoffner, "Germany's Black Ace of the skies!" Our hero, Lt. Dick Brill, flying on his first mission teaches the Baron a thing or two before delivering the death blow and retiring the Black Ace for good. It's no wonder that Everett (one of my favorite Golden Age artists) never contributed another DC war story since his art is completely wrong for the genre based on evidence shown in this story. He nails the World War I aircrafts but the characters look cut straight from a superhero strip and there's not much imagination in the choreography.

JS: I'm surprised you didn't like this one more, knowing your fondness for Bill Everett. I thought it was a solid six-pager, nothing special. I liked that the blank final page of the German ace's diary is filled in in the last panel, after he is shot down, with the words: "The End."

PE: Bogan is a grenadier, a grenade expert, and so his targets all have to be within 35 yards (thus the "TNT Yardstick"). He's finding that may be a hazard to his health and so he constantly asks for a transfer. Finally, his sarge promises him his transfer but only after he completes one more assignment. Ironically, during that mission, Bogan discovers that being closer to the target may keep him alive. I like the Mort Drucker art (but, as usual, have a hard time not thinking of MAD Magazine while enjoying it) but the story is nothing more than a series of incidents to set up our hero's inevitable change of mind.

JS: One of the fun things about doing this project is that I'm quickly becoming able to spot artists without checking the credits. This one has Mort Drucker's name written all over the gritty, determined face of Bogan as he edges closer to his target. When I first encountered Drucker's DC war work a few posts ago, I thought it was too much like Mad, but now I'm getting used to it and he's becoming one of my favorites.

Our Army at War 91

"No Answer From Sarge!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Joe Kubert

"Old Soldiers Never Run!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Joe Kubert

"The Silent Piper!"
Story by Bob Haney
Art by Joe Kubert

PE: Robert Kanigher is kind enough to grace us with a triple shot of Joe Kubert's Sgt. Rock this issue and how can you find fault with that? All three stories are entertaining but I find the first, "No Answer From Sarge," to be the standout. It may be that I like the tales that fill in pieces of Rock's past and this story does a bit of that. The Sarge must deal with green recruits en route to the battlefield. One boy constantly begs the Rock to send him back, saying that he can't take the strain and that, in the end, he'll besmirch the good name of Easy Company. To shore up the kid's backbone, Rock tells him the story of Wally Street, a new recruit, equally green and equally scared of impending battle, who rises up, saves the Company and gives his life heroically. Of course, this story has the desired effect on the newbies and, in the climactic panel,  Rock sighs that "they look like the combat-happy Joes of Easy already!"

"No Answer From Sarge!"
JS: Sgt. Rock is able to keep an astounding amount of information under his tin pot. He recalls--under fire--that Wally Street lives at 4062 Third Avenue! He also demonstrates his ability to have faith in a raw recruit who gives every impression of being a coward. This is another powerful story of leadership from Kanigher and Kubert.

PE: "Old Soldiers" tackles the problem of aging in the military without resorting to cheap melodrama. "The Silent Piper" is the last survivor of a massacre on Heartbreak Ridge who needs a bit of closure to get on with his life. Both stories are well-written and (it goes without saying) exquisitely drawn by Kubert. How the artist could draw a gaggle of GI grunts and give each their own characteristics to make them stand out is beyond me.

"The Silent Piper!"
JS: Walt Dunn in "Old Soldiers" is said to have been too young for WWI but too old for WWII. Pipe Sergeant MacDuncan in "The Silent Piper!" marches around in full Scottish regalia, holding his bagpipes quietly after the rest of his outfit has been wiped out. Dunn and MacDuncan are examples of how Kanigher, Haney and Kubert are able to expand their stories beyond the tried and true to give color and flavor to harrowing tales of combat.

Our Fighting Forces 53

"The Gunner and the Nurse!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Ross Andru and Mike Esposito

"Bomber Party!"
Story by Bob Haney
Art by Mort Drucker

"I Can't Win!"
Story by Bob Haney
Art by Joe Kubert

PE: Try as I might, I just don't think I'm ever going to like the Gunner and Sarge series. Robert Kanigher's a superior writer when he sticks to military story lines (as evidenced by the weak scripts he contributed to House of Mystery) but his attempts at humor resemble a Jerry Lewis farce (read that as desperately unfunny). Here the "wacky" pair have to take turns romancing a beautiful blond nurse. At least, the title tells us she's a nurse. Nowhere in the story is there reasoning for why this girl is out in the middle of gunfire and explosions. She's not carrying a little black bag nor does she wear the obligatory armband. The enemy soldiers look like hopping monkeys when they threaten the trio with their potato mashers. Common sense seems to have taken the day off here. This is the worst art I've seen by Andru and Esposito, by the way. I may just be grumpy because there's no Russ Heath in any of the titles this month and when I don't get no Heath...

JS: And here I thought you'd be glad that Pooch was at the vet's this month! When Miss Julie first appears, Gunner tells us that he hasn't seen a beautiful girl since he left stateside, except in magazines. Now I wonder what magazines he was reading? As for Miss Julie, her vow to kiss every hero on the island sounds like a good way to catch herpes.

PE: "Bomber Party" is yet another one of those "Grass is greener..." stories, this time about a GI who gets a three-day pass to visit his brother, a fighter pilot. The first three-quarters of the story he moans about how much better his brother is living and how tough the infantry man has it and blah blah blah... Of course, the last couple pages, our GI finds out just how hard it is to be fighting thousands of feet in the air. Seems like we just reviewed this story a couple months ago. Thank goodness Mort Drucker's art livens things up a bit. The final story, "I Can't Win" is an enjoyable piece about two competitive GI buddies who bet on anything they can.

"Bomber Party"

JS: Once again, the art is tops in these two six-page stories. "Bomber Party!" features more of Drucker's carefully drawn faces and exciting air battles, while "I Can't Win!" is highlighted by Kubert's steady hand. Too bad the long lead story didn't live up to these two!

"I Can't Win"

Coming Next Week!

Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Hitchcock Project-Henry Slesar Part Ten: "Forty Detectives Later" [5.28]

by Jack Seabrook

"I was publishing a lot of short stories in the Hitchcock magazine as well as Ellery Queen," said Henry Slesar, "and they were being purchased in such sufficient quantity for the Hitchcock show that my agent eventually met with [producer] Joan Harrison when she came to New York and said, 'Why don't you give my client a chance to write one of your scripts?' Joan was a little dubious since I had never written for the screen before, so my agent took the bit between his teeth and implied that we might not sell her any more stories if she didn't give me a crack at an adaptation. I think she agreed because she figured she had less to lose by offering me that one assignment. The first one I did was called 'Forty Detectives Later'" (McCarty and Kelleher 27).

After having seen nine of his short stories adapted for Alfred Hitchcock Presents by other writers with varying degrees of success, it was finally time for Slesar to do the job himself. And what a job he did! "Forty Detectives Later" is an excellent adaptation of his own story and the quality of the teleplay surely led to further assignments and the beginning of a long and successful career writing for television.

First published in the May 1957 issue of Manhunt, "40 Detectives Later" is told in Chandleresque style, complete with first person narration by its private detective, Tyree. He has a visit from Munro Dean, whose wife was murdered in 1948 and who has been looking for her killer ever since, hiring at least forty private dicks along the way. Dean recently saw the killer at a lunch counter and wants Tyree to locate him and arrange a meeting. Tyree finds and tails the man, following him into a record shop and starting a conversation about jazz records. The killer, whose name is Otto, agrees to meet Tyree at the Hotel Bayshore that evening.

Tyree tells Dean and Dean offers him $3000 to kill Otto. Tyree refuses the assignment but later that evening finds himself drawn to the hotel. He follows Otto inside and waits in the hallway outside Room 305 until he hears a gunshot inside and rushes in. Dean has shot Otto, who is still alive. Tyree intervenes but is unable to prevent further gunplay; Otto shoots Dean and Tyree shoots the gun out of Otto's hand. As Dean is dying, Otto tells Tyree that Dean hired him to kill his wife years before and then tracked him down to kill him so that he would keep quiet.

George Mitchell
Slesar had been paying attention to the methods used by other writers to adapt his story for television. When he adapted this one himself, the title was changed to "Forty Detectives Later" and it was broadcast on April 24, 1960. The narration that had been present in the story was now done by voice over, making the show both homage to and parody of the classic detective film. Tyree is now William Tyre, and the scenes are shot in high-contrast, noir style, with an emphasis on shadows. The dialogue is filled with snappy patter and tough talk, but the most entertaining performance comes from Jack Weston, who plays Otto. The record store of the story becomes a used bookstore, one that also sells old postcards and records.

James Franciscus
Otto is in love with modern stereo equipment and tells Tyre, "I dig hi-fi!" To pad out the running time a bit, Slesar adds a scene where Tyre visits Otto at his apartment. This scene is a classic among those of the late 1950s and early 1960s, especially on the Hitchcock series, where the Beat Generation may be observed. Otto's girlfriend Gloria is a young woman in a leopard skin jumpsuit who sits and plays a bongo drum along with the music on the stereo. Otto bops around the room to a jazz record while Gloria sits, bored: "Hey, Otto, how 'bout some Brubeck? My bongo's gettin' cold," she remarks. The scene ends in bizarre fashion as Otto plays a recording of two trains crashing into each other, a sound that causes him to roll his eyes in ecstasy.

Jack Weston
At the episode's climax, Tyre breaks into the hotel room and sees Dean shoot Otto. Otto shoots Dean in return and then takes aim at Tyre, telling him: "Now it's your turn, finger man!" Tyre manages to avoid getting shot and Otto tells him the truth with his dying breath. Tyre's voice over narration ends the show: "I used to think that I was the kind of a guy who'd do anything for money. But I'd done too much already. It didn't help much, but I gave it back." We see Tyre drop the cash that Dean had given him as his fee on top of Dean's corpse, and the episode ends.

With "Forty Detectives Later," Slesar takes a good story and fashions from it a very entertaining teleplay. Arthur Hiller (1923- ) directs with much more crisp and fast-paced action than he demonstrated in his two prior Slesar episodes, and the script includes such hard boiled remarks as Tyre commenting that Otto would "hear a riff like he never heard before" when he met Dean in Room 305. There is even an inside joke, as Otto phones in an order for eggs and wants them "hard boiled." The result is a pleasure to watch, especially for viewers familiar with the conventions of the private eye genre.

Arlene McQuade
James Franciscus (1934-1991) plays Tyre. With leading man looks and a resemblance to Robert Redford, Franciscus never lacked for work and was a regular in six TV series during his career: Naked City (1958-1959), The Investigators (1961), Mr. Novak (1963-1965), Longstreet (1971-1972), Doc Elliot (1973-1974) and Hunter (1976-1977). He was in movies as well, including The Valley of Gwangi (1969) and Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970), and he made one other appearance on Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Bopping to jazz music as Otto was Jack Weston (1924-1996), who only appeared in this single episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents but who was on TV from 1949-1986 and in movies from 1958-1988. He was a regular in four series: Rod Brown of the Rocket Rangers (1953-1954), My Sister Eileen (1960-1961), The Hathaways (1961-1962) and The Four Seasons (1984). He appeared on The Twilight Zone and Thriller twice each, and he was in the film Wait Until Dark (1967).

Munro Dean is played by George Mitchell (1905-1972), who appeared on the Hitchcock series four times. He was also on The Twilight Zone four times and on Thriller twice.

Finally, Arlene McQuade (1936- ) plays Gloria; she had played Rosalie Goldberg on the pioneering Jewish TV series, The Goldbergs, earlier in the 1950s.

"Forty Detectives Later" is available on DVD here or can be viewed online for free here.

"Forty Detectives Later." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. CBS. 24 Apr. 1960. Television.
"Galactic Central." Galactic Central. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Aug. 2013.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.
IMDb., n.d. Web. 18 Aug. 2013.
McCarty, John, and Brian Kelleher. Alfred Hitchcock Presents: An Illustrated Guide to the Ten-year Television Career of the Master of Suspense. New York: St. Martin's, 1985. Print.
Slesar, Henry. "40 Detectives Later." Clean Crimes and Neat Murders: Alfred Hitchcock's Hand Picked Selection of Stories by Henry Slesar. New: Avon, 1960. 51-58. Print.
Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 18 Aug. 2013.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Do You Dare Enter? Part Eight: June-July 1970

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

Neal Adams
House of Mystery 186 (June 1970)

"The Secret of the Egyptian Cat"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Bernie Wrightson

Story by Jack Oleck
Art by Neal Adams, Dick Giordano, and Joe Orlando

Peter: Wrightson and Adams in the same issue! What could be better than that? Two good stories maybe? Well, let's add that to the equation then.  The evil wizard Konassos covets Egyptian priestess Isha but the young lady is not for sale, so he utilizes a magic potion to transform the girl into a cat. Since they are both immortals, Konassos keeps Isha under lock and key throughout the centuries until they take a room at the House of Mystery. One night, out prowling, Isha meets up with a stray cat and falls in love. Seeing this, Konassos poisons a saucer of milk and dispatches his competition. Bad mistake! This stirs Isha into action and she's able to get hold of the potion that transforms her back into a woman. Awakened from his nap, Konassos discovers the priestess has transformed him into a rat and Isha's feline friends await him at the door. Bernie's art, of course, is the draw of "The Secret of the Egyptian Cat" but, thankfully, Robert Kanigher delivers a witty script topped with a delightful twist ending. Again, we have Cain interacting with the characters of the story, blurring the line between narrator and participant. Just two years away from revolutionizing the horror comics genre with Swamp Thing, Bernie's art just keeps getting better. Literally, you can tell the difference from strip to succeeding strip as he moves away from Ingels-imitator to developing a style of his own. We'll be lucky enough to witness this ascendancy.

Jack: The two-page splash that opens the story is tremendous, depicting the transformation from cat into Egyptian beauty. It has all been done before, of course, from The Wolf Man through She Wolf of London, with a dash of The Mummy's Curse tossed in for good measure, but Kanigher and Wrightson tell a smooth and engaging tale. Peter is right that one can see Wrightson's style developing rapidly, and knowing that Swamp Thing is not too far in the future allows us to spot its antecedents here and there in the dark and shadowy scenes that fill this story.

John: I wasn't impressed by this one. I felt the story was not particularly interesting, and thought that this was another case where aside from a handful of nice panels, Wrightson's normally exceptional art felt rushed.

Peter: Young and sickly, Judy is given to flights of fantasy. Since she's left on her own at her father's estate for much of the day with no one to play with, she creates a playmate out of the stone statue of Pan in the garden's fountain. But is Judy fantasizing? Pan takes Judy to his kingdom, a veritable Eden where the sun always shines and unicorns run free, but warns the girl never to open a large ominous door, the only drawback to this paradise. Being a precocious child, Judy investigates while Pan is napping one day and discovers another land behind the door: a nightmare world where all is black and monsters lurk behind every tree. Pan arrives to rescue her, sending Judy back to her own world, where we learn she's had a near-fatal fever and has just emerged from a deep sleep. Days later, trying to convince his daughter that the tales she's been telling him are nothing but delusions, Judy's father insists she touch the Pan statue to prove it's nothing more than stone. The girl does so and allows that she may have hallucinated the whole incident after all. As the pair turn, they miss a tear falling from the eye of the stone figure. Wow! What a powerful story! I first encountered this gem at the ripe old age of 12 in one of those over sized reprint volumes that were the rage at Marvel and DC for a couple years (the size designated at the GCD is "Tabloid" and I guess that fits better than any word I could come up with). DC was reprinting key back issues in a large format and the experiment had been such a success (so much so that Marvel quickly jumped into the water as well) that the company expanded the line to feature "treasury" editions, 84 pages packed with that title's "greatest hits." The House of Mystery collection (#C-23, Winter 1973) featured the cream of the HOM crop including "House of Gargoyles," "Widow's Walk," and the two stories comprising HOM #186 (in all, 7 stories from the title's first two dozen issues). I bought into that super-expensive investment (one whole buck!) and must have read it cover to cover a dozen times within a week. Even my pre-teen brain knew that "Nightmare" was something special, a story within a story. This could be Neal Adams's best DC horror work, evoking both wonder and fear in the mesmerized reader. Jack Oleck did his best to convert the classic to prose for the first Warner House of Mystery paperback but, without Adams's art, it's obviously lacking.

Jack: I'm right there with you on this one, Peter. Adams is one of my favorite artists and, as we learned while reading Batman, 1970-71 DC Comics featured some of his best work. Dick Giordano was probably his best inker (though Adams inking his own work may have surpassed that mark) and the story is good enough to allow the art to soar. The GCD has a couple of interesting notes on this story: one, that Jack Oleck had used this plot before in a 1950s story for Marvel; and two, that Adams based the girl on his own daughter, Kris. If there's anyone who would be able to pinpoint the source story in a 1950s Marvel (probably Atlas) comic, it would be Peter!

John: I'm pleased to report that we're all in agreement on this one. Great art, great story. When the girl passes through the 'doorway', Adams already fantastic art reaches new levels. If Neal Adams has better horror work to come, I can't wait to see it. I do want to make a point of mentioning Sergio Aragones, who has several particularly fun single panel cartoons in this issue's 'Cain's Game Room.'

Peter: A bit more on the DC treasury editions can be found here at this wonderful resource tool. Also, I'm not sure about the legal side of these things but if you don't have a copy of "Nightmare" and would like to read it online, you can do so here.

Jack: I was a big fan of the DC Treasury editions in the mid-70s; the Marvel versions never seemed quite as special. It was quite a thrill at the time to own facsimile copies of Action 1, Detective 27, and so on.

John: I recently picked up a beautiful copy of the HOM Treasury, believe it or not, for the same $1 Peter paid for it back in the day. Of course, my introduction to Treasury editions came via Star Wars (Issue #1 reprinting the first three issues of the film adaptation, Issue #2 reprinting the remainder, and Issue #3 an omnibus of all six issues).

Neal Adams
House of Secrets 86 (July 1970)

Story by Steve Skeates
Art by George Tuska

"The Golden Tower of the Sun"
Story by Gerry Conway
Art by Gray Morrow

"The Ballad of Little Joe"
Story by Gerry Conway
Art by Big Bad Bill (Bill Draut)

"The Day After Doomsday..."
Story Uncredited
Art by Jack Sparling

Peter: Steve Skeates continues his plundering of Ambrose Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" (for his previous "homage," see "The Big Break" in The Witching Hour #7, March 1970). How many times could Joe Orlando accept the exact same story from this guy? In "Strain," the protagonist is a young composer driving madly down a country road, having just murdered his wife. He overhears a haunting melody, stops the car and follows the music to an ancient estate. Inside, he finds his wife, apparently still alive and having mastered the piano. The oddity of the situation bothers him a bit but he gets over it, still fascinated by the lovely music emanating from his formerly tone-deaf, undead wife. When he approaches her, she turns into an old hag and slams the keyboard cover on his hands. His car crashes into a tree and he's dead. One of the cops remarks that it's funny, the corpse has "bruises on his fingers... as if something had been slammed down on them." That bit is hilarious because our young composer would resemble a large salami after the impact of the car, so why some bruising on his fingers would stand out is answerable only to the (comic book) cop and Skeates himself. So was the entire trip in the imagination of the character or just bits of it? Who is the hag? I'm not sure. The George Tuska art is about what you'd expect (and accept) from Tuska: no energy, very few backgrounds, shoddy and on the fly. The whole thing is forgettable and that's just what I aim to do. Well, that is, until Skeates's next "adaptation" of "Owl Creek Bridge."

Jack: I think you're being unfair to Ambrose Bierce by mentioning him in the same breath as Steve Skeates. The best thing I can say about this story is that Tuska's art has been worse. Oh, and it's only six pages long.

John: As I'm not as well-versed in Tuska's art as my colleagues, it's hard for me to imagine it being much worse.

Peter: DC and Marvel used to run one-page prose pieces in each of their anthology comics. This was done, for some reason or another, as a requirement for their postal licenses. I think. Anyway, those pretty much went the way of the dinosaur in the early 1970s so to have a prose piece here in HOS #86 is a bit surprising. You'd be forgiven if you thought "The Golden Tower of the Sun" was a sequel of sorts to "Strain" as the opening act has the undead protagonist, a rock 'n' roll singer, thrown from the burning wreckage of his car. We come to find out he'd wanted out of the band but the rest of the members and his agent didn't agree. Rather than letting him split the group up, they kill him and stage an accident. Only problem is that the singer has a wandering spirit and gets his revenge against the men who killed him. "Golden Tower" is more than a tad pretentious and flowery:
Bubbling chaos echoed around me, became a golden-spired tower of darkness in the distance. I groped towards it, felt reality slip away beneath me, become a river of rippling water then ran tumbling over into a waterfall of endless white.

"Why?" I screamed again, my soul a bleeding thing inside me. I sobbed in the silence of eternity.
And from the dark hand there was no answer.
The Gray Morrow art is disappointing, resembling bad 1960s water color rock music posters. I'm not sure prose pieces will make their comeback any time soon.

John: I didn't read the story, and while I think it does have that 60s rock poster look, I didn't think it looked bad. Of course I was coming right off Tuska...

Jack: To prove my dedication to this blog, I actually read all five pages of this. It reminded me of something a high school student would write. In fact, I might have written this in high school. Or perhaps junior high. Conway was 17 years old at the time but I would bet this is not one of the things he still puts on his resume.

Peter: The alien race of Quaros lives under the Earth's surface and it's high time they conquered our world. Their plan is to steal one of Jonathan Poe's life-like dolls, give it life, and then use it as a spy. The Quaros didn't bargain for "Little Joe" though, Poe's most beloved puppet, and the doll lets Poe in on the secret. Unfortunately, the old man believes he's losing his mind when his wooden friend begins talking to him and he has a massive heart attack. The aliens shut Little Joe down and, ostensibly, wait a few years until they can inhabit a Transformer. (Big Bad) Bill Draut's pencils save this weak effort from being disposable. The subplot concerning Poe's daughter (who may or may not be a money-hungry leech) does generate some interest but then is abandoned until the climax when it becomes sappy. HOS #86 is the antithesis of HOM #186: sloppy, lazy writing and (for the most part) uninspired artwork.

John: The teary eye didn't tug on your heartstrings like it did in "Nightmare"?

Jack: I never would have thought of having green spacemen get involved in the story of Pinocchio! This story is such a mess. I don't think Geppetto Poe has a heart attack because Little Joe starts talking--Little Joe throws himself in front of some sort of alien death ray aimed at his "father" and the old man keels over, clutching his chest. I suppose it's useful to watch Gerry Conway learn how to write comic book stories, but it's not very entertaining.

Peter: There also a 2-page piece titled "The Day After Doomsday." After a nuclear holocaust of biblical proportions, the last man on Earth crawls from the wreckage of a city and encounters the last woman on Earth. His name is Adam and hers is ... Gertrude. They quickly make peace and decide they'll repopulate the world. There's not really enough here to complain about since Jack Sparling barely has room to screw anything up. This serialized strip will continue throughout the years and various DC horror titles. The second installment appears in this month's Witching Hour.

Jack: Good Lord, you mean Adam and Gertrude's story will continue? Is there no mercy? And why are the last man and woman on Earth always so attractive? Think Charles Bronson and Elizabeth Montgomery on The Twilight Zone. Isn't it more likely they'll be a couple of fat slobs?

John: I'm a sucker for LMOE-type stories, but if within minutes of rising from the rubble you spot another survivor, isn't it a tad narcissistic to assume you're the last man? And what's up with how this story just ends? Is this one of those cases where they needed to fill pages at the 11th hour, and so they decided to split the story across magazines?

Unexpected 119 (July 1970)

"Mirror, Mirror on the Wall,
Who's the Deadliest of Them All?"
Story Uncredited
Art by Bernie Wrightson

"The Swampchild!"
Story by Carl Wessler
Art by Werner Roth and Frank Giacoia

"Rachel Isn't Ready to Die"
Story by George Kashdan
Art by Sid Greene and Vince Colletta

Peter: "Mirror, Mirror..." is a really silly story about an accountant who murders his client and the supernatural mirror that witnesses the act. Not even Bernie's art can help this one stay afloat. Equally badly written is "Swampchild," a pulpish bit of nonsense about Doctor Starke, who creates a child from scratch and then gives it up for adoption. Years later, the hot-tempered Evans brothers, Ben and Luke, come sniffin' around the doc's assistant, Julia. Could one of the brothers be the swamp child? When Julia learns the secret from Clarke's ancient notebook, she has to know the truth. I'll give Wessler a bump up to a full star (out of four) for the twist ending, the revelation of who the real swamp child is. I was fooled. Werner Roth's art is about as middle-of-the-road as it was when he was the regular penciler for Marvel's The X-Men in the mid-60s. Not the kind of embellishment you want if you're trying to elicit goosebumps from an audience.

Jack: I read "Mirror, Mirror" and expected a rave from you! I thought it was an excellent story, with twists and turns that I did not expect and art that flowed beautifully and creepily from start to finish. At first I thought we were in for a retread of the "Mirror" episode of the classic British horror anthology film, Dead of Night, but this story goes in a different direction. I did not expect the man who ended up with the mirror to be blind, and as for the big finish--when the broken pieces of the glass all reflect the murder--I admit I saw that coming but I enjoyed it anyway. That little bit reminded me of "The Purple Testament" episode of The Twilight Zone--there's a scene where a broken mirror's fragments reflect a future event. As for "The Swampchild!" it's hard to believe this is not a reprint. It looks like it does not belong in the same issue as the Wrightson story.

John: "Mirror, Mirror" has got nothing on the Dead of Night segment. And while Wrightson's art doesn't get a lot of opportunity to shine in this story, it's better than his story in this month's HOM. As for "The Swampchild", I thought it did find some redemption in: "Julia reverts to a greyish, gelatinous mass... once again a pulsating mass of swamp muck."

Peter: The first two stories in this issue are gems compared to the finale, "Rachel Isn't Ready to Die," seven and a half pages of deliriously bad hooey. So bad it threatens to spill into "guilty pleasure" territory. At some point in the witch-burning days of yore, Rachel has been deemed a witch by the town's religious zealots and sentenced to hang in the town square. Swept up by the crowd on the way to the spectacle is nattily-dressed blind man Myles (who looks, for all the world like Matt Murdock, aka Daredevil), who roars his disapproval to the crowd. The hanging is temporarily halted and Myles is stoned by the good people of the town until Rachel casts a spell and the hoods are run off. The kindly witch takes the blind man back to her swamp shack to tend to his cuts and bruises. While there, Myles allows that he thinks she's a gorgeous chick by the sound of her voice. Completely smitten, Rachel conjures up a potion that will give Myles his sight back despite the whopping side effect it will have on her: it will render her powerless. Deciding that she'd rather have Myles regain his sight even if it means it'll scare him away once he gets a gander at her, she goes through with the process. No longer blinded, Myles is puzzled by Rachel's standoffish behavior. She runs down to a stream and Myles confronts her. It's then that she looks at her reflection and realizes that, with the loss of her witchly powers, she has become a real babe. Ah, even witches can find true romance now and then! I love Myles's Hugh Hefner-esque wardrobe, which doesn't exactly blend in with the times but does put him at the top of the 16th Century GQ Best Dressed List. The really mushy climax makes me think that Joe Orlando was straddling the fence between horror and gothics with the line and, praise the lord, in the end he sided with horror. There will be a few more stories of this ilk in the coming weeks but this will pass.

Jack: I thought this was a nice story and I liked the happy ending. This issue concludes with a one-pager, "Rest in Pieces," and a two-pager, "A Phantom in the Tree!" that features some pretty bad art by Jerry Grandenetti. The latter story is notable for having a young man go off to war in Vietnam, something I don't recall seeing mentioned before on our journey.

The Witching Hour 9 (July 1970)

"The Lonely Road Home!"
Story by Steve Skeates
Art by Jerry Grandenetti (?) and Murphy Anderson

"The Day After Doomsday..."
Story by Len Wein
Art by Jack Sparling

"The Last Straw"
Story Uncredited
Art by Jose Delbo

"Trumpet Perilous!"
Story Uncredited
Art by Jack Sparling and Jack Abel

Peter: Rob makes a wish and gains eternal youth but, as he watches all his friends grow old and die around him, he discovers being young forever ain't all it's cracked up to be. Seeking some kind of peace, Rob heads back to his hometown where he meets Linda, a girl he went steady with decades before. Linda seems to have discovered the fountain of youth as well, but she quickly tells Rob the real secret: she's dead and so is he. She takes him to a haunted house where all the dead live and they, ostensibly, live (or die) happily ever after. A total waste of time from beginning to end, "The Lonely Road Home" makes no sense whatsoever. If Rob's a ghost, why can people on the street see him? If Linda knows she's dead, why doesn't Rob? To add insult to injury, Murphy Anderson destroys anything Jerry Grandenetti might have brought to the table, with the result resembling a Superman installment. Steve Skeates, for his part, stops just short of ripping off "Owl Creek" for a third time but clings on to the eventual outcome: Surprise! Surprise! Surprise! The guy was dead the whole time!

Jack: I had the same concerns until I decided that Rob isn't really dead--Linda is using a metaphor. You see, the fact that he never changes means it's like he has been dead, since--as Linda tells us--life is change. At least that's my take on it. The GCD credits Grandenetti with pencils but isn't sure. As I read it, I saw absolutely no sign of 1970 Grandenetti and thought it was Murphy Anderson on pencils and inks. I know he was usually an inker but he did draw the whole thing sometimes, and I think it looked like this!

John: I thought some of the art (not involving the human characters) looked okay. Okay, I guess it's just the one panel with the Nealson's home. In "The Day After Doomsday" I once again found myself asking why the main character is continually referred to as the last man on Earth when he can't go one panel without bumping into someone else. The most interesting thing about this story is that if it does in fact follow the HOS installment, we can imagine he likely killed (and perhaps ate?) Gertrude...

Peter: The second installment of "The Day After Doomsday" makes me wonder if there was a grand scheme to this thing or did Joe Orlando throw out an order for "Last Man on Earth" stories. Ostensibly, the last man on Earth from the first chapter (seen in House of Secrets #86, above), Adam, is the same guy here who stumbles across the corpses of two soldiers who had just shot each other after the big apocalypse. So where is Gertrude? Much better is "The Last Straw" which mixes a bit of humor in with the tale of Chou, a lazy Chinese heir to a vast estate who is forced to sweep his family tomb every year (during the local Ching Ming festival) lest the estate fall to the local war lord. Chou tries to sidestep his duties by purchasing a magic broom from a wizard but, in the end, Chou finds that it's always best to get one's hands dirty. I really liked the breezy way (uncredited) told his story with dollops of larfs ("Chou explained his problem to the ancient warlock--and quicker than you could say Have a Ring-A-Ding-Ding Ching Ming!")  while not detracting from the narrative itself. The tale actually goes from Point A to Point B and ends satisfactorily, without straying from the course and adding unnecessary nonsense that can't be explained later on (Steve Skeates, take notice). The art, by Jose Delbo, is fabulous. A complete surprise all around for me.

Jack: "The Day After Doomsday" made me recall
Doomsday + 1, one of the short-lived Charlton Comics that came out in the mid-'70s when that company tried to compete with the big two. In a similar way, "The Last Straw" had art that reminded me of something either from Charlton or from Atlas Comics, the beloved but doomed comics company that tried to pay writers and artists fairly at around the same time Charlton was making a go of it. I agree that this is an above-average story. It certainly is original, at least in comparison to what we've grown used to.

Peter: The best is saved for last! "Trumpet Perilous" finds Elliott Summer, bored archaeologist, traipsing up "a mountainside deep within the wilds of Central Asia" with his explorer buddy, Ramsey, and a crew of four climbers. Disgusted by the current state of the world ("computers, television, and traffic jams"), Elliott strives to keep exploration alive despite the general disinterest from the rest of mankind. His goal is to find the Lost City of Athai, rumored to be buried atop the mountain behind a false front. Indeed, the men do find a cave leading to an incredible hidden city, complete with impressive architecture and lush vegetation but, curiously, lacking anyone at home. In the middle of the city, they find a main building with Sanskrit carvings. Translating the etchings, they discover they are in "the place of sound." Ramsey rings a bell placed next to a chalice engraved with the Sanskrit word for "water" and the cup magically fills with water. Exploring further, Elliott comes across a huge horn labeled "Trumpet of Doom." An etching tells the men that, should the trumpet be blown, a new age shall begin. Disregarding warnings from Ramsey, and feeling this could be the key to mankind's modern maladies, Elliott blows the horn... and ends the world. Not many writers at this time would have risked their work getting chopped up by the CCA but (uncredited) had the balls to give it a try and succeed. That final panel of the Earth ablaze (with the word "End" reaching out into space) is a powerful one. Jacks Sparling and Abel, two artists I've ripped both here and in the DC war comic blog, somehow overcome the odds and deliver a fine piece of storytelling. Every panel ripples with excitement and wonder. Overall, a stellar month for the DC mystery line.

John: Yep, that was a fun one. Gotta love a story in which the world ends.

Jack: This was a Boy's Adventure type of story that was enjoyable enough. What I most enjoy in The Witching Hour is the framing story, which sometimes threatens to overshadow the tales in between. This time, the comic ends with the world destroyed, and a white half-page panel that features word balloons of the witches discussing what just happened! Rest assured, they tell us, they'll have the world back together in time for the next issue.

Limited Collectors' Edition C-23

Monday, August 12, 2013

Star-Spangled DC War Stories Part 8: January 1960

By Corporals Enfantino and Seabrook

Our Army at War 90

"3 Stripes Hill!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Joe Kubert

"A Jet Called Ace!"
Story by Hank Chapman
Art by Jerry Grandenetti

Story by Bob Haney
Art by Bob Forgione and Jack Abel

PE: "3 Stripes Hill" is the first real look we've had at the making of Sergeant Rock. Early in World War II, we find Buck Private Rock in the newly formed Easy Company, heading off disaster after disaster and rising up as the higher ranking officers are killed off. One by one, he earns his three stripes the hard way, by watching comrades fall and facing death around every corner. Before long he's the only surviving member of Easy until reinforcements arrive just in the nick of time. A really well done "origin" (or at least a piece of a large puzzle) story, with Joe Kubert back where he belongs. In some panels there's an obvious resemblance in Rock to Robert Mitchum. I wonder if Mitchum was the initial inspiration for the character or if it's just an angle. Jack's point about a regular supporting cast is a good one and I would assume Kanigher will be filling in that background before too long. It only makes sense to add more pieces to that big puzzle.

Rock? Or Mitchum?
JS: There is a lot of death in this flashback, and it makes for a powerful story. Kubert's art seems a little uneven in spots, but he does something interesting with the flashback that takes up most of the story: the backgrounds in many of the panels are white, giving the comic a very modern look. One thing that bothers me is the timing of Rock's development. According to this story, he was a buck private at some point in WWII. Now, the US started fighting in Europe in the summer of 1943 with the invasion of Sicily. Fighting with the Nazis was over by spring 1945, less than two years later. Unless Easy Co. was fighting Nazis in North Africa--and these stories don't look like they occur there to me--Rock went from green kid to experienced Sergeant in very short order.

PE: It sure doesn't look like Jerry Grandenetti's art on "A Jet Called Ace" but then I've pretty much given up trying to tag the guy. He's like an elevator and this time he's heading up. Hank Chapman contributes three-quarters of an excellent script here, the story of arrogant World War II pilot, Lt. Farr, who left the "Big Bang-Bang Two" one kill shy of being an ace (you need to destroy five enemy aircraft to become an "ace"). Now that he's joined the Korean War, all that's on his mind is getting that last big score. Never mind the cost or the danger, all that Farr knows is that his pilot buddies all made ace in WWII and he didn't. When he can't get that last notch on the gun, he begins blaming his jet and is told, time and again, by his commanding officer to relax and let it come to him. While making a run in "mig alley" an enemy jet manages to pierce Farr's cockpit and discombobulate his controls. His guns start blazing on their own and Farr has to bail. His jet continues blasting away and eventually brings down the enemy. Farr's jet becomes the ace! We've not met a more unlikable "hero" than Lt. Farr in our journey so far. Here's a selfish bastard who'll do anything to bask in the glory, regardless of whom he hurts. The only downside to the story is Farr's epiphany at the climax, which doesn't sit well with his behavior previously. Chapman should have left the character an S.O.B. but, like the rest of the writers in 1960 comic books, Hank probably had his hands tied. A good read nonetheless.

JS: Farr is a jerk and the climax of this story is ridiculous. I did not buy for one minute that the plane started shooting on its own and managed to shoot down the Chinese jet after the pilot had been ejected. At least this is a story about the Korean War for a change. I'd like to see more of those.

PE: There's no mistaking the generic art of Bob Forgione and Jack Abel on "Rearguard", a story about the most feared placement in a fighting company. The story is educational enough but doesn't have the room to tell a proper yarn. The art is abysmal. Forgione/Abel fall back on the cliches that have filled the work we've see so far: lots of "sky" backgrounds (so as not to necessitate a lot of complicated drawing stuff), lots of panels of the main character looking over his shoulder at "the audience," and a final panel that has our hero in the foreground and his comrades in the back. It's almost as though the artists had a diagram on the wall of their studio, showing them how to get from point A to point B.

JS: This one's pretty dull and the art is not worth commenting on.

Star Spangled War Stories 88

"The Steel Trap!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Mort Drucker

"The Glass Hill!"
Story by Bob Haney
Art by Jack Abel

"The Sergeant is a Monkey!"
Story by Hank Chapman
Art by Russ Heath

PE: Well, smarty pants Jack was right and Commandant Von Ekt escaped that train explosion last issue and quickly got back to the nasty business of quashing the revolt of Mademoiselle Marie. The Commandant's fool-proof plan this time involves a double agent (versed in the ways of Satchmo and "chicks") disguised as an American flying in to aid the freedom fighters. A staged plane crash seems to convince Marie of the agent's loyalty but our Mademoiselle is just too smart for the Ratzis and the stinkin' double agent ends up machine gun fodder for his own men. "The Steel Trap," the fifth installment of  Marie and her merry band of Frenchies, is the best so far but I want to see the excised panels from last issue that show Von Ekt dropping through the trap door of his carriage car to safety just like Doctor Octopus would have done. Kanigher's done something I didn't think possible--made me enjoy an episode of this silly soap opera. If DC and Marvel characters had crossing family trees, I'd say Natasha (The Black Widow) would be kin to Marie, whose dive from an exploding bridge this issue proves she could have donned the spandex and fought more outlandish villains after zee war ended.

JS: I had a feeling that Lt. Messer's quick temper did not bode well for his undercover mission as "Lt. Harry West," and sure enough he blew it! I am quickly getting used to Mort Drucker's art on this strip and I agree that this was the best one yet in the series. In fact, this was an excellent story all around. The business of calling it a "two-parter" is nonsense, but I seem to recall that the early Justice League issues--which started to come out later in 1960--also broke the stories into multiple parts, so perhaps it was just what DC was doing to try to jazz things up.

PE: "The Glass Hill" concerns a G.I. whose Corporal keeps telling him (over and over) that the hill they're about to climb is a "glass hill" because everyone who goes up can see himself as a boy or a man. It's as tedious as a one-line joke that just keeps going on and on. Just as tedious would be my critical commentary on Jack Abel's "art" but you could literally write a dozen stories around his panels as they look exactly like the last story he did.

JS: Is Abel your least favorite DC war artist so far (yep-Peter)? This is a run of the mill story but there are some decent panels, such as the one where the soldier's face is blown sideways by a blast and the one at the end where we finally see him as a man.

PE: "The Sergeant is a Monkey" is a very silly tale about a monkey who charms the grenades right out of a gruff sarge. Yeah, it's a change of pace, not the kind of story I'd like to see very much in a "gritty" war comic, but it does feature Russ Heath in a rare non-aircraft story. Russ shows he's just as much an award-winner in the jungle as in the sky.

JS: Leave it to DC to find a way to work a monkey into a war story! The monkey turns out to be a life-saver when he imitates everything the Sarge does, down to tossing a grenade into a nearly impregnable pillbox. This was a surprisingly good issue of SSWS, from the outstanding cover to the end!

Grandenetti & Adler
G.I. Combat 79

"Big Gun--Little Gun!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Russ Heath

"No Test for a Mustang!"
Story by Bob Haney
Art by Joe Kubert

"Flying Jeep"
Story by Hank Chapman
Art by Jack Abel

PE: "Big Gun--Little Gun" gives us a behind-the-scenes view of World War II we haven't seen previously in our study of DC war comics--the men that man the Howitzer 155. Basically a cannon towed around and fired from a mile away at enemy positions, the weapon requires 9 men to load and fire it (and yes, I did have to look up that info on Wikipedia!) and can be a mighty pain in the ass. The men assigned to the 155 are sitting ducks most of the time and rarely know if they've actually hit their target until radioed. Our G.I. protagonist, Al, spends most of his day complaining about all that and he's getting on his buddy Nick's nerves. We witness several battles and incidents (the cannon becomes dislodged from its trailer and rolls down a hill, necessitating a push back up) until, finally, the 155 is destroyed in a fiery attack by two Nazi tanks. Both informative and harrowing, "Big Gun--" is the perfect marriage of great writer and artist. When the 155 is blasted by one of the Nazi tanks, Nick takes the brunt of the explosion and Al describes his buddy as "a ragged scarecrow that looked a little like Nick..." This is what I imagined DC war comics could be had they not had a CCA noose wrapped around their necks but Kanigher and Heath manage to subtly tell/show us what's going on (all we see of Nick is his outstretched arm) without the graphic.

"Big Gun--Little Gun"
JS: This is a powerful story that has an especially exciting ending, but I don't think it's Heath at his best. Still, middling Russ Heath is worth a look, and Kanigher's writing is solid.

PE: "Fancy Dan" is a test pilot who demonstrates new jets for fighter pilots and has never seen action. Dan believes the "real pilots" hold him in disregard for that shortcoming until one day, while performing for a batch of pilots, Dan must hold off a squadron of enemy planes while his audience suits up for battle. Just as it was odd to see Russ Heath penciling a jungle tale (in Star-Spangled), it seems out of whack to read a fighter pilot strip ("No Test for a Mustang") by Joe Kubert. I've not seen anything but GI grunts out of Kubert's pencil but he proves (just as Heath did) that he's a man of all battles.

JS: If I didn't have the GCD to rely on, not to mention Kubert's signature on the first page, I'd have said that Mort Drucker was involved in the art on this story, especially the faces in the splash page's first panel. The story is fine for a six-pager, but the final air battle really got me--Kubert draws a very nice horizontal panel that shows the key maneuvers.

PE: The aerial battle between a tank and a MIG in "Flying Jeep" is a bit far-fetched (how could our hero, PFC Handley, keep a jet in his crosshairs while his parachuted jeep is heading for the ground, buffeted by the wind?) but at least it's a short read. Jack Abel's GI template comes with freckles this time out.

JS: Don't all of Jack Abel's characters sport freckles? This story strained credibility. The PFC keeps calling his jeep "Baby." To quote Franz Liebkind, "Why does he say this Baby?"

An Aside:

War titles were just as prevalent in the 1950s as westerns and horror (and vastly outnumbering hero titles, which were on the wane) and, since Jack and I are studying the DC war books, I thought it might be a good idea to sample some of the titles offered up by the other companies. Now and then I'll weigh in with my findings.  Atlas had no fewer than a half dozen war books in 1952 and one of the best was Battlefield. Unlike Our Army at War or GI Combat, the majority of the stories took place during the then-current Korean War. One of the benefits the artists and writers of Battlefield enjoyed that later eluded Robert Kanigher and Bob Haney was the freedom to tell a story set in a conflict without worrying about the watering-down inherent with the CCA. How do you tell a story filled, by necessity, with violence without showing any of the after-effects of that violence? “That’s an Order” (from #2) concerns Captain Murdock, good air force man who follows all orders until his two sons are killed on Heartbreak Ridge and he suddenly becomes a one-man assassin, disobeying orders and seeking out enemy trains to destroy. His superiors are hesitant to ground Murdock for various reasons (how does a military man deal with his grief otherwise?) but he is stripped of his command and forced to take orders from another captain. The finale sees Murdock splitting away from his mission and pulling a kamikaze on another train, screaming “This one’s for Eddie and Bob!” as his plane explodes. The Comics Code would never have approved the suicidal final mission of Captain Murdock. Soldiers under the CCA always tended to be gung-ho and, if not peppy, at least imbued with a sense of patriotism. Though patriotism and anti-Communism oozes out of every story in the pages of Battlefield, its soldiers are worn out and psychologically wounded. Death is displayed rather than hinted at or ignored altogether.    -Peter Enfantino

A bit outlandish? You be the judge!